New York’s Strange Connections To Lincoln’s Assassination
It was on the evening of April 15, 1865 in Washington DC when John Wilkes Booth made his way into the presidential box at Ford's Theatre and with a single bullet from his Philadelphia Derringer pistol, changed history forever.
I know what you are thinking. Washington DC? Philadelphia? What does this have to do with New York?
Well, the Empire State was more connected than you think. From the very box where the shot was fired, to the end of the chase for the assassin, New York's connections to this monumental moment in time are clear.
Inside The Presidential Box
On the night of April 15, 1865, Ford's Theatre was staging the comedy Our American Cousin. Just says after the end of the Cival War, the president needed a night out to show the American people he was strong as ever and I'm sure he could use the laugh. Originally, General Ulysses S Grant was to join Lincoln and his wife for the evening. Grant ended up turning down the offer as his wife Julia and the First Lady did not get along. Instead, Major Henry Rathbone and his fiancé Clara Harris were invited and ultimately accepted the invitation. Harris was the daughter of United States Senator Ira Harris, of New York. Born in Albany, Clara would come to be engaged to her step brother Henry before this fateful night. They would be seated right next to the President and First Lady when Booth fired his shot.
Capturing the Assassin
11 Days after firing his pistol, John Wilkes Booth would be hiding out in the barn of tobacco farmer Richard Garrett. He and accomplice David Herold would be awaken to find themselves surrounded. The cavalry had arrived. Not just any Cavalry. The 16th New York Cavalry had arrived. Formed in Plattsburgh in 1863, the eleven companies that came together would find themselves at the center of the greatest manhunt the country had seen to this point. Lt. Edward P. Doherty made the order to take the two fugitives alive and to not fire upon them as they ordered the barn to be burned to smoke them out. Sgt. Boston Corbett, a resident of Troy NY, claiming his hand was guided and steadied by a higher power than himself, fired a single shot into the barn after Herold had surrendered. The bullet shot through the assassin's neck and severed his spinal cord. Two hours later, the country's first presidential assassin was dead.
The 9th Conspiritor
8 conspirators were rounded up in the wake of Lincoln's assassination. 4 were sentenced to death, including Mary Surrat, the first woman hanged in America. 4 more were imprisoned for various terms. But there was a 9th conspirator who had escaped justice at the time, and yet was prominent in the minds of those trying to unravel the conspiracy. John Surrat, son of Mary, was part of an earlier kidnapping plot Booth was working on. As the plot moved to assassination, it is believed that John Surrat was not around to take part in any of the plot. At the time however, he was so top of mind that the original manhunt, which started on the night Lincoln was shot, began as a search for Booth, Herold and John Surrat. In 1867, after the initial outrage had died down, SUrrat was finally captured and stood trial, not in a military tribunal as his mother had, but in a civilian court. Due to multiple witnesses claiming to see him in Elmira New York on the dates on and around the assassination, he was let go as the jury was unable to make a decision on his guilt. It was the same evidence that saw his mother hanged.
Though some things happen far from here, New York's role in history is seemingly never nothing. The daughter of a Senator was in the booth when the assassin, who was felled by a New Yorker, fired his shot into history. And it was the people of Elmira who, through their honesty, kept a man, who had more information than he should have but indeed did nothing on the night of the assassination, free.