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Author Topic: the interesting, dubious and fascinating recollections of John L. Smith  (Read 2165 times)
Steven G. Miller
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« on: December 01, 2011, 06:43:23 AM »

Barry Cauchon asked me if I had any info on Marshal John L. Smith, George A. Atzerodt's brother-in-law. I didn't at the time, but I found and transcribed a long interview with him. There are some things in it that are questionable, and some items that are bound to spark debate. I'll put it up in pieces:

“New Insight to the Mind and Motives of Mrs. Surratt,” DALLAS (TX) MORNING NEWS, September 18, 1904.
About three weeks ago an old man, lacking just five years of reaching his 100th milestone, was found dead in a little shanty in Anacostia, a suburb of Washington, lying just across the Eastern Branch of the Potomac. To the school children who went to his dingy shop to buy a penny’s worth of stale candy, crackers or dill pickles he was known as “Old Man Smith.” Venerable friends remembered him as John L. Smith, but most of his history they had forgotten, if, indeed, they had ever know it. So up to the time of his death the feeble old man, just verging on being a centenarian, was know better for his miserly habits and his mouldy (sic) stock of goods than for anything else.
John L. Smith, if that really was his name, was concerned deeply with the mightiest tragedy in the history of this country. This decrepit vendor of moldy sweetmeats and cheap “notions,” had served as United States Provost Marshal of the District of Columbia from 1861 to 1865. It was he that read the death warrant to Mrs. Mary E. Surrat and turned away in horror from her shrieks of agony when she learned her doom. He was compelled to perform the same duty with his own brother-in-law, George A. Atzerodt, another one of the convicted conspirators. Undoubtedly he knew more of the secret history of the assassination of Lincoln and the arrest and capture of those implicated in the plot than any other man. But he kept his secret well. It was not until three weeks before his death, that he could be persuaded to mention the subject.
Smith was a man of unusual force of character. He had his own personal secrets, too. He at times dropped a word of his antecedents. He said he was a scion of a noble family in Germany—that he would have been a baron had he chosen to claim his inheritance. It was known that he received $30 a month from Germany, but he seemed to prefer running his shop and selling odds and ends to living in comfortable idleness. He lived in the back part of his sordid establishment. His stock of goods did not amount to more than $50 worth of stuff. His patrons were largely school children, with an occasional housewife who dropped in to get a paper of pins or needles. His shop was lighted by a lamp made by the old man out of a tomato can. It was a thousand wonders it never blew up. Old Smith was inclined to apologize for it.
“I broke my lamp,” he said. “I hate to spend for a new one. I don’t need much light, any way. This will do for me, I suppose.”
He always voided new intimacies. Suspicion seemed to be a passion with him. Several persons who had obtained an inkling of his association with the Lincoln assassination tried to draw him out.”That is my business,” was his invariable reply. “What I know, I know, and am of no concern to others. We don’t always know to whom we are talking and you must excuse me.” He was both curt and courteous, but his rebuffs were always delivered with such patrician dignity that the inquisitor was compelled to withdraw.
Undoubtedly he felt keenly the implication of Atzerodt, his brother-in-law, in the plot. Atzerodt was hanged because he was believed to have been chosen to kill Vice President Johnson. Smith did not believe him guilty of this, although he testified on the stand that Atzerodt had planned to aid in a scheme to kidnap President Lincoln. This was the testimony that really decided Atzerodt’s fate. Smith’s wife never forgave him, and the old man, thus estranged from his family, became moody and adopted a hermit’s life.
A short time before Mr. Smith’s death the writer was fortunate enough to obtain his story.
“I had never intended to speak of it again as long as I live,” he said. “A member of my family was one of those convicted. It was a bitter blow. Bur perhaps it is better that I should add what I know to something the American people are so anxious to know all about.’
The old man drew up a soiled soap box and bade the visitor to be seated. His face was a mass of wrinkles, but his blue eyes peeped shrewdly from beneath shaggy brows. His all but toothless gums worked vigorously on a quid of tobacco.
“Ah, there was a wonderful woman!” he cackled in shrill admiration.
“Who?” I asked nervously, for I thought the mind of the centenarian was wandering.
“Mrs. Surratt,” came the clean, brisk reply.
Immediately I knew he was on his subject, and I had no further fears.
Did Mrs. Surratt Love Booth?
“I had to help hang the poor creature,” he continued. “She may have been guilty, but I never was convinced of it. I supposed the disliked Lincoln, but that most certainly was not her motive for taking a part in the conspiracy. Any one who knew the woman, who had looked on the magnetic face of John Wilkes Booth, with its fiery, inspiring eyes, would read therein the reason for her part in this great tragedy.
“Did she love him? you ask. I know nothing of that. She was older than he. She was woman of over 40, but she was beautiful. I have seen few women more pleasing to the eye than Mrs. Surratt. She was a woman of strong character, bound to rule—born to rule. But she bowed the knee to Lincoln’s assassin.
“You yourself may know the fascination possessed by a handsome young actor. Booth was a wild, erratic young man, but he had a following. I saw him frequently and I liked him in spite of his openly expressed love for the South. There was a cafe on Louisiana avenue where he often went. I have seen him shed tears over defeats of the Confederacy. He would have given his soul to help the South. You know how devotion to any cause appeals to a woman. No wonder Mrs. Surratt was his slave! He magnetized her; he—what do you call it—hypnotized her.
“She was brought up near Waterloo, in Prince George’s County, Md., and her name before she married was Mary E. Jenkins. Her father died when she was quite young, but she did not seem to care much for such home life as she had and showed considerable ambition. She went to a female seminary in Alexandria, but left it to get married before she completed her course there. Surratt, her husband, did not amount to much. I have heard that they first settled at a place known as Condin’s Mill, After they had lived there a few years their house was set on fire by their slaves, and the family barely escaped with their lives. They had three children, two boys and a girl. The girl, Mary, (sic) was with their mother until a short time before she was hanged.
“Surratt became a railroad conductor and then returned to Prince George County and bought a farm, where he started a tavern and became postmaster. He was too ignorant to attend to his duties and his wife ran the office for him. He died about the opening of the war, and Mrs. Surratt rented the tavern and moved to Washington. She opened a boarding house on H street and became known as a strong Southern sympathizer. John Wilkes Booth at one time boarded at her house, and Mrs. Surratt was said to have been very fond of him. I have heard that Booth left her house simply because the other boarders twitted him about being in love with Mrs. Surratt.
« Last Edit: December 01, 2011, 01:56:41 PM by Steven G. Miller » Logged
Dave Taylor
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« Reply #1 on: December 01, 2011, 08:02:24 AM »

Very cool, Steve. I look forward to more. 

If the facts in this article are true, I'll have to reassess my genealogy work with the Atzerodt family.  I found an 80-year-old, John L. Smith living in D.C. in 1900.  He was living with his wife Catherine and daughter Kate.  Catherine is the name of George's sister so I assumed this was our man.  It also stated that both he and his wife were from Germany.  So this article throws a wrench in by saying he was estranged from his family and that he was ten years older.
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angels0618
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« Reply #2 on: December 01, 2011, 12:58:33 PM »

Where's the rest of the story?Huh?? I can't wait to hear it!!!!! This is great!!!!!!
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Steven G. Miller
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« Reply #3 on: December 01, 2011, 07:09:34 PM »

Here's the second section. In this one we get into the dubious part of the fascinating tale. Smith makes some claims that are pretty hard to accept. He states, for instance, that he was present at the death of Booth at Garrett's Farm. He wasn't . . . and Surgeon General Barnes was not there, either.


Overhearing a Plot.

“I don’t suppose that I would have known much about this plot to kill Mr. Lincoln if it had been for a little nap I took one afternoon. I was over in Baltimore at the time, and I was lying down on a lounge about half asleep, when something was said by my sister-in-law, Mrs. Atzerodt, caused me to prick up my ears and listen.
“ ‘We are going to have a lot of money soon,’ said Mrs. Atzerodt.

“My wife asked her how they were going to get it.

“Atzerodt is going help kidnap President Lincoln,’ said Mrs. Atzerodt. “John Wilkes Booth has offered him $20,000 to help kidnap Lincoln. Everything is all ready, and if Lincoln goes where they expect him to they will catch him and ship him out of the country. I don’t know exactly where they are going to take him, but I do know that they have been offered a lot of money, and I hope Atzerodt will get it.’

“They did not kidnap President Lincoln, as the world knows, but it was just this sort of deal that got my brother-in-law mixed up in the scrape. When the found that they could not kidnap the President they wanted to kill him, and Atzerodt was to kill Vice President Johnson I got him to make a confession as to his part in the whole thing, and in his statement he told all about the kidnapping plot, but he said that he was not at all concerned in the plan to kill Lincoln and the members of his Cabinet. In fact, he told us that when he went to Booth and refused to have anything further to do with him Booth struck him in the face and knocked him down. On the night of the assassination of the President, Atzerodt tried to get out of town. I suppose he was drinking some, for they found a revolver he had thrown away. It was used as evidence against him. He was finally arrested out at the house of our cousin in Montgomery County.

“I was a member of the party that surrounded Booth in Garrett’s barn. It is not necessary for me to tell the story of his capture and how he was shot by Sergt. Boston Corbett, for that has been told often before. He lived three or four hours after he had been shot, and we carried him to the porch of the house on the Garrett farm and I held his head while Dr. Barnes (sic) probed for the bullet. It had entered the left ear, and after he had died they cut off his head to find the course of the bullet. It had bored a hole through the bone the size of a dollar gold piece.

The Murderer in Death.

“Booth had changed a good deal in the few days since he had killed the president. I had seen him not more than a week before the tragedy, and he looked well and as fleshy as I ever saw him. As he lay there on the porch with his head in my lap I would not have known him for John Wilkes Booth. His face was very thin and the hard lines around his mouth showed that he had suffered terribly from his broken leg. The doctor cut the bandage from his leg as he lay dying. His black hair had turned quite gray.
“I could see even from looking at him in death that he was a man of wonderful personality. Mrs. Surratt was not to blame if she had fallen in love with him. Atzerodt told me that he was present at two or three meetings at her house on H street, and that she was completely under Booth’s control. Of course she was a strong Southern sympathizer, but she would not have been implicated in such a crime as the assassination of the President if it had not been for Booth.’ With everyone else she was positively masterful. Her will was law in her house, but with Booth it was different. Atzerodt said she never expressed an opinion in his presence until she knew whether or not it would please him. He used to joke with her, and he never addressed her as Mrs. Surratt, but called her his “Queen Mary” even before the others.
“I suppose something must have been known of their relations, because it was a very short time after the assassination when she was arrested. She always declared her innocence, and she at most could not have been implicated in any other way except that she knew the President was to be killed.

“Payne, who made the attack of Secretary Seward, was guilty, for he took part in the murderous work. David Herold was with Booth when he was captured, and, of course, could not clear himself of the charge of Conspiracy.

“Mrs. Surratt was executed on July 7, 1865, along with Payne, Atzerodt, and Herold. They had been defended by good lawyer at the trial, and every possible effort was made to save the life of Mrs. Surratt. I saw a good deal of her while she was in prison. She was still a beautiful woman in spite of the awful strain she had been under. Her daughter Mary was with her nearly all the time. The girl was a sweet-faced young woman and she did her best to comfort her mother. But Mrs. Surratt spent most of her time praying. There were two Catholic priests with her several hours a day. Their names were Father Wiget and Father Walter.
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Steven G. Miller
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« Reply #4 on: December 01, 2011, 07:54:25 PM »

Here's another section, mostly about Mrs. Surratt:

The Death Warrant.
“I shall never forget the day I went to read the death warrant to her. Father Walter had been with her nearly all the twenty-four hours previous. I went in accompanied by two officers of the prison. It was then late in the afternoon, and I was to remain all that night and the following night outside her cell. As I approached she looked up and half raised herself from the bunk on which she was lying. Her hair, almost black when I had seen her last, was a dark iron gray, and it hung around her shoulders. Her beautiful brown eyes were hollow and sunken as she looked up to me.

“ ‘I suppose you bring me news--good or bad ?’ she cried, ‘tell me quickly!’

“That was the hardest task of all—to read that beautiful woman her death warrant. Here it is.’

At this point the old man drew forth a copy of a death warrant bearing the signature of Andrew Johnson. The original was destroyed by a fire five or six years ago. This is the copy:

“Executive Mansion. July 6, 1865—The sentence of the court-martial of Mary E. Surratt, David C. Herold, Lewis Payne and George A. Atzerodt is hereby approved by me and is ordered to be carried out by the proper military authorities July 7, 1865, between the hours of 11 a. m. and 2 p.m.

“So help them God!

ANDREW JOHNSON, President.”

“I tried hard to appear unconcerned as I read off the warrant, but I could not control myself. At first her face became overspread by a dazed look of horror, and when I heard her cry of agony it fairly froze the blood in my veins. After the first paroxysm of grief was over her constant cry was for Booth. One of the guards then told her that I held Booth’s head when he died.

“ ‘Was he as beautiful in death as in life?’ she asked.

“I told her just how he looked, and in spite of the fact that the shadow of the gallows was upon her she seemed more interested in Booth’s appearance and the manner of his death that in her own fate.

“ ‘He was my hero,’ she moaned. ‘I would give my life a thousand times if it would bring him back.’

“This praise of Booth rather angered me, and I told her that it would be better if she had looked out more for herself, and that her own life would end in two days. Then the fear of death came upon her once more and she broke down again. Her cries of horror rant through the prison. She was a woman of remarkable courage and her betrayal of emotion was a great surprise. She had borne her arrest and imprisonment with fortitude, but now that she was face to face with death her collapse was complete. Instead of thinking of Booth her constant cry now was:

“ ‘Before God I am innocent.’ She turned to her daughter, who was with her. ‘Ah, my child, Mary, your mother is innocent. I might have done it for his sake, but he never asked me to help.’

“After the first show of grief I finished reading the death warrant. When her cries subsided she lay very still with her eyes closed and her iron gray hair falling loose around her face. I remained with her until the end. Once she broke forth in a moan:

“ ‘I would give my life if he could have his.’

“I don’t know to whom she referred, but judging from the way she had previously spoken of Booth, I suppose the exclamation applied to him. They were the last words she uttered until the morning of the hanging, except what may have passed between her and the priest. Throughout that night and the following day and night she said nothing except in prayer.

In the Last Hours.

“Her priest was with her until the last hour. Mary Surratt was with her mother until the morning of the fateful 7th, when she was asked to withdraw to permit the executioners to place the black hood over her mother’s head. A remarkable transformation was wrought in that brief time. Mrs. Surratt’s hair had changed from gray to white, or nearly so. I could not help thinking of Booth when I saw this, because his hair also had become quite gray.

“Poor Atzerodt! He hardly deserved his fate. I think he was one of the ugliest men I ever saw. He was of squat build, round shouldered, his skin was yellow and his eyes seemed to be green. He had a stubby moustache and goatee. He was only a little more than 30 years old, but he knew about all the devilment that could be learned. Still I don’t believe he was intentionally malicious. Until toward the close of the war he was living peacefully in Port Tobacco as a coach painter. He was also a good blacksmith. Dave Herold got him into the scrape. A good many persons wondered why Booth ever took up with Herold. Atzerodt told the reason. Herold was a ne’er do well who had hunted along the Potomac on both sides fifty miles from Washington. He knew every place where you could hide and shoot ducks, and there was not a creek or a patch of woods with which he was not familiar.

“On one of his trips to Port Tobacco on a hunting jaunt he met George Atzerodt. Booth had taken Herold into his confidence and had laid his plan to capture Lincoln some when he went to visit the arsenal and to rush him across the Potomac into Virginia, and thence the Lord knows where. Herold was to be guide over the country, and they wanted a man to get them across the river in a boat. Atzerodt knew how to handle a boat, and he had one. He was therefore persuaded to join them in the plot under inducements of large sums of money. I am absolutely certain he never was willing to do more than this. As far as killing Johnson was concerned, I am certain he did not have the nerve to do such a thing.
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Steven G. Miller
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« Reply #5 on: December 01, 2011, 07:56:56 PM »

And, last but not least:

“Atzerodt was arrested out in Maryland about five days after the assassination. I saw him on the day Booth was killed. We had been on the hunt for Booth, and our party met “Charlie” Jett, a son of Squire Charles Jett, who told us that he had seen Booth and Herold go into the barn on Garrett’s farm. After Booth had been shot and carried on to the porch Surgeon General Barnes probed for the bullet, but he was not certain the man was Booth. I was placed in charge of the body, but I was relieved long enough to subpoena Dr. May. He looked at the body a long time.

“ ‘I can not identify this body as that of John Wilkes Booth,’ he said.

“It was a moment of great suspense. We all thought there must have been a great blunder somewhere.

“ ‘You have been his physician, Dr. May,’ said Surgeon General Barnes, sharply. ‘Are there not some marks on his body, is there not some physical peculiarity that you have noticed in the past that might serve as a mark?’

“ ‘I lanced a carbuncle on his neck about three months ago,’ said Dr. May. ‘If there is a scar on the back of the neck I can safely say that the body is that of Booth.’

“ ‘The head had been severed from the body, but, sure enough, there was the scar, and Dr. May gave positive identification. The head clerk of the National Hotel was present. He had been subpoenaed, as he was well acquainted with Booth. He was not asked any questions, however, and the identification of Dr. May was held to be satisfactory.

“As soon as this procedure was completed some one came to me and told me there was a prisoner below in the hold of the vessel whom they wanted me to see. I went down and found a man chained to a chair that had been chained to the floor, with a sack over his head and shoulders and a hole cut to permit him to breathe.

“The man was Atzerodt, and it was the first I had known of his arrest. He guard was ordered to remove the bag from over his head and I was given permission to talk to him in private. He made a confession to me, which he subsequently repeated to others. He denied complicity in the plot to kill, although he admitted having pawned a revolver and thrown a knife into a sewer on F street. The black coat and the other revolver in his room he insisted were the property of Herold, and I believe this.”

Mr. Smith at one time had several letters written by John Wilkes Booth. Unfortunately they were destroyed by fire a year or so ago. One of these letters was a missive to Mrs. Surratt, which, while not necessarily a love letter, was full of terms of endearment and started off with the greeting, “My Queen Mary.”

It is not likely that the mystery concerning old Smith will ever be solved. Up to the day of his death his faculties were clear. He retained much of his linguistic ability even at the age of 95 years, and spoke five languages fluently. His English was almost classically pure, and when he was roused in a friendly discussion it flowed like the prose of Addison. But had too little personal vanity to boast, and for this reason little is known of him.

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rich smyth
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« Reply #6 on: December 02, 2011, 07:23:16 AM »

Great stuff Steve! Did the piece list the reporters name? The stories may be a mixture of embellishment or the confusion of age. Regardless, the info provided is quite interesting, like how he became estranged from the family because of the incident. Although I do not think he read Mary's death sentence to her I guess it is possible that he was there though I have not read that. The reporter says that the warrant was destroyed by fire a few years prior. Did Smith tell him that? If so, is it possible he ended up with the warrant? If true, that means Powell got to keep his warrant but Mary did not. Interesting!
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angels0618
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« Reply #7 on: December 02, 2011, 12:40:55 PM »

Great story Steve!!! Mr. Smith did get Mary Surratt's daughter's name wrong. He kept calling her Mary instead of Anna. I wonder how much of this story is real? Do you think they really cut off John Wilkes Booth head? Wow, I read that somewhere else before. I wonder if that is true?
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Steven G. Miller
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« Reply #8 on: December 02, 2011, 12:45:43 PM »

Rich Smyth: No, there's no byline for the article that would identify the reporter. I suspect, however, that the article was reprint from a Washington-area paper. (Just a guess on my part.) It that is true, the original article might tell who wrote the piece.

Booth's head was not cut off, per se, but the removal of the spine sections would have virtually decapitated him. It sounds like a matter of definition.
« Last Edit: December 02, 2011, 02:29:08 PM by Steven G. Miller » Logged
rich smyth
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« Reply #9 on: December 02, 2011, 03:07:18 PM »

Mr Ingraham.


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Randal
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« Reply #10 on: December 02, 2011, 03:29:27 PM »

Huh?
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rich smyth
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« Reply #11 on: December 02, 2011, 04:29:53 PM »

Huh what? You don't believe Wikepedia?
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Prentiss_Ingraham
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Randal
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« Reply #12 on: December 02, 2011, 05:08:09 PM »

No, not really, (believe Wikipedia) but was wondering why it is in this thread. Shouldn't be in the Ingraham thread Huh
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Dave Taylor
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« Reply #13 on: December 02, 2011, 08:16:52 PM »

The first part of this didn't upset me too much, but it sure went downhill fast!  I question the age of this man.  If he was 95 in 1904, that would have him born in 1809, and 56 years old in 1865.  Was he really that much older than George Atzerodt - and probably his own wife?

Laurie,

Based mainly on census records here’s what I have pieced together.   John L. Smith was born in Germany in November of 1819.  He immigrated here in 1837, at the age of 18.  George’s sister, Johanne “Katherine” Henriette Atzerodt, was  born on August 21, 1827.  The bulk of the Atzerodt family immigrated to the U.S. in 1844, but Katherine didn’t join them until a year later.  Somehow John and Katherine met and they were married in 1846.  Katherine was 19 and John was 27 when they were married.  They had at least one child together: a girl named Katherine “Kate” Smith.  She was born in April of 1862.  Kate would marry a man by the name of Wilson in 1882.  They gave John and Katherine four grandchildren: Daisy, Clara, Raymond, and Goldie.  In 1900, Kate and the kids are living with grandma and grandpa in D.C.  After this, I have lost John and Katherine.  According to this article, John dies in 1904.  By 1910 Kate is living with her daughter Clara who has married.  Through Clara, I can trace to a few living descendants today, but that’s hardly helpful.  

So, I seriously doubt that John L. Smith was estranged from the family.  While the rest of the Atzerodts could have shunned him, he was still married to and living with George’s sister 35 years after the fact.
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rich smyth
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« Reply #14 on: December 03, 2011, 11:40:10 AM »

Randal, yep, your right. I linked to the wrong post. Sorry.
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