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Booth In the Confederate Secret Service
By John C. Fazio
The Cleveland Civil War Roundtable
Copyright © 2012, All Rights Reserved

John Wilkes Booth was an agent of the Confederate Secret Service. It is not known, and may never be known, when or exactly under what circumstances he was recruited and accepted his role as such, but that he was an agent and was in regular contact with other agents, who had ties to the Confederate leadership, or who had ties to other agents who had such ties, has been firmly established. Asia Booth described her brother as "a spy, a blockade-runner, a rebel!"1

Because he is not known to have been an agent before 1864 and is known to have been such in 1864 and 1865, it appears that he was recruited and trained in 1864, quite likely when he was in New Orleans for three weeks that year from the middle of March through early April. While there, he boarded at the home of George Miller, a Confederate sympathizer known to have had ties to high-ranking figures in the Confederate government. Booth and Miller are known to have corresponded for some time after Booth left the city. Another sympathizer he met there, and in whose company he was often seen, was Hiram Martin, a blockade runner. Either Miller or Martin could have been the recruiter. The only certainty is that by the end of that summer, Booth was in regular contact with Confederate agents and was familiar with their cipher system.2

Booth told Asia that he was involved in the “underground” and that the work demanded travel. The unexplained trips, the strange visitors at all hours, the callused hands “from nights of rowing,” to Asia it suddenly all made sense. She wrote that:

He often slept in his clothes on the couch downstairs, having on his long riding boots. Strange men called at late hours, some whose voices I knew, but who would not answer to their names; and others who were perfectly strange to me. They never came farther than the inner sill, and spoke in whispers.3

It is worth noting, as further indication of his Secret Service activities, that some time in late summer or early fall of 1864, a few weeks after he had lost a $6,000 investment in the oil business in northwestern Pennsylvania, Booth transferred all of his remaining assets to his mother, Mary Ann Booth, and his older brother, Junius Jr.4 This could only have been because a traitor's property could be seized under the treason statute passed by Congress on July 17, 1862, and this fact was surely known to every Northerner who was in any way supporting the Confederacy.5

It is well known that, throughout most of 1864 and in the months leading up to the assassination, Booth had frequent meetings with other operatives, doubtless higher level, in Montreal, Boston, New York, Philadelphia, Baltimore, and Washington.

On July 26, 1864, Booth was in Boston at the Parker House. There he met with three Confederate agents from Canada and one from Baltimore. It appears that with this meeting, Booth was officially enlisted in the business of conspiracy against the Lincoln Administration. The identities of the men with whom he met are known, but the evidence is strong that they registered using aliases. The subject and purpose of the meeting are not known with particularity. What is known is that this meeting was the first, or at least one of the first, that Booth had with Confederate agents and that many more followed. Tidwell, Hall and Gaddy, masters of their craft, had this to say about this meeting:

The gathering at the Parker House...has all the earmarks of a conference with an agenda. The inference is that agents of the Confederate apparatus in Canada have a need to discuss something with Booth. Capturing Lincoln? Within a few weeks Booth was in Baltimore recruiting others for just such a scheme and had closed out his Pennsylvania oil operations.6

It is also known that Booth’s relationship with his family, never good relative to the major issue of the period, especially with brother Edwin and brother-in-law John Clarke, deteriorated badly during 1864 and finally reached the breaking point. The career rivalry between the brothers, in which Edwin easily eclipsed him, accelerated the process. Booth told Asia that if it were not for their mother, he would never enter Edwin’s home, nor, he said, would he enter Clarke’s home, but for Asia. In November, following an especially bitter exchange between the brothers, and after many such exchanges during the year, Edwin ordered Booth to leave his home and then physically expelled him from it. This humiliation may have sent him over the edge, because it followed other major problems he was having that year.

On August 7, Booth was in Philadelphia, from where he went to Baltimore. Most of August he spent in New York City at the home of his brother, Edwin. He had developed a bad case of erysipelas, on his right arm, a skin infection which, in the days before antibiotics, was quite serious and could even be fatal. He was confined to his sick bed, in Edwin’s home in New York, the entire month before recovering. Later, in November, he suffered from eruptions of what have been described as “boils” or “carbuncles” on his neck, which had to be lanced and drained by a doctor. No longer welcome in Edwin’s home, Booth found refuge with Asia in Philadelphia.

With John Ellsler, manager of the Cleveland Academy of Music, and another friend, Thomas Mears, Booth had invested substantial sums in oil speculation in western Pennsylvania, a highly risky venture in which many lost small and large fortunes. Booth joined them; his efforts came to nothing. The “oil business,” however, did provide an effective cover for his travels and income in connection with his activities on behalf of Richmond and the Secret Service.

Clearly, Booth’s world was falling apart; his relationship with his family was bad because of ideology and, in Edwin’s case, had ruptured completely. Brother Joseph was abroad and brother Junius Jr. was in California through May, then returned home, joining Booth, Edwin, Asia and sister Rosalie, and Edwin’s daughter, Edwina. Booth had been outclassed by brother Edwin on stage, who reserved the choicest venues for himself, assigning Booth to smaller cities and theaters, mostly in the South. Junius, also an actor, was too busy for him. In addition, Booth was often seriously ill physically, had lost a small fortune in oil and was, as always, drinking heavily (he could put away a bottle of brandy in one sitting) and therefore scrapping easily and often. In these circumstances, he may indeed have been losing his mind. At all events, we can at least begin to understand why he would be drawn to persons who offered him refuge, comfort, camaraderie, acceptance, money, ideological commonality, and purpose.

To New York, he is known to have traveled at least a dozen times for secret meetings. On one of these trips, in November 1864, he met with Samuel Knapp Chester, a fellow actor, and tried to recruit him into what he described as a plan to abduct Lincoln. He told Chester there were 50 to 100 people involved in the plan. Chester refused to join. Fifty to 100 is certainly an exaggeration (it could never have been kept secret with that number), but we may be certain that there were more than the number who were tried and convicted by the military commission in Washington in May and June 1865.

In the third week of October, Booth went to Montreal and stayed there for at least ten days (October 18-27), returning first to New York, on or about November 1, and then to Washington on November 9. Before he left Montreal, he arranged with Patrick C. Martin, a blockade-runner from Baltimore, to ship his entire theatrical wardrobe to Nassau, from where it was to be shipped through the blockade to Richmond, where it would be waiting for him. Neither he nor the wardrobe made it, but that is beside the point. The point is that he obviously had no intention of pursuing his acting career in the immediate future, having more pressing matters to attend to, and that if he decided to resume that career, it would be in the Confederacy. That meant, of course, abandoning his home and family, which is a good indication of the depth of his feeling, the degree of commitment he brought to whatever he was planning, and an awareness of its likely consequences.7

While in Montreal, Booth stayed at the St. Lawrence Hall and also at a room nearby. "The Hall," as it was generally referred to, was thought by many to be the finest hotel in the city. It was also the headquarters of the Canadian Cabinet, the name given to Confederates stationed there from early 1864, under instructions from Jefferson Davis and Judah Benjamin.

At the trial of the conspirators, several witnesses, namely Richard Montgomery, Sandford Conover (Charles Dunham), James B. Merritt, John Deveny, Hosea B. Carter, William E. Wheeler, and Robert Anson Campbell, testified that they saw Booth in Montreal between the summer of 1864 and February 1865, with most witnesses placing him there in October. The substance of their testimony was that they saw Booth in conversation and "intimate association" with Jacob Thompson, head of the Canadian Cabinet, and the notorious George N. Sanders, said by many to have been the brains behind the terror and assassination plots hatched at "the Hall."8

Some have questioned the reliability of this testimony on the grounds that some of the witnesses were later shown to have perjured themselves and some of the conversation allegedly overhead was unlikely, due to its sensitivity (plots against Lincoln), to have been discussed openly. The details of the conversations are not really very important. What is important is that the Canadian Cabinet saw fit to host John Wilkes Booth for ten days and Booth felt it necessary to take ten days from his busy schedule to travel to Montreal to be so hosted. We may be certain he did not simply pop in on them unannounced. We may be certain the conference had been previously arranged and that both parties, Booth and the Cabinet, felt the conference was at least desirable, if not absolutely necessary, to refine their plans and coordinate their efforts, at least those that pertained to Booth and the role he was to play in saving the Confederacy.

Clearly, Booth was no longer a bit player; he had moved up the ladder and was now mingling with the major-domos of Confederate espionage. Major-domos of espionage do not spend ten days with an actor discussing theater, the weather, or sports. Sanders, especially, was reported by Hosea B. Carter to have been observed in "intimate association with Booth,"9 and by John Deveny as having been seen "talking with" Booth, "talking confidentially and drinking together," and "(having) a drink together."10 This is the same Sanders who was a known advocate of assassination as an effective means to bring about change; the same Sanders who, in 1853, had hosted, as U.S. Consul in London, such famous European revolutionaries as Lajos Kossuth, Giuseppe Garibaldi, Giuseppe Mazzini, Felice Orsini, Andre Ledru-Rollin, and Aleksandr Ivanovich Herzen. Sanders was said to have been very impressed by Mazzini's "theory of the dagger," i.e., tyrannicide, and advocated the assassination of Napoleon III "by any means, and by any way it could be done.”11

It appears that the master had taken the pupil under his wing. Sanders, already a grizzly bear, was at this time a wounded grizzly bear, because his son, Major Reid Sanders, a prisoner of war, had died in captivity at Fort Warren in Boston just six weeks earlier.12 He would therefore have been all the more eager to seek revenge against the man he considered to be the ultimate author of his son's demise and the demise of so many others and all the more disposed, therefore, to groom and patronize the possible agency of it.

Booth is also known, while in Montreal, to have spent much time with Patrick C. Martin and his family. It was probably Martin or Sanders, perhaps both, who gave him the names of and letters of introduction to persons in lower Maryland and northern Virginia whom he could rely upon for help. We know only that he was given such letters to, at least, Dr. William Queen, Dr. Samuel Mudd, and Marshal George P. Kane, the former Police Commissioner of Baltimore and a Confederate sympathizer, and that he later contacted these people when he was in lower Maryland and when he was making his escape.13

On October 27, Booth and Martin went to the Bank of Ontario, in Montreal, to exchange currency. Booth traded $300 in gold coins for £60 sterling and bought an exchange receipt for $455. He returned to Washington on November 9 and opened an account at the Washington office of Jay Cooke & Co., Bankers, into which he deposited $1,500. This gave him the funds he needed to finance his work and, if need be, to escape abroad or into the Confederacy.14

In early November he was in Charles County, Maryland, with Dr. William Queen and his family and Dr. Mudd. On November 14, he was back in Washington at the National Hotel, but in December he was back in Charles County, this time to solicit the help of Confederate agent Thomas H. Harbin, whom he met through Dr. Mudd. Harbin agreed to and did help Booth in his escape after the assassination. Significantly, Harbin fled the country after the assassination and disappeared. Five years later he was back in the country working as a clerk in the National Hotel in Washington. He remained there until he died in 1885.15

In late November, Booth stopped to see Asia in Philadelphia. He offered to show her the cipher he was using, but she would have none of it. Then he took a large packet from his breast pocket, handed it to her, told her to keep it in her safe and to open it, alone, if anything happened to him. Following the assassination, she did. It contained paperwork relating to the disposition of his property, as well as a farewell letter to his mother and another letter addressed "To Whom It May Concern," but apparently intended for his brother-in-law, John Clarke. The greeting was an allusion to Lincoln's letter to Confederate commissioners attending a peace conference at Niagara Falls in July 1863, which letter ended the conference, such as it was. In the farewell letter, a tender, heartfelt missive that left no doubt of his love for his mother, he sought to justify his parting from her on the grounds of "liberty and humanity due to my country," "the cause of liberty and justice," and "the justice of my cause."

The letter to Clarke was considerably longer and was a general defense of the Confederate cause and of what Booth was now planning to do to serve it. It was in this letter that he wrote:

Right or wrong, God judge me, not man...

This country was formed for the white, not for the black man. And looking upon African slavery from the same standpoint held by those noble framers of our Constitution, I for one have ever considered it one of the greatest blessings (both for themselves and us) that God every bestowed upon a favored nation...Yet Heaven knows no one would be willing to do more for the negro race than I, could I but see a way to still better their condition. But Lincoln's policy is only preparing the way for their total annihilation...

The South...stand now (before the wonder and admiration of the world) as a noble band of patriotic heroes. Hereafter, reading of their deeds, Thermopylae will be forgotten...

Alas...day by day has she (the American flag) been draged [sic] deeper and deeper into cruelty and oppression...

Nor do I deem it a dishonor, in attempting to make for her a prisoner of this man to whom she owes so much of misery...

A Confederate, at present [deleted in the original by Booth] doing duty upon his own responsibility.16

Is that what Samuel Arnold, William Tidwell, and others called an "intelligent" man? Why did he delete "at present" from the last line? Had it ceased to be true? Need I say that his exculpation of the complicity of others, by implication the Confederate Government and its Secret Service, is proof positive of their complicity? Who asked for the exculpation? The man doth protest too much, methinks.

It was about this time – the latter part of 1864 – that Booth, unquestionably under orders from his superiors to do so, began to pull some loose strings together to form a team for a stated purpose. It should be noted at the outset that, if Booth had his sights on murdering Lincoln and only Lincoln, what need had he of an action team? This is something he could very well have accomplished entirely on his own, especially if he were willing to sacrifice his life in exchange. That he began to assemble a team, therefore, is a clear indication that he had grander intentions than the elimination of one man. Of course, they were not intentions he could reveal to the members of his team, because to do so would, first, surely drive most if not all of them away, because multiple killings are not something many have a taste for and, second, take an unacceptable risk of leakage. So he would lure with the pretense of a different purpose, and this despite that, on at least three occasions from late 1864 to April 1865, he had attempted to induce Lewis Powell to murder Lincoln.

To facilitate recruitment, Booth advised his prospects that his purpose was nothing more malignant than the abduction of President Lincoln, who would be whisked off to Richmond and held as ransom for the release of Confederate prisoners of war, as if anyone in the Federal government would negotiate with the Confederate government in those circumstances. No harm was to come to anyone. As an inducement to come aboard, Booth promised fame, the eternal gratitude of the Confederate States of America, whose continued existence as a separate nation they would play a major role in securing, and lots of money. As for the last, he promised enough to ease their lives for the present and enough, ultimately, with the success of their common enterprise, to assure that they would never have to work for a living again. At least eight loose strings, whom we know of, took the bait.

By so doing, four would wind up at the end of a rope, three would spend nearly four years in hell on earth, one of the three suffering the agony of yellow fever and dying of it, and one would live a full life after spending nineteen months abroad as a fugitive and then enduring the ordeal of a two-month trial. Let no one suppose that Booth gathered this motley band entirely of his own volition or that any of them, with the possible exceptions of John Surratt and Lewis Powell, knew what he was really about or the true dimensions of his conspiracy. He was daft and bizarre, but he knew how to compartmentalize his work; only those closest to him knew his true purpose.


Footnotes & References:

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  1. Asia Booth Clarke, John Wilkes Booth: A Sister's Memoir, ed. Terry Alford, University Press of Mississippi, 1996, p. 83.
  2. Nora Titone, My Thoughts Be Bloody: The Bitter Rivalry That Led to the Assassination of Abraham Lincoln, Free Press, 2010, p. 319.
  3. Clarke, pp. 85, 87; Michael W. Kauffman, American Brutus: John Wilkes Booth and the Lincoln Conspiracies, Random House, 2004, pp. 130, 131.
  4. The Trial: The Assassination of President Lincoln and the Trial of the Conspirators, ed. Edward Steers, Jr., The University Press of Kentucky, 2003, p. XXXV.
  5. Ibid, p. LXI
  6. William A. Tidwell, James O. Hall and David Winfield Gaddy, Come Retribution: The Confederate Secret Service and the Assassination of Lincoln, University Press of Mississippi, 1988, p. 263.
  7. Stanley Kimmel, The Mad Booths of Maryland, 2nd rev. and enlarged ed., Dover Publications, 1969, p. 189.
  8. Clara McLaughlin, The death of Lincoln; The Story of Booth's Plot, his Deed and the Penalty, Doubleday, Page & Company, 1909, pp. 203, 204.
  9. Benn Pitman, The Assassination Of President Lincoln And The Trial Of Conspirators, Moore, Wilstach & Baldwin, 1865, p. 38.
  10. Ibid, p. 39.
  11. Tidwell, Hall and Gaddy, pp. 331, 332.
  12. New York Herald, September 6, 1864.
  13. The Lincoln Murder Conspiracies, University of Illinois Press, 1989, p. 44; Kauffman, p. 141; Tidwell, Hall and Gaddy, p. 331.
  14. Kauffman, p. 141; Tidwell, Hall and Gaddy, p. 344.
  15. Tidwell, Hall and Gaddy, p. 342
  16. Clarke, pp. 104-110.

John Wilkes Booth

The Cleveland Civil War Roundtable