|Born||June 12, 1835
Dörna (today part of Anrode), Thuringia Germany
|Died||July 7, 1865 (at age 30)
|Conviction||Involvement in Abraham Lincoln’s assassination|
|Penalty||Execution by hanging|
George Atzerodt (1835 – 1865) was one of the conspirators, with John Wilkes Booth, who conspired in the assassination of President Abraham Lincoln in 1865. His original intention was to kill Andrew Johnson, the Vice President, but he was unable to carry out that plan due to a failure of nerve. Atzerodt was hanged for the crime, along with three other conspirators in the plot.
Atzerodt’s family emigrated to the United States from Germany in 1843, when he was still a child. In adulthood, he settled in the small Maryland town of Port Tobacco, where he set up a business repairing carriages. His life proceeded quietly for the next few years, until he traveled to Washington, D.C. and met John Wilkes Booth. Atzerodt never married during his short life.
While in Washington, Booth suggested that Atzerodt should join him in an attempt on the life of the President. As Atzerodt was later to confess during his trial, he was willing to join the conspiracy from an early stage. Booth gave Atzerodt the task of assassinating the Vice President, Andrew Johnson, and on the morning of April 14, 1865, he checked into the Kirkwood House hotel in Washington. This was the same building in which Johnson was residing.
In the event, Atzerodt’s nerves failed him, and he was unable to muster up the courage to proceed with his plan to kill Johnson. Instead he went to the bar of the hotel and drank heavily. Because of the effects of his intoxication, he walked the streets of Washington all night. However, a bartender had become suspicious when Atzerodt had asked him about the whereabouts of the Vice President, and told the police that a man in a gray coat (Atzerodt) seemed suspicious.
The following day, after the assassination of the President had taken place at Ford’s Theatre, military police arrived to search Atzerodt’s room. They quickly ascertained that his bed had not been occupied the previous night, and that under the pillow were concealed a Bowie knife and a loaded revolver. Additionally, they discovered that one of Booth’s bank books was in the room. Five days later, on April 20, Atzerodt was arrested in Germantown, Maryland, where he had sought refuge with a cousin.
Trial and Punishment
Captain William Doster, representing Atzerodt in court, claimed that his client was a “constitutional coward”, and that for this reason he was simply incapable of assassinating the Vice President. He further claimed that Booth would therefore not have given him that job. The court rejected this argument, and Atzerodt was convicted and sentenced to death by hanging. A little later, Atzerodt confessed to a minister in his cell; the minister said later that Atzerodt had told him that Booth’s original plan was to kidnap the President.
According to the confession reported by the minister, Atzerodt had not known that Booth wanted to kill the President until two hours before he was shot. He also said that Booth would have preferred David Herold to carry out the killing of Johnson, with Atzerodt simply providing support, since Booth felt that Herold was pluckier than Atzerodt. Along with three other conspirators, Atzerodt was executed by hanging on July 7, 1865, in Washington, D.C. Atzerodt’s death was slow, as the impact of the drop did not break his neck. He is buried under a pseudonym in Baltimore, Maryland.