Digging holes here and there in American history.

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Thursday, December 22, 2011



     The small pistol in Ford’s Theatre National Historic Site in Washington, D.C. seems suspended in mid-air in its display case. The subdued lighting dances off the barrel eerily as stone-faced statues of the Lincoln assassination conspirators hover nearby.  Under the golden light in its gilded case, the pistol appears as objet d’art rather than an instrument of murder and national tragedy.  

      The pistol John Wilkes Booth selected to murder President Abraham Lincoln on April 14, 1865 is so small a man can hide it in the palm of his hand.  Civilians favored the “pocket pistol” produced by Henry Deringer, a Pennsylvania armsmaker, as a compact, concealable firearm for personal defense. Although the Deringer pistol was restricted by its single-shot capacity, its small size and weight often made it preferable over larger and heavier firearms.  Its “one and done” firing capacity could be overcome by carrying two pistols.   While there is
no evidence Booth carried another firearm, other Deringers have been touted as “Booth’s second pistol.”  Eventually “Deringer” would become the more generic “derringer,” referring to any small handgun. 

     Booth’s pistol was fewer than six inches in length but its lethal .44 caliber barrel belied its small size.  The lead ball Booth fired into the back of Lincoln’s skull was approximately .41 caliber, often leading to confusion regarding the actual dimensions of the barrel.  It was not unusual for projectiles to be smaller than the barrel, especially if the gunman had lost the original, unique bullet mold that accompanied a Deringer pistol at purchase.

     The tiny pistol was only part of a veritable arsenal of weapons Booth had acquired to arm himself and his fellow conspirators.   Booth had organized a circle of collaborators to help him kidnap Lincoln.  Among his partners in crime were Samuel Arnold, George Atzerodt, David Herold, Michael O'Laughlen, Lewis Powell, and John Surratt. 

     In January 1865, Booth traveled to New York where he acquired firearms and other equipment for use in the kidnapping.  On his journey back to Washington, Booth met with Arnold and O’Laughlen in Baltimore with a trunk filled with the paraphernalia.  In a confession given after his capture, Arnold stated the heavy trunk contained “two guns, cap cartridges—which were placed in the gun-stocks—Spencer rifles I think they were called, revolvers, knives, belts, cartridge boxes, cartridges, caps, canteens—all fully fixed for service—which were to be used in case of pursuit, and two pair of handcuffs to handcuff the President.”  Booth turned over the trunk and firearms to Arnold and O’Laughlen to ship or carry to Washington, thus permitting the actor to travel alone to Washington without any incriminating evidence.

     The revolvers and carbines obtained by Booth were sophisticated firearms compared to the Deringer pistol but not necessarily more reliable.  Although Colt revolvers and Spencer carbines possessed many advantages, they were still subject to malfunction.  Meticulous maintenance and proper loading procedures were necessary for them to operate proficiently.  A dirty or improperly loaded revolver was prone to misfire.

     The revolvers and knives were distributed to the conspirators prior to the kidnapping attempt.  Herold took the two carbines into southern Maryland where he was to await the others’ arrival with the President.  When the kidnapping scheme fell through, John Surratt and Herold hid the carbines at the Surratt Tavern in Surrattsville (now Clinton, MD).                                     

     Booth’s plot evolved into one of assassination.  The actor would assassinate President Lincoln at Ford’s Theatre.  Powell was to kill Secretary of State William Seward who was recuperating at home from painful injuries sustained in a carriage accident.  Atzerodt’s target was Vice-President Andrew Johnson who was staying at the Kirkwood House.

Powell's Whitney Revolver
     While Booth was stalking the President at Ford’s Theatre, Lewis Powell went to Seward’s home.  Powell’s weapons included an 1858 Whitney .36 caliber percussion-cap revolver and a “Bowie knife.”  It is possible Powell’s pistol was not supplied by Booth, being the only revolver recovered from the conspirators not of Colt manufacture.  Since Powell had served in a Confederate cavalry unit where typically troopers carried revolvers, he may have already possessed a pistol.  Powell’s knife, a “Rio Grand[e] Camp Knife,” matched two others found during the assassination investigation and was probably from the arsenal Booth acquired in New York.

     Confronted by Seward’s son Frederick, Powell bludgeoned him repeatedly with the Whitney revolver until it literally broke and fell to pieces.  He continued to the Secretary who he stabbed repeatedly with the large blade before being pulled away.  Powell escaped but not before seriously injuring five men.

One of Booth's Spencer Carbines
     Booth fired a single lead ball into the back of Lincoln’s head and fled Ford’s Theatre and Washington.  Outside the city, Booth met up with Herold and the two headed to the Surratt Tavern.   Booth remained on his horse and had a drink of whiskey while Herold gathered supplies.  They rode off after the brief stop with Herold taking one of the two Spencer carbines that had been stashed there earlier.   Suffering from a painful broken leg, Booth needed both hands to stay in the saddle and could not take the second rifle.

     The Spencer carbine proved to be a very effective weapon for Union troops.  A tubular magazine containing a compressed spring fed metal cartridges to the breech, much like the “clip” in a modern semi-automatic firearm.  When the trigger guard was lowered, the breech block dropped down, and a spent cartridge case was ejected.  As the trigger guard returned to its normal position, the breech block caught a new cartridge from the magazine tube and inserted it in the breech.  To speed loading, soldiers could carry a cartridge box containing ten magazine tubes, each loaded with seven cartridges.  In the time a soldier equipped with a more common muzzle-loading rifle could fire a couple of shots, one armed with a Spencer could get off about a dozen.

Booth's Colt Model 1851 "Navy" Revolver
     At the time of his death in Garrett’s barn, Booth was armed with two Colt revolvers, both manufactured in 1861.  Interestingly, the weapons are of two different calibers, thus requiring different ammunition in the form of lead balls.  The Colt Model 1851 Navy revolver, serial number 117808, fired a lead ball of .36 caliber.  The cylinder in this pistol bears serial number 116851, indicating it was not original to the weapon.  Additional loaded cylinders were carried to quickly reload the revolver but there is no evidence that Booth did so.  The switched cylinder probably occurred before Booth acquired the revolver.

     The second weapon, a Colt Model 1860 Army, serial number 20,407, required .44 caliber ammunition.  Many modern-day police departments equip all their officers with the same caliber pistol to provide uniformity of ammunition.  In a confrontation, officers can trade ammunition and not worry whether it is compatible with their pistols.  Apparently, the advantage of carrying two pistols using the same ammunition never occurred to Booth. 

     During the night after the assassination, authorities searched George Atzerodt’s room at the Kirkwood House.  A Colt revolver was found, along with another Rio Grand[e] Camp Knife and other items.  While this pistol has been attributed to Atzerodt ever since, it probably belonged to Herold who did not have a handgun when arrested at Garrett’s.  After his arrest, Atzerodt claimed the pistol was not his but Herold’s—Atzerodt had left his with a John Caldwell the afternoon before the assassination as security for a $10 loan.  A witness who had seen Atzerodt with his pistol claimed the one shown to him during the trial from the Kirkwood House was different; he identified the pistol left with Caldwell as the one Atzerodt usually carried.   Atzerodt’s disposal of the pistol in order to get money to leave Washington could signal he had no intention of killing the Vice-President and not that he lost his nerve on the night of April 14 as commonly believed.

     While both pistols were introduced at the conspirators’ trial, they were not among the items received by the National Park Service in 1940 from the office of the War Department’s Judge Advocate General which maintained them for75 years.  Their current whereabouts are unknown.

     Samuel Arnold’s pistol was recovered upon his arrest on April 17 at his place of employment at John Wharton’s store near Fortress Monroe.  The Colt revolver, serial number 16,557, was introduced as evidence at the conspirators’ trial but its current location is unknown.

     If Booth provided a pistol to Michael O’Laughlen, it is lost to history.  O’Laughlen arranged to turn himself in to authorities, claiming he had quit the plot.  If he possessed a firearm, he certainly would have disposed of it before surrendering.

     Despite the arsenal of heavy firepower John Wilkes Booth had acquired in the way of six-shot revolvers and large caliber carbines, the only weapon fired during the escapade was a tiny single-shot pistol found discarded on the bloody floor of the Presidential box at Ford’s Theatre.

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