July 7, 1865, on the hot afternoon when the four conspirators in the assassination of Abraham Lincoln were hanged, Alexander Gardner took ten photographs with a large format camera. He positioned his camera on the second floor of the building in the prison yard, where he had a clear view of the proceedings. The seventh of these photographs, one that has famously become known as All Is Done, shows the bodies before being cut down. It also shows, about thirty feet away from the scaffold, a teenage boy next to the blurred image of an officer. The boy appears to be staring intently at the still bodies of Mary Surratt and Lewis Powell, as if dumbfounded by what he has witnessed.
That boy has never been positively identified.
I think it’s strange now on that July day I was fourteen and had it all happen on my birthday. Things I saw weren’t meant to be seen by a boy of such years. My life’s course had its start that day. My theology of worship ain’t got the idea that nothing’s chance and a person just acts out some set up plan for I do believe a man has free will to choose his way. But it seems to me now that those months in 1865 set my way as well as any choices I made.
I am a preacher and I go town to town and have been all these years. Back then I was pretty near a soldier. It’s cause my brother took me with him to his cavalry troop when he came back from furlough home in Troy. I became a sort of favorite of the Captain soon with a cut down uniform and a place in my Brother’s tent. Sometimes I even got chances to ride outside the town on sorties searching for Mosby The Grey Ghost. I was pretty pumped up with the army. Filled up with ideas about glory and the beat of drums and trampling out the enemy and the blackened metal of guns.
The Captain as I said took a liking to me and also the Colonel but we didn’t see much of him cause he stayed in a house out of camp. He told me once though I had spirit the way I took to soldiering. Seems strange now how they took to me. Maybe cause my brother was a hero with Boston Corbett. Maybe cause I reminded them of home.
Captain knew it was my birthday on that hanging day and I never found out how he knew but he knew and he had me a new cap with Company L and crossed cavalry swords on the top just like my brother had. Whether his taking me to the prison with him was meant as a gift I dread to say cause you don’t gift horror. I don’t want these days to think bad of him.
The Captain had led the troop that finally cornered Booth. Boston Corbett’s the man who shot the assassin dead from through a crack in the barn where Booth was holed up with Herold. Corbett was the Sergeant. He shared a tent close to where my brother and mine was pitched and many a evening around the fire we gabbed of religion and the Bible but I should say Corbett talked and not so much to me but all the other troopers who would get near. Most of them were heartily tired of hearing him and what my brother called harangues but he had earned respect with what he had done and they gave him sanction to spout. Their rough soldier’s talk would quiet down when he showed up by the fire cause the Sergeant would hear no cursing and I would listen and though he was a strange little man with a high twang of a voice he had a look on his face as if he knew something none of the rest of us knew and was itching to tell. That helped make him interesting to me for I didn’t care much then for gospel talk. At the time I was mostly into his exploits and how he fearlessly killed the enemy. He let me fire the Colt he used out behind the stable. I was not about giving my life to Jesus when there was so much excitement to be had.
Corbett joined Company L when he was freed from that god-awful Andersonville and he could have left the army and got back to feeling and looking like a human being at ease in civilian life but he chose to restore his health with the hard ways of cavalrymen. The gut hate he felt for Johnny Reb spurred him too. He was famous after he killed Booth and got a bit of the reward but not what he deserved. He and the Captain had photographs in their dressups that got sold all over. Some envied Corbett for what he done and I suppose some hated him but I thought he was a hero and so did my brother. Corbett did not wish to come to the hanging and instead read his Bible that he always carried in his pocket that he had been permitted. Besides he was going home soon to quit all about soldiering he said.
––I’ve seen enough such things as hangings he said.
Captain held my arm and led me in through the ring of soldiers who were at the entrance of the prison where people were hawking food and drink around the ramp up to the gate. Heat and dust and the smell of cigars raised almost as strong a stink as around the horses. I’d never seen such a crowd as was there that day cause hundreds of soldiers circled the prison outside and stood on the walls behind a rope fence and all of them were in complete uniform even in the heat and had their chests strapped like the dress uniform was and the brass buckle US in the center over their hearts. Inside was dense with milling men. At the prison windows when we got inside I could see faces of prisoners at the windows to watch what was happening. They looked like white flowers their pale faces framed by red brick against the black inside. There was a photographer at one of the windows with a skullcap and huge wooden camera with a brass tube sticking out and a black shroud he’d hide in to take his pictures.
We shouldered our way on in through the crowd of soldiers and newspaper reporters with their notebooks out till we were not less than thirty or so feet from the scaffold raised up high before me and made of stout timber. There was a stairway that led up to a platform of rough planks all surrounded by rails. The gallows stood about twenty feet from the brick wall that must of been forty feet up above the ground and its top was also lined with soldiers slouching and talking. Four heavy ropes hung from the crossbeam with nooses tied dangling from them and carpenters were still up on the platform hammering and testing railings and supports.
The crowds of people and the mid-day sun made it near like a hell inside the walls and I’d brought my canteen and I was thirsty right away but too excited I guess to drink. Like I said the smell reminded me of horses that came back from our details and the odor of lather and brutishness. The air of the place seemed like it is in a summer storm and you’re hiding from lightning. Many of the onlookers held up umbrellas to guard themselves from the sun bearing down and the brick walls seemed to heft up the noise of talking and hammering and shouts of soldiers till it became painful to me and I stuck my fingers in my ears. I looked at the captain and I saw his lips moving.
––Maybe later you will want to cover your eyes he told me which only made me more excited. Perhaps he regretted he brought me.
––How will they be hung I asked him and he explained that they would stand on the hinged doors of the platform and the struts underneath now held the doors closed. The soldiers would knock the struts down and the doors would fall open and then the prisoners would drop all at once and their necks would break or they would strangle to death and their heads would be covered. I felt a curiosity that I’m now ashamed to admit about how long could a person live hanging by his neck.
Over to the left of the scaffold there were four holes and beside them there were four raw wooden coffins that were open with the covers lying beside them. People circled around these holes looking in as if there were already bodies lying inside and one man even jumped down into one until a soldier pulled him out and prodded him with his musket barrel. The man held up a clod of dirt with a big grin as a souvenir. The Captain pointed to some men who were whittling on the scaffold itself and one was cutting on a piece of the rope that was left there on the ground. The Captain yelled and a soldier who heard chased the relic seekers away into the crowd.
While we watched two soldiers toted cannon balls up the steps and rested them down under each of the nooses. When they came back down the steps they tested the gallows by knocking away the struts with a kick. One trapdoor didn’t open but the other fell away and made a terrific crash and the cannon balls hit the ground with an ugly thud I felt through my shoes. The soldiers ran up the steps again and worked on the hinges of the door that failed and some others put the struts back up and knocked them away again and this time both the trapdoors opened and the cannon balls fell. The Captain said the conspirators must hear the loud bangs of the doors from inside the prison for the noise was louder than a musket shot more like the burst of an explosive shell. He said the hangings should be happening soon.
A man makes his self is what I always say and I began that July day to be what I am. But there’s the pushing from something else that makes such a stew in your belly that you must keep on with the making as you live. It all began for me when the guards brought Mrs. Surratt out of the prison and set her down on a chair by the door. It was like seeing death in a bonnet. There was a man there in black like she was. Must have been a priest cause she was popish. I could hear her talk.
––I’m innocent so help me God I swear she said to the priest who bent over her and held her hand like they was sitting in a parlor and not below the gallows. Her voice was as pleady as momma’s was before she died of that lump and I couldn’t help but think how neither her nor momma done any good asking. The thing is you earnestly believe their misery and you earnestly believe there should be help. But then another woman came younger and stood by Mrs. Surratt and I couldn’t hear what she said but I heard the older one say yes I’m resigned and the young one started sobbing and the priest asked a soldier to take her away. She walked in the door but you could hear her wailing as she must of climbed up a stair.
The time had come. The soldiers took chairs up the scaffold steps to the platform and others opened the door to the prison and an officer came out must have been a general. He ordered the soldiers to position dress parade. My heart started skipping fast like I was the one about to die. I looked at the Captain and he just stared as Mrs. Surratt was held under her arms and she stumbled over to the stairs to the platform. The guards walked so slow like they wanted it not to happen. And I didn’t either. I wanted more than anything to comfort that old woman. Then they brought out Payne the tall one who stared right back at us and had a smirk on his face as he was led after Mrs. Surratt. He shook his head, as he had to stop a couple times for her going so slow. Atzerodt and Herold were brought out next and they had to be helped up the scaffold steps cause their knees kept buckling. Then they was all on the platform and Mrs. Surratt she began to fall out of her chair and a soldier brought an umbrella to take away the hot sun. Her black dress seemed to shine and hurt my eyes cause they started watering. Payne sat next to Mrs. Surratt up straight like a soldier and he had on a blue undershirt and a straw hat cocked over to one side. The other men were seated next and wore dirty rumpled clothes like they been living in them for days and both were mumbling most likely prayers. The ministers up there on the platform must have been whispering the words for them to repeat. And I wanted by god for there to be no hanging.
A man got up and read the death warrants. Whilst this was going on I kept my eyes on Payne’s face cause he seemed so indifferent. There was three puffy clouds floating up in the sky and he stared up at them with a calm mien and I thought he must have been thinking that’s the last I’ll see of them. After one of the ministers said a prayer out into the crowd Payne said amen and I thought how would I feel about to die or what I’d say. I wouldn’t be listening much except to myself.
I heard a soft command and the prisoners stood up and went to the dangling nooses. Atzerodt started shaking so much they tied his arms and legs with white strips of cloth. Mrs. Surratt had her hands bound and complained to the soldier it was too tight so he slackened the binding as if it made any difference given what was about to happen. When the soldier lifted Payne’s hat off his head his nose was raised like he was uncovering a chamber pot. Payne had to bend over he was so tall to get to the noose they fitted around his head. Then there was a hush when they took off Mrs. Surratt’s bonnet so as to put the noose on her. Her hair was in a bun in back and pulled tight across her head. Her eyes had that look like the horse that broke its leg before my brother shot it. They showed bright with a cold fire of fear. I’ll never forget that terror. Soldiers covered each of the conspirator’s heads then with white sacks so no one could see any faces. Or the eyes.
––Please don’t let me fall Mrs. Surratt said so loud it seemed to echo from the walls.
An officer on the platform gave the signal and the soldiers below knocked the struts away under the trapdoors and the four bodies dropped six feet and bounced back up and then they begun whirl and to shake. Payne raised his knees like he was sitting in a chair then he straightened out and it seemed an eternity till his body stopped its quivering. Then they all hung straight and slowly swayed.
I couldn’t take my eyes off the four bodies hanging there where just minutes before they were taking breath and now they were empty of their souls. I watched their cutting down and putting the bodies in the boxes and lowering them into the holes with a taste like dirt in my mouth as I was fourteen this day and everyone dies and someday I would die and what difference does it make calling out to Jesus unless you have inside what Payne had.
I don’t remember much about returning to the camp but when I saw my brother I told him I wanted to go home.
I became a preacher cause of hunger in the fact of dying I saw that day. I try to spread a banquet in the silence.
Robert Eastwood began writing poetry and fiction while in college. His work has appeared in many print and online journals. He has twice been nominated for the Pushcart Prize and is a Grand Prize winner at the Berkeley Poets Dinner.
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