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Wednesday, October 8, 2008

12 Hours Chasing John Wilkes Booth

Yes, it is possible to do it on your own. But the time! The wonderful little side trips and the hard-to-find locations. Plus all the spoken history as you ride. The camaraderie of like minded individuals who have the same curiosity as you.

I am speaking of another of the Smithsonian’s excellent day trips, this one entitled, “John Wilkes Booth’s Escape Route,” a 12-hour tour of the places and stops he made after he shot Abraham Lincoln on the night of April 14, 1865, in Washington, D.C. which Ed Bearss, the famous historian and narrator, led last Sunday.


(One of my new comrades told me: “When you see Bearss is the guide, jump on it (the trip) since his tours sell out quickly.”)

Bearss is the retired chief historian for the National Park Service who also leads tours to Civil War battlefields and other places more than 200 days per year, one of the day trippers said.

Whatever, Sunday’s trip was superb.

We began at 8 a.m. sharp (don’t be late or you’ll miss the bus) making the first stop at Lafayette Park, the location of the home (now demolished) of Secretary of State William Seward. Mr. Bearss laid the groundwork for the evening of April 14 describing an attack upon the Secretary in his home by one of the conspirators. (Seward survived.)

From there, we stopped at (hold on):

the Peterson House (where Lincoln died on April 15),

the alley behind Ford’s Theatre (the theatre is closed for renovation),

Mary Surratt’s boarding house a few steps from Sixth and H streets (now a Japanese/Chinese restaurant),

the Surratt Tavern in Clinton, Maryland,

Samuel Mudd’s home near Bryantown, Maryland where lovely costumed Civil War ladies greeted us standing out beside tents. Uniformed Confederate soldiers fired muskets into the field. One played “Dixie” on a flute.

We stopped briefly at St Mary’s Church where Dr. Mudd met Booth in 1864 and where Dr.and Mrs. Mudd are buried, and:

Rich Hill, the home of Samuel Cox,

a thicket like the one where Booth and his accomplice David Herold hid for four nights (the exact location is unknown),

Cleydael, the home of Richard Stewart, where friendly horses, sheep, the current homeowner and four McCain signs greeted us,

Port Royal where Booth and friends crossed the Rappahannock River,

the Peyton House (now boarded up and unlikely to be restored, Mr. Bearss said because a Kansas museum, I think it was, owns most of the artifacts. Kansas? ),

and ending at the location of the Garrett House and Barn where Booth was shot and died.

All that remains of the Garrett structures on the hill between highway lanes amidst vines, trees, and a leaf-strewn path is a small plaque placed within the past year, Mr. Bearss said, by the 21st Century Confederate Memorial group to honor Booth.

And there was more, but don't ask me what.

Mr. Bearss knows all the details of the tragedy and the players upside down and backwards, and after speaking almost non-stop all day, answering questions and describing events and people, times, and places, he took questions on the way back.

The dictionary does not have enough superlative adjectives to adequately describe the day. An excellent detailed map is supplied so you can easily follow the route and timing by the half hour in some cases.

The price ($114 for Smithsonian Associates members) includes a delicious, quick lunch at Captain Billy’s Crab House in Popes Creek, MD, and light refreshments on the way back. (The "Smithsonian Sherry" is better left undrunk.)

A splendid trip in every regard, but perhaps I exaggerate.

Kudos for sure to Kay Weston, the Smithsonian representative, and to “Winfield,” the bus driver.

Because of all the steps and stairs and climbing throughout the day, I do not recommend this trip for handicapped persons, but I can recommend the book about the chase of Booth: Manhunt by James Swanson.

Oh, would that money were no object.

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