On December 23, 1864, Louis Weichmann left his Washington, D.C., boardinghouse to do some Christmas shopping for gifts for his sisters. Instead, he was waylaid by history.
Weichmann, age twenty-two, was employed in the War Department. In the fall of 1864, a friend and former classmate, John Surratt, told Weichmann that his widowed mother, Mary, was planning to lease her farm and tavern in Prince George’s County, Maryland, and move to Washington, D.C., where her late husband had acquired a house at 541 H Street some years before. She planned to open her house to boarders; would Weichmann like to move in? Weichmann, lonely in his present lodgings, gladly accepted the opportunity to share his friend’s home.
Since leaving school, John Surratt had been helping his mother with her Maryland property. His main occupation, however, had been carrying clandestine messages for the Confederacy, for the Surratts, like most of their neighbors in Prince George’s County, were southern sympathizers. Indeed, the tavern was a “safe house” for those engaged in missions for the South. Still, the Confederate cause looked bleak in December 1864, and according to Weichmann, Mary Surratt had urged her son to get a “real” job. He would begin working for Adams Express Company, the UPS of its day, on December 30.
After dinner at the boardinghouse, Weichmann and John, who shared a room and indeed a bed there (a common sleeping arrangement at the time), set off to take a stroll and to do some Christmas shopping. As they passed by the Odd Fellows’ Hall on Seventh Street, a man called out John Surratt’s name. He was Dr. Samuel Mudd, a doctor who owned a farm in Charles County, Maryland and who had a prior acquaintance with John Surratt. Dr. Mudd too was with a companion: a pale, dark-haired, and strikingly handsome man whose name Weichmann understood as “Mr. Boone.” Had Weichmann been a regular theatergoer, he would have recognized the man as the actor John Wilkes Booth.
The four men exchanged pleasantries, and Booth invited the others to his rooms at the National Hotel, where he ordered milk punch and cigars for the quartet. Then, after some idle chit-chat, Booth, Mudd, and Surratt went into the hall, leaving Weichmann to enjoy his cigar in solitude. Soon the three returned, but rather than rejoin Weichmann, they gathered around a table and talked quietly amongst themselves, Dr. Mudd having explained that they were discussing the sale of Dr. Mudd’s farm to Booth. During their conversation, Weichmann, seated alone on a sofa by the window, noted that Booth made some marks on the back of an envelope, which the sharp-eyed Weichmann thought were straight lines. When the trio wrapped up their private conversation, the party adjourned to the Pennsylvania Hotel, where Dr. Mudd, in Washington to do some shopping himself, was staying with a relative. This time, Dr. Mudd and Weichmann chatted together on a settee in the hotel’s public room while Surratt and Booth talked by the fire, the latter amusing Surratt by exhibiting letters and photographs to him.
Around half past ten, the party broke up. Whatever the others had said to each other during their conversation, Weichmann at least was unaware of the cataclysmic effect his new acquaintance would soon have on the nation. For now, all Weichmann knew was that his Christmas shopping would have to wait another day.
Benjamin Perley Poore, ed., The Conspiracy Trial for the Murder of the President, and the Attempt to Overthrow the Government by the Assassination of Its Principal Officers.
Edward Steers, Jr., ed., The Trial: The Assassination of President Lincoln and the Trial of the Conspirators.
Robert K. Summer, The Assassin’s Doctor: The Life and Letters of Samuel A. Mudd.
U.S. Government Printing Office, The Trial of John H. Surratt in the Criminal Court for the District of Columbia.
Louis J. Weichmann (Floyd E. Risvold, ed.), A True History of the Assassination of Abraham Lincoln and of the Conspiracy of 1865.