Wednesday, April 15, 2015

Richmond Man Recalls Lincoln's Assassination

By Steve Martin, 4-6-15

Richmond man Harry Hoover was marching down the aisle of Ford's Theatre on April 14, 1865, during a performance of "Our American Cousin" when he heard a shot.

Hoover looked up to see one of the best-known actors of the day, John Wilkes Booth, jump from the president's booth to the stage and make his escape in the confusion.

Hoover later would admit, "I was familiar with Booth… I saw him lounging in Ford's Theatre when we were examining the passes, not 30 minutes before he committed his crime."

The following is a composite of what happened, taken from Hoover's 1921 memoirs that are housed at the Wayne County Historical Museum, a reprint of an extensive May 6, 1893, interview with Hoover in the Palladium, and also a June 29, 1926, reminiscence published in the Palladium.

"The 14th day of April 1865, was the date of one of the most terrible tragedies that ever happened in the United States — the assassination of Abraham Lincoln in Ford's Theatre, at Washington City, by that arch-traitor John Wilkes Booth. It has been many long years ago, but it still lingers in my memory as but yesterday.

"Mr. And Mrs. Lincoln were there; General Grant had been invited by Laura Keene who was playing in 'Our American Cousin,' but General Grant was called away that evening, which probably saved his life...

"A patrol guard, consisting of sixteen members, were just passing down the aisle of the theater when the fatal shot was heard, and the screams of Mrs. Lincoln, and the jumping from the private box to the stage of the assassin John Wilkes Booth, and his escape behind the scenery. The play was scraped… [and] the news that Lincoln was shot threw the large audience into great pandemonium of excitement. In order to restrain the excited throng from crowding in upon those bearing the bleeding form, we were forced to bring our guns to a charge bayonet… It was all we guards could do to form a passage out of the theater and across the street to the Peterson House.

"It was around 10 o'clock and ten minutes when the fatal shot was fired, but early as the hour was, and as late as the usual hour for retiring in Washington City is, quite a number of people were in bed. These did not stop to dress, but men, women and children in their nightclothes were on the street… It was the most terrible night that we guards ever endured. Thousands of excited people gathered around that little building and we had to use our bayonets to keep them from coming into the house. The scene of excitement which we found all around us cannot be described. Men and women forgot the restraints of society and gave vent to their excited feelings… There was no rest for anybody in Washington that night. The wildest rumors were in circulation and the bravest knew not what to expect… I remember the feeling of extreme weariness that stole over us as the chilly dawn finally reddened the sky, but we were too much excited to rest much, and I do not think I slept more than four hours out of 72 following the assassination.

"Mr. Lincoln died at 7:22 early on the 15th of April. Thousands of people lingered around the building until Mr. Lincoln had expired and the body taken to the White House.

"That morning the Calvary were sent in search of the assassins, and soldiers were on constant duty in the city, with instructions to shoot anyone who acted disrespectfully of the dead president. I myself [unintelligible] of no fatalities, but every person felt a keen sorrow at the fatal tragedy.

"The morning [of the second day] I was detailed as a guard at the White House where the mortal remains of the martyred president lay in state. I hoped to be one of the guards of honor to accompany the cortège to Springfield, Illinois, but I was destined to disappointment. A few hours before the funeral in Washington, I was detailed as one of the guards for the prison, where Mrs. Mary E. Surratt, David E. Herold, George A. Atzerodt, Lewis Payne, alias James Thornwall Powell, were soon ensconced.

"In a few days John Wilkes Booth had been captured. He had gone to Dr. Samuel A. Mudd's in Maryland. The doctor would not permit Booth to stay in his house but permitted him to occupy his hay mound in his livery stable, where our cavalry found him, and demanded his surrender. But Booth refused to surrender. A torch was applied to the stable and in his escape from the flames he was shot and killed by J. Boston Corbett, who afterwards died in an insane asylum [exposure to mercury at the hatter's trade caused his mental dementia]. The body of Booth was brought to Washington and placed on a boat in the Potomac River… His remains were known to be en route back to the scene of his crime.

"I remained on duty until about two weeks before the execution [of the conspirators]. The prisoners and the guards were not permitted to speak to each other. All communication was by means of signs and gestures. Even in the courtroom this absolute silence was maintained between the accused and the guards. The Military Commission which tried the accomplices in the assassination of President Lincoln reported that David E. Herold, George A. Atzerodt, Lewis Payne, alias James Thornwall Powell, and Mrs. Mary E. Surratt to be hanged by the neck until they were dead. Dr. Samuel A. Mudd was sentenced to life imprisonment.

"One night while on guard at the door of Mrs. Surratt, we were ordered to remove one of the large marble slabs from the floor of the jail, and executed the order. Beneath the place where this had rested, in the darkness of the night, was dug a grave for John Wilkes Booth, a hole deep and dark and dank… I shall not say that Booth is buried there, as the official report says no. It has been said that his body found its repose in the muddy stinking ooze of the Potomac. I know that when I was released from duty one evening this slab was still up and this black hole still yawned. I saw government workmen take up a marble slab in the courtyard of the prison, dig a grave and deposit a body therein. I always thought it was the body of John Wilkes Booth. Next morning that slab had been replaced and the floor looked as if it had never been disturbed. A spot of blood on a slab nearby was said to have been caused by the bleeding of a finger mashed in replacing the stone...

"I am still the youngest old man in Wayne County.
"Harry Hoover"

Image: Harry Hoover



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