Detroit was on alert for John Wilkes Booth




Paul Taylor’s excellent book “Old Slow Town” Detroit During The Civil War tells about events in Detroit at the time of hearing of President Abraham Lincoln’s assassination. He describes a city that was celebrating in “merriment” concerning the fall of Richmond and the surrender of Lee. There was “jubilation and joy” among all ages of it’s citizens, “everybody, all sorts, sizes and conditions of men, women, and even the blessed baby turned out in such plentitude” to express their happiness of the ending of the war. Sadly, that all changed very soon after. The news of the killing of Lincoln reached the city by the straits. Taylor recounts that the “papers fanned the flames of excitement; businesses were closed, and a public meeting was called for later in the afternoon at Campus Martius. As the crowds gathered, one Southern civilian visiting Detroit later remembered, Detroit’s black residents all stood on one side “in solemn array, with sorrow depicted on every face.”

There would be funeral ceremonies for the slain leader in Detroit, although the president’s body would not travel there en route back to Springfield. Over  in Windsor, Canada- the mayor “issued a proclamation requesting that it’s town’s citizens close their businesses on Tuesday, April 18, as a gesture of respect and reverence” to Lincoln. Windsor is directly across the Detroit River from the city of Detroit. The mayor urged those who could attend the funeral observances to do so.

The author goes on to say that the Union military assigned to Michigan’s coastal areas in and around Detroit had a new mission to carry out. With the Civil War basically finished,  the watch was out for the president’s assassin. There existed a strong line of thinking that the killer might flee into Canada. “We have considerable guard duty to do now,” explained Silas Sadler. “The whole river is guarded trying to catch the man that killed Lincoln. Our company has 24 miles of the river to guard. We go up and down on the steamboats when we want to and over the river into Canada.”

Imagine how it must have been for the people of Detroit as the word spread that the assassin was famed actor John Wilkes Booth. He was known to the northern city-he had even played in the theater there. Were the citizens looking at every male to see if he could be spotted somewhere-on the streets, in the alleys, along the riverfront? As we now know, there were Confederate operatives in Canada during the war, so it was not far-fetched that Booth might escape to there. But in the end, he did not flee north. He had a different destination towards the south. Booth was eventually caught in Virginia where he died of a gunshot wound. Detroit could go off alert. It was a bit safer in the city to resemble Mr. Booth and not be lynched.

Source partially from “Old Slow Town” Detroit During The Civil War by Paul Taylor

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