Excerpt: 'Manhunt'

Manhunt
By James L. Swanson
Paperback, 496 pages
Harper Perennial
List Price: $15.95

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More On Lincoln's Assassination

Chapter Two: "I Have Done It"

Legend has it that John Wilkes Booth was hiding outside in the shadows near the front door of Ford's as the presidential carriage rocked down the uneven dirt street and slowed to a stop, but no one really knows where he was at that precise moment. On April 29, 1865, Clara Harris wrote in a letter, "They say we were watched by the assassins; ay, as we alighted from the carriage ... and when I think of that fiend barring himself in with us, my blood runs cold." Wherever Booth was it is almost certain that somehow he verified with his own eyes that the Lincolns were actually inside the theatre. And he probably wondered at the identity of Lincoln's guests and gauged whether Major Rathbone looked like the type who could pose a threat to his plans. It didn't matter, really; no one was going to stop him from going through with it.

Next door at Peter Taltavul's bar, the Star Saloon, it was a night like any other when the lights were on at Ford's. Some playgoers downed a quick one before the show; others would come in during intermission to fortify themselves.

It was now about 9:00 p.m. Time for Booth to go inside the theatre for the first time since the Lincolns had arrived. Although the actor, like the Lincolns, entered Ford's after Our American Cousin started, he was still on schedule. The play was like a clock, every word spoken was another tick of the second hand. After hearing just one snippet of dialogue, Booth would know, to the minute, how much time had elapsed from curtain raising, and how much time remained in the performance. He knew that he had at least another hour. He left Ford's.

In a little while, he returned to his alley stable, where he and Spangler had left the bay mare. Booth unlocked the door, threw his shawl over the horse's back, and saddled her. He led his rented horse down Baptist Alley by the reins, up to the back door of Ford's. He would have tied the animal to a hitching post behind the theatre, but he remembered the stable man's warning that this horse did not like to be tied. She would pull at the post to break free. And anyway, what if he left the horse unattended and when he came back later discovered that someone had stolen her? Better to have someone hold the reins until he returned. He called through the open back door: "Ned. Ned Spangler!" There was no reply.

Inside Ford's, employee John Debonay tracked down Ned: "Booth is calling you." Spangler stepped into the alley.

"Hold this mare for ten or fifteen minutes," Booth instructed him.

"I have not time," Ned replied. The play was going on. He could not neglect his backstage duties and waste time holding a horse. He was needed at his post in the wings to shift scenery. He offered to summon another employee, John Burroughs, nicknamed "John Peanut" by his fellow staff members after the snack he sold to patrons.

Spangler sent for John Peanut. Booth gave Ned the reins, cautioning him that this horse would not stand tying and that she had to be held. Booth went into the theatre. When John Peanut came out he demurred, saying he was needed at the front of the theatre to make sure that people didn't sneak in without paying. After a minute or two of bickering, he gave in and accepted the reins from Spangler. Ned went back to work. Mary Jane Anderson, a black woman who lived in an alley house behind the theatre, watched Booth lead his horse up the alley, walk past her front door, and call Ned Spangler. Once Booth went inside Ford's, she couldn't see the horse anymore but could hear how restless it was. "It kept up a great deal of stamping on the stones, and I said 'I wonder what is the matter with that horse,' it kept stamping so." It was the second time Mrs. Anderson had seen Booth that day. In the afternoon, between 2:00 and 3:00 p.m., she watched him and a woman standing behind the theatre "for a considerable while," having a conversation. Mary Anderson could not take her eyes off the handsome star: "I stood in my gate, and I looked right wishful at him."

Booth, once inside Ford's, wanted to cross behind the stage all the way to the other side of the building, where a small door led to a narrow passageway that ran west to Tenth Street and the front of the theatre. Booth asked an employee if he could walk across the stage, hidden behind the scenery. That was impossible, he was told. The "dairy scene," a deep scene that required the full stage, was on, and there was no room to hide from the audience by creeping along behind the scenery. Instead, Booth would have to cross under the stage through a passageway and emerge on the other side.

Booth lifted the trapdoor and dropped below into darkness. Walking along the hard-packed dirt floor, he could hear the wooden planks of the stage creaking overhead, and the distant, muffled voices of the actors and laughter from the audience. He ascended the stairs at the end of the passageway, nudged open the trapdoor, and entered the passageway that ran lengthwise between Ford's and the Star Saloon next door.

He walked the length of the building and emerged on Tenth. Anyone who saw him now would assume he had come down Tenth on foot to take in the play. No one in the theatre, save a few employees, knew he had a horse waiting out back. There was time for one last drink.

Booth walked into the Star Saloon at around 10:00 p.m. The cramped, narrow, dimly lit establishment catered to the actors, stagehands, and playgoers who frequented Ford's Theatre. Booth was alone. A regular, he nodded to owner Peter Taltavul and called for his pleasure: whiskey. The bartender poured him a glass and set the bottle on the counter within Booth's reach. Water, too, please, Booth reminded him: Taltavul had neglected to serve the customary companion beverage. Booth's pale, delicate fingers squeezed the glass, raised it to his lips, and he downed the drink the way a more temperate, thirsty man might swallow the glass of water. Booth savored the warming spirits. It might be a while before he could enjoy another one. Any customers who recognized the handsomest, best-dressed man in Washington kept it to themselves and did not disturb the famous actor. Booth slapped a few coins on the bar and left without saying a word. He exited onto Tenth Street, turned to his right, walked a few paces, and saw the president's carriage still parked on the near side of Tenth several yards beyond the main door, the coachman and horse waiting to take Lincoln back home. Burke had gone for a drink after he dropped off the Lincolns and their guests, and then returned to the coach.

In the alley behind Ford's, Mary Anderson watched John Peanut walking Booth's impatient horse back and forth. This was it. Booth tarried in the lobby, soaking in the atmosphere and listening to the dialogue. He was still on schedule. No need to rush. Walking to the lobby's north end, he ascended the curving staircase to the dress circle, following the same path the Lincolns took to their box. Booth paused at the head of the stairs to take advantage of the best view of the president's box, a vista that caused him to look slightly down, and diagonally across the width and length of the house. He walked slowly along the west wall. James Ferguson, still hoping to witness General Grant's arrival, looked up from his first-floor seat and saw, on the other side of the theatre, another man-not Grant-approaching the box. He recognized John Wilkes Booth: "Somewhere near ten o'clock ... I saw Booth pass along near the box, and then stop, and lean against the wall. He stood there a moment."

Booth could see the door that opened to the vestibule that led directly into the president's box. What he saw-or more accurately what he did not see-surprised him. The door was unguarded. He expected to find an officer, a soldier, or at least a civilian policeman seated there. Instead, seated near but not blocking the door was Lincoln's valet, Charles Forbes, who had ridden to Ford's atop the coach beside the driver. Booth paused to speak to Forbes, showing him some kind of card or piece of paper. To this day no one knows what words they exchanged, or what document Booth displayed. Was it a letter? Or merely the actor's calling card? A card with Booth's name on it would open almost any door in Washington. Forbes did not attempt to stop him. Booth proceeded to the door, realizing that, unless a hidden guard was perched inside the small vestibule, no one was going to stop him. He seized the knob, turned it, and pushed open the door. James Ferguson looked up again and watched Booth enter the box: "I looked back and saw him step down one step, put his hands to the door, and his knee against it, and push the door open. I did not see any more of him." Yellow gaslight from the dress circle illuminated the dark vestibule. Booth peered inside. Empty. There was no guard. No one stood between him and the president of the United States.

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