Giving Booth a Head Start For Escape

by Al Benson Jr.

Member, Board of Directors, Confederate Society of America

Theodore Roscoe in The Web of Conspiracy  pointed out some interesting facts regarding the federal government’s pursuit of John Wilkes Booth after the Lincoln assassination.

It seems that a Major A. C. Richards, Superintendent of Washington’s Metropolitan Police Force had been in the audience at Ford’s Theater the night of Lincoln’s assassination. He had recognized Booth. Roscoe noted of Richards that “Major Richards was a capable officer, tough and exacting. He briefed the duty force on what had happened, dispatched messengers to summon the reserves, rushed detectives to Ford’s Theater to round up witnesses, and sent word of his emergency action to General Christopher C. Auger, commander of Army forces in charge of the national capital. Unquestionably, Richards gave Auger detailed information on the assassination and named John Wilkes Booth as the fugitive assassin.”

However, right after this heads-up about what Major Richards had done, Roscoe observed: “But now a fog of confusion settled on the nation’s military headquarters. This fog seemed to bind the Federal authorities with ropes of lethargy. It slowed the manhunt, obscured the assassin’s trail, and did everything to abet an escape.” Strong language? Wait until you’ve read a bit more.

Roscoe continued: “Booth had fired the deadly shot about 10:30 p.m. Within fifteen minutes of his flight from the theater alley, witnesses were blurting his name to the police. By 11:00 p.m., the blotter at Washington police headquarters contained the names of seventeen witnesses. They were listed under the following notation: At this hour the melancholy intelligence of the assassination of Mr. Lincoln, President of the United States, at Ford’s Theater was brought to this office, and the information obtained...goes to show that the assassin is a man named John Wilkes Booth. 

So there was no doubt about who the assassin was by 11:00 p.m. The police were quick on the scene and were doing their job. What about the military? Well, that was a horse of a different color. The military didn’t send out any alarm about Booth. No one was sent to his hotel to check out his room and the best the military could come up with was a couple cavalry patrols that were told to scout the city streets. Did they even know who they were looking for? Up until midnight, any detective work that was done was done by the city police. As far as doing much more, it has been argued that General Auger was awaiting orders “from higher up–from the War Department, from Stanton.” Anyone smell a rat here?

Roscoe referred to “Auger’s fuddlement.” And he noted “By midnight the nation’s military leaders seemed in doubt concerning the assassin’s identity. Although scores of people had recognized John Wilkes Booth, the War Department cautiously withheld the killer’s name from official dispatches.” So it would appear that the Army was not about to take the police’s word about who the assassin was. Do you wonder why???

An Associated Press reporter, Mr. L. A. Gobright, heard about the shooting and hurried to the theater. After that he charged to the nearest telegraph office and sent this wire: The President was shot at Ford’s Theater tonight and perhaps mortally wounded.  This wire was sent to New York. Back at the theater, Gobright went into the President’s box. He even found Booth’s derringer there and he must have talked to eyewitnesses, so you have to wonder what happened to make him do what he did next. Shortly after his second trip to the theater he sent a second telegram, the headline of which appeared in the morning edition of the New York Tribune: “our Washington agent orders the dispatch about the President ‘stopped.’ Nothing is said about the truth or falsity of that dispatch.”

Roscoe noted that: “Gobright’s extraordinary reticence won mention at the subsequent conspiracy trial, but no explanation. He merely stated he was ‘satisfied’ the assassin was John Wilkes Booth, but, ‘I did not so telegraph that night’.” Why not? You were satisfied Booth was the assassin, but you just didn’t tell anybody! One paper in New York stated: “J. Wilkes Booth suspected.” And, Roscoe observed that “Washington papers named the assassin, but the great Associated Press Syndicate delayed the story. From the distance of the present one can only surmise that someone in top authority in the War Department held Gobright’s hand. For a guess, War Secretary Stanton?” I’d say that was a pretty fair country guess. Add to this the fact that, about fifteen minutes after Gobright sent his first wire, the commercial lines out of Washington went dead, and they didn’t get them back until around one the next morning. Roscoe noted that official records just didn’t bother to mention any of this. “It was censored from contemporary reports. Major Eckert, Stanton’s telegraph chief, was queried on the matter by a House investigating committee in 1867. Eckert admitted the commercial lines had been scotched. He said he thought they had been short-circuited by grounding…Again it would seem that extraordinary efforts were made by someone in Washington command to keep Booth’s name under wraps.

Years later, Colonel Henry L. Burnett, who served as assistant judge advocate at the conspiracy trial stated: ‘When I entered upon the duty of assisting in the investigation of the murder of the President, on the 19th of April…it was not positively known who had assassinated the President…That the War Department Judge Advocate’s Office could not positively name Lincoln’s assassin five days after the murder strikes us as more than astounding!”

And then there was the Navy Yard Bridge that was guarded by a sergeant and a couple of men under him. On the night of the assassination the sergeant let both Booth and Herold pass over into Maryland. He was never taken to task for this glaring omission. Under normal circumstances had he committed such a blunder he would at least have lost his stripes, at the very least. But such did not happen. You have to wonder if he’d even been informed about the assassination. It would appear that General Auger did not rush anyone to the bridge to check on how many people had crossed over into Maryland that night.

Roscoe also observed that: “The records of history contain many ‘holes.’ John Wilkes Booth rode through one of them on the night he killed Abraham Lincoln.”

It’s worth noting that Roscoe is not the only one to come up with some of the material noted here. Eisenschiml also did and so did the two men who wrote The Lincoln Conspiracy  in the 1970s.

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