Following the Footsteps of John Wilkes Booth

 

My sister-in-law Louise gave me a copy of Manhunt by James Swanson for Christmas, and I found it to be a very interesting account of John Wilkes Booth’s assassination of Abraham Lincoln and his subsequent escape from Washington. Since much of his escape route was through Maryland, I promptly made that my next destination for a GS ride.

I set off on Sunday, March 2, and was glad to see that the prior day’s rain had washed away almost all of the road salt that was leftover from various ice storms. I wasn’t following Booth’s exact route–and, in fact, I rather haphazardly arrived at various milestones so that I could visit a few other places along the way. My first such stop was at “His Lordship’s Kindness,” a large land grant from Lord Baltimore in 1703 that is located just outside the current town of Clinton, MD–originally Surrattsville. The house was built in 1728 and extensively modified in the late 1700s.

The driveway to the house was narrow, even by motorcycle standards. Since this is an active horse farm, I can’t imagine how they would get a large pickup and horse trailer through here.

I didn’t manage much of a picture of the house, so here’s one that I borrowed from their web site:

When I went to turn around in their parking lot, I had to dodge several peacocks. (How often does that happen?)

In Clinton, I found Surratt’s Tavern without difficulty. It was a gathering spot for southern sympathizers during the Civil War and was owned by Mary Surratt. Before the assassination, Booth had directed her to take some weapons, binoculars, etc. from D.C. to the tavern and to leave them there for him. She did so–and subsequently became the first woman ever hanged by the Federal Government… Wikipedia has a fairly comprehensive article about her.

The tavern wasn’t open for tours yet, so I continued on toward the Potomac River and one of my other detour destinations. Along the way I went through the metropolis of Accokeek, MD, and found the Christ Episcopal Church–founded in 1698, with the current church built in 1745.

A little later, on Barry’s Hill Road, this sad dwelling appeared. Boy, when things go wrong, they really go wrong.

Not the kind of company you want to have hanging around!

In Piscataway Park, on the banks of the Potomac and across the river from Mount Vernon, sit the elegant ruins of Marshall Hall. It was built in about 1730 by Thomas Marshall, lived in by a number of subsequent Thomas Marshalls and their families (including the Dents, who we’ll revisit in a bit), and was destroyed by fire in 1981. It had previously become the site of a large amusement park, but its proximity to Mount Vernon eventually led to its dismantling as an “eyesore.” Here’s the mansion in current and happier times (the latter picture courtesy of the Marshall Hall Foundation).

I’d parked the Mighty GS in front of a small building that appears to have been part of the Marshall property. Nearby was a path leading away from the mansion that just begged to be followed…

It meandered by the Marshall family graveyard…

…and eventually ended abruptly at a small cliff above the Potomac (offering a decent photo op in the process).

Well East of Marshall Hall, near Bryantown, John Wilkes Booth had sought help from Dr. Samuel Mudd. These two knew each other well, although Dr. Mudd later denied it, and he set Booth’s broken leg and put him up for the night. Here’s a picture of his house from an earlier visit I made to this area:

The next stop along the Booth escape route was to “Rich Hill,” the home of Captain Samuel Cox. The house was built in the mid-1700s and is a private residence now. Cox gave Booth and his accomplice, David Herold, food and showed them a place to hide in a pine thicket. He also sent his foster brother, Thomas Jones to help them.

My peripatetic tour next took me by the relatively “new” Thomas Stone National Historic Site, on Rose Hill Road near Port Tobacco. Thomas Stone was the least-known of Maryland’s three signers of the Declaration of Independence. An unassuming lawyer, Thomas Stone built his house Haberdeventure in 1771. Five generations of Stones lived there through about 1936. The National Park Service acquired the home after a devastating fire in 1981 and rebuilt it to its original appearance. It opened to the public in 1997 but appears to receive relatively few visitors. I may have been the only one that day. But it was free, historic, and quite interesting.

Here’s the middle section of the house after the fire and and the whole thing in its current restored glory:

This room was originally the main family living room, but it became Mrs. Stone’s convalescent quarters after she had an inoculation against smallpox, felt terrible–and took mercury to purge her system. (Makes you wonder which modern-day medicines and remedies will astound future citizens based on their toxicity, etc.) She remained largely bed-ridden for the rest of her life and died at 36.

The NPS managed to acquire Thomas Stone’s original desk, which was in outstanding condition despite being about 260 years old. This room, incidentally, could be recreated exactly by the NPS after the fire–because the original room’s paneling, windows, cupboards, etc. had been sold during the depression to the Baltimore Museum of Art, where they’re still on display.

Continuing on, I detoured briefly through Port Tobacco. James Swanson quotes Civil War correspondent George Alfred Townsend, as follows: “If any place in the world is utterly given over to depravity, it is Port Tobacco. … Gambling, corner fighting, and shooting matches were its lyceum education. Violence and ignorance had every suffrage in the town…five hundred people exist in Port Toacco; life there reminds me, in connection with the slimy river and the adjacent swamps, of the great reptile period of the world, when iguanadons and pterodactyls and pleosauri ate each other… .” (Gee, George, tell us what you really think! Mr. Townsend, incidentally, later lived on top of South Mountain and created the war correspondents’ memorial arch at what is now Gathland State Park in Maryland.)

I had visited Port Tobacco a couple of years ago, so I didn’t linger. Aside from the reconstructed town hall and a couple of period houses, almost nothing remains of what was once Maryland’s second largest town.

The prior day’s rain had created a mini-Potomac in this field, paralleling the real thing:

Just a couple of miles from Port Tobacco, you go right by St. Ignatius Church–the oldest continuously active parish in the country. It was founded in 1641, and the present church was built in 1798–on what has to be one of the prettiest spots in the State, overlooking the Potomac and the Port Tobacco Rivers.

The headstone on the right marks the grave of Miss Olivia Floyd–who, despite being disabled from a childhood injury, was a very effective Confederate agent during the Civil War. (Picture courtesy of the Boswell Family Genealogy web site.) As it happens, Olivia Floyd lived at the Rose Hill mansion, which was originally built by Dr. Gustavus Brown, a personal friend and physician to George Washington–and the father-in-law of Thomas Stone. (I hope he wasn’t the doctor who prescribed the mercury to his daughter…) I began to wonder if everyone in Charles County had been related, one way or another, to everyone else!

Back on the trail of Booth, I found a highway historical marker indicating the nearby presence of the pine thicket where Booth and Herold hid for five days. Thomas Jones, a local resident and accomplished Confederate smuggler and river runner, brought them food and newspapers and planned their escape across the Potomac. I wasn’t sure just which grove of trees was the specific pine thicket, so this little one will have to do…

An upper window, in an old tavern, near the pine thicket. Beyond that, I have no explanation…

Eventually, I arrived at Pope’s Creek. Thomas Jones had hidden a boat upstream of here for Booth’s use in crossing the Potomac.

The boat was brought to Dents’ Meadow, near Thomas Jones’ house “Huckleberry.” (Remember the Dents, the descendants of Thomas Marshall?) David Herrold, rowing the boat, needed only to go a mile or so southwest. At night, however, they ended up several miles north and west–and still in Maryland. They hid out for another couple of days at a farm called Indiantown before successfully crossing into Virginia. While there are Maryland Historical Society signs telling of Dents Meadow and Huckleberry, the latter is now a Loyola religious retreat, and the former is down a long road on the Loyola property. Consequently, I wasn’t able to get decent pictures of either place.

However, Pope’s Creek made a nice setting for another R1200GS picture (have to be thinking about next year’s calendar, naturally!)–and it wasn’t until after I took the picture that I noticed the large abandoned building in the background.

It required investigation, of course, but I don’t have any idea what it used to be. A firehouse? An auto or truck repair facility? A home for wayward motorcycle owners?? If anyone here knows (e.g., cdbugler), please tell us.

After crossing the Potomac, Booth and Herold traveled through Virginia to Port Royal and a farm beyond–where they were surrounded and Booth shot. Mary Surratt, David Herold, and two others were hanged, but Dr. Mudd and two others were later pardoned by President Andrew Johnson after serving 6 years of their life sentences. Thomas Jones, who did more to aid Booth than anyone, wasn’t arrested or even known at the time to have been part of the escape. Almost twenty years later, George Alfred Townsend managed to track him down and persuade him to tell his story. Jones lived to be 74 and was never punished for his role.

After 7 hours of riding and about 160 miles, I arrived back home more impressed than ever with the astonishing amount of history that exists in Maryland and its surroundings. And what better way to go explore it than on a sunny day and on a BMW?

Rick F.

Rick

Written by Rick

2 Comments

  1. Jim Curtis

    Thanks for this most insightful read. As it happens, I am currently reading April 1865. So this of course was very interesting to me.

  2. Rick

    Jim,

    I’m very glad that you enjoyed this trip report. It was fascinating to “follow in his footsteps,” and I learned quite a lot about Booth and his co-conspirators.

    I hadn’t run across the book “April 1865” before, but I’m ordering a copy. If you haven’t already read it, “Manhunt: The 12-Day Chase for Lincoln’s Killer” is excellent.

    Rick

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