Historic Evidence Trunk Acquired by BGES!

The newly discovered evidence trunk

As BGES digs in to helping restore the Lincoln Conspirators’ Courtroom at Fort McNair, Washington, D.C., two exciting new artifacts have been discovered. We caught up with BGES member Paul Severance, who is helping to lead the project, to ask a few questions about these intriguing relics of history.

BGES Blog: What are the items, Paul?

Lithograph of the infamous courtroom showing the water cooler

Paul Severance: We’ve picked up a mid-19th-century water “cooler” very similar to the one in the courtroom during the trial. It’s metal on the exterior and ceramic on the interior, with a charcoal barrier between the walls to keep water (or perhaps lemonade) cold. It’s not in the best condition, and I’m hoping to get with the restoration folks at the Smithsonian to see if we can clean it up a bit. The cooler is visible in certain period lithographs on the far-left side of the courtroom outside the East anteroom.

Lithograph of the Lincoln Conspirator’s Courtroom, showing the “steamer” trunk

The other item is a medium-size “steamer” trunk that strongly resembles the container used as an “evidence box” during the trial. There’s a bit more uncertainty about this artifact as to whether there was a single trunk or box or two boxes to hold the 98 evidence exhibits introduced in the trail. There is also some evidence that suggests that the evidence container may have been a large carpenter’s tool chest obtained from the adjacent Washington Arsenal. That being said, the extant lithographs show either one or two containers that look like steamer-type trunks. Items in the trunk would have included Powell’s Whitney pistol; his slouch hat; the knives used in the attacks; the “Sam” letter; Booth’s Deringer pistol; and his boot removed at Dr. Mudd’s, just to name a few.

BGES Blog: What are the stories they tell?

Paul Severance: In the case of the cooler, it’s interesting to speculate who might have drawn a glass of water during the trail in the hot, steamy Washington summer. Commission president Maj. Gen. David Hunter? Spectator Dr. Mary Walker Edwards? Key Prosecution Witness Lewis Weichmann? Anna Surratt? Brevet Maj. Gen. John Hartranft, governor of the prison? Lieutenant General Grant when he testified? It could be a long list indeed! Continuing, it’s unlikely the accused themselves drank from the cooler directly, since they were behind the prisoners’ dock and could only sip water from a large metal saucer passed down the prisoners’ bench.

BGES Blog: How does one go about obtaining such historical pieces?

Paul Severance: In these two cases, it was patient scouring of the internet, specifically Craig’s List, for the steamer truck (I’ve been looking for months!) and online antique outlets, where Betty Owensby from the Surratt Society found the water cooler. I also scan antique shops around the region when I conduct my Civil War staff rides.

BGES Blog: What else are you hoping to acquire?

Paul Severance: Our wish list is ambitious: Spitoons; Windsor and captain’s chairs similar to those depicted in period illustrations; a representative sample of the cocoa palm matting that once covered the entire courtroom floor; an additional phonographer’s table; three small benches for spectators; and green baize table coverings for the courtroom tables. We could use more, but the courtroom is actually quite small, and we recognize the need to retain sufficient space for visitors to move freely about the courtroom.

BGES Blog: Thanks, Paul. This is amazing!