7/7/1865 - With most of the nation wanting payback beyond the death of John Wilkes Booth for the April 14th assassination of President Lincoln (scores of individuals are thrown in jail while the Federal authorities try to establish who was in on the plot, among them are Booth's actor brother Junius, theater owner John T. Ford, and James Pumphrey, the owner of the livery stable where Booth hired his escape horse), four co-conspirators deemed most guilty by a military tribunal (among its nine-member commission is the future author of Ben Hur, Major General Lew Wallace) appointed by President Andrew Johnson are executed at Fort McNair in Washington, D.C.
After a trial lasting seven weeks in which 366 witnesses testify, the condemned consist of Lewis Thornton Powell (also known by the name Lewis Paine, a 21-year-old former Confederate soldier that wounds five with a Bowie knife and the butt of his misfiring pistol trying to kill William Seward at the Secretary of State's home ... escaping the attack, he rushes into the night crying out, "I'm mad! I'm mad!"), Mary Elizabeth Jenkins Surratt (a 45-year-old widow that owned the boarding house where Booth stayed for months while planning Lincoln's murder), George Andreas Atzerodt (a 30-year-old drunk from Germany who is assigned the death of Vice-President Johnson, but instead, goes on a bender in the bar of the Kirkwood House, the hotel where Johnson is a resident), and David Edgar Herold (the 23-year-old guide that shows Paine the home in which to attack Seward, and then helps Booth out of the city after Lincoln's shooting, accompanying the killer until the pair are caught in Virginia).
The Surratt Boardinghouse
Supervised by one of the heroes of the Battle of Gettysburg, Major General Winfield Scott Hancock, at 1:15 in the afternoon of a hot Washington, D.C. day (at noon the temperature is almost 94 degrees), before a crowd of over 1,000 (including Civil War photographer Alexander Gardner who scores a grand slam with Lincoln and his death, capturing the President's likeness seven times while he is alive, documenting the man's funeral, and taking the only shots of the execution of Booth's co-conspirators), the condemned prisoners, ankles and wrists bound by shackles, are led from their cells in the Old Arsenal Penitentiary on the grounds of Fort McNair and escorted by four members of Company F of the 14th Veteran Reserves up to the scaffold built for their execution.
The Order of Execution is read
Built under the supervision of "Captain" Christian Rath (actually a colonel who preferred the lesser designation), who also fashions the nooses used (tested the night before by dropping bags of buckshot from a stout tree limb), the gallows of the guilty stands 12 feet high and is a hinged wooden structure of 20 square feet.
Shielded from the sun by black umbrellas, it takes roughly 15 minutes for the prisoners to be readied for their deaths ... as each of the condemned is ministered to by a member of the clergy (collapsing from the heat and the ghastliness of her situation, Surratt requires the support of two soldiers and her priests), the order of execution is read by General John F. Hartranft, and then the arms and legs of each individual are bound with strips of white cloth, Surratt's bonnet is removed, nooses are adjusted to necks, and white canvas bags are placed over the heads of the guilty (Surratt, proclaiming that she is in pain from too tight of bindings is sarcastically told by an officer on the scaffold, "Well, it won't hurt long!").
Readying the principles
Ready for last words ... stepping forward on to the drop Surratt says, "Please don't let me fall" ... Herold is silent ... Atzerodt exclaims, "May we all meet in the other world. God take me now" ... and Powell, told by Rath that he hopes he dies quick, makes a final utterance of, "You know best, captain."
The drop moment
But the Captain really doesn't ... ten seconds after the drop is cleared of all but the four, Rath claps his hands twice and soldiers knock out the supports and the four fall into eternity ... though some go quicker than others. Surratt and Herold have their necks snapped and go to their deaths instantly, but faulty placement of the nooses on Powell and Atzerodt cause the two men to linger several minutes before finally strangling to death ... jerking wildly trying to find an impossible purchase for their legs to the horror of the audience (twice Powell will contort his body into a sitting position at the end of his rope), Powell is the last to go.
L to R - Surratt, Powell, Herold, and Atzerodt
Last act, after all the hung are officially pronounced dead by a physician (they remain dangling for about 30 minutes and are finally cut down at 1:53 P.M. ... rope cut, Atzerodt drops to the ground with a loud thud ... the corporal responsible instantly and loudly reprimanded for the act, the other bodies are treated more delicately), the bodies are taken down, placed in pine boxes and buried in temporary graves next to the scaffold.
Coffins and Graves
Mary Surratt is the first woman to be executed by the United States government.