FBI: Escape and Suicide of John Wilkes Booth

“St. Helen is dying and wishes to speak to you alone,” and turning, withdrew from our presence.

I touched St. Helen, and after some effort aroused a faint response; he opened his eyes, which gave ex­pression to that anxious and pleading look for help so often seen upon the face of a dying man when we are least powerful to assist. I requested to know of what service I could be to him. St. Helen, yet conscious, but so weak he could speak only in broken, whispered words, audible only by placing the ear close to his mouth, said: “I am dying. My name is John Wilkes Booth, and I am the assassin of President Lincoln. Get the picture of myself from under the pillow. I leave it with you for my future identification. Notify my brother Edwin Booth, of New York City.”

He then closed his eyes in seeming rest. I reached forward and took from under the pillow a small pic­ture taken of St. Helen a short while before his sick­ness, while on a visit to Glenrose Mills, by a pho­tographer then tented at that place, as I was after­wards informed.

After getting the picture my attention was turned to giving St. Helen relief, if possible, not at the time thinking of his startling and important confession. I called the porter, and we began rubbing his entire body with strong brandy to give him vitality. He passed into a gentle sleep, and for a time we could not tell whether it would be the final sleep of death or a restful one, promising future consciousness and possible recovery. He lived through the night, much to our surprise and that of the doctor, who, after a careful examination of St. Helen’s condition, was of the opinion that he was somewhat improved, but his condition continued extremely critical for sev­eral days, but the doctor finally announced that St. Helen’s recovery was likely and in the course of a few days he was convalescent and by careful watching he was brought to final recovery. But it was many weeks before his health was recovered. After which our relations became more intimate and con­fidential, for St. Helen was a man who cherished gratitude.

We were alone one day in my office. I remarked to St. Helen that he had passed through a very severe spell of sickness and, in fact, we all thought he could not recover. To which he assented with a look of serious concern, and fixing his eyes on my face, asked:

“Do you remember anything I said to you when I was sick?” and waited with an anxious look for reply.

I said to him that I remembered many things which he had said to me. When St. Helen said:

“Then you have my life in your keeping, but, thank God, as my attorney.”

I replied: “Do you refer to what you said of your sweetheart and last love?”

St. Helen in reply said: “I have had a sweetheart, but no last love, and could not, in my wildest deliri­um have mentioned a subject so barren of concern to me. But your suggestion is a kind evasion of what I did say to you, which is of the greatest mo­ment to me, and when I get well and feel like talk­ing, and you like listening, I will tell you the story of my life and the history of the secrecy of my name.”

“St. Helen, it will be interesting to me, at your convenience,” I replied.



After I had returned from an absence of several weeks, on professional business, St. Helen came to my office and invited me to walk with him to the open prairie. We went out about half a mile from town and seated ourselves on some rocks which had been placed in this open space under a large live oak tree as a physical monument of a land line or corner, a common custom at that time of marking located land lines. Seated upon this mounment we had an elevation comfortable and commanding the surrounding view. And St. Helen began his story by saying:

“I have told you that my name is not St. Helen, and, in fact, my name is John Wilkes Booth, a son of the late Junius Brutus Booth, Sr., the actor, and a brother of Junius Brutus Booth the second and Edwin Booth the actor.”

At that time I think he mentioned a Dr. Booth as his brother, and two sisters whose names I cannot now recall from his statements at that time. That he was born on a farm in the State of Maryland, not far from Baltimore. That there was a young married woman taken into the Booth family, or the the­atrical troupe of the elder Booth and known as Agnes Booth, an actress, but in fact she was not a Booth nor related to them, but was a Mrs. Agnes Perry, a Scandinavian lady, who was divorced from her husband and married some time in the sixties to Junius Brutus Booth the second.’ And St. Helen continued to relate many other family affairs, the publication of which would be to speak of the pri­vate concerns of the Booth family, which I deem un­necessary to make public. And while their relation in public would be no disparagement to the ances-try and relations of John Wilkes Booth, yet it might be considered an abuse of confidence for me to do so.

St. Helen continuing, by reference to himself as Booth, said:

“I went on the stage at about the age of seventeen years, had succeeded and up to the beginning of the Civil War had accumulated about twenty thousand dollars in gold, which I had deposited in a bank (or banks) in Canada, owing to the uncertainty of monetary conditions in the United States at that time. I carried my money principally in checks of varying amounts to suit my convenience, issued by the banks carrying my accounts, which checks were readily cashable in the United States or for­eign countries.”

He said that his sympathies during the war were with the Southern cause, that he had become so en­thusiastic in his loyalty to the South that he had to a great extent lost interest in matters of the stage and had given but little time and attention to his professionl life or the study of the art of acting. That after the third year of the war, for many months prior to the 14th of April, 1865, he had de­termined that he could best serve the South’s cause by kidnaping President Lincoln and delivering him oyer to the Confederate government at Richmond, Virginia, to be held as a hostage of war; that in preparation for the accomplishment of this purpose he had spent much of his time and money up to the death, as he called it, of President Lincoln.

At this point St. Helen grew passionate and full of sentiment, and after some hesitation, with much force of expression, said:

“I owe it to myself, most of all to my mother, possibly no less to my other relations and the good name of my family, as well as to the memory of Mrs. Surratt, who was hanged as a consequence of my crime, to make and leave behind me for history a full statement of this horrible affair. And I do desire, in fact, if it were possible, to make known to the world the purpose, as well as the motive, which actuated me in the commission of the crime against the life of President Lincoln. First of all I want to say I had no personal feeling against President Lin­coln. I am not at heart an assassin. I am not a physical coward, or a mean man at heart, which the word assassin implies, but what I did was done on my part with purely patriotic motives, believing, as I did, and as I was persuaded at that time, that the death of President Lincoln and the succession of Vice-President Johnson, a Southern man, to the presidency, was the then only hope for the protec­tion of the South from misrule and the confiscation of the landed estates of the individual citizens of the Southern Confederate States, who were loyal to the South by President Lincoln as the chief executive of the United States and commander-in-chief of the Army; the success of the Federal forces and the – downfall of the Confederacy having been assured by the surrender of Gen. Lee at Appomattox, on the 9th day of April, 1865, only five days before the final decision to take the life of President Lincoln. And I pause here to pay a tribute to the memory of Mrs. Surratt, for while she was hanged for her supposed connection with the conspiracy against the life of President Lincoln, she was innocent, and knew noth­ing whatever of the plot against the person to kid­nap, or the final purpose to kill the President.

“It is true that I visited the home of Mrs. Surratt im Washington; it is true I stopped at the Surratt tavern, in Surrattville, not, however, because it was the property of Mrs. Surratt, or that Mrs. Surratt had anything to do with my being at the tavern, but because it was the best, and I believe, the only place for the traveling public to stop in the village of Surrattville. It is true that I was at the Surratt home in Washington, but my mission there was to see for the first time, by letter of introduction, given me by a mutual friend, John H. Surratt, a son of Mrs. Surratt, who was at the time in the secret service of the Southern Confederacy as a spy, plying in his service between Eichmond, Virginia, Washing­ton, D. C, New York City and Montreal, Canada, as well as other points, as I was then informed. And it was from John H. Surratt I desired to get informa­tion respecting what was then called the under­ground route, because of its hidden and isolated way, over which Surratt traveled through the Fed­eral lines en route from Richmond, Virginia, to Washington, D. C, with the purpose of perfecting my plans for the kidnapping of President Lincoln. This occurred covering a time I should say from the spring to the late summer of 1864. Prior to this time I did not personally know, in fact, not even by sight, John H. Surratt, and was informed that my only chance to see him was to meet with him when he passed through Washington, D. C, when he would stop at his mother’s home, at which place Mrs. Surratt was then keeping a boarding and lodging house. And this is the only purpose I had in going to Mrs. Surratt’s home. Mrs. Surratt was at this time old enough to have been my mother, and I had only that casual acquaintance which my mission to the Surratt home had given me, and had only met her at intervals, and then for but a few moments at a time, covering the period and coupled with the circumstances which I have mentioned as happening in 1864. And as a matter of fact at the final meet­ing with John H. Surratt our interview was of such a nature that he had no further knowledge of or connection with any conspiracy to kidnap, or later in the spring of 1865, to take the life of the Presi­dent. This I say in justice to John H. Surratt, to the end also that Mrs. Surratt may live in the mem­ory of the civilized people of the world as air inno­cent woman and without knowledge, guilty or oth­erwise, of the crime for which she was executed and whose blood stains the ermine of the judges of the military court condemning her to die. And could I do or say more in vindication of her name it would be gratifying, and would I had possession of Ga­briel’s horn and his mythical powers I would blow one blast to wake the sleeping dead that this inno­cent woman might walk from the portals of the house of death.”

To say that my breath was taken away almost by this narrative is but a faint expression of my feel­ings, while St. Helen was perfectly calm with that restful look which gives expression to a feeling of relief.



After a period of silence St. Helen began, with re­newed interest and energy, telling me of the plot to kill President Lincoln, saying:

Escape and Suicide of John Wilkes Booth_Page_062
“We then …went straight to the Kirkwood Hotel, the place of rendezvous of the conspirators against Mr. Lincoln, and where Andrew Johnson boarded. All the conspirators against President Lincoln met here with Andrew Johnson conversant of the purpose to kidnap the President. ” John Wilkes Booth

“On the morning of the day I killed the Presi­dent the taking of the life of Mr. Lincoln had never entered my mind. My purpose had been, as I have stated, to kidnap President Lincoln for the purpose I have mentioned, and, in fact, one or more efforts to do so had fallen through, and we intended that the last effort should not fail. Preparatory to this end David E. Herold and I left Washington, D. C, by the way of Surrattville and along “the under­ground route I have before described, for the pur­pose of perfecting plans for the kidnaping of the President. And after having passed over this line on horseback from Washington to near Richmond, Vir­ginia, we returned, after making the necessary prep­arations for crossing the Potomac and Rappahan-rock rivers, over the same route, stopping the night of the 13th day of April, 1865, at the old Surratt tavern, at Surrattville, located about twelve miles to the southeast of Washington City. On the morn­ing of the 14th day of April, 1865, we came into Washington and were stopped at the block house of the Federal troops, at the bridge crossing the East Potomac river, by the Federal troops, on guard atrthis~p>oihtr~ It appeared that some recent reports had been circulated that the life or safety of Presi­dent Lincoln was impending, and that an attempt had or would be made_from some source to assassinate the President, while at this time any such pur­pose was unknown to me, and because of these re­ports we were informed by the guard that no one could pass in or out of Washington City without giving a full account of himself, because of the threats against the life of the President. Herold and I hesitated to give our names for awhile, and were arrested and detained at this block house from about 11 o’clock in the morning until in the after­noon about 2 o’clock, when for the first time we heard definitely of Lee’s surrender at Appomattox. We then realized that this was a death blow to the Southern Confederate States, when we made satis­factory explanation and were permitted to enter the city and went straight to the Kirkwood Hotel, the place of rendezvous of the conspirators against Mr. Lincoln, and where Andrew Johnson boarded. All the conspirators against President Lincoln met here with Andrew Johnson conversant of the pur­pose to kidnap the President. On arriving at the hotel, about 3 o’clock, I called on Vice-President Johnson, when we talked over the situation and the changed conditions because of the surrender of Gen. Lee; and the Confederate forces at Appomat­tox, which had made the purpose of the kidnapping of President Lincoln and his delivery to the Con­federate government at Richmond, to be held as a hostage of war, impossible, as the Confederate gov­ernment had abandoned Richmond and the war be­tween the States was considered practically over, which left, to my mind, nothing that we could do but accept defeat and leave the South, whom we had made our best efforts to serve, to her own fate, bit­ter and disappointing as it was. When Vice-Presi­dent Johnson turned to me and said, in an excited voice and apparent anger:

” ‘Will you falter at this supreme moment?’

“I could not understand his meaning, and stood silent, when with pale face, fixed eyes and quivering lips, Mr. Johnson asked of me:

” ‘Are you too faint-hearted to kill him?’

“As God is my judge, this was the first suggestion of the dastardly deed of the taking of the life of President Lincoln, and came as a shock to me. While for the moment I waited and then said:

” ‘To kill the President is certain death to me,’ and I explained to Vice-President Johnson that I had just been arrested by the guard as I was coming into the city over the East Potomac bridge that morning, and that it would be absolutely impos­sible for me to escape through the military line, should I do as he suggested, as this line of protec­tion completely surrounded the city. Replying to this Mr. Johnson said:

” ‘Gen. and Mrs. U. S. Grant are in the city, the guests of President Lincoln and family, and from the evening papers I have learned that President Lincoln and wife will entertain Gen. and Mrs. Grant j at a box party to be given in their honor by the President and Mrs. Lincoln at Ford’s Theater this evening.’

“At my suggestion Vice-President Johnson assured me that he would so arrange and see to it himself, that Gen. and Mrs. Grant would not attend the theater that evening with the President and his family, and would also arrange for my certain escape. I replied:

” ‘Under these conditions and assurances I will dare strike the blow for the helpless, vanquished Southland, whose people I love.’


Mr. Johnson left the room and after a little more than an hour returned, saying that it had been arranged as he had promised, and that Gen. Grant had been, or would be suddenly called from the city, and that, therefore, he and his wife could not attend the theater that evening with the President and Mrs. Lincoln, as had been prearranged, and that such persons as would attend and occupy the box at the theater with the President and wife would not interfere with me in my purpose and effort to kill the President, and this he thought an opportune time, and that I would be permitted to escape by the route over which I had entered the city during the forenoon of that day. That is, that I was to go out over the East Potomac river bridge, that the guards would be called in from this point by order of Gen. C. C. Augur that afternoon or evening, but if there should be guards on the bridge, I was to use the password *T. B.’ or *T. B. Road,’ by explanation, if need be, which would be understood by the guards, and I would be permitted to pass and protected by himself (Mr. Johnson) absolutely in my escape, and that on the death of President Lincoln, he (Vice-President Johnson) would become president of the United States, and that in this offi­cial capacity I could depend on him for protection and absolute pardon, if need be, for the crime of killing President Lincoln, which he had suggested to me and I had agreed to perform.


“Fired by the thoughts of patriotism, and hoping to serve the Southern cause, hopeless as it then was, as no other man could then do, I regarded it as an opportunity for an heroic act for my country and not the exercise of a grudge or any feeling of malice toward the President, for I had none against him as an individual, but rather to slay the President that Andrew Johnson, a Southern man, a resident of the State of Tennessee, should be made President of the United States, to serve the interests of the South. And upon the further promise made me by Mr. John­son that he as President of the United States, would protect the people of the South from personal op­pression and the confiscation of their remaining landed estates, relying upon these promises, and be­lieving that by the killing of President Lincoln I could practically bring victory to the Southern peo­ple out of defeat for the South. Moved by this pur­pose and actuated by no other motives, assured by Mr. Johnson of my personal safety, I began the preparation for the bloody deed by going to Ford’s Theater, and among other things, arranging the door leading into the box to be occupied by Mr. Lincoln, which had already been decorated for the occasion, so that I could raise the fastenings, enter the box and close the door behind me so that it could not be opened from the outside and returned to the Kirkwood hotel. I then loaded afresh my derringer pis­tol so that she would not fail me of fire, and met Vice-President Johnson for the last time and informed him of my readiness to carry out the prom­ise I had made him. About 8:30 that evening we * left his room, walked to the bar in the hotel and drank strong brandy in a silent toast to the success of the bloody deed. We walked from the barroom to the street together, when I offered my hand as the last token of goodbye and loyalty to our pur­pose, and I shall not forget to my dying day the clasp of his cold, clammy hand when he said:

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