Why wasn’t Booth arrested in March?
On November 1, 1864, Louis Weichmann moved into widow Mary Surratt’s boarding house, 604 H Street NW, Washington DC. Surratt’s son John was an important courier for the Confederacy who kept his mother and sister in the dark about his activities in order to shield them from culpability. Weichmann was an old friend of the family, an elementary school chum of John’s and a fellow Catholic.
Weichmann worked as a clerk at the War Department of Prisons and sat next to Daniel H.L. Gleason. After arriving at the boarding house, he immediately began telling Gleason the house was a nest of illegal activities. Of course, the possibility exists Weichmann was placed in the house as a confidential informant from the beginning, the results are the same either way. That fall Weichmann began informing on Surratt and his friend John Wilkes Booth.
On April 18, 1865, four days after Abraham Lincoln’s assassination, Gleason testified Weichmann informed him in March that “he was well-acquainted with some blockade runners, young fellows, not secessionists, who were out for money and excitement, who were currently involved in a new project that aroused his suspicion.” This message wormed its way up the chain-of-command and it soon came back down Weichmann should join this project, whatever it was. But in 1911, Gleason unloaded his conscience and confessed the real story: the War Department was made aware of John Wilkes Booth’s plot to kidnap Lincoln weeks before the assassination.
Since Stanton controlled the secret police, the army, the telegraph and the entire Washington DC police force, his power was absolute and once he discovered this plot, Booth was obviously at his mercy. At any time, Stanton could have arrested Booth and hanged him for treason, standard treatment for a Confederate spook like Booth, although Booth represented a high-profile celebrity trophy catch, and as such might expect special treatment.
So why wasn’t Booth arrested in March?
Even stranger, Stanton suddenly demoted his chief detective, moving the head of the National Detective Police to Manhattan, leaving the NDP headless for the crucial few weeks the assassination plot unfolded.
I believe Stanton sent a message to Booth through an intermediary, someone like Simon Wolf, a close friend of Booth’s who could be relied on for confidentiality, and that message could have gone something like:
I know who you are and can have you arrested and hanged tomorrow. I can also hang your secret fiance Bessie Hale and your brother Edwin. On the other hand, you could take $10,000 and agree to assassinate Lincoln and Seward and tie this plot to Johnson. If you take the second option, I’ll insure you have time to escape. I’ll deny ever offering this deal.
Just a hint of the sort of buttons Stanton could have pushed and if he did push them, maybe you can see Booth in a different light? Booth’s entire famous family could have been implicated, not just his brother. And, of course, Booth would have done anything to protect Bessie from harm, being he was a true Southern gentleman. Stanton’s specialty was manufacturing evidence, and he had a entire crew led by Sanford Conover (real name Charles Dunham) for this purpose, so guilt or innocence never got in the way of his agenda.
This is the only scenario that makes any sense if you consider Booth claimed in his diary he could return to Washington and clear his name. Also, John Parker, the guard who deserted his post was never punished, went back to work inside the White House the next day. Knowing Stanton ripped-up most every Presidential pardon, this sudden overwhelming sense of forgiveness for both Parker and Boston Corbett was inexplicable, unless this is exactly what Stanton wanted to happen: and unguarded President and dead assassin to tell no tales.