On April 21, 1865, as part of its coverage of President Lincoln’s assassination and its aftermath, the Washington Evening Star reported the arrival of the captured George Atzerodt in Washington. In addition, the Star noted that a man had been detained for questioning at Fort Thayer after repeatedly trying to break through the picket lines surrounding Washington. The man, however, would never be questioned. Instead, he took a penknife and slit his jugular vein.
The “mysterious suicide,” the Star concluded, must have been involved in the assassination plot. Such a supposition was not entirely unreasonable; after all, Ella Starr, John Wilkes Booth’s mistress, had attempted to kill herself days before, and Lewis Powell reportedly made a suicide attempt days later.
The next day, the Star reported the identity of the mysterious suicide: George B. Love, a hospital steward who had been dismissed from his post. Backing away somewhat from its original claim, the Star conceded that “mortification at his disgraceful position may have had something to do with his suicide.” Picked up by other newspapers, the story circulated around the country for a few days before fading into obscurity.
But the Star was not entirely mistaken. Whatever the cause of his tragic death, Love did have a connection to the assassination plot’s leading man, John Wilkes Booth.
George B. Love was born to James and Ann Love in Harford County, Maryland, on September 2, 1837. In 1850, he lived in Bel Air with his parents and four sisters; his father was a shoemaker.[i] Not far from Bel Air, of course, was Tudor Hall, the home of the Booth family, and two of the Booth boys—Joseph and John—attended Bel Air Academy. A classmate, George Y. Maynadier, recalled in 1902 that George B. Love attended the school as well. Barely disguising the former pupil’s identity as “G__ L__,” Maynadier stated:
At the time when John Wilkes and Joseph A Booth were pupils at the Academy, there lived in Bel Air a family by the name of L___ (I do not for obvious reasons mention the name.) The eldest son, almost the age of John Wilkes Booth, was also a pupil at the Academy and intimate with the latter. He was likewise the most notorious of all the boys and young men at school or in the village, as the ringleader of everything desperate and reckless. In those days I was afraid of him, as all the smaller boys were, who often “tasted his specialty” in the shape of a cuff on the head or a punch in the ribs and so forth–consequently, it may be that he was not so desperate and bad as I thought him to be, but simply reckless and thoughtless of consequences.[ii]
Sometime after 1850, the Loves moved to Baltimore, where George’s parents would spend the rest of their lives. George’s sisters married men in maritime trades, while George became a druggist. (It would have been gratifying to report that he was a classmate of David Herold, a Georgetown College pharmacy student, but Georgetown records show no signs of George Love’s having studied at the institution.) On June 12, 1860, George married seventeen-year-old Caroline Jennings Starr in Baltimore’s Wesley Chapel.[iii] Carrie, as she was called, was the daughter of John Taylor Starr and the former Caroline Smith. John Taylor Starr appears to have been somewhat disreputable, at least in his youth; in January 1841, a chivalrous Baltimorean seized him after he insulted several young ladies in the street. After spending a week in jail, the penitent Starr, who was said to have been intoxicated at the time, was fined twenty dollars.[iv] By August 1848, he had separated from his wife, who took her three children, Carrie, Catherine, and Henry, and moved in with her mother.[v]
On July 31, 1862, George, giving his address as 327 E. Monument Street in Baltimore, wrote to Brig. General William H. Hammond, Surgeon General of the United States, requesting an appointment as a hospital steward. Roberts Bartholomew, assistant surgeon, noted that the young man came highly recommended and advised his appointment, which was duly made on August 8, 1862.[vi] George was assigned to Camp Parole in Annapolis, a way station for Union soldiers who had been released from Confederate prisons. It was not a place for the faint-hearted. The former prisoners arrived in deplorable condition, suffering from starvation and disease, while the surrounding town was filled with rough characters and shady establishments.[vii] Among those who passed through the camp was one Boston Corbett, who spent a few days there in January 1865 before being returned to his regiment. Corbett would turn up at Garrett’s farm in Virginia on April 26, 1865, with fatal consequences for Booth.[viii]
George’s career proved to be a checkered one. In December 1863, he was court-martialed on charges of absence without leave, neglect of duty, and disobedience of order, all connected with an incident where he had left the camp on the evening of Saturday, September 19, 1863, and not returned until the morning of September 23, 1863, having apparently spent the time in Annapolis. In a rather convoluted statement provided to the court, George claimed that he had been ill with a fever during the time in question and that he had previously asked permission to leave camp, apparently to be with “my family only 2 miles distant who I have to protect & provide for.” He asked the court to “consider that all I have in the world is my character which has always been above reproach.” George, who had been employed in the camp dispensary, was found guilty on all specifications and was sentenced to forfeiture of one month’s pay and a reprimand.[ix]
In 1865, George found himself facing a second court-martial, this time on charges of “conduct prejudicial to good order and military discipline” and “breach of arrest.” The first specification claimed that on December 15, 1864, George demanded that the camp sutler, Jones and Crowley, pay him a percentage of his purchases of articles for the hospital. George was accused of having said, “I can starve the patients or overfeed them as I think proper, and I can make up to you in a month or even a week what you would give me. I have been accustomed to receive a percentage from those of whom I purchased articles for the hospital.” The sutler’s witnesses testified that George, explaining that his $400 salary was hardly enough to live on, had stated that his commission was usually five percent, but he would ask the sutler only for two and a half percent on its sales of such commodities as butter, eggs, crackers, oysters, mackerel, and milk.
The other three specifications claimed that on February 13, 15, and 16, 1865, George, having been placed under arrest, had stolen off to the city of Annapolis. There, testimony revealed, he had had the ill luck of being spotted by Colonel Adrian Root, the camp commander. As described by witnesses, his trips to town were hardly riotous; an ambulance driver testified that he had driven George to a store there on several occasions, then driven him back to camp.
Through his Baltimore lawyer, George mounted a vigorous defense. To the sutler’s testimony that he had asked for a percentage and that George had stopped dealing with the sutler after his request was refused, he offered evidence that the sutler had furnished inferior goods and that after complaints, George had begun buying supplies from a grocer in Annapolis, whom he had not asked for a percentage. To the charges of escape, he presented testimony from Steward Edward Von Myck, who had also testified for the government, that Von Myck, unfamiliar with Annapolis, had entreated George to accompany him there on several occasions prior to the ones for which he was charged. Von Myck testified that on their first excursion, George had gone inside Adams Express to ship a dead soldier’s goods; on the second, he had helped Von Myck transport a corpse; and on the third, he had shown Von Myck the grocer’s establishment with which the hospital was to deal.
Despite his lawyer’s efforts, George was found guilty of all charges. This time, on April 5, 1865, he was sentenced to be dishonorably discharged and to forfeit all pay that was due him.[x] In addition, a notice of the conviction and sentence was to be inserted in his county of residence. The Baltimore Sun carried the notice on April 11.
After his discharge, George arranged with Adams Express on April 13 to send his trunk to John Taylor Starr, his father-in-law, in Baltimore; on April 18, he wrote a curt note, dated from Annapolis, requesting that Steward Von Myck send his valise to 257 N. Eden Street in Baltimore, the residence of John Taylor Starr.[xi] That same day, he left Annapolis. On April 19, clad in a new officer’s fatigue coat, gray pantaloons and vest, new underclothing “in double,” and fine calf boots, he made his attempt to break through the picket lines that ended in his arrest and suicide. His personal effects consisted of $320, his ill-used penknife, two Army discharges with conflicting information, a watch and chain, and a receipt from H. Stockbridge of Baltimore for legal services. Five feet ten, with light, curly hair and beard, small feet, and delicate hands, he was said, correctly, to have been an educated man.[xii]
What drove George to take his life remains a mystery. The most logical assumption is that despondent over his court-martial and the prospect of returning to his family in disgrace, he snapped. Still, other questions come to mind. Had the assassination of President Lincoln filled him with despair? Did he panic upon being detained, fearful that his connection with Booth would be discovered and implicate him in the assassination plot? Did he indeed possess some knowledge of the kidnapping or assassination conspiracy? After all, Booth had drawn two other school friends, Samuel Arnold and Michael O’Laughlen, into his web; it is possible that he tried to lure another. And why was George trying to break through the picket lines in the first place? Might he have been trying to commit “suicide by picket”? None of these questions are answerable, and it is possible, of course, that George’s death was caused by factors unknown to us. Maynadier, recalling the story in 1902, had no insight to offer, but simply commented that it was a “curious coincidence” that Love, as an old friend of Booth, should have acted as he did. “‘I tell the tale as ’twas told to me,’ is all the comment I have to make” was his coy conclusion.
In the end, though, the simplest explanation is probably the best. Not a year and a half before, George had written, “all I have in the world is my character”; now it must have seemed to the young man that he had lost everything.
But despite having left Camp Parole under a shadow, George was not without defenders there. After the Baltimore American mentioned George’s death and the suspicions surrounding him, D. R. Keigwin, a clerk at Camp Parole Hospital, wrote a letter to the editor:
In the American of this morning is a notice of the arrest and subsequent suicide of George B. Love; and the impression is conveyed that he was in some way concerned in the murder of our beloved President, or in the attempted murder of Secretary Seward.
Such was by no means the case, as he was in this hospital until Tuesday, April 18, as scores can testify, and he deplored the horrible tragedy, and could scarce find words to express his detestation of the horrid crime. He has been a hospital steward here for nearly three years, is a native of your city, and was greatly respected by the many who have known him here, and who read with sad hearts the news of his terrible, unexpected death.
May God in his mercy be near the wife and parents left to mourn his loss, and sustain them in this terrible bereavement.[xiii]
The coincidence of Love’s in-laws and Booth’s mistress sharing the same surname—Starr—was not lost on another George, Lieutenant George P. Richardson, who on April 26 sent Colonel Olcott a newspaper clipping about Ella Starr’s suicide attempt along with the papers found on Love.[xiv] The authorities do not seem to have found a connection between the various Starrs, however, and neither have I, although all hailed from Baltimore.
On April 25, George’s funeral was held at his father-in-law’s house at the North Eden Street address mentioned above. The notice of his death contained a poignant verse:
This languishing head is at rest,
Its thinking and aching are o’er;
His quiet, immovable breast,
Is heaved by affliction no more.
George was buried at Baltimore Cemetery. Located at the terminus of North Avenue, it is a few blocks from its much better-known neighbor, Green Mount Cemetery, to which the body of George’s school chum John Wilkes Booth would be moved in 1869. While Baltimore Cemetery contains a few elaborate memorials, it is by and large the preserve of those nineteenth-century Baltimoreans who labored with their hands.[xv] Still, its imposing, Gothic gate and upward slopes make the approach to the cemetery an impressive one, particularly now that its surrounding neighborhood is dingy and decayed.
Ann Love, George’s mother, died in July 1882 at the home of one of George’s sisters. James Love, who had spent the Civil War years in Baltimore’s police force, was employed in the House of Refuge, a home for delinquent boys, for many years before his death in 1899 at age eighty-eight. One wonders if his son’s troubled history influenced his later career.[xvi]
After her husband’s death, Carrie, George’s widow, supported herself by working as a “tailoress,” along with her sister Kate. Around 1871, she married Robert A. Clarke, a widowed grocer with five children. A fervent Democrat who was active in local politics, Robert, who died in January 1914, was so determined to vote despite his illness toward the end of his long life that he had two friends carry him to the polls. Henry Starr, Carrie’s brother, served as one of Robert’s pallbearers. Carrie and Robert had one son, George R. Clarke, who worked as a clerk before his death at age twenty-nine in December 1900.[xvii] As Robert already had a son named George W. Clarke from his first marriage, it seems likely that Carrie named her son in honor of her first husband.
On August 5, 1914, Carrie died at age seventy-three. The years had left her comfortably off: she had two houses, furniture, jewelry, and cash to distribute among her friends and relations.[xviii] In Baltimore Cemetery, she and her husband Robert share a well-preserved tombstone, next to the weathered, barely legible marker of their son. Adjacent to George R. Clarke’s grave sits a third tombstone, which appears to have been erected about the same time as Robert and Carrie’s and likewise is in excellent repair. Inscribed “Asleep in Jesus,” it marks the grave of George B. Love, resting eternally near the bride of his happier days.
[i] 1850 U.S. census; tombstone of George B. Love.
[ii] Southern Aegis, March 7, 1902; Terry Alford, Fortune’s Fool, New York: Oxford University Press, 2015, pp. 209-10.
[iii] Baltimore Sun, July 18, 1860; 1860 and 1900 U.S. Censuses; Last Will and Testament of Robert Andre Clarke.
[iv] Baltimore Sun, January 4 and 11, 1841.
[v] Baltimore Sun, August 22, 1848; 1850 U.S. census.
[vi] Letters Received by the Adjutant General, 1861-1870; Army Register of Enlistments, 1798-1914 (on fold3 database).
[vii] R. Rebecca Morris, A Low, Dirty Place: The Parole Camps of Annapolis, MD 1862-1865. Linthicum, Md.: Anne Arrundell County Historical Society, 2012, pp. 60, 62.
[viii] Scott Martelle, The Madman and the Assassin, Chicago Review Press, 2015, p. 57.
[ix] National Archives, RG 153, File No. NN-869.
[x] National Archives, RG 153, File No. 00-509; Civil War: U.S. Army Civil War and Reconstruction Era Court Martial Records. Headquarters Middle Department, General Orders No. 68.
[xi] William C. Edwards and Edward Steers Jr., The Lincoln Assassination: The Evidence. Urbana and Chicago: The University of Illinois Press, 2009, p. 1101; Baltimore Sun, April 25, 1865.
[xii] Evening Star, April 21, 1865.
[xiii] Baltimore American, April 23, 1865, reprinted in the New York Daily Herald, April 25, 1865.
[xiv] Edwards and Steers, pp. 1100-01.
[xv] Baltimore City Paper, September 17, 2003, cited in http://www.germanmarylanders.org/cemeteries/baltimore-cemetery.
[xvi] Baltimore Sun, July 31, 1882; Southern Aegis, February 24, 1899.
[xvii] 1870, 1880, 1900, and 1910 federal censuses; Woods’ Baltimore City Directory, 1867; Baltimore Sun, April 6, 1863, December 11, 1900, and January 18, 1914; death certificate of George R. Clarke.
[xviii] Baltimore Sun, August 7, 1914; Will of Caroline J. Clarke.
[This was originally published in the Surratt Courier, August 2018.]