Building 20, Grant Hall, was part of the Federal Penitentiary that was built on this site in 1829. It was designed by Charles Bulfinch, the same architect who designed the Capitol. In 1831, a women’s ward was added to accommodate female prisoners. The Old Penitentiary was built on the Arsenal Grounds, formerly enclosed by a high brick wall.
The population of 200 inmates of the federal prison grew to 322 during 1862. Prisoners were taught useful skills such as shoemaking, hence the existence of a shoe factory.
The original larger building was used during the Civil War to keep Confederate prisoners. After the assassination (of President Lincoln), the conspirators were housed on the third floor cell block; Harper Weekly published a drawing of the exact location.
The penitentiary was eventually torn down but one part of the building was spared, the wing where the trial took place. The courtroom was used through the 1990s for various things, such as enlisted members quarters, officers’ quarters, and five apartments, until 1996 when the Army had plans to tear it down.
Dr. Hans Binnendijk, professor and vice president for research and applied learning at National Defense University, wrote to his congressman and made the case that Grant Hall could not be torn down as it is a national treasure. The funding was raised to restore the building, a process which took three years, from 2009 to 2012. During restoration, Robert Redford’s 2010 movie Conspirators could not be filmed in the building, but he came to measure the room and loaned props from the film to the museum.
As quoted in the Washington Post, Dr. Binnendijk said:
This was a place where, in some ways, the Civil War ended.
The assistant warden’s office was converted into a courtroom per instructions from the Secretary of War. Bars were put on the windows and on doors. In this courtroom on the third floor, the eight conspirators who had helped John Wilkes Booth assassinate President Abraham Lincoln on April 14, 1865, faced the military tribunal.
Upon entering the courtroom, the first table on the right was reserved for the military tribunal. Each seat was marked with a photograph of the respective officer. The defendants were seated on a bench against the far wall, behind a wooden rail. The accused’s portraits were placed in the exact location on the bench. Mary Surratt’s table was in the middle. A pot-belly stove provided heat. A third table located on the left side was reserved for journalists. Prominent people from the area, with a pass, could come and stand against the wall, behind this press table. Two side rooms contained props from the 2010 movie Conspirators.
Four conspirators were sentenced to death by hanging, including the first woman in the history of the U.S., Mary Surratt. The executions took place on July 7, 1865, on the gallows constructed in the Penitentiary Courtyard. Mary Surratt, J. W. Atzeroth, David Harold, and Lewis Payne were hanged for complicity in the murder of President Lincoln, and for the attempt upon the life of Secretary Seward.
The military commission that tried and convicted the Lincoln conspirators was composed of the following: Lt. Colonel David R. Clendenin, Colonel Charles H. Thompkins, Brigadier General Thomas M. Harris, Brigadier General Albion P. Howe, Major General Lew Wallace, Brigadier General James A. Eakin, Major General David Hunter, Major General August V. Kautz, Brigadier General Robert S. Foster, Congressman John A. Bingham of Ohio, General Henry L. Burnett, and Brigadier General Joseph Holt.
Because Lincoln and Seward were officers of the federal government, the conspirators were tried by a military commission, not by a civil court. The charges against the conspirators included:
maliciously, unlawfully, and traitorously being in aid of the existing rebellion … combining, confederating, and conspiring to kill and murder Abraham Lincoln, the late president; Andrew Johnson, vice-president; William H. Seward, secretary of state; Ulysses S. Grant, commander of the army of the United States.
Dr. Samuel A. Mudd was represented by Frederick Stone and General Thomas Ewing. Mary Surrat was represented by Reverdy Johnson, Frederick Aiken, and John Clampitt. William E. Doster represented both Lewis Paine and George A. Atzerodt. Frederick Stone represented David E. Herold. Walter Cox and General Ewing defended Samuel Arnold, Michael O’Laughlin, and Edward Spangler.
The trial held the country spellbound; everyone wanted justice, eager and curious to know how far the conspiracy stretched from Richmond to Canada, and what the role of the woman was in the conspiracy to kill the nation’s beloved tyrannical President and the heads of the federal government. The trial started on May 8, 1865 and ended on June 30, 1865 when the verdicts were read. All eight defendants were found guilty.
Perley Moore wrote:
According to D. Mark Katz, before leaving her cell, Mary Surratt told one of her priests, Jacob A. Walker, “Father, I wish to say something. That I am innocent.” On that hot day, her two attending priests, Walker and Bernardin F. Wiget, held umbrellas over her head to shield her from the sun. (Witness to an Era: The Life and Photographs of Alexander Gardner, Viking Press, New York, 1991, p. 182).
Mrs. Surratt naturally attracted the most attention as she entered the room where the Military Commission was held every morning, the irons which connected her ankles clanking as she walked. She was rather a buxom-looking woman, dressed in deep black, with feline grey eyes, which watched the whole proceedings. The evidence we showed that she had been fully aware of the plot. Her house was used by Booth, Payne, Atzerott, and Herold as a meeting place. (Perley’s Reminiscence of Sixty Years in the National Metropolis, Hubbard Brothers, Pa, 1886, p. 184)
The hanging was so popular that tickets were given to members of the government who wanted to witness the four conspirators die. Pictures from that day show people standing on the tall brick fence behind the gallows. Soldiers are seen beneath the gallows. The museum contains wooden fragments from the scaffold.
Mark Katz wrote in his book that Payne forced his way into Secretary of State Seward’s home around 10:00 PM, tried to shoot his son, the pistol jammed, struck him over the head with the butt of his gun instead, and then stabbed the ailing Seward repeatedly. (pp. 143-146)
Gen. John F. Hartranft read the order of execution to the prisoners seated in armchairs; soldiers knocked out the props supporting two hinged trap doors.
From the third floor window, one can clearly see the spots where the four were buried in unmarked graves, with heads against the wall, and a bottle inside the coffin with their names written in: Atzerrodt, Herold, Powell, and Surratt.
Barry Cauchon studied, mathematically calculated, and marked the exact location of the graves. It was revealed on the 150-year anniversary of the start of the Lincoln Conspirators Military Tribunal (May 8-9, 2015). A fifth grave was also marked for Confederate Officer Henry Wirz, who was tried, convicted, and executed in November 1865 for Civil War crimes.
The dried wooden floors creak and groan; one window stays damp and foggy all the time, and snow seems to melt curiously on the pathway to the gallows where tennis courts are located today. Some really believe that the place is haunted by Mary Surratt’s ghost.
According to the archives:
The gallows were constructed in the Penitentiary courtyard and the executions ordered on a sweltering July 7, 1865. This historic event generated such interest that the Potomac River was filled the day of the execution with boats crowded with spectators. Witnesses to the execution included federal troops and 100 civilians. One of the most famous photographers of his time, Alexander Gardner, and his assistant, Timothy O’Sullivan, documented the execution by taking photographs as the events were unfolding. The photographers set up their cameras on the second floor of the shoe factory to take the most astounding series of photographs, thereby expanding the new art of photojournalism. https://digitalndulibrary.ndu.edu/cdm/compoundobject/collection/greenleaf/id/55/rec/19
The other conspirators were sentenced to life imprisonment at the Dry Tortugas, Florida. All served three years and nine months before they were pardoned by Andrew Johnson. One of the conspirators died in prison. The famous Dr. Samuel A. Mudd, who worked on Booth’s fractured leg, was among the pardoned group. Interestingly, one of his descendants, LTC Joseph F. Mudd, Jr., USAF, graduated from NWC in 1998.
Lincoln’s assassin, John Wilkes Booth, was temporarily buried under the penitentiary cellblock and his body was later released to the family and reburied in Baltimore, MD. Lewis Powell’s remains experienced a bizarre misadventure.
Powell’s body was not claimed by his family, even though ads were placed, urging family members to come forward and claim it. When the local cemetery went under, the undertaker buried Powell’s body in a mass grave in Rock Creek cemetery, but the head had detached from the body, and he kept it for some lugubrious reason and it stayed with him for twenty years.
Eventually the undertaker donated the head to the Army Medical Museum which was temporarily housed in Ford’s Theater. The collection then went to the Smithsonian Museum. Powell’s head wound up among the Native American collection and displays.
The Repatriation Act was passed in 1990, and all Native American relics had to be returned to their proper tribes. Powell’s skull was found among these artifacts, clearly labeled with name, date, and place of death. Powell’s descendants were contacted in Florida and they buried the skull in the late 1990s next to Powell’s mother.
Mark Katz explained in his book, on p. 149, that Alexander Gardner had the inspiration to photograph for posterity the following:
- the exterior of the Ford Theater with the black muslin cloth draped over the façade
- the interior of the box at the Ford Theater and the torn flag caught in Booth’s boot
- the stables of John C. Howard, where Booth kept his horse
- the telegraph office where the world learned about Lincoln’s death
- the Navy Yard Bridge where Booth escaped across
- the execution
The actual photographs of the conspirators can be seen on this site. The fate of the conspirators was outlined in the PBS documentary as follows:
- John Wilkes Booth – killed at Garret farm with a bullet to the neck (actor)
- David Herold – surrendered at Garrett farm and was executed by hanging (pharmacy clerk)
- George Azterodt – assigned to kill Vice President Andrew Johnson, lost courage, and got drunk instead; death by hanging (German-born carriage painter and boatman)
- Lewis Powell – former Confederate prisoner of war, assigned to kill Secretary of State William Seward when the kidnapping plot failed; he injured Seward, his son, and a body guard; death by hanging
- Mary Surratt – owned boarding house where the conspirators met; death by hanging
- Michael O’Laughlin – Booth’s childhood buddy; turned himself in; life in prison in Fort Jefferson, off Key West; died of yellow fever in 1867 (ex-Confederate soldier)
- Samuel Arnold – Booth’s friend; tied to the original kidnapping plot; not present in Washington during the assassination; life in prison; pardoned by President Andrew Johnson; died in 1906 of tuberculosis
- Samuel Mudd – set Booth’s broken leg during the night of April 14; life in prison by one vote; pardoned in 1869; died of pneumonia in 1883 (medical doctor)
- Edmund Spangler – knew Booth; six years in prison; pardoned in 1869 by President Andrew Johnson; lived in Maryland until his death in 1875 (carpenter at Ford Theater)
- John Surrat – conspired in the failed kidnapping plot; was not present in Washington at the time of the assassination; fled to Europe; was apprehended in Egypt in 1866; civilian court did not convict him in 1867-1868; died in 1916 (college educated Confederate spy).
Six feet to the right of a beautiful tree is the place where Booth was temporarily buried. The verdant grass and a tennis court are peaceful settings today, obscuring what was once a place that witnessed the tragic and tumultuous history of our country that forever changed the character of the nation.