Portrait of Booth and the Conspirators- A Narcissist and his Pawns?
July 7, 1865. An event in history is captured forever in grim photographs that, to those who see them today, arouse both horror and intrigue. Four people, tied with strips of white cloth, hang from a gallows. One of the photos captures the motion of swinging with its eerie blur, and your eye is especially drawn to the blur of the woman, in her black dress bound up at the knees. Who were these people? I wondered almost twenty years ago, transfixed by the small print of the photograph in the book I was casually reading, while sitting in a campus library. The book was The Lincoln Assassination Conspiracies, by William Hanchett. I had skimmed the book and learned the basic beginnings of the story that I was never taught in high school.
Every high school student knows the basic fact that the most iconic President in American History, Abraham Lincoln, was gunned down by John Wilkes Booth, a theatrical actor, while watching a play one night. But that is pretty much it. In order to learn the whole story, you either need to stumble upon it, as I did in the college library, or pursue it. The different theories of the Lincoln conspiracy are debated to this day, but the main fact is that Booth, despite being Lincoln’s lone gunman, was assisted by a handful of accomplices. And it is the stories of these accomplices, four of whom suffered probably the first filmed executions in history, that have drawn me into studying the Lincoln assassination in detail.
As I have read and researched more about the conspirators in the last year, one thing that keeps coming to mind is the fact that these were just ordinary people. They were not necessarily hardened criminal types. All of them were going along in life, trying to deal with living in wartime and a politically charged and divided America. They were a microcosm of society in the turbulent Civil War years, of various walks of life. A widow and mother of grown children trying to eke out a living in a boardinghouse. A young Confederate soldier, wounded physically and almost certainly mentally, left wayward and not really knowing what was next. A country doctor with deep Confederate leanings, horribly racist to our modern minds, yet a person typical of that place and time. A boy who was the black sheep of his Washington family, who would rather go out on bird-hunting trips or exciting pro-South covert missions than work for a drugstore or anything dealing with the federal government or its navy. An alcoholic carriage painter who would prefer the fast, easy money of blockade running- and eventually hostler service to a glamorous idol- to the drudgery of a more honest living. And a secretive, shrewd and wispy boy, only twenty one yet somehow achieving the role of co-captain of the whole intrigue- flitting from Canada, to Maryland, to New York- to across the ocean and back, and eventually slipping the wrathful hands that claimed his own mother.
It really makes sense that Booth would recruit a motley variety of people to meet his ends. He was like a brilliant, handsome sun in the middle of a solar system, snatching up different planets of various sizes, colors and levels of importance, from the shrewd to the doltish, from the muscle man to the gentlewoman hostess. He was described by everyone as being a person whom one would never forget, and had a personal charm and charisma that attracted both male and female admirers and persuaded them to do their bidding.
In studying articles on psychology, I was going over the clinical profile of the classic narcissistic personality. A narcissistic person cares only about himself and how to use people to give him what he wants and do what he wants. He loves attention, admiration and applause. Without it, he throws a tantrum like a two year old. He also is typically gifted with great personal charm and power, probably because he lacks the empathy that makes those who actually care about others’ feelings hesitant about their words and actions. The narcissist doesn’t. He charms people and says and does what the average person would be loath to do. The clinical checklist of the narcissistic person is nearly a perfect match to what we read was the actual personality of Booth. Especially after reading the accounts of his personal diary and his manifesto, eight of the nine traits can be ticked off, the one exception being that he didn‘t always insist on associating with high-status people only.(1)
So only a person like John Wilkes Booth would tell his new friend, that young Confederate veteran, to shoot Lincoln right there, right from the crowd.(2) He wasn’t up to doing it himself yet, he was initially hoping to let the patsy take the punishment and slink off. Lewis Powell didn’t buy it at first. However, Booth plotted and planned, using his magic of charm, his promises of money or glory. Soon, very gently at first and then harder, perhaps using threats, he twisted his acquaintances’ arms, like pumping a water spigot until it splashes forth what one desires.
We will never know the exact motivations and needling Booth used to assign young Lewis Powell to his final act, the attempt to murder Secretary of State William Seward. Mr. Seward’s photographs after 1865 show a disfiguring facial scar, after being slashed in the face by Powell. His son Frederick had miraculously recovered from his head injury after being pistol-whipped by Powell. A nurse was also severely injured by Lewis Powell’s knife-wielding rampage. Fannie, Mr. Seward’s petite young daughter, was so horrified that it may have brought on her early grave. The whole family was terrorized that night. It is easy to dismiss Powell as a hired thug, a hit man, a killing machine. I was inclined to call him that, too, after reading account after account of the Seward incident. But his biographer, Betty Ownsbey, has thankfully dug up some different facts on this enigmatic character.
He was the son of a Baptist clergyman, and certainly brought up in the strict moral sense of that mindset. He expressed an interest in religion, was called “Doc” for his caring for animals, and was also described as a shy boy with a playful sense of humor.(3) A rare photo of him at the age of twelve shows him looking amazingly like River Phoenix in the film Stand By Me.
Reverend Powell’s Bible contained the commandment, “Thou shalt not kill.” It must have been something young Lewis had wanted to live up to. But the cold, hard reality of life would test that resolve soon enough. Lewis was caught up in the excitement of war. After all, didn’t his father’s family Bible also say that God’s people slayed the armies of Jericho? After engaging in battle, what often happens is the soldier becomes desensitized to carnage. There is a hardening of the heart, related to the stress of kill or be killed. What we do know is that Powell emerged from the battlefields a changed man. And Booth was there to pluck him from his wanderings.
We don’t know the exact initial meeting between Booth and his hospitable ally in Washington, Mary Surratt, but they were probably introduced through her son. Mary had lost her husband a short time before, and the family was financially slipping from their formerly respectable status. She rented out her country place, and accepted boarders. Those boarders eventually included the before-mentioned Powell, a government clerk named Weichmann, and for a brief time a certain riffraff carriage painter, but she dismissed him for bringing liquor to the premises. Liquor was reprehensible to her, but she didn’t seem to mind her son and Powell amassing a cache of weapons in the bedroom. This incident had occurred after she had begun receiving visits from a dashing theatre actor. He probably flattered her and her twenty two-year-old daughter Anna, who was reported by her brother to have nursed a crush on him.(4) Booth would consort with Mary privately in these visits. But what did these conversations entail? Only they, long dead, would know. The answer to the extent of Mary’s guilt would depend on what was said. If it was the “oil business,” or a request along the lines of “could you do me a favor? I’d so appreciate it if you would have these delivered to help me and my friends...” and the intent kept vague, we could give Mary the benefit of the doubt. But what if the closed-door talks really were bent on kidnapping? Or assassination? This is the mystery which makes Mary Surratt a controversy to this day.
Someone else was asked to run errands and aid the assassin from beginning to end, and that person certainly knew everything that was to occur. For those who are familiar with the whole assassination story, David Herold is portrayed typically as the “toadie.” The sidekick who does the villain’s bidding, usually in a groveling and pathetic manner. The Grover Dill to Booth’s Scott Farcus. The Lefou to Booth’s Gaston. The Pettigrew to Booth’s Voldemort. This is a laughable stereotype that we have grown up with in Disney cartoons, but in real life it takes a sad turn. When I first read Michael Kauffman’s American Brutus and James Swanson’s Manhunt, Herold was the one I kept inwardly screaming at. “How can you be so stupid?” It didn’t help that there was something oddly endearing about him as I read on. He had been a schoolboy whose parents had been well off enough to send him to a good college- Georgetown.(5) If he was able to get a pharmacy degree, then the defense attorney’s claim that he was cognitively disabled can be thrown out.
The records of David’s interrogation after his capture show that he played around with the truth, shrewdly admitting to some things yet adeptly fabricating others.(6) He loved to come up with pseudonyms, starting with the trite and ridiculous “Smith” but finally doing better with “Boyd” by the time he was caught with Booth in that Virginia barn. He was no dolt. But he did come across by many as immature, maybe as a result of being spoiled by his mother and seven sisters. He would have had two brothers, but they died in infancy.(7) His father died the year before David’s notorious adventure with John Wilkes Booth. We are left to wonder if he was desperate for a role model, and became drawn into the charismatic carnival world of Booth, who gave him theater tickets, the thrill of being seen with the cool dude in the best restaurants and hotels, and probably a hint that he could get gobs of money soon, without ever having to work in a boring drugstore again. Was Herold a brainless toadie? Not really. Misguided and impulsive? Sadly, yes.
Another debate on the intelligence versus shrewdness of the individuals in the Lincoln conspiracy focuses on the much-maligned George Atzerodt. Like Herold, he was dismissed as a fool. He did certainly make foolish choices in his life, we cannot argue with that. His dependence on the whiskey bottle is recorded numerous times in accounts from those who knew him. But there are highly revered people living today who are admitted alcoholics.
The main defense for him is that he just plain didn’t carry out the assignment Booth gave him. Historians say that he tried to drink up the nerve to do it, and chickened out. But they ignore the idea that maybe he just didn’t want to kill Vice President Johnson, not because he was cowardly, but because it was not the right thing to do. If he realized that, it was too late.
Despite not doing a thing that night except inquiring about Mr. Johnson, followed by random pacing up and down a hotel and stopping in for drinks, his fate was the gallows, along with the other three profiled above. We know that earlier that day, he and Herold helped to secure Booth with horses. He was given a fancy hotel address that same day, financed by Booth, whose personal items were dropped off in the room, in which Atzerodt’s name was recorded as being the resident at the time.(8) Intrigue, drama and covert operations! What fun it must have sounded to a German immigrant who had previously scraped by in a little carriage shop! He had been fond of the Confederate spy network in his friendship with John Surratt and his reputation as a river rat, doing blockade runs and ferrying Rebs across the border. But it had been said he would have done the same for the North, if they’d shown him the money.(9) You wonder if it’s possible that his loyalty could have been swayed if he’d been influenced by the right person. Can you imagine the lowly, inconspicuous foreign-born as a double agent? By one slight alternative move, George Atzerodt could have been turned from reviled conspirator to hero. It was his choice. Unfortunately, he choose wrong. Again, just like his friends, we see the intense pressure and soul-sucking pull of the cult of Booth.
Four conspirators were to suffer the horror of a noose on a hot July day. But there were more who had just as much a hand in helping Booth as Mrs. Surratt, Powell, Herold and Atzerodt did, and yet they survived with nary a scratch.
Dr. Samuel Mudd lied to the officers that the crippled man he helped early one morning was a stranger, who “kept a shawl over his face.” Soon, when confronted with a photo, said “well, he looks a little similar about the eyes.”(10) Then, he decided to spill it all and confirm what was suspected, that he knew Booth, had met him previously, had been seen with him before in a country church. He was still brought to trial as a conspirator, and by a mere vote, he escaped the death penalty and served in prison instead. He was allowed to reform his reputation as a doctor in the hot unpleasant environment of a Florida prison. His family members stand by him and defend him to this day. It is believed that he was just as deep into it as the others, but justice decided on the good doctor’s favor.(11) A classic Hollywood movie, The Prisoner of Shark Island, casts Mudd in a forgiving light.
And finally, there is the conspirator who soared over it all, the young eagle who flew free and was allowed to prosper and live to a ripe old age. John Surratt, Mary Surratt’s son, was a spinner of the web, a courier who delivered messages, traveled to Montreal, Canada, and most likely introduced Booth to his mother. He was definitely the most intelligent of all of the conspirators, and his trans-global escape after the assassination is impressive, even today when such travel is taken for granted. He was caught two years after Lincoln’s assassination in Italy, of all places, as a member of the Vatican’s guard. Booth was dead (I do not personally support the opposing theory) yet a little piece of him lived on in the exotically-costumed “Zouave” Johnny Surratt, who was tried, exonerated, and even had the audacity to lecture about his role just a few years later. Thankfully, people frowned on that little venture of his, but he settled into a career, married and had children.(12) Besides his associate Samuel Arnold, who wisely backed out of the conspiracy but was still imprisoned for his associations, Surratt was the only Lincoln conspirator to see the dawn of the 20th century. He is seen in an Edwardian-era photograph as an elderly gentleman in leisure, sitting with a grown daughter. He was the lucky one, allowed a life apart from John Wilkes Booth.
The four people in that photo have been dead now for 146 years. They have been mostly forgotten by the American populace, although hard-core scholars of the Lincoln assassination believe that interest in the story may be experiencing a revival. Mrs. Surratt’s story has now been profiled in a modestly successful recent film. Booth himself is looked back on as a fascinating character study as a villain, and for good reason. Currently, on the national news, a media circus of a trial is being held in the case of a horrific crime, a young mother accused of murdering her own child. Not terribly long ago, a very similar crime took national attention. We cannot resist watching the trainwreck of the sociopath or narcissist, because it is the closest thing to pure evil in flesh, often attractively packaged in the form of a charming person. We are compelled to study it in detail. But it is much more enjoyable to study this evil from a distance, and never become personally acquainted with a narcissistic criminal. History has taught us that an ordinary, benign soul can be bought and dragged down by a devil.
-References:1. APA (American Psychiatric Association) DSM-5 301.81 profile on Narcissistic Personality (www.dsm5.org/Proposed/Revision/Pages)
2. Roscoe, Theodore. Web of Conspiracy p. 95, his reference being Sandburg, Carl, Abraham Lincoln, the War Years. Ownsbey, Betty. Lewis Powell, Mystery Man of the Conspiracy. Surratt Society News article, June 1980, compiled in “In Pursuit Of..” book of the Surratt House Museum.
4. Roscoe, Theodore. Web of Conspiracy pp. 52-53, reference being Wilson, Francis, John Wilkes Booth.5. Kauffman, Michael. David E Herold the Forgotten Conspirator. Surratt Society News, November 1981.
6. Account of interrogation from www.footnote.com, Lincoln Assassination Papers, Letters Received and Statements Collected by the Military Commission, pages 1-53.
7. Kauffman, Michael. David E. Herold the Forgotten Conspirator. Surratt Society News, November 1981.
8. Norton, Roger. www.rogerjnorton.com.
9. Roscoe, Theodore. Web..., p. 62. Author’s speculation, based on accounts of Atzerodt’s acquaintances.
10. www.footnote.com, Lincoln Assassination Papers, Letters Received and Statements Collected by the Military Commission, pages 54-69.
11and 12. Norton, Roger. www.rogerjnorton.com.
by Julianne Munich