James Donaldson is a key to the Lincoln conspiracy
“While standing on Ruhlman’s and Lichau’s porch between 11 & 12 o’clock PM a young man name unknown, as I cannot remember names, about 5 feet 5 or 6 inches high thick set, long nose, sharp chin, wide cheek, small eye, I think grey, dark hair, and well dressed, color don’t remember, said called Michael O’Laughlen aside and said J. Wilkes Booth wish to see us both at Gaither’s Saloon on Avenue.”
—George Atzerodt original confession (destroyed and not uncovered for 117 years).
“James Donaldson, a low chunky man about 23 or 24 years of age, small-potted, dark complexion (not very) deep plain black suit; only saw him one time & this was Wednesday previous to the murder, he was having an interview with Booth and told him to meet him on Friday eve & he replied he would and left and went up Penn. Avenue towards the Treasury building. I was under the impression he came on with Booth.”
In their initial confessions, both George Atzerodt and Sam Arnold came across as eager to convey any information regarding the assassination that might be helpful to the authorities. And even though they confessed knowledge of Booth’s kidnap plot, Atzerodt was not made aware of the Booth’s plan to assassinate Lincoln until a few hours before it happened. He did not believe it would happen, but when it did, he furiously walked in circles around Washington like a crazy man because he knew he was implicated. It’s safe to assume a key character on the primary list of suspects who must have been involved was James Donaldson, who should have been arrested and put on trial, along with Louis Weichmann.
So why wasn’t Donaldson even called to testify? Donaldson was a War Department clerk posted on the household staff of Secretary of State Seward. The attack on Seward took place on his watch, but he’d switched shifts suddenly that day with another clerk who was wounded during Powell’s attack. Both Donaldson and Weichmann were known to everyone inside Booth’s conspiracy as Confederate sympathizers, and the placement of Weichmann inside the Surratt boarding house was done to provide surveillance against Booth and Surratt. Weichmann became the key witness at the tribunal against Mary Surratt, while Donaldson (like Sanford Conover and Sarah Slater) dropped off the face of the earth.
We do know Donaldson arrived at Seward’s moments after Powell’s attack and according to an eyewitness: “In the middle of the room sat Donaldson, his face buried in his hands—crying aloud, like a child. I touched his shoulder & said—“Donaldson, you were not hurt?” “No Miss Fanny” he said—“I wasn’t here. If I had been here this wouldn’t have happened. If I had been here I’d have been a dead man. Oh, why wasn’t I here?”