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The Conspirators' Punishments

Several hundred people would be arrested on suspicion of being part of the plot to assassinate Lincoln. Most of these would be released, but George Atzerodt, Mary Surratt, Lewis Paine, David Herold, Samuel Arnold, Michael O'Laughlin, Dr. Samuel Mudd, and Edward Spangler, a stage hand who had assisted Booth in his escape, were all held for trial.

Left to right: Atzerodt, Arnold, Herold, and Mary Surratt

Left to right: Mudd, O'Laughlin, Paine, and Spangler

Mary Surratt, Paine, Herold, and Atzerodt were all found guilty in a military trial and sentenced to be hanged. The remaining four were also found guilty and were sentenced to life imprisonment in the Dry Tortugas.

No woman had ever been hanged by the United States Government, and few believed that Mary Surratt's sentence would be carried out. Most expected the new president, Andrew Johnson, to reduce her sentence. However, that was not to be.

On July 7, 1865 a large crowd gathered in the courtyard of the Washington Arsenal. An unexpectedly large number of people wanted to witness the multiple hanging, so many that it became necessary to issue tickets. Those not lucky enough to obtain the coveted tickets sought out any vantage point available, climbing trees, leaning out windows, and crowding onto neary rooftops. Many who were unable to find a suitable location for watching the affair chose to gather outside the walls of the arsenal. Vendors sold lemonade and cakes, creating a party atmosphere.

The conspirators are brought to the gallows and prepared for hanging

Inside, a wooden gallows had been constructed, large enough that all four conspirators could be hanged simultaneously. Four crude coffins, adapted from gun boxes, were placed near the gallows.

General John Frederick Hartranft, a Pennsylvanian who eventually would be awarded the Medal of Honor, was to preside over the hanging. At his signal, and with the assembled crowd watching in silence, the four prisoners were brought to the gallows, their hands tied behind their backs. Hanging caps were placed over each one's head, and the nooses fastened around their necks.

General Hartranf

At about 1:26 p.m. Hartranft clapped his hands together three times. Underneath the gallows, two soldiers using long poles knocked the supporting posts away and the trap doors swung down, dropping the bodies some 5 to 6 feet. As each reached the end of the rope, the body jerked upward, then settled into a slow swaying motion. None of them showed any signs of life after dropping.

The bodies were allowed to hang for nearly 25 minutes, at which time they were cut down and placed on top of the coffins. There, doctors examined them and in turn, pronounced each one dead. The bodies were then placed inside the coffins, the lids were closed, and the four were buried in shallow graves near the gallows which had taken their lives.

The punishment is carried out

For their parts Mudd, Arnold, O'Laughlin, and Spangler were transported to Fort Jefferson in the Dry Tortugas, off the coast of Key West, where they had been sentenced to spend the rest of their lives. Four years into their sentences, however, a yellow fever outbreak occured at Fort Jefferson. O'Laughlin fell victim to the deadly disease, but the other three somehow avoided it. One by one the army surgeons also succumbed, leaving Mudd to treat the remaining victims, along with a few army personnel. When President Johnson received word of Mudd's work he rewarded Mudd with a full pardon. Spangler and Arnold were also pardoned.

Fort Jefferson (courtesy of the National Park Service)

John Surratt fled the country and worked his way to Italy, where he became a member of the Papal Guards. There, he was recognized, seized, and brought back to the United States for trial. His trial resulted in a hung jury, and he was never retried. He settled in Maryland and lived out his days working as a clerk.


The Assassination of Lincoln