Louis Weichmann: Boarder and Witness

Of the residents of Mary Surratt’s boardinghouse, the best known–and the most controversial–is Louis Weichmann, whose testimony would help send his landlady to the gallows.

Louis Weichmann
Weichmann was born in Baltimore in 1842. His father, a tailor, moved to Washington and then to Philadelphia, where Weichmann attended the Central High School. One of his classmates was George Alfred Townsend, the war correspondent who would cover the trial in which Weichmann was a star witness.

Upon graduation, Weichmann, who had wanted to be a druggist, gave in to his Catholic mother’s wishes and began studying for the priesthood. He entered St. Charles College in Maryland in March 1859; John Harrison Surratt, Mary Surratt’s younger son, followed in September 1859. The two became friends before both left school in July 1862.

Once out of school, Weichmann took up teaching, while John, whose father died soon afterward, took up his father’s position as postmaster at Surrattsville, Maryland, and began to aid the Confederacy as a courier. The two young men stayed in touch, and in 1863 Weichmann accepted John’s invitation to visit him at the tavern. It was after that, according to Weichmann, that the two became intimate friends.

In January 1864, Weichmann, who had not as yet abandoned the idea of becoming a priest, left his teaching job for a better-paying job at the War Department’s Commissary General of Prisoners. Sometime that year, he visited a family friend, Mrs. Anna Petersen, at the Petersens’ house across the street from Ford’s Theater. Weichmann said that he was seated at the left hand window on the second story.

John Surratt told Weichmann in the fall of 1864 that his mother would be opening a boardinghouse in Washington. Lonely in his present lodgings, Weichmann agreed to move to Mrs. Surratt’s establishment, and with that decision altered the course of his life.

At the boardinghouse, John Surratt and Weichmann shared a room and, indeed, a bed, although such sleeping arrangements were common at the time. Weichmann often had the room to himself, however, for John Surratt was frequently away carrying messages for the Confederacy. Most likely Weichmann knew of his friend’s activities. He may have even offered some assistance: John Surratt would later claim that Weichmann supplied him with information gleaned from his employment at the War Department, although Weichmann denied this.

On December 23, 1864, Weichmann and Surratt, while on their way to do some Christmas shopping, met John Wilkes Booth. Soon Booth was a regular visitor to the boardinghouse, and Weichmann’s quiet life there began to change. A stream of odd guests began to appear, including a veiled lady named Mrs. Slater, to whom Weichmann gave up his room for the night, and a man who gave his name as Mr. Wood on one occasion and as Mr. Payne on another. Strangest of all, however, was the day of March 16, when John Surratt, Booth, and Payne stormed into Weichmann’s and Surratt’s room, agitated and carrying weapons. Seeing the astonished Weichmann, the three men hastily adjourned to the attic, then left the house, leaving Weichmann behind to wonder what was going on. In fact, they had been plotting to kidnap President Lincoln, but it would be some time before this became clear.

A month later, on April 11, Weichmann drove his landlady, Mary Surratt, to her tavern in the country. Along the way, they encountered John Lloyd, who was leasing the tavern from Mary. Three days later, on Good Friday, Weichmann, who along with the other War Department clerks had been given the afternoon off from work to attend church services, again drove Mary Surratt to the country.

In the wee hours of April 15, the boardinghouse doorbell rang. Weichmann threw on some clothes and answered it, to find four detectives on the doorstep. Demanding to search the house, they gave him the shocking news that President Lincoln had been shot by Booth hours before.

The searchers having departed empty-handed, Weichmann and the rest of the house went to bed, but not before Weichmann and another boarder, John T. Holohan–the only men in the house that evening–were ordered to report to the police the next morning. The two obeyed, and were soon headed toward Canada in pursuit of John Surratt, who was mistakenly believed to have been the assailant of Secretary of State William Seward, attacked in his bed at around the same time the President was shot. When they returned from what proved to be a futile pursuit–John Surratt had evaded them and would eventually escape to Europe–both men were jailed at Washington’s Old Capitol Prison. An increasingly nervous Weichmann was repeatedly interrogated about what he knew.

In May 1865, Mary Surratt and seven men were brought to trial before a military commission for conspiring with Booth to kill the President. One of the star witnesses for the government was Louis Weichmann, who testified about all of the odd goings-on in the boardinghouse as well as his trips to the country with his landlady. His testimony, and that of John Lloyd, who claimed that Mary had told him to have weapons ready for men who would call for them, proved fatal to Mary. On July 7, 1865, she was hanged, along with Lewis Powell (formerly known as Payne), George Atzerodt, and David Herold.

If Weichmann had hopes of being able to resume his quiet life after the conspiracy trial, they were soon dashed. While Mary Surratt had garnered little sympathy during the trial, her execution–the first of a woman by the federal government–did much to turn popular opinion in her favor, and against her erstwhile boarder, whom some believed had lied for the government to avoid prosecution himself. Within days of the executions, John Brophy, who had been friendly with Weichmann and John Surratt, publicly accused him of perjury. Not to be outdone, a War Department clerk named Charles Guterman claimed that Weichmann had stolen a bottle of a perfume called “Night Blooming Cereus” and some family photographs from his trunk. The Evening Union, which reported this story with lip-smacking glee, also claimed that Weichmann had refused to pay the orphaned Anna Surratt his rent when he was flush with money. Even John Holohan joined in the fun, accusing Weichmann of stealing his shirts. (Weichmann responded by accusing Holohan of stealing his coat.) No wonder Weichmann begged the government to allow him to move to the friendlier confines of Philadelphia, where his family still lived.

Even in Philadelphia, though, Weichmann was to find no peace. In a letter to Judge Advocate General Joseph Holt, the chief prosecutor at the conspiracy trial, Weichmann complained that his brother had been dismissed from a theological seminary because of Weichmann’s testimony and that he himself had been harassed when he went to vote. Weichmann, who claimed that his efforts to resume his theological studies were spurned by clergy who believed that he had betrayed his Catholic landlady, wanted Holt’s help in securing him a government job. He preferred Boston, but was delighted when a job finally materialized at the Philadelphia custom house in December 1865. But in November 1866, he lost his job, which he claimed was due to his having voted the Radical Republican ticket. For a few months in 1867, he received payments from the War Department.

The capture of John Surratt brought Weichmann again to the witness stand in 1867. This time, John T. Ford, the owner of the theater where Lincoln had been shot, and two others connected with the theater, James Gifford and Louis Carland, were each called to impeach Weichmann’s credibility. The most dramatic testimony came from Carland, who had met Weichmann in prison. He claimed that after the trial had ended, but before the executions, he had taken a walk with Weichmann, who told Carland that he wanted to go to church and make his confession. According to Carland, a deeply troubled Weichmann said that if he had been allowed to testify as he wanted and had not been threatened with prosecution as a conspirator, things would have been different with Mary Surratt. Carland went on to claim that after Weichmann left church, the men went to a saloon, where Weichmann recited Hamlet’s soliloquy on death. At the same trial, Weichmann claimed not to remember having made such a recitation in Carland’s company, but acknowledged that he could have done so. He also admitted that he might have looked down the barrels of a revolver on the same occasion, but claimed that he was too much of a coward to be contemplating suicide.

Gifford testified that he did not know Weichmann but had heard an officer tell him in prison that he would be hanged unless he said more than he had already. His testimony is given some credence by James R. Ford, who recalled that one of the deputy keepers thought that Weichmann was the most frightened witness he had ever seen.

Make of these statements what you will, but at least one was probably true: Gifford’s claim in 1868 that Weichmann had told him, “I’d give a million dollars if I had had nothing to do with it.”

With the trial over and John Surratt free to rebuild his life, Louis Weichmann went about the business of rebuilding his. According to his sister, he worked as a newspaper reporter until 1869, when Grant’s election enabled Holt, with whom Weichmann would correspond for the rest of Holt’s life, to get Weichmann reinstated to the custom house in Philadelphia.

In October 1870, Weichmann’s life seemed set to take a happier turn when he married Annie Johnson, also of Philadelphia. Her passport application states that she was short, with a round chin and an ordinary nose. Annie was a temperance activist, and it says something in favor of Weichmann that he was attracted to her in an age where many men preferred women to confine their activities to their home. The marriage, however, did not last. By 1880, Annie was living apart from Weichmann and keeping house for her father, her sister, and a lodger. In 1887, she wrote a letter to her friend Susan Dickinson, whose sister was the abolitionist, lecturer, and actress Anna Dickinson, in which she described her father and her sister as her only family. Although some out-of-town papers mentioned Weichmann’s marriage shortly after it took place, it and its failure were subjects on which Weichmann was silent.

In 1886, Weichmann lost his government job. He moved to Anderson, Indiana, where his family now lived. During much of his time in Anderson, he lived on West Eighth Street with his married sister, whose husband, Charles O’Crawley, was a native of Springfield, Illinois.

Through General Lew Wallace, a member of the military commission who had tried Mary Surratt, Weichmann found temporary work as a stenographer for the Indiana Republican State Committee in 1888. Later that year, Judge Holt managed to find another government job for him, but it was in Washington, a city to which Weichmann had no desire to return. Instead, he opened a business school. Weichmann was the only teacher. A neighbor’s boy, Henry Main, later recalled sitting on the curb and watching the tall, gangly Weichmann head to his office in Anderson’s Decker Building.

Decker Building (right). Postcard courtesy of Anderson Public Library
Decker Building (right). Postcard courtesy of Anderson Public Library

One pupil of Weichmann’s was Joseph Abel, who as an Anderson old-timer would be called upon often in the 1950s and 1960s to reminisce about his former teacher. Abel described Weichmann as distinguished in appearance and as one of the most intelligent people he knew. But although his pupils seem to have thought highly of him, Weichmann never earned much of a profit, as he acknowledged to Judge Holt. Still, he seems to have found his work congenial; in February 1894, he took his students bobsledding. That summer, however, he was forced to close his school because of a six-month spell of “nervous prostration” that incapacitated him until December of that year. One wonders if his condition was worsened by the death in August of Judge Holt, who since the 1860s had been a confidante of Weichmann’s. Even after Weichmann’s recovery, his unease remained: Abel claimed that Weichmann was nervous and never ventured out at night except upon well-lit streets.

Anderson Business School letterhead

Weichmann never stopped brooding about the events of 1865. In the 1880s, he began writing his account of the assassination and the trials that ensued. Over the next couple of decades, Weichmann showed parts of the manuscript to Judge Holt and former police superintendent A.C. Richards, as well as to a younger generation. Joseph Abel recalled decades after his teacher’s death that Weichmann had allowed him to take half of the manuscript home. Another student, Mary Lavell, claimed in the 1960s that Weichmann had used his manuscripts in his classroom as dictation exercises.

Weichmann also solicited testimonials for his book about his honesty. On at least one occasion, he did this rather tactlessly. In an 1896 letter to Judge John Bingham, another prosecutor at the conspiracy trial, Weichmann flattered his subject for a couple of paragraphs before getting to the point. “Judge Bingham, you are now an old man and it may not be many years before the good Father of us all calls you to the enjoyment of that happy home where all trouble and sorrows are at an end. You, more than any man alive to-day, are aware of the meed of praise to which I am entitled for the sacrifices I made and for the work I did in connection with that great trial of 1865. I am writing the history of that affair now and will have it published some day, either during my life time, or after my death. It will be written from the strict stand point of loyalty and truth. I have always felt that I would like to have some brief expression from you in writing as to what you think of the manner in which I performed my duty to the country and of the reward to which I am entitled in the estimation of all good people. As a matter of justice to me, will you not send me a kind letter expressing your views in that regard?”

If Bingham complied with this request, Weichmann did not include his letter in his book.

Ultimately, Weichmann chose not to publish his book during his lifetime. (It was finally published in 1975.) He did, however, publish an abridged version of it–anonymously–in O. H. Oldroyd’s history of the assassination. In it, Weichmann’s experiences are recounted in the third person.

Another of Weichmann’s correspondents during the last years of his life was Dr. George Porter, the surgeon in charge of Mary Surratt and her fellow prisoners. Weichmann mailed chapters of his manuscript to Dr. Porter, telling him that he was “getting along toward the shady side of life” and wanted to put his version of the assassination before the world before his death. In a rather wistful passage, he sent a photograph of himself from 1865 to Dr. Porter, remarking, “It is a very good picture of me as I looked at that time. [Secretary of War] Stanton told me to my face that I was a very comely young man; maybe when you see the picture you will agree with him.”

Two years later, on June 5, 1902, Weichmann died at his sister’s house. Although Lloyd Lewis in Myths after Lincoln gave the cause of his death as “extreme nervousness,” his death certificate records that he died of cardiac asthma. His very last thoughts, as reported in his obituary the following day, were of the trial. He called Hugh J. Creighton, a Union veteran who was a prominent businessman, to his side, but was too weak to speak. Instead, he wrote on a piece of paper that “he wished the people of this country to understand that in the great trial, and while on the witness stand, he told the truth and nothing but the truth.” After a funeral conducted by his brother, who had become a priest, Weichmann was buried in St. Mary’s Cemetery in Anderson, where the rest of his family lies as well.

(This post, with some changes for a general audience, is based on a presentation I made at the Surratt Society conference on April 9, 2016.)

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