The Reason Lincoln Had to Die
by Don Thomas

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The Confession of George Atzerodt

Full Transcript (below) with Introduction

George Atzerodt was a homeless German immigrant who performed errands for the actor, John Wilkes Booth, while also odd-jobbing around Southern Maryland.  He had been arrested on April 20, 1865, six days after the assassination of Abraham Lincoln by John Wilkes Booth.  Booth had another errand boy, a simpleton named David Herold, who resided in town.  Herold and Atzerodt ran errands for Booth, such as tending horses, delivering messages, and fetching supplies.  Both were known for running their mouths, and Atzerodt was known for drinking.

Four weeks before the assassination, Booth had intentions to kidnap President Lincoln, but when his kidnapping accomplices learned how ridiculous his plan was, they abandoned him and returned to their homes in the Baltimore area.  On the day of the assassination the only persons remaining in D.C. who had any connection to the kidnapping plot were Booth's errand boys, George Atzerodt and David Herold, plus one of the key collaborators with Booth, James Donaldson.

After David Herold had been arrested, he confessed to Judge Advocate John Bingham on April 27 that Booth and his associates had intended to kill not only Lincoln and Secretary of State William Seward, but Vice President Andrew Johnson as well.  David Herold stated Booth told him there were 35 people in Washington colluding in the assassination.  This information Herold learned from Booth while accompanying him on his flight after the assassination.  In Atzerodt's confession, this band of assassins was described as a crowd from New York.

After languishing in the bowels of a floating dungeon for 10 days in irons and with a canvas bag over his head, George Atzerodt was pleading for leniency.  Two of his family members were associated with the detectives investigating the assassination for the War Department, his brother John Atzerodt, who once worked for the Maryland Provost Marshal James McPhail, and George's brother-in-law, detective John L. Smith.  These men were sure to be unenthusiastic about having a relative convicted so infamously, especially as they may have suspected their wayward George might be innocent.  Their appeals to Secretary of War Edwin Stanton to grant a final interview with Atzerodt were probably granted in an effort to ascertain how much he knew about the War Department's protected agents associated with Booth.  This is evident by the nature of the transcript.

The interview that took place was categorically not a confession, but an interrogation.  Confessions are first-person narratives that center around the acts of the accused.  Atzerodt's transcript is a series of interrupted answers about other persons.  Only the prisoner's answers were transcribed.  The transcript was dubbed a "confession" in court as part of a rouse to see it excluded from the trial.  Atzerodt's attorney, Captain William Doster, claimed it was a confession made under duress, when in fact the interview was conducted by his brother's former employer, Marshal McPhail, and transcribed by none other than Atzerodt's brother-in-law, detective Smith.  In court, Marshal McPhail stated, falsely, that no questions were asked of the prisoner.  McPhail's perjury was apparently made under orders from Edwin Stanton, as it was revealed before a Congressional inquiry by Edwin Stanton and John Bingham two years later that their office withheld documents (Booth's diary) and the fact that nearly all of the convicted assassination accomplices had only been would-be kidnappers.  The surviving convicts were then pardoned.

George Atzerodt's "confession" had named multiple persons associated with Booth who were never prosecuted by the War Department (some never even arrested or investigated).  This transcript became the property of the U.S. War Department in the perview of Judge Advocates Joseph Holt and John Bingham, Chief Detective Lafayette Baker, and the Secretary of War Edwin Stanton, who all knew the names Atzerodt revealed, particularly the name James Donaldson.  This transcript vanished from the War Department records, and its copy at the National Archives also disappeared.  Other documents revealing the identities and roles of Booth's assassination accomplices vanished or were otherwise concealed by the War Department.  The content of Atzerodt's confession only became known after a copy that had been in the records of William Doster was discovered by a researcher in 1977.  It is now owned by a private collector.


Below is the transcript as recorded by detective John L. Smith.  Added to this narrative in gray Italics are editorial indications where a question is evident.  Atzerodt had a thick, German accent, and because of his guessed pronunciations and the guessed spellings and abbreviations by the transcriptionist, notes have been added [in bracketed in gray] to clarify some of the recorded answers.  Highly relevant information hidden by the War Department (and historians since 1977) are presented in bold type.

Greater illumination of Atzerodt's role in Booth's gang, and the War Department's motives and actions in concealing the nature of Lincoln's assassination, can be found in the book The Reason Lincoln Had to Die by Don Thomas.   Atzerodt's confession is analyzed in much greater detail in the book's Appendix C.

Question about his fellow prisoner, known to the War Department as Lewis Paine.

James Wood sometimes called Mosby boarded with Mrs. Murray an Irish woman on the corner of 9 & F St. in a three story house, front on the upper end of the P.O. and South End of Patent Office—with basement entrance on the left side going up 9th St. from Avenue.  He was a little over six feet, black hair, smooth round face, gray coat black pants, & spring coat mixed with white & gray.  Saw him last time on Friday evening about 5 o'ck with Booth.  He sent for letters to the post office with James Hall.  He was brought from New York.  Surratt told me so.  He said he had been a prisoner in Balt[imore], near the depot.  He was arrested for whipping a negro woman.  Mosby was Wood's nick name—did not know him by any other name than mentioned.

Question regarding who "Powell" [Paine's actual name] might be.

Gust. Powell [Atzerodt thought they were asking about Augustus Spencer Howell] now arrested in Old Capitol was one of the party.  He went also by name of Gustavus Spencer.  Surratt and Spencer came from Richmond, together just after it had fallen.

Question about Booth's accomplice who was previously described, but not named, by Samuel Arnold.

James Donaldson, a low chunky man about 23 or 24 years of age, small-potted, dark complexion (not very) deep plain black suit; only saw him one time & this was Wednesday previous to the murder, he was having an interview with Booth and told him to meet him on Friday eve [just before the assassination] & he replied he would and left and went up Penn. Avenue towards the Treasury building.  I was under the impression he came on with Booth.

Question about prior conspiratorial meetings.

Arnold, O'Laughlen, Surratt, Harold, Booth, and myself met once at a saloon or restaurant on the Aven. bet 13 & 14 St.

Question about whom he resided with on the night of the assassination.

The Saml. Thomas registered on the morning of the 15th April at Penn Hotel, I met on my way to hotel, he was an entire Stranger to me.  I left the Hotel alone on the morning of 15th of April.  A Lieut. in room No. 51 will prove this [verified in court].

Question about Booth's boat.

Surratt bought a boat from Dick Smoot & James Brawner living about Port Tobacco, for which they paid $300.00 and was to give one hundred Dolls. extra for taking care of it till wanted.

Question about Booth's weapons.

Booth told me that Mrs. Surratt went to Surrattsville to get out the guns (two Carbines) which had been taken to that place by Herold.  This was Friday.  The carriage was hired at Howard's.

Question regarding other persons he met with on the day of the assassination.

I saw a man named Weightman [Louis Weichmann] who boarded at Surratt's at Post Office.  He told me he had to go down the country with Mrs. Surratt.  This was on Friday, also.

Question regarding persons who knew Booth once had a plan to kidnap the President.

I am certain Dr. Mudd knew all about it, as Booth sent (as he told me) liquors & provisions for the trip with the President to Richmond [referring to kidnapping], about two weeks before the murder to Dr. Mudd's.

Question regarding Booth's former kidnapping collaborators involved in the assassination.

Booth never said until the last night (Friday) that he intended to kill the President.

Question regarding how he learned Booth planned to assassinate.

Herold came to the Kirkwood House, same evening for me to go to see Booth.  I went with Herold & saw Booth.  He then said he was going to kill the President and Wood, the Secy. of State.  I did not believe him.  This occurred in the evening about 7 1/2 o'clock.  It was dark.  I took a room at Kirkwood's.  Both Herold & I went to the room left Herold's coat, knife, & pistol in room and never again returned to it.

Question regarding why he didn't believe Booth would kill the president.

Booth said during the day that the thing [kidnapping plot] had failed and proposed to go to Richmond & open the theatre.  I am not certain but I think I stayed one night at Kirkwood's (Thursday).  We were to try and get papers to Richmond from Mr. Johnson.  [Prior to Friday the 14th, military passes were required to pass checkpoints between D.C. and Richmond.]  Booth spoke of getting the papers.  He would get them out of the Theatre [Booth received his mail at Ford's].  Wood & Booth were apparently confidential with each other.  Plenty of parties in Charles County knew of the kidnapping affair.

Question regarding which men in Charles County, Maryland, knew of the kidnapping plot.

One of the men named Charles Yates [never prosecuted] knew all about it.  He went to Richmond during the winter.  He was to row the Presdt & party over. 

Thos. Holborn [Thomas Harbin, never prosecuted, though he aided Booth's escape after the assassination] was to meet us on the road and help in the kidnapping.  Bailey & Barnes knew nothing of the affair unless Booth told Bailey & he told Barnes.  Booth had met Bailey on "C" St. with me.

Question about the person(s) Booth met on March 31st.  [The War Department had a telegram from Booth to Michael O'Laughlin speaking of meeting on March 31.]

I did not meet Booth or any other of the party in Baltimore on or about the 31 of March.

Boyle [John Boyle, a wanted man] also killed Capt. Watkins near Annapolis last month, was one of the party in the [kidnapping] conspiracy.

Question regarding Boyle being involved in the assassination.  [The War Department had considered Boyle a suspect in the assassination attempt against William Seward until Lewis Powell had been arrested.]

I repeat I never knew anything about the murder.  I was intended to give assistance to the kidnapping.

Question regarding how he came to be involved in Booth's kidnapping affair.

They come to Port Tobacco (Surratt & Booth) several times and brought me to Washington.

Question(s) regarding the weapons Booth had given him.

The pistol given me I sold or received a loan on it Saturday morng after the murder from John Caldwick at Matthews & Wells, Store, High St. Georgetown [this was verified by Caldwick in court].  The knife I threw away just above Mrs. Canby's boarding house the night of the murder about 11 o'clock [also verified in court] when I took my horse to stable.  I had the horse out to help to take the President [also verified].  I did not believe he was going to be killed, although Booth had said so.  After I heard of the murder I run about the city like a crazy man [also verified].

Question regarding when he last saw the kidnapping conspirators who had left D.C.

I have not seen Arnold for some time, but saw O'Laughlen on Thursday evening, on the Avenue at Saloon near U.S. Hotel.  He told me he was going to see Booth. 

Wood [Lewis Powell] did not go on the street in day time for fear of arrest [Powell was on probation, not allowed to be south of Philadelphia].  When he first came to Washington he boarded at [Mary] Surratt's.  This was in Feby.  He (Wood) went with Booth last of February to N. York.  Booth we understood paid the way.

Question about Booth's interests in New York and Canada [Booth had previously traveled to Canada].

I know nothing about Canada.  Wood told me he [Booth] had horses in Virginia.  Saml. Arnold and Mike O'Laughlen ought to know where the horses and pistols were bought.

Sam and Mike have a buggy and horse kept at stable in rear of Theatre.  Booth had several horses at same place.  I think the horses property was in Surratt's name.  I sold one of the horses & paid part of the money to Booth and part to Herold, who said he would see Booth about it.  The saddle and bridle belonging to Booth is at Penn House, where I left it.

Question regarding Powel's access to the Seward House.

I overheard Booth when in conversation with Wood say, That he visited a chambermaid at Seward's House [Margaret Coleman, never investigated] & that she was pretty.  He said he had a great mind to give her his diamond pin [verified].  Herold talked about powders & medicines on Friday night at Mrs. Condby's.  Wood, Herold, Booth, and myself were present.  This was a meeting place because Wood could not go out for fear of arrest.  [See Chapter 11: "The Chamber Maid"]

Kate Thompson or Kate Brown [also alias Kate Canon, never prosecuted], as she was known by both names, put up at National & was well known at Penn House.  She knew all about the affair.  [John] Surratt went to Richd with her last March and Gust. Howell made a trip with her to same place.  This woman is about twenty yrs of age, good looking and well dressed.  Black hair and eyes, round face from South Carolina & a widow.

Question regarding John Surratt, Jr.

I did not see Surratt for seven or eight days before the murder nor have I seen him since.

Question regarding the aforementioned woman known as Kate.

Miss Thompson or Brown had two large light trunks, one much larger than the other.  Young Weightman [Louis Weichmann] at Surratts' ought to know about this woman.

Diversionary question regarding previous topics.  [Weichman was a War Department informant known to McPhail.]

This remark made by me in Baltimore on the 31 of March alluded to blockade running & privateering altogether & Booth said he had money to buy a steamer & wanted me to go in it.

Question regarding what he would do on the steamer.

I was to be one of them [blockade runners].  In this way I was going to make a pile of money.

Question regarding where he thought Booth got the idea to assassinate the President.

Booth said he had met a party in N. York who would get the Prest. certain [a few members of this party were identified and investigated, including one William Donaldson, who was arrested, then released by order of Edwin Stanton].  They were going to mine the end of the pres. House, near the War Dept.  They knew an entrance to accomplish it through.  Spoke about getting friends of the Presdt. to get up an entertainment & they would mix it in, have a serenade & thus get at the Presdt. & party.  [See article "The New York Crowd"]

These were understood to be projects. 

Booth said if he did not get him [Lincoln] quick the N. York crowd would [a large group of New York entertainers associated with Booth were in D.C. that same weekend].  Booth knew the New York party apparently by a sign.  He [Atzerodt?] saw Booth give some kind of sign to two parties on the Avenue who he said were from New York.

[The interview ended abruptly with Atzerodt's disclosure about the New York assassins.  The final paragraph below is clearly an addition by detective Smith or McPhail to protect themselves from reprisals for their association to the Atzerodt family.  The word choices and sentence structures are not consistent with the above transcript.]

My Uncle Mr. Richter and family in Monty. Co. Md. knew nothing about the affair either before or after the occurrence & never suspected me of any thing wrong as I was in the habit of visiting and working in the neighborhood & staying with him.  My father formerly owned part of the property now owned by Richter.


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