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Paying with their Lives: Townsend Reports on the Lincoln Conspirators’ Execution

July 7, 2015

150th Anniversary State Parks 1865 Literature

Paying with their Lives: Townsend Reports on the Lincoln Conspirators’ Execution

On this date 150 years ago, the nation faced a dramatic and divisive moment—a memorable day even for those who had just endured four years of bloodshed and destruction wrought by the Civil War. A military tribunal had found Lewis Powell, David Herold, George Atzerodt and Mary Surratt guilty for their involvement in the assassination of President Abraham Lincoln. On July 7, 1865, these four conspirators were executed by hanging. Correspondent George Alfred Townsend, who had covered the case for the New York World since the president’s slaying in April, witnessed the execution and described this haunting historical moment in the newspaper and a later compilation: The Life, Crime, and Capture of John Wilkes Booth.

The cover of "The Life, Crime and Capture of John Wilkes Booth"Townsend, a young Delaware native who would go on to spend his later years at the South Mountain estate we now know as Gathland State Park, recalled the “crowning scene” of the “Great Conspiracy” plotted by these “four dying, hoping, cringing, dreaming felons” in enormous detail. He described the scene of the execution—the old Arsenal Penitentiary (now Fort McNair) in Washington, DC.—as surrounded by a “high and steel-spike wall…beset by companies of exacting sabremen.” A crowd of 1,000 “garrulous spectators” turned up to witness the event, some men even smoking cigars while waiting for the much-anticipated moment of execution.

The four conspirators sentenced to death provided fodder for Townsend’s evocative style of writing. Of Mary Surratt, the boardinghouse operator who became the first woman executed by the United States government that day, Townsend wrote: “Her general expression was that of acute suffering, vanishing at times as if by the conjuration of her pride, and again returning in a paroxysm as she looked at the dreadful rope dangling before her.” He blamed Surratt’s “base and fugitive” son for her fate. While Townsend demonstrated some pity for Surratt because of her gender (“women know nothing of consequences”), his view of the other three conspirators is unwavering with disgust. He identified the three men as “a little crying boy, a greasy unkempt sniveler, and a confessed desperado.” Powell (who also went by Payne), he explained, “had no accusation, no despair, no dreaminess” and was “the strangest criminal in our history”; Atzerodt was “squalid” and “haggard”; Herold was “capable of a greater degree of depravity than any of his other accomplices.”

A cutout of Townsend stands outside Gathland HallTownsend’s writing no doubt stimulated the imagination of 19th century readers. He pictured a supernatural relationship between the assassin John Wilkes Booth, who had been shot by a Union soldier in a Southern Maryland barn on April 26, and his alleged co-conspirators awaiting their fate: “If the dead can hear [Booth] had listened many a time to the rattle of their manacles upon the stairs.” While he envisioned his own interpretations of the conspirators’ final days, Townsend left few details of their hanging to the imagination. Townsend played an important role in communicating the minutiae of the scene with his readers, shaping public opinion about this “place of suspicion and marvel” in the months following the Civil War.

A lifesize cutout of George Alfred Townsend sits in the window of the Visitor Welcome Center in Hagerstown

You can pick up your own copy of Townsend’s book at the Visitor Welcome Center in downtown Hagerstown. To learn more about George Alfred Townsend and the role of journalists in the Civil War, make plans to visit Gathland State Park on the border of Maryland’s Frederick and Washington Counties. Two surviving structures from Townsend’s estate have been converted to museums, and visitors of all ages are invited to participate in a hands-on activity about Civil War reporting. While registration for the Maryland Park Service’s Park Quest program has closed for the season, families are encouraged to print the scavenger hunt and complete it on their own.

Photos (from top): pictured here in 1860, the 19-year-old Townsend had just begun as a reporter with the Philadelphia Inquirer (Library of Congress photo); the cover of Townsend's 1865 bestseller, The Life, Crime, and Capture of John Wilkes Booth, from the Internet Archive; Townsend welcomes visitors to his former estate at Gathland State Park; Townsend also appears in the window of the Visitor Welcome Center in downtown Hagerstown.

Auni Gelles

Contributing Author: Auni Gelles

Auni Gelles is a public historian based in Baltimore, who worked for the Heart of the Civil War Heritage Area from 2014-2017. She currently works as the Community Programs Manager at the Baltimore Museum of Industry. Read More