Thursday, April 30, 2015

Madness in the Wake of Lincoln's Assassination

In addition to the national tragedy following President Lincoln's assassination, there were personal tolls on those involved with the attack and conspiracy.  Madness and depression plagued those touched by the event.

Presidential Box at Ford's Theater
Let's begin with the people in the box at Ford's Theater.  After Lincoln's death, Mary Lincoln remained in Washington for about a month before returning to Chicago to live with her sons, Tad and Robert. The death of Tad in July 1871 sent Mary into grief and depression. Her behavior became increasingly erratic, which alarmed Robert. During Mary's visit to Jacksonville, Florida in March 1875, Mary became concerned that Robert was deathly ill and rushed home to Chicago where she found him in good health. Mary told Robert that someone had tried to poison her on the train and that a "wandering Jew" had taken her pocketbook but returned it later. She had also spent large amounts of money in Jacksonville on draperies and elaborate dresses. Mrs. Lincoln only wore black after her husband's assassination and had no use for the expensive outfits.  She walked around with $56,000 in government bonds sewn into her petticoats.  Despite this large amount of money and a $3,000-a-year stipend from Congress, Mrs. Lincoln was irrationally afraid of poverty.

Mary Todd Lincoln
After she nearly jumped out of a window to escape a non-existent fire, Robert committed her he committed her to Bellevue Place, a private asylum in Batavia, Illinois, on May 20, 1875. Three months after being sent to Bellevue, she devised plans to gain her release. She smuggled letters to her lawyer and his wife and wrote to the editor of the Chicago Times. These letters produced a public scandal. Because Robert controlled his mother's finances, the public began to question his character and motives. The director of Bellevue, who had assured the jury at the commitment trial jury she would benefit from treatment at his facility, changed his mind and he declared her well enough to go to Springfield to live with her sister Elizabeth. The commitment proceedings led to the estrangement of Mary and Robert. They did not reconcile until shortly before her death.

Mary was released into her sister's custody and moved to Springfield. A court proceeding in 1876, declared her competent to manage her own affairs. However, she was so enraged after the court decision that she attempted suicide. She went to the hotel pharmacist and ordered a lethal dose of laudanum to kill herself. The pharmacist realized her intentions and gave her a placebo.

Mrs. Lincoln traveled throughout Europe during the next four years and lived in Pau, France. Her final years were marked by declining health. She suffered from severe cataracts that reduced her eyesight; this condition may have contributed to her increasing susceptibility to falls. In 1879, she suffered spinal cord injuries in a fall from a stepladder.

During the early 1880s, Mary Lincoln was confined to the Springfield, Illinois residence of her sister Elizabeth Edwards. On July 16, 1882, she collapsed at her sister's home and lapsed into a coma. She died at age 63 and was interred in the Lincoln Tomb in Oak Ridge Cemetery in Springfield alongside her husband.

On April 14, 1865, Major Henry Rathbone and his fiancée Clara Harris accepted an invitation to see a play at Ford's Theater from President and Mrs. Lincoln. The couple had been friends with the President and his wife for some time. Rathbone and Harris were asked after several other people had declined Mrs. Lincoln's invitation to the play.

After John Wilkes Booth fatally shot Lincoln, Rathbone attempted to restrain Booth and prevent his escape. During the struggle, Booth slashed Rathbone's left arm from the elbow to his shoulder with a dagger. Rathbone quickly recovered and tried to grab Booth as he prepared to jump from the Presidential Box. He grabbed onto Booth's coat and caused Booth to vault over the rail of the box down to the stage. The off-balance fall caused Booth to break his left leg. However, in spite injury, Booth managed to escape the theater and make his way to Virginia. Despite his own serious wound, Rathbone escorted Mrs. Lincoln to the Petersen House where her husband had been taken. Shortly after helping Mrs. Lincoln to the house, Rathbone passed out due to loss of blood.

Major Henry Rathbone
Clara Harris arrived at the house soon after Mrs. Lincoln and held Rathbone's head in her lap while he drifted in and out of consciousness. A surgeon, who had been attending the President, finally examined Rathbone and realized his wound was more serious than initially thought. Booth had severed an artery located above Rathbone's elbow and had cut him nearly to the bone. Rathbone was taken home and Harris remained with Mrs. Lincoln during President Lincoln's death vigil.

Rathbone's wounds healed, but his mental state deteriorated after the assassination.  He agonized over his failure to prevent the attack on Lincoln. He recovered sufficiently to marry Clara Harris on July 11, 1867 and the couple had three children.

Rathbone resigned from the Army in 1870, but his mental instability made it difficult to find and hold a job. He became paranoid and believed that Clara was cheating on him. He also resented Clara's attention to their children. He worried that Clara was going to divorce him and take the children. As his condition declined, he reportedly threatened Clara.

Despite his behavior, President Chester Alan Arthur appointed Rathbone as the US Consul to the Province of Hanover in 1882. The family relocated to Germany where Rathbone's mental health continued to worsen.
On December 23, 1883, Rathbone attacked his children in a fit of madness. Then he fatally shot and stabbed his wife, who was trying to protect the children. After killing his wife, Rathbone stabbed himself five times in the chest in an attempted suicide. He was charged with murder and declared insane.  He was convicted and committed to the Asylum for the Criminal Insane in Hildesheim, Germany. Rathbone spent the rest of his life in the asylum, died on August 14, 1911, and was buried next to Clara in the city cemetery at Hanover/Engesohde.

Thomas P. "Boston" Corbett
Sergeant Thomas P. "Boston" Corbett, who shot Booth in the Garrett barn, received a large reward for the killing. He left the military soon after receiving the money and returned to his former job as a hatter. The hat manufacturing process involved using a mercury compound, mercury nitrate, to remove fur from pelts and turn it into felt more easily. Hat makers, exposed to large amounts of vaporized mercury, began to experience its effects on their nervous systems. Doctors even recorded seeing "holes the size of quarters" inside some hatters' brains. This gave rise to the term "mad as a hatter." The exposure to mercury caused Corbett to become mentally unstable. At this time, he was working as assistant doorman for the Kansas state legislature. In 1887, he was sent to an insane asylum after brandishing a revolver in the legislature. He escaped, moved to Minnesota, and died in the Great Hinckley Fire of 1894.

Preston Hill King
Preston Hill King is our last possible victim of Booth's derringer.  King was a career politician who held positions as both a Democrat and Republican. He graduated from Union College in 1827 and became a lawyer.  He established the St. Lawrence Republican in 1830 and was Postmaster of Ogdensburg, NY from 1831 to 1834. He was a Democratic member of the New York State Assembly from St. Lawrence County from 1835 to 1838. King was elected as a Democrat to Congress and served from March 4, 1843, to March 3, 1847. Then he was elected as a Free Soiler to Congress and served from March 4, 1849, to March 3, 1853. He was elected as a Republican to the Senate in February 1857 and served from March 4, 1857, to March 4, 1863.

King was considered for the Republican vice-presidential nomination in 1860 and was a presidential elector on the Abraham Lincoln ticket in 1864. After the death of President Lincoln, he served as White House Chief of Staff during the early days of the Johnson Administration. He was involved in the Lincoln assassination by virtue of his role in the petition to save Mary Surratt's life.  The petition to spare Mary Lincoln's life never reached President Andrew Johnson's desk because King kept the information from Johnson.

On August 14, 1865, King was appointed by Johnson as Collector of the Port of New York. He was selected in an effort to eliminate corruption in the Port of New York and to heal divisions within the Republican Party. He became depressed and committed suicide by tying a bag of bullets around his neck and leaping from a ferryboat in New York Harbor on November 13, 1865. Some attribute his death to the pressure of his new job and the odds against his success. In Killing Lincoln, authors Bill O'Reilly and Martin Dugard attribute his suicide to remorse from failing to give Johnson the petition. In Killing Lincoln, his body was never found. Other reports say he was buried at the City Cemetery in Ogdensburg.

Thursday, April 23, 2015

Mr. Hale Goes to Austin

Jacob Hale testifying before
House Committee
(Courtesy of he Texas Tribune)
Jacob Hale thinks that Texas should be recognizing all who fought in the American Civil War. The eighth-grader wants the Lone Star State to change Confederate Heroes Day to Civil War Remembrance Day. Hale points out that many Texans were killed for supporting the Union and that "Confederate Heroes Day does not accurately represent history or all who fought in the Civil War."

Hale did more than write a class paper with his ideas. He took them to state representative Donna Howard from Austin.  Howard thought Hale's suggestion had merit and introduced a bill in the Texas House to replace Confederate Heroes Day with Civil War Remembrance Day. Howard also wanted to change the day from January 19 to the second Monday in May.  The date was originally selected to coincide with General Robert E. Lee's birthday.  The celebration was combined with the commemoration of Jefferson Davis' birthday in 1973. Since then the birthdays have become Confederate Heroes Day.

Donna Howard
Democrat, Austin
Representative Howard said, "I think it's ironic that we celebrate MLK [Martin Luther King] Day, where we're supposed to be celebrating racial progress and the fight for equality, but then also we have Confederate Heroes Day which acknowledges the men who fought for slavery as heroes." Howard told The Houston Chronicle in February that Hale wanted to create a historically accurate holiday that recognizes all who "were involved with that period of our history.

According to the Veterans Administration, several other Southern states commemorate the Confederate dead in the springtime, including Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia, and North and South Carolina.

Howard's proposal was "met with resistance during a contentious hearing of the House Committee on Culture, Tourism and Recreation."
Rudy Roy told the House committee, "If we start trying to change the historical record for political reasons, we do great damage to our heritage. I'm sorry to say it this way, but we were not a Yankee state."  Hale countered that Confederate Heroes Day does not accurately represent history or all who fought in the Civil War. 

Let me congratulate Mr. Hale for advocating the proposed legislation. His desire is to be historically accurate not politically correct.  There were Union supporters in Texas especially among the German-American community.  One of Texas' greatest heroes, Sam Houston was opposed to secession. Houston rejected the actions of the Texas Secession Convention, believing it had overstepped its authority in becoming a member state of the newly formed Confederacy. He refused to take an oath of allegiance to the Confederacy and was deposed from office There were heroes on both sides of the conflict. Soldiers and civilians suffered greatly.  The fact that Texas was "not a Yankee state," should not enter into the discussion of how the 750,000 who died during the war should be recognized.  This is not about political correctness, but about historical accuracy. Historians must recognize that although Texas joined the Confederacy, 25% of her citizens opposed secession.  

Whether you agree with Mr. Hale and Representative Howard, their point of view should be respected. The behavior of others attending the House Committee meeting was hardly appropriate.  These forums should be conducted with dignity.  Shouting down a young man who had the fortitude to advocate a change is deplorable and does little to honor the memory of Confederate heroes.

Jacob learned valuable lessons in the political process.  Logic has very little to do with lawmaking. Government policy is often determined by those who shout the loudest.  Compromise is not part of legislative discussion in either Washington or Austin.

Wednesday, April 15, 2015

John Surratt - The Lincoln Assassin Who Got Away by Michael Schein

John Surratt
Michael Schein has created a page-turner, political thriller detailing the espionage activities of Confederate spy and courier, John Surratt.  Mr. Schein's account of Surratt's activities and complicity in the assassination of Abraham Lincoln is documented through an extensive list of footnotes and associated bibliography. The author is candid in revealing where there is some uncertainty about his conclusions.

The story of John Surratt begins with his education at St. Thomas manor and then to St. Charles College. At St. Charles met Louis J. Weichmann, who would first become his friend and then his "lifelong nemesis." When the Civil War began, John enlisted in the Confederate army and was sent for training as a courier.

This led to his eventual introduction by Dr. Samuel Mudd to Mr. John Wilkes Booth in December 1864. Booth revealed his plans to kidnap President Lincoln and hold him for ransom to release Confederate prisoners of war. In a 1870 lecture, Surratt admitted that he was involved in the conspiracy to kidnap Lincoln. The plan seemed to have the blessing of the Confederate government. If Davis consented to the plot to kidnap the president, Schein believes "that a plot to kidnap the President is tantamount to a plot to murder him." Surratt joined the plot that appears to have been in existence since August or September 1864. Booth referred to their plot against Lincoln by the code name, the "oil business."

Surratt recruited George Atzerodot to the group because of his knowledge of the Potomac River and the adjacent country in Maryland and Virginia.  The other members including those in the assassination plot: David Herold, Lewis Powell, and Mary Surratt. An attempt to capture the President in January failed. 

Surratt as a Papal Guard
Surratt denied any involvement with Lincoln's assassination and claimed he was in Elmira, NY. After the assassination, Surratt fled to Canada and reached Montreal on April 17, 1865. A Catholic priest in St. Liboire gave him sanctuary. Surratt remained in Canada while his mother was arrested, tried, and hanged for conspiracy. Former Confederate agents helped Surratt flee to Liverpool, England in September and he lived in the Church of the Holy Cross. From England, he traveled to Italy and enlisted, under an assumed name, in the Ninth Company of the Pontifical Zouave in the Papal States. An old friend recognized him and notified papal officials and the U.S. minister in Rome. On November 7, 1866, Surratt was arrested and sent to Velletri prison. He escaped and lived with the Garibaldians. Surratt traveled to Alexandria, Egypt where he was finally arrested by U.S. officials on November 23, 1866 and returned to the U.S. to stand trial.

Evidence suggests that “all three of the top Confederate leaders (Davis, Benjamin, and Seddon) provided active support to reconnoiter the kidnapping of Lincoln.” There is support that the Confederate leaders might have agreed to the assassination when the code name for Lincoln kidnapping was changed from “Complete Victory” to “Come Retribution” on February 1, 1865. When informed of Lincoln’s death on April 19, Davis responds with: “If it were to be done, it were better it were done well.” Davis told Breckinridge on April 21: “.. And if the same had been done to Andy Johnson, the beast, and to Secretary Stanton the job would then be complete.”

John Surratt on Trial

Surratt was tried in a civilian court in Maryland.  Supreme Court decision had declared the trial of civilians before military tribunals to be unconstitutional. Judge David Carter presided over Surratt's trial, and Edwards Pierrepont conducted the federal government's case against him. Surratt's lead attorney, Joseph Habersham Bradley, admitted Surratt's part in plotting to kidnap the President, but denied any involvement in the murder plot. After two months of testimony, Surratt was released after a mistrial; eight jurors had voted not guilty, four voted guilty. The statute of limitations on charges other than murder had run out, and Surratt was released on $25,000 bail. Schein carefully examines the trial including the many mistakes made by the prosecution.  To a modern day reader, the courtroom drama may be reminiscent of the O. J. Simpson where the defense attorneys

Michael Schein is an author, attorney, historian, lively speaker, and former professor of American Legal History. His historical nonfiction book, John Surratt: The Lincoln Assassin Who Got Away, will be released in Spring 2015 by the History Publishing Company. His two historical novels are Bones Beneath Our Feet (2011), and Just Deceits: a Historical Courtroom Mystery (2008). Mr. Schein taught American Legal History at Seattle University Law School from 1988-2003, served on the speakers’ bureau of Humanities Washington, and is Director of LiTFUSE Poets’ Workshop. His poetry is supported by a grant from King County 4Culture, and has been nominated three times for the Pushcart Prize. Born and raised in Vermont, Mr. Schein attended Reed College in Portland, University of Oregon Law School in Eugene, and now lives near Seattle.