The Cosgrove Report
Being the Private Inquiry of a Pinkerton's Detective Into the Death of President Lincolnby G. J. A. O’Toole
‘dazzling . . . A superior example of this genre.” –Nicholas Meyer, author of The Seven-Per-Cent Solution
One of the truly great historical novels of the last several decades, The Cosgrove Report by George o’Toole–a best seller that was critically acclaimed in its initial publication in 1979–explores the suspicious circumstances surrounding the assassination of President Abraham Lincoln.
First published in 1979 to wide acclaim, former CIA agent George o’Toole’s best-selling novel The Cosgrove Report is both a gripping historical thriller and a new and entirely plausible solution to that still unanswered question: Why was Abraham Lincoln murdered? Republished to coincide with the bicentennial of Lincoln’s birth, this is a novel of immense power and imagination, based on meticulous research into the government’s official records of the assassination and the forgotten memoirs of many eyewitnesses. The novel opens when a recently discovered nineteenth-century manuscript falls into the hands of modern-day private investigator Michael Croft. His assignment is to verify the historical accuracy of the papers, which reveal the shocking cover-up of the assassination of Abraham Lincoln and the alleged capture and death of John Wilkes Booth. The manuscript itself, written by Pinkerton detective Nicholas Cosgrove, plunges both Croft and the reader back into post-Civil War Washington, where Cosgrove is hired by Secretary of War Edwin Stanton to investigate rumors that Booth is still alive. His search brings him face-to-face with some of the most illustrious people of the period, and exposes a trail of lies and evasions equal to any modern day political scandal. Danger, intrigue, and an absolutely stunning denouement combine to make The Cosgrove Report a marvelous tour de force as well as an imaginative excursion into what might have been.
“Dazzling . . . A superior example of this genre.” –Nicholas Meyer, author of The Seven-Per-Cent Solution
“George o’Toole has managed to catch us all in his net with The Cosgrove Report. A must for lovers of history and stylish writing, mystery fans, adventure and assassination buffs.” –Arlene Francis
“An enthralling, beautifully constructed mystery.” –Harriet Van Horne
“O’Toole makes such a convincing eyewitness, I almost suspect he was there. Don’t let anyone tell you how The Cosgrove Report ends.” –Dilys Winn, Murder Ink; Murderess Ink
“A humdinger of a mystery . . . transports us to a landscape at once familiar and as exotic as a sinister, murderous oz.” –The Washington Star
“By carriage, train, boat and balloon, Cosgrove stumbles on one denouement after another . . . novelist George o’Toole . . . follows sleuth and booth with verve, humor and impressive scholarship.” –Time
“An absolute delight . . . there are wheels within wheels that bring the fancier of history up with shocking suddenness . . . will appeal to the mystery fan who likes the feeling of being trapped in a mirror maze . . . not only is this good history, it is also good fun.” –San Diego Union
“O’Toole takes an era captured in daguerreotype and inflates it with enough life to give us a vividly vicarious understanding of the mid-19th century . . . the reader is brilliantly seduced onto the tightrope between face and fiction.” –The Cleveland Press
“Out of the ordinary . . . an imaginative mix of historical research and fictional extrapolation . . . the ending is as surprising as anyone could wish.” –Los Angeles Times
“Compelling . . . a stunning conclusion.” –Grand Rapids Press
“A gem . . . it truly takes the reader back to relive those days. But don’t let anyone tell you how the book ends . . . that would be cruel and inhuman treatment.” –Memphis Commercial Appeal
“Moves along at lightning speed . . . sprightly and intriguing . . . what gorgeous entertainment.” –Columbus Dispatch
“Fascinating . . . an exciting chronicle of what might have been . . . ending with a twist that should satisfy the most fanatical mystery aficionado.” –Civil War Times
“My hat is off to G.J.A. O’Toole. He has come up with an idea for a mystery so good . . . and he has brought it off with a flair that rivals Josephine Tey’s The Daughter of Time . . . ingenious and plausible . . . the research is meticulous.” –Baltimore Sun
“If you think there is no more mystery surrounding that assassination, you are dead wrong . . . a must for anyone to whom history is a wonderful old trunk in the attic, always full of dusty surprises.” –Cleveland Plain Dealer
“A political thriller based on a careful reading of history that will make a thrice-told tale seem completely different.” –Boston Herald American
“It has everything–mystery, adventure, history, and a delightful unsuspected ending . . . fascinating characters, among them some of Washington’s most illustrious men . . . the unique tale of an American Sherlock Holmes.” –Seattle Times Magazine
“Startling. Don’t tell anyone how it ends.” –The Pittsburgh Press
“Contains more factual information about the truth of the assassination and the alleged conspiracy than I have seen in print anywhere . . . Lovers of mystery stories will find o’Toole a master teller of tales. This is the best of historical fiction from historical fact that you’re likely to find.” –Cincinnati Enquirer
“Rejoice, lovers of mystery and history. You’re in for a treat you’ll be talking about for a long time.” –Newport News Daily Press
“A first-rate thriller by any standards . . . a truly distinctive historical detective story. No one has done it any better.” –Savannah News-Press Sunday Magazine
“A tour de force of its kind.” –Publishers Weekly
A Mystery Is Exhumed
I find myself in a strange world. The century in which I was pleased to reside for a matter of some sixty-five years is gone, like some mammoth steamship sunk to the bottom of the sea. The stately halls and ballrooms are hidden forever in the ocean depths, and live on only in the minds of survivors, such as myself. From time to time, books of memoirs appear, bits of flotsam broken free of the wreck that float to the surface. But soon even this decay will be complete, and the rusting hulk will have no more messages to send the world above. So, if ever I am to put in my own motto, I suppose the moment has arrived.
Unlike many of my fellow survivors, I write of events past not to celebrate my own importance as a witness to history. Rather, I write out of duty, and most reluctantly. I cannot take to my grave the Truth of which Chance and Fate have made me custodian.
The late century was crowded with events that will bend the course of history for scores of generations to come, yet the true meaning of the most momentous act of those hundred years remains hidden. I seek only to lift the veil that enshrouds it. Thus, in adding to the growing burden of public reminiscences of the recently departed era, I have limited myself to an account of events that transpired during a period of only eighteen months, which began for me just outside New York Harbor on the bright, crisp morning of March 21, 1868.
I was aboard the City of New London, returning from a seven-month sojourn in England and the Continent. As the steamer waited a few miles south of Fire Island Light for the appearance of a New York Harbor pilot boat, I had a leisurely breakfast with my traveling companion, the cashier of a large New York bank. We shared this repast, not in the ship’s dining room, as we had our other meals, but in the cargo hold. The man required some assistance with his knife and fork because, at my request, the master-at-arms had placed him in irons the previous night.
The banker had been the occasion for my European venture. He had absconded some eight months earlier with a large sum of his employer’s cash. The bank retained Pinkerton’s National Detective Agency, which it was then my honor to serve, and I was set onto the trail of the errant cashier. I tracked my quarry to Toronto and from there to Halifax, from whence he had boarded a steamer bound for Liverpool. The trail became warm when he bounded to Edinburgh, since an American is even less a Scot than he is an Englishman. When I flushed him from there to Paris, he was as good as caught, for he spoke not a word of French. Neither was he conversant with the celebrated wines of that country, and he failed to taste the few drops of chloroform that had been added to the glass of champagne served him by an avaricious lady in a Marseilles bordello. But when he awoke to the rhythmic pulsing of the New London’s engines as they churned Mediterranean water some hours later, he found himself once more among his countrymen.
He was moderately philosophical about his fate, however, not the least reason for which was his excellent position to negotiate a degree of clemency from the authorities. The majority of his booty remained unspent in banks from Toronto to Paris, and his cooperation in the recovery of these sums would save his former employer some considerable inconvenience. In making my hurried special arrangements for passage with the captain of the New London, I stipulated that my prisoner could have the freedom of the ship when it was out of sight of land. Until we rounded South Shoal lightship, the banker had worn irons only once before, when we stopped at Liverpool and I went ashore to cable ahead to Pinkerton’s in New York.
The esteemed George Bangs, head of Pinkerton’s New York Office, was surely waiting at dockside with a brace of New York policemen to take charge of the prisoner. Bangs would be there in person in anticipation of meeting the mysterious Cosgrove; few in the detective agency other than Allan Pinkerton himself knew my face, a precaution I forced on Mr. Pinkerton as a condition of my employment after the death of Timothy Webster. Tim, with whom I served in the New York constabulary before we both joined Pinkerton’s prior to the War, was betrayed to the Confederates by a cowardly fellow detective and hanged. Since then, I have refused to be photographed, mastered the art of disguise and insisted that no one but Mr. Pinkerton himself should know my countenance. George Bangs was to be no exception. I sent for a porter to take my luggage on deck as soon as the sails of the pilot boat were sighted through the morning mists.
The schooner James Funk luffed to under our quarter, and launched a small boat. Some minutes later a man in a black suit and top hat climbed on deck and was handed up a small valise and a sheaf of papers. As I prepared to take his place in the boat for the trip back to the schooner, he stopped me.
“Mr. Nichols?” he asked, using the pseudonym with which I sign my reports.
I nodded, and he handed me a telegram, then went on about his business. I climbed into the boat, and as the seamen cast off from the New London, I ran a thumbnail beneath the flap of the envelope. The message was terse and emphatic:
TO: C. N. Nichols, aboard the City of New London:
Urgent you join me in court.
E. J. Allen
“E. J. Allen” was Mr. Pinkerton’s favorite nom de guerre, which he had adopted while serving as General McClellan’s Chief of Intelligence during the War. The “court” was a code word meaning Washington City. Since he hadn’t specified otherwise, I knew that Mr. Pinkerton meant I should meet him at a certain house on K Street. The “urgent” was unnecessary; the pains that had been taken to deliver the message to me on the high seas was a most eloquent announcement that, whatever the reason for the summons, time was of the essence.
A brisk March wind filled the schooner’s sails, and well before noon we had tied up amidst the forest of masts and smokestacks at the foot of Wall Street. A uniformed officer from the nearby Customs House inspected my luggage on the pier, and within twenty minutes I was walking through the crowded lobby of the Astor House, where I maintained a suite of rooms on a permanent basis. I stopped only long enough to pack a fresh valise and settle my accounts with the bewildered room clerk before hailing a cab to take me to the ferry landing at the foot of Cortlandt Street. I reached the railroad station in Jersey City with time enough to send a telegraph ahead to Mr. Pinkerton before boarding the noon train for Washington City.”
The cars were somewhat crowded, which was as well, since the human heat greatly abetted the work of the cast-iron coal stoves in driving off a late winter chill that had descended over the Jersey marshlands. Toward the front of the car I had selected, I recognized a cardsharp and his shill busily engaged in a game of three-card monte, before a fascinated audience of prospective pigeons. Before the sharp could glance up, I moved back to the next car and took a seat beside a well-dressed but gaunt man who seemed absorbed in a late morning edition of the New York Sun. Whatever he was reading seemed to disagree with him, or he with it, for he soon began to recite a sotto voce litany of sighs, exclamations and mutterings. Finally he cast the newspaper down and exclaimed, “The cowardly scoundrel!”
It was not clear whether this remark was addressed to me or to himself. I turned to him, lifted an eyebrow, and begged his pardon. He struck the folded newspaper with the back of his hand as though it were a despised adversary.
“The Great Criminal, Andrew Johnson,” he said. “By this account he means to cower in the White House on Monday, instead of facing the bar of justice like a man.”
My face betrayed my puzzlement.
“Can it be you haven’t heard that Judas Johnson is to be tried in the Senate for high crimes and misdemeanors?” he asked.
The matter had received little notice in the European press, and the press had received scant attention from myself, busy as I was in pursuit of the errant banker. I knew almost nothing of the matter, beyond the meaning of the word “impeachment,” which I looked up when I first heard it some months earlier.
“I believe I heard something of the sort, but I have only just returned from the Western Territories by sea. I haven’t seen an eastern newspaper in weeks.”
It transpired that my companion was in the employ of a newspaper, and one familiar to me, the Cincinnati Gazette. His name was Reed, and he was on his way to Washington to report on the Impeachment Trial, an assignment which he seemed to find eminently agreeable.” It struck me that the coming hours of enforced confinement with this student of political science provided me a splendid opportunity to come up to date on events in Washington City, and perhaps lend me some clew to the reason for Mr. Pinkerton’s summons.
I introduced myself to my companion as Charles Nichols, a traveling canvasser for Hostetter Stomachic Bitters, a popular nostrum of the time.
“A wineglass full of these bitters taken three times a day is a certain cure for dyspepsia,” I recited as I took a bottle of the product from my valise, drew the cork and offered it to the journalist. “It improves the appetite, prevents fever and ague, and removes all flatulency.”
“Would that it could remove that flatulent Tennessee tailor from the White House and so spare the country the task of trying him,” said Reed, after taking a long pull from the vessel.
Whatever else Dr. Hostetter added to his bitters, one part in four was pure grain alcohol, a fact that I, along with thousands of my comrades, discovered during the War. I cannot say whether the potion truly aided digestion, but I had often observed its effectiveness in loosening the tongue. And my disguise as a purveyor of the bitters provided a natural occasion to administer it when the need for such loosening arose. But no hidden motive lay behind the hospitality I offered Mr. Reed, for it was clear even before the spirits reached his brain that he was making ready to deliver a disquisition on the high crimes and misdemeanors that had led to the impeachment of President Andrew Johnson.
The specific offense that led to the Great Criminal’s impeachment, my companion explained, was his attempt to remove the Secretary of War in defiance of the wishes of the Senate. This was a brazen violation of the Tenure of Office Act, which had been passed only a year earlier by Congress. The act decreed that public officials appointed with the advice and consent of the Senate could only be discharged in the same manner. After the Senate voted thirty-five to six against the dismissal of Secretary Edwin McMasters Stanton, Johnson abandoned the rule of law that governs civilized men and sent one of his lackeys to evict the Secretary from the War Department. But, while this was the final outrage, the journalist declaimed, it was by no means the only one, or even the worst.
I do not involve myself in politics, but even I was aware of the ill will between the President and Congress that had been festering for more than a year. Andy Johnson was a Southerner, but never a Rebel. A man of humble origins who had earned his bread with his hands, he hated and resented the aristocratic leaders of the Old South. When the War came, he was serving in Congress, the Senator from Tennessee, but he resigned his seat to accept a commission as Brigadier General and Military Governor of Tennessee. He yielded to no man in his hatred of the Confederacy, and when he was nominated as President Lincoln’s running mate in June, 1864, Senator Sumner of Massachusetts wished the ticket could be stood upon its head, with Johnson in the prime place. Sumner was one of the Radical Republicans who demanded the South be shown no mercy. But, ironically, he was one of the leaders of the pack now calling for the President’s scalp.
Indeed, the Radical Republicans’ displeasure with Andy Johnson was only a sequel to the umbrage inspired in them by President Lincoln, who looked upon the defeated Secessionists as strayed sheep returned to the fold. When Johnson suddenly ascended to the presidency, Sumner and his fellows believed this Rebel-hater would help them realize their dreams of plunder and vengeance. But within two months those dreams were shattered, when President Johnson ordered complete amnesty and pardon to hundreds of thousands of Confederate soldiers, and stipulated surprisingly mild terms for the reconstruction of North Carolina.
It was the first shot in the war between Andy Johnson and the Radicals. During the next three years he would be accused of everything from entreating with the enemy while Military Governor of Tennessee to conspiring with Booth in the murder of President Lincoln. In the end it would come down to the question of the President’s power to discharge Edwin McMasters Stanton, the only ally of the Radicals within Johnson’s cabinet. The articles of impeachment had been voted in the House of Representatives, and the Senate trial was to commence on Monday. The Washington City toward which we sped through that waning March afternoon was a city divided; a full battalion of troops stood guard at the War Department, where Secretary Stanton was completing his thirtieth day of continuous occupancy. In the White House, the five lawyers who would defend the President in the Impeachment Trial conferred with their client. Throughout the city rumors spread of Rebel sympathizers placing explosives in public buildings. There was intrigue enough for an army of secret detectives to deal with.
By the time Mr. Reed had completed his account of these matters in far greater detail than I have repeated here, we had gone through the cities of Philadelphia and Wilmington, as well as three bottles of Hostetter’s Bitters. My companion discovered the medicine to be a most agreeable tonic, and had consumed the larger portion. As we departed the depot in Baltimore on the last leg of our journey, he was snoring in close harmony with the whistle of the steam engine that drew us toward our troubled capital.
The countryside through which we passed was now in the grip of a winter storm, and a thick curtain of snow dimmed the lights of the occasional farmhouse standing off in the early evening darkness. It was past ten o’clock when I felt the train slow to a crawl as it passed the city limits of Washington. I took out my watch and set it back twelve minutes.” Shortly I glimpsed the lights of the Capitol through the car window as we approached the old Baltimore and Ohio station at the foot of Capitol Hill. Leaving my traveling companion where he slumbered, I arose, picked up my valise and stepped out onto the rear balcony. It was a cloudy, moonless night and a few flakes of snow still fell, but the light coming from within the car illuminated the roadbed on either side of the train. We had slowed to the pace of a fast walk. I climbed down the steps and jumped to the ground, then made my way across the tracks to C Street. He who seeks to obscure his comings and goings is well advised to avoid railroad stations.
Some hundred yards from the station I found a young Negro lad dozing at the reins of a covered carriage parked just beyond the flickering aureole cast by a nearby street lamp. It was Patch, a footman in the K Street household of a close friend of Mr. Pinkerton. I wakened him and climbed into the vehicle.
Washington City had changed since the War. Gone were the throngs of soldiers, camp followers and peddlers who crowded the capital. It seemed that more of the streets had been lighted, but Pennsylvania Avenue, along which the carriage rattled, remained one of the few thoroughfares to have been paved. Just past the gas-lit facade of the White House, the War Department was bathed in torchlight. True to Mr. Reed’s report, the building was ringed by armed sentries. We turned onto 17th Street, and the team slowed as the carriage wheels sank into the mud.
My journey ended in the doorway of a stately three-story mansion on K Street, where I was met by Mr. Pinkerton, himself. He solemnly shook my hand and ushered me into a sitting room at the front of the house. The drapes had been drawn across the windows, and Mr. Pinkerton quickly glanced about the empty vestibule before pulling shut the pair of doors separating it from our chamber. He strode across the room, seated himself and bid me do the same. When he spoke it was in hushed tones calculated to carry not even so far as the ornately papered walls.
“Thank you for your promptness, Nicholas. I feared ye would not arrive until the morrow.”
When tired or anxious, Mr. Pinkerton tended to lapse into the idiom and accents of his native Scotland. I could see the fatigue engraved in his face, and he told me he had only just arrived that morning by rail from Iowa, where he and his son William had pursued the notorious Reno gang. He was nearing fifty, and a few flecks of gray had appeared in his black spatulate beard; soon he would have to leave such exploits to younger men. I waited for him to announce the occasion of our respective summonses to the capital.
“It is a very delicate business that we are about, Nicholas. I must ask your solemn word that you will never speak of it after it is done.”
“You have it,” I said.
“For my part, I have been forbidden even to instruct you in the particulars of the case. Those you must learn directly from our client, whom you will meet in a few moments. A word of caution before we join him: While we shall, of course, serve the man with complete loyalty in this matter, you are to tell him nothing of whatever you happen to know of any other case now under investigation by the Agency.”
“Certainly not, sir!” I exclaimed, somewhat indignantly. “I believe that goes without saying.”
Mr. Pinkerton gazed wearily at me.
“Of course, Nicholas. But you will see that this is a most uncommon case, with a most uncommon client. And circumstances have unavoidably put us in great jeopardy of being thought double-dealers.”
He clapped his hands on his knees and arose.
“Come,” he said. “You shall meet our client.”
I followed Mr. Pinkerton upstairs to the second floor, where he stopped at the first of several doors facing the balustrade, and knocked. A man in an Army major’s uniform opened the door and bid us enter. Inside, two junior officers were warming themselves at a fireplace in the corner, while behind a small oaken desk, a man in civilian attire was scribbling intently. As we entered, he put down his pen, carefully sanded the fresh ink, and summoned one of the lieutenants from the fire.
“See that this is in Congressman Butler’s hands within the hour,” he said, dismissing the officer and turning to us. As he arose his face emerged from the shadow and into the light cast from the chimney of the desk lamp. It was a countenance that bespoke great intelligence, as well as a kind of righteous intensity. There was, too, a bit of the middle-aged schoolmaster about the man, a quality that found amplification in the pair of spectacles that rested astride the bridge of his nose. His upper lip was clean-shaven, but a full beard cascaded halfway down his chest. It was a face I had seen countless times but never before in person. It was that of Edward McMasters Stanton, Secretary of War and eye of the political storm that now raged over Washington.
“You may leave us, now, gentlemen,” he said to the major and the remaining subaltern. “Wait downstairs, but don’t show yourselves unnecessarily in the street. We do not wish to advertise that the Secretary of War is away from the War Department.”
When the officers had departed, the Secretary bid us be seated and began to read from a sheaf of papers he had picked from the desk. His eyes darted quickly over the documents, which seemed to pertain to me, for he repeatedly interrupted his reading in order to direct a quick glance in my direction. It took him but a minute or so to scan his way to the last sheet. He replaced the sheaf on the desk and turned to me.
“So you are to be our bloodhound, eh, Mr. Cosgrove? Tell me, how many men have you tracked down in your career?”
“I haven’t kept count, Mr. Secretary,” I replied. “About a score or so of those who’d never learned to hide. And perhaps half a dozen of those who had.”
“Ah, yes,” he said, “the sheep must not be counted with the foxes.”
He glanced at the topmost paper on his desk.
“During the War, you were chief of reconnaissance in Cincinnati, were you not?” he asked.
“I’m sure the War Department’s records of my service are correct, sir,” I replied.
Mr. Stanton smiled slightly.
“Very good. Loquacity is not a desirable characteristic in a secret detective. I hope you will be equally taciturn regarding your involvement in this affair.”
“He has been told nothing of the assignment yet,” interjected Mr. Pinkerton.
Mr. Stanton nodded. He twisted a strand of his beard between thumb and forefinger and stared abstractedly for some moments at a point in space somewhere above my head. Finally he spoke.
“We have a fox for you this time, Mr. Cosgrove. Not a sheep, but a fox. He is skilled in the crafts of the secret agent, for he served the Confederacy in that capacity during the War. Like yourself, he is a master of the art of theatrical makeup, and can change his appearance at will. He can play almost any role he chooses, for he once was one of the most celebrated actors of our time. I thought him dead until recently, and I’m still not absolutely convinced I was wrong. But if he lives, you must find him and lead us to him. Here is one of his faces.”
He passed a carte de visite across the desk. I held it up to the lamplight and instantly recognized the face, but I remained staring at the picture for what must have been near a full minute. Somehow, I thought, my eyes or brain were tricking me, and the man in the photograph was someone other than the person every detail of his physiognomy insisted he was. I looked to the Secretary and Mr. Pinkerton. There was not the trace of a smile on either of their countenances. I had no doubt they were in deadly earnest. And I was equally certain the face in the photograph belonged to John Wilkes Booth.
“I am sorry, gentlemen,” I said, “but I do not understand this.”
“Undoubtedly,” commented the Secretary. “Your astonishment is perfectly natural. You, as did I, believe that Booth has been in his grave these past three years. But I have lately come into information suggesting otherwise.”
“And what information is that?” I asked.
Stanton held up his hand, as if to ward off the question.
“That I cannot say. It comes from a highly confidential source, and a man of your profession will understand that such sources must sometimes remain anonymous. All I can tell you is the source is too reliable to warrant dismissing the report out of hand.”
“You may recollect, Nicholas,” Mr. Pinkerton interposed, “that at the time of the unfortunate business, there were rumors that the man taken at Garrett’s Farm was not Booth.”
“The sensationalist press made that charge,” said the Secretary. “The Rebels wanted to believe it. They required a living hero to serve as a rallying point. Thus we could ill afford to give voice to our own doubts.”
“Then you doubted the body was Booth?” I asked.
“I did not personally view the remains,” the Secretary said, with a faint shudder, “but I was told they bore little resemblance to the man in life. You must understand that Booth had suffered the privations of a fugitive who had spent a fortnight in the wilderness, and a full day passed after his death before the body was brought to this city. Is it so remarkable, then, that the corpse did not appear to be Booth?
“I ordered Judge Holt to hold an inquest. He did his best to ascertain the dead man’s identity, and obtained the testimony of a physician who had treated Booth. The surgeon said the corpse was his patient.”
“Yet you remain uncertain,” I said.
The Secretary shrugged and sighed.
“We cannot afford to exclude the possibility that they were mistaken. If Booth lives, I mean to know. How do you propose to begin your investigation?”
“By opening the grave of John Wilkes Booth, if I can learn where it may be,” I replied.”
A very strange expression came over Mr. Stanton’s countenance. I would not have raised the question of exhumation so bluntly had I known then what I learned later. The Secretary suffered from a morbid mania regarding the dead. He was simultaneously obsessed with corpses and terrified of them. After his little daughter Lucy died many years earlier, he had her coffin exhumed and kept it in his room for two years. And when his brother took his own life, Stanton bolted from the funeral procession and ran madly through the woods, where he was overtaken and forcibly restrained by the other mourners who thought him bent on his own suicide.”
The Secretary’s discomposure at my reply was momentary, and in a few seconds he regained his equanimity.
“I fail to see what you hope to learn from a corpse that’s been in its grave for three years, that was not discovered by Judge Holt when the body was merely one day dead,” he said.
“Perhaps the corpse has nothing more to tell us, but we may hope to find some clew in the grave. Tell me, please, the boot that Dr. Mudd cut from the broken leg of Booth–where is it now?”
“Why, it is in the custody of the Department of War,” the Secretary replied. “It was entered as evidence in the trial of the conspirators.”
“And where lies its mate?” I asked.
Secretary Stanton stared blankly back at me for a moment, then I saw comprehension dawning in his eyes. He thrust a balled fist into an open palm.
“Of course!” he exclaimed. “Booth was buried wearing the same clothes in which he was taken. If the body in the grave is truly Booth, it should wear one riding boot, the mate of the one we hold at the War Department.”
“A brilliant observation, Nicholas,” said Mr. Pinkerton proudly. “We must exhume the body tomorrow.”
“No,” countered the Secretary. “We must do so immediately! If Booth is not in his grave, I mean to know it tonight.”
Secretary Stanton summoned the two officers waiting downstairs. The Major was dispatched in our host’s carriage to the War Department to retrieve the boot. The Secretary, Mr. Pinkerton, the Lieutenant and I crowded into the Secretary’s carriage and set out for the grave site, which, Mr. Stanton revealed, was in the Old Washington Arsenal Penitentiary.”
The Arsenal stood on Greenleaf’s Point, the southern-most extremity of the Federal City, at the confluence of the Potomac River with the Eastern Branch.” It was within the grim stone walls of the compound that Booth’s fellow conspirators were held and tried, and it was in the prison yard that four of them were buried, but a few feet from the place where they were hanged. It was a fitting spot for the grave of the assassin.
As we drew up before the ominous pile, we were challenged by a sentry. The Lieutenant stepped down and spoke with the man, while the Secretary, Mr. Pinkerton and I remained out of view in the carriage. Presently the Commandant appeared, apparently summoned from his bed. He was buttoning his uniform tunic and swearing softly as the Lieutenant escorted him to the carriage door.
“Who the hell are you?” he demanded. “And what are you doing here at this hour? It’s the middle of the goddamn night.”
The Lieutenant raised a lantern to the doorway, momentarily filling the coach with light. The Commandant snapped to attention as he met the Secretary’s cold stare, and babbled a confused apology. Mr. Stanton made no response to this, but simply ordered the officer in frigid tones to enter the coach and be seated.
“I am here on a matter of utmost secrecy,” the Secretary said. “No word of this visit is ever to pass your lips. To speak of it will be regarded as treason and punished accordingly. Your men are not to learn of the reason for this visit or the identity of the visitors. Therefore I shall require you to escort us personally to the place where the assassin Booth is buried, and to provide us with picks and shovels.”
I could not see the Commandant’s expression in the darkness. He sat in silence for a moment, then stammered his assent and stepped from the carriage. I heard the rasp of massive hinges and the coach lurched into motion. From the echoes that marked our progress I knew we had entered within the Arsenal walls.
Holding a lantern to light our way, the Commandant led us across the yard and into a forbidding dungeon. We stumbled after him through a labyrinth of narrow stone corridors sunk in a pitchy blackness relieved only by our escort’s swaying lantern. Finally he stopped before a cast-iron door set into the stone. He drew the bolt and we followed him within.
It was a large, windowless room filled with kegs of gunpowder, boxes of ammunition, and the dank smell of earth. The Commandant hung his lantern from a wall hook and cautioned us regarding the explosives stored in the chamber. Then, with the help of the Lieutenant and myself, he cleared a pile of powder kegs from one corner.
“Here he lies, sir,” he said. “Beneath this stone floor.”
He lit a taper from the lantern flame and left us, returning in a few minutes bearing a pick and spade on his shoulder.
‘very well,” said the secretary. “Now, return to the gate and wait there. A Major Harrison will arrive presently. Show him here. See to the matter yourself. Do not appoint a subordinate to do it.”
It fell to the Lieutenant and myself, as the youngest and most junior members of the party, to do the digging. The most difficult task was the removal of the paving stones covering the grave. Each was of an enormous weight and required much effort to move. Beneath, the earth, petrified by the winter cold, resisted the thrusts of pick and spade. The Lieutenant and I took turns at the work. I was resting when the Major arrived.
Mr. Stanton examined the historic boot, then passed it to the rest of us for inspection. It was a cavalry-style boot designed to reach midway between hip and knee. Apart from the cut Dr. Mudd had made to remove it from his patient, it was in excellent repair. The boot was of superb workmanship, and I was certain its mate could survive a century or more in the ground.
We were interrupted by a cry from the Lieutenant, who was standing knee deep in the freshly dug pit.
“Here it is,” he called out.
I stepped down into the depression and, using my bare hands, helped him to clear the earth from around the box. Booth’s coffin was a wooden gun case. His name had been scratched on the cover. The Lieutenant and I lifted it from the shallow grave and placed it on the stone floor. As I wiped the earth from my hands, Mr. Stanton took the lantern from the wall and raised it over the box. A strange excitement shone in his eyes.
“Open it quickly, if you will, Mr. Cosgrove,” he said.
Using the tip of the spade, I prized up the cover at each corner of the box. The coffin nails shrieked their protest. I lifted the cover from the case and set it upon the floor. Mr. Pinkerton and the Secretary edged forward and looked down into the box. Except for a few heavy stones, it was empty. Mr. Stanton stared at the coffin in horror.
“He lives.” It was barely more than a whisper. He handed me the lantern.
“Bury it again,” he commanded. “No one else must learn of this.” Abruptly, he stepped to the door of the ammunition room. The Major held a torch aloft and opened the iron portal for him. Mr. Stanton turned and looked back at me.
“Find him, Mr. Cosgrove. Find him and lead me to him.”
Then, followed by the Major, he disappeared into the dark labyrinth beyond.