John Surratt: The Man in Two Places at Once

Historians/History
tags: Lincoln conspiracy



Michael Schein is a writer, attorney, and former professor of American Legal History. He is the author of “John Surratt: The Lincoln Assassin Who Got Away” (History Publishing Co., release April 14, 2015), as well as two historical novels, "Bones Beneath Our Feet" (Bennett & Hastings 2011), and "Just Deceits: A Historical Courtroom Mystery" (Bennett & Hastings 2008). His web site is michaelschein.com and he is on Twitter @michael_schein.

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On that worst of Good Fridays, April 14, 1865, at about 10:15 p.m., there is no question that John Wilkes Booth mortally wounded Abraham Lincoln. Nor is there any doubt that one of Booth’s principal co-conspirators was John H. Surratt, Jr. But whether Surratt was or was not in Washington D.C. on the night of the murder remains shrouded in mystery.

158617-laj.jpgAccording to the testimony of Union Sergeant Joseph M. Dye, he was sitting on a platform in front of Ford’s Theatre between 9:30 and 10:00 the night of April 14, when he noticed the famous actor, John Wilkes Booth, conversing with a short, “villainous- looking” person, and another neatly-dressed gentleman. At intermission, Sergeant Dye heard Booth say, “he will come now,” apparently referring to the President, but the President did not step out for a breath of air. At that point Booth and his companions dispersed – Booth to Taltavul’s saloon for a quick shot of whiskey. Not long afterwards Booth returned, as did the neatly dressed gentleman, who stepped to the front of the theatre, checked the clock in the vestibule, called the time, and then briskly marched back up 10th Avenue towards H Street. A few minutes later the gentleman returned, repeated the time-calling ritual, and again disappeared towards H Street.

At this point, Sergeant Dye felt that something was wrong – so wrong, that he reached into the breast pocket of his artillery jacket to unwrap the handkerchief from around his revolver. The mysterious gentleman appeared once more, called the time at ten minutes past ten o’clock, and hurried away again towards H Street. At this signal, John Wilkes Booth walked directly into the theatre.

Sergeant Dye reported his suspicions to his companion, Sergeant Cooper, who replied that it was nothing and that he was hungry. They slipped into the neighboring oyster saloon, but before they could be served a man burst in to proclaim: “The President has been shot!”

At the trial of John H. Surratt for conspiracy in the murder of Abraham Lincoln, Sergeant Dye testified about the neatly dressed gentleman who called the time:

Mr. Pierrepont (for the Government): Did you see that man distinctly? 

Sergeant Dye: I did.

Q: Very distinctly?

A: I did very distinctly.

Q: Do you see him now?

A: I do. . . .

Q: Tell us where he is.

A: He sits there (pointing to the prisoner [John H. Surratt].) 

Q: Is that the man?

A: It is. I have seen his face often since, while I have been sleeping – it was so exceedingly pale.


In all, eleven witnesses testified to seeing John H. Surratt in Washington on the day of the assassination. Yet despite this dramatic testimony, there is also very credible evidence suggesting that Surratt was nearly three hundred miles away, in Elmira, New York, on that day. According to the very sober bookkeeper of Stewart & Ufford Men’s Furnishings of Elmira, town alderman Frank H. Atkinson, at about 2:00 p.m. on the afternoon of either April 13 or April 14, a gentleman he positively identified as John Surratt came into the shop and engaged in ten or twenty minutes of conversation with their cutter, Mr. Carroll. The gentleman was memorable, according to Mr. Atkinson, for his unusual coat, buttoned up with a full row of buttons on the front, and a belt fastened about the waist. Mr. Carroll confirmed this testimony, and added that the gentleman came in twice – once on the 13th, and again on the 14th.

In all, five witnesses testifed to seeing John H. Surratt in Elmira at various times on April 13, 14 and 15. Travel between Elmira and Washington, D.C. in those days was long and arduous, and the timing attested to by the various witnesses would have made it exceedingly difficult if not impossible for Surratt to have been everywhere he was reported to have been spotted. Furthermore, Mr. C.B. Hess, an actor engaged to sing a patriotic song in honor of the President and the great Union victory at the conclusion of Our American Cousin, testified that he was the man who called time in front of the theatre, because he didn’t want to be late for his performance!

At his trial for the murder of Abraham Lincoln, Surratt presented an Offer of Proof, outlining the proposed testimony of General Edwin G. Lee, after General Lee’s testimony about Surratt’s whereabouts was ruled inadmissible. General Lee offered to testify that on April 12, 1865 he dispatched Surratt on a secret surveillance mission:

. . . to visit Elmira [N.Y.] with the intent to ascertain the position and condition of the Confederate prisoners confined at or near said town of Elmira & to make sketches of the stationing of the guards, and of the approaches to said prison, [unreadable] the numbers of the forces stationed there . . ..


To confirm that Surratt had indeed carried out these orders, General Lee adds that Surratt was absent from Montreal from April 12 to April 17 or 18, when “he returned to Montreal and made his report, and brought back with him [unreadable] sketches of the said prison [unreadable] approaches, the numbering of the forces, etc. & that he [General Lee] paid . . . [Surratt] his expenses & for his services.”

General Lee’s offer of testimony jibes with Surratt’s own version of the story, as later told to an audience in a lecture he gave in Rockville, Maryland. Surratt said that he arrived in Elmira on Wednesday, April 12, and registered at Brainard House as “John Harrison,” on a surveillance mission for the Confederacy. Although in plain clothes dressed in a Garibaldi jacket and round-top hat to disguise himself as a Canadian while spying in enemy territory, at least Surratt was not at the scene of the most dastardly crime of the Nineteenth Century.

Or was he? In addition to Sergeant Dye’s testimony, Charles Wood, a barber, claimed to have shaved Surratt at about nine o’clock the morning of April 14, when he came in to Booker & Stewart’s barbershop on E Street with John Wilkes Booth, Michael O’Laughlen, and one other gentleman. Theodore Benjamin Rhodes, a clock and watch repairman, walked into Ford’s Theatre to have a look around at about half past eleven o’clock, and saw a man he identified beyond any doubt as Surratt boring a small hole in the door to the President’s box in order to fit a board into it so the President “won’t be disturbed.” David C. Reed, who had known Surratt since he was a boy, thinks that he passed him in the street on Pennsylvania Avenue just below the National Hotel, about two or half-past two on that Good Friday afternoon, and they nodded to one another. Sometime that afternoon, a New York City lawyer named Benjamin W. Vanderpoel, who claimed to be very good with faces, purportedly saw Surratt (whom he had never met) seated at a round table with John Wilkes Booth (whom he did know) in a music hall on Pennsylvania Avenue. Another fellow who thinks he saw Surratt on the Avenue between three and five o’clock that afternoon, though he “might be mistaken,” was John Lee, a Union soldier from Vicksburg Mississippi, who knew Surratt by sight and had seen him around town about a dozen times previously. “Doc” Cleaver, a not very credible stableman who was an associate of the perjurer Charles Dunham (alias Sanford Conover), testified that he saw Surratt on April 14 at four o’clock on H Street, riding a chestnut sorrel horse, that he said, “How are you, John,” and that Surratt nodded back to him. Sometime after five o’clock that afternoon, a restaurateur named Sciapiano Grillo walked with David Herold over to Willard’s on Pennsylvania Avenue, where they met up with a young man Grillo identified as Surratt, who supposedly assured Herold that he was “going tonight.” Walter Coleman, head of a division of the Office of the Treasury, testified that he and an associate, George W. Cushing, were walking up Pennsylvania Avenue between 10th and 11th Streets towards Willards at about six o’clock that evening, when they saw John Wilkes Booth engaged in intense conversation with a man he identified as looking “very much like” Surratt. Mr. Cushing, on the other hand, testified that the young man with whom Booth was conferring did not look very much like Surratt. Frank Heaton, who lived near Ford’s Theatre, came out to see the President’s carriage arrive, and claims to have seen Surratt in front of the theatre between a quarter to and a quarter past eight. Sometime between eight and nine o’clock, the Surratt’s new servant Susan Ann Jackson, claims to have served tea to Mrs. Surratt and a man whom she introduced to Susan as “my son,” Mrs. Surratt asking “did he not look like his sister Annie?” Many of these statements were subjected to rebuttal and impeachment, but the sheer number counsels against dismissing the possibility that Surratt was in Washington on April 14, 1865.

There were also two second-hand accounts placing Surratt in Washington on the night of the assassination. Henri Beaumont de Sainte Marie, the Canadian bounty hunter who ultimately helped capture Surratt in Italy, testified that Surratt told him that he was in Washington on the night of the assassination, and that he had a very difficult time getting out. But perhaps the most intriguing statement was one attributed to another co-conspirator, George Atzerodt. Atzerodt’s Baltimore American statement contains damning evidence against Surratt:

Booth told me Surratt was in the Herndon House; on the night of the murder, the 14th of April, we were not altogether at the Herndon House. Booth told me Surratt was to help in the box. . . . The words of Booth were “I saw Surratt a few moments ago.” All the parties appeared to be engaged at something that night, and were not together.


Thus, according to Atzerodt, no less of an authority than John Wilkes Booth himself places Surratt in Washington at the time of the assassination.

Personally, I believe that Surratt was in Elmira, although this does not make him any less guilty as a conspirator in the plot against Lincoln. But we will never really know with any certainty where the elusive John Surratt was on the night that his close friend and associate, John Wilkes Booth, pulled the trigger. 

©2015 Michael Schein, all rights reserved. Adapted from Michael Schein’s forthcoming book, John Surratt: The Lincoln Assassin Who Got Away (History Publishing Co., release April 15, 2015). 

Sources: Trial of John H. Surratt in the Criminal Court for the District of Columbia, (Washington: French & Richardson; Philadelphia: J.B. Lippincott & Co. 1867); National Archives, RG 21, United States v. John H. Surratt, Criminal Case #4731, E.G. Lee Offer of Proof (July 15, 1867); Louis J. Weichmann, A True History of the Assassination of Abraham Lincoln and the Conspiracy of 1865 (Floyd Risvold, ed., Alfred A. Knopf, NY 1975); Surratt Society, The Lincoln Assassination: From the Pages of the Surratt Courier, Vol. I (Surratt Society, Clinton, MD 2000). 



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