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Saturday, March 24, 2012

The Lincoln Assassination (And Cross Dressing)

Booth Shoots Lincoln  April 14, 1865 (Currier & Ives)
John Wilkes Booth, Actor
On Good Friday, April 14, 1865 the famous actor John Wilkes Booth shot President Abraham Lincoln in the back of his head while Lincoln, his wife Mary, and two guests watched the play Our American Cousin at Ford's Theater in Washington, D.C.

The bullet from a small Derringer pistol lodged in Lincoln's brain, just below his left ear.  He was carried, unconscious, to a boarding house across the street from the theater, where he died the  next morning.

After shooting Lincoln, Booth made his escape by leaping from the President's Box onto the stage.  He landed badly, breaking one leg.

Booth Leaps to the Stage of Ford's Theater

  In the confusion and chaos of the moment he managed to flee through a rear entrance of Ford's where an unwitting accomplice was waiting with his horse.  He very quickly left the city and made his way with a co-conspirator, into sparsely populated southern Maryland.

Booth was so well-known that both his fellow actors on-stage and audience members identified him as the assassin immediately.

All entrances and exits to Washington were immediately closed.  Roadblocks were set up at the several bridges leading into Maryland.  The Civil War was reaching it's end, and Washington was an armed camp.  Despite the best efforts of the War Department, Booth and David Herold eluded capture.

In addition to Lincoln's shooting, a simultaneous and very bloody attempt was made to murder Secretary of State William Seward, who was badly injured,but survived.

As might be expected, Washington was in an uproar.  The chief fear was that the attacks were the result of a plot hatched by the dying Confederate government which had fled Richmond only some days earlier.

Booth's disappearance baffled the authorities. It was believed that he was still in Washington, in hiding, or perhaps in disguise.  (He was probably allowed across the Key Bridge by a star struck Union soldier.)

Secretary of War Stanton, knowing that he was an accomplished actor, suspected that Booth had concealed his identity by dressing and acting as a woman.

Fearing that Booth would succeed in this ruse and escape D.C., orders were issued to Army and police forces that male persons dressed in women's clothing were to be apprehended.

And so it was that on April 16 -- two days after the shooting at Ford's -- four men "in women's attire" were arrested and thrown into the notoriously vile Old Capitol prison.  It seems that there was a wider roundup of cross-dressers that day, but this is the only reliable, primary source I could find.

I first came across this story in a not-so-good book on Lincoln's assassination.  At first I didn't believe it but was curious enough to follow the author's single citation.  Which led me to the front page of the New York TImes, April 18, 1865 -- reproduced here:

The New York Times (front page) April 18, 1865

Unfortunately, the story goes completely cold after this.  I can find no additional mention of the four men arrested.  The Army quickly picked up Booth's trail and finally cornered him in a tobacco barn on a farm in northern Virginia where he was shot and killed on April 26, 1865.

One of the things that fascinates me about the story is its rather flat treatment by the New York Times.  You might have expected that the presence of four cross-dressing men in Victorian-era Washington, D.C. would have been a sensation, and that some additional mention of the case, or its disposition would have been made.

Or perhaps not.  Washington had been chock full of soldiers, officers, sutlers, vendors to the government, bureaucrats, journalists and such since the Civil War began in April 1861.  It was also chock full of bordellos and prostitutes catering to this wartime population.  While you can find them, references to the sexual side of Civil War history are elusive and usually limited to the odd indiscretion committed to, say, a soldier's diary not destroyed by him or by his heirs. 

Approximately 2 million men passed through the ranks of the Union Army during the Civil War, and roughly half of those passed through Washington D.C.  That's a lot of young men, away from home for the first time, lonely ....

Still, I would love to know who the four cross-dressers actually were, and what happened to them.   Were they hustlers catering to a particular taste?  Were they simply transvestites?  What was their ethnic background (many of D.C.'s prostitutes were Irish)?

If anybody happens to read this & knows more kindly get in touch.  Municipal, judicial, police and prison records don't seem to be available on line.  I suppose hard copy records might be available in Washington.  I'm not an historian, but would love to know more.

John Wilkes Booth (L.) as Brutus, in Julius Caesar, with his also acting, and quite famous brothers.
Statue:  William Seward
SW Corner
of Madison Sq. Park.

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