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Gallows Crossbeam

Gallows section

This wooden beam is a section from the gallows on which the Lincoln assassination conspirators were hanged.

"I shall never live out the four years of my term. When the rebellion is crushed, my work is done."
—Abraham Lincoln

John Wilkes Booth killed Abraham Lincoln, the man who led America through the Civil War, on April 14, 1865. The assassination left many Americans shocked and angry. They wanted the assassin captured and punished. Nearly everyone in Washington, D.C., recognized Booth. He was a handsome, well-known actor, who performed frequently at Ford's Theatre. Many in the audience, including Lincoln, had seen him act. Authorities chased and hunted for him from the minute he fled the theater following the shooting.

Lincoln wasn't the only government official attacked that night. An unknown man stabbed William Seward, the Secretary of State, in his home. When people in Washington learned of the simultaneous attacks, they feared a Southern uprising. Edwin Stanton, the Secretary of War, suspected a larger conspiracy and believed that all of Lincoln's cabinet members were at risk. As a precaution, he stationed guards at their homes. Stanton also believed that these events were a last-ditch effort by Southern leaders to win the war. He immediately launched an investigation.

Officials questioned known Confederate sympathizers, Booth's friends and family, and people who were at the theater. John Surratt was named as Booth's cohort and a suspect in Seward's stabbing. Investigators searched Booth's hotel room, where they found incriminating letters. Surratt could not be found, but a visit to his mother's boarding house led to the arrest of a suspicious man, Lewis Powell, and Surratt's mother, Mary. Evidence and information gathered from these inquiries led to the arrest of six more men: Samuel Arnold, George Atzerodt, David Herold, Michael O'Laughlin, Edman Spangler, and Dr. Samuel Mudd.

Piecing Together the Plot

Using information they gathered, federal agents pieced together the plot. Beginning in 1864, Booth developed a plan to kidnap Lincoln and reinvigorate the Southern cause. Booth believed he could capture Lincoln and trade him for the release of Southern prisoners of war. He gathered men to help him execute the plan. On March 17, 1865, they had the opportunity to grab the president on his way home from a play, but the plot failed. Discouraged, the conspirators went their separate ways.

Abraham Lincoln

A few weeks later, Robert E. Lee surrendered to Ulysses S. Grant at Appomattox, and Booth knew he had to do something drastic to save the Confederacy. He felt he had to kill Lincoln. If he could eliminate more members of the cabinet, the Southern leadership could take over the capital.

On the morning of April 14 Booth learned that Lincoln would be attending the play Our American Cousin at Ford's Theatre. He knew the theater well. It was the perfect opportunity. Booth spent the day making plans, including instructing Lewis Powell to kill Seward and George Atzerodt to kill Vice President Andrew Johnson. He asked David Herold, who knew the capital and rural Maryland, to lead the assassins out of the city.

That night, only Booth was successful and Herold led him to temporary safety. In a violent attack, Powell stabbed at Seward, slicing the man's cheek. Seward was disfigured, but lived. Atzerodt couldn't bring himself to kill Johnson. Instead, he got drunk and wandered the streets of Washington.

There was less evidence to support the arrest of the other accused. Samuel Arnold and Michael O'Laughlin were part of the kidnapping plot, but didn't seem to have assisted in the assassination. Spangler held the reins of Booth's horse while the actor ran an errand in the theater. Dr. Mudd tended to Booth's leg, which broke as he fled the theater. Mary Surratt's crime was being the mother of a known but missing conspirator and owning a boarding house where they may have gathered; authorities assumed she knew about the plot.

Trial of the Century

The trial of the 19th century began on May 9, 1865. President Johnson ordered a trial by military commission, as the assassination conspiracy was deemed an act of war. For several weeks, prosecutors revealed the case against the conspirators. Because the defense attorneys were never allowed to meet with their clients, their arguments were weak and easily refuted. The commission began deliberation on June 29. Nearly a week later, they declared all eight defendants guilty. Mudd, Spangler, Arnold, and O'Laughlin received prison terms. Powell, Herold, Atzerodt, and Mary Surratt were sentenced to hang.

Workmen quickly erected a scaffold on the lawn of the Old Arsenal Penitentiary. From their cells, the condemned could hear its construction and the slam of the traps as they were tested. At 1:15 on July 7, the four were lead to the gallows, their hands and feet tied, heads covered with hoods, and necks fitted with nooses. Minutes later, they were dead. Despite a desperate last-minute plea to spare her life, Mary Surratt became the first woman executed for a crime in the United States. Booth escaped hanging only because he had been killed while on the run shortly after the assassination.

The wood fragment shown here is reportedly a segment from the top crossbeam of the scaffold on which the conspirators were hanged. In 1885, the secretary of the Kansas Historical Society learned that the scaffold was stored at the Old Arsenal in Washington, D.C. He wrote to the Quartermaster's office to request a piece of it for the collection. The lieutenant who received the letter was happy to comply, as he had spent time as a soldier at Fort Leavenworth and considered himself a Kansan. He sent this fragment.  It has been part of the Society's collection since 1885.

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Entry: Gallows Crossbeam

Author: Kansas Historical Society

Author information: The Kansas Historical Society is a state agency charged with actively safeguarding and sharing the state's history.

Date Created: June 2008

Date Modified: December 2014

The author of this article is solely responsible for its content.