In the hours following Abraham Lincoln’s assassination on the evening of April 14, 1865, Secretary of War Edwin Stanton sent a flurry of telegrams to his officers in the field. “Make immediate arrangements for guarding thoroughly every avenue leading into Baltimore, and if possible, arrest [John] Wilkes Booth, the murderer of” the president, Stanton wrote in one early morning missive.

Despite the secretary of war’s best efforts, Booth—a famous actor-turned-assassin—evaded capture until April 26, when he was killed in a showdown with Union soldiers at a farm in Virginia. Historian James L. Swanson’s 2006 book, Manhunt: The 12-Day Chase for Lincoln’s Killer, chronicled the twists and turns of Booth’s attempted escape, unraveling the vast conspiracy he organized to undermine the Union. Now, Apple TV+ is releasing a seven-episode adaptation of the gripping tale, also titled “Manhunt.”

Manhunt - Official Trailer | Apple TV+

Tobias Menzies, perhaps best known for starring in “The Crown” and “Outlander,” plays Stanton, while Anthony Boyle, who recently appeared in the Apple TV+ show “Masters of the Air,” plays Booth. Hamish Linklater takes on the role of Lincoln.

Here’s what you need to know about the real history behind “Manhunt” ahead of the show’s two-episode premiere on March 15.

The assassination of Abraham Lincoln

Lincoln’s assassination is arguably one of the most infamous moments in United States history. On the night of April 14, 1865, Booth snuck into the president’s box at Ford’s Theatre in Washington, D.C., where Lincoln; his wife, Mary; and their guests, Clara Harris and Major Henry Rathbone, were watching a production of Our American Cousin.

At a moment when Booth knew the audience would burst into laughter, he shot Lincoln in the back of the head. Rathbone tried to subdue Booth, but the assassin attacked him with a knife. As Booth tried to escape, he got caught on a portrait of George Washington and an American flag hanging from the box, leading him to land inelegantly on the stage. Before leaving the theater, he shouted “Sic semper tyrannis”—the Virginia state motto, which translates to “Thus always to tyrants.” Lincoln died at 7:22 the next morning.

An illustration of the assassination. L to R: Henry Rathbone, Clara Harris, Mary Todd Lincoln, Abraham Lincoln and John Wilkes Booth
An illustration of the assassination. L to R: Henry Rathbone, Clara Harris, Mary Lincoln, Abraham Lincoln and John Wilkes Booth Public domain via Wikimedia Commons

The subsequent search for Booth followed Lincoln’s killer from Washington to Maryland and Virginia. Helmed by Stanton, the investigation uncovered the Confederate sympathizer’s larger plot: On the night of the assassination, one of Booth’s co-conspirators, Lewis Powell, attempted to murder Secretary of State William H. Seward. Another man, George Atzerodt, was tasked with killing Vice President Andrew Johnson but failed to go through with the actor’s plan.

“Many will blame me for what I am about to do, but posterity, I am sure, will justify me,” Booth wrote in a letter to a friend before the assassination. Only the first half of his prediction proved correct: Stanton and his team immediately began sending out telegrams rallying soldiers and detectives to hunt down Booth.

Manhunt: The 12-Day Chase for Lincoln's Killer

Based on rare archival materials, obscure trial transcripts and Lincoln’s own blood relics, "Manhunt" is a fully documented, fascinating tale of murder, intrigue and betrayal.

The making of “Manhunt”

“Manhunt” showrunner Monica Beletsky traces the series’ origins to her research on Harriet Tubman. The abolitionist was friends with Seward, who shared her commitment to ending slavery. “That [connection] led me to find out that essentially, we had no president between the moment Booth shot Lincoln and the next day when Johnson was sworn in,” Beletsky says.

Though Seward survived Powell’s attack, he was in no shape to lead the nation in the immediate aftermath of the assassination; Johnson, meanwhile, “remained in the background and chose not to assert himself,” allowing Stanton to take the lead in the manhunt, according to Swanson’s book. “Learning that the presidency fell on the shoulders of Stanton as de facto president, essentially, for those 12 hours or so was a dramatic situation I was really compelled by,” Beletsky says.

Edwin Stanton
Edwin Stanton Public domain via Wikimedia Commons
John Wilkes Booth
John Wilkes Booth Public domain via Wikimedia Commons

As Beletsky learned more about Stanton—how he was a single father following the death of his first wife, that he suffered from asthma before effective treatment was developed, how he and Lincoln had a close relationship that spurred him to seek vengeance when the president was assassinated—she realized the secretary of war would make a compelling lead character in a television series.

“Manhunt” centers on Stanton’s mission to hunt down those responsible for Lincoln’s murder, as outlined in Swanson’s book. But the show goes beyond a play-by-play of the search to offer flashbacks that shed light on Stanton’s dynamic with the president.

Lincoln loved Stanton’s devotion to the Union, even nicknaming him Mars after the Roman god of war. The politicians bonded over the deaths of their sons, with Lincoln losing Willie in February 1862 and Stanton losing his infant child in July of that same year. For Stanton, Lincoln’s death was not only a great loss for the country but also a great loss for him personally. They were friends. And he was determined to see those responsible for his friend’s murder hanged.

John Wilkes Booth on the run

Booth wasn’t alone on the road after he fled Washington via horseback. He met up with David Herold, a friend who had promised to help him escape. “Herold was very much—I don’t want to say obsessive—but he was very much a fanboy of Booth,” Swanson tells Smithsonian magazine. “He viewed Booth as his mentor, his superior.”

After a brief stop at a tavern owned by Mary Surratt, who also ran a boarding house in the capital, the two fugitives rode toward Bryantown, Maryland, to the house of another acquaintance: physician Samuel Mudd. Though Mudd later claimed he didn’t recognize Booth when the actor and Herold showed up at his doorstop around 4 a.m. on April 15, that claim is undoubtedly false, as Mudd was involved in Booth’s previous failed plot to kidnap Lincoln and exchange him for Confederate prisoners.

“When Booth arrived at the house, Mudd knew exactly who he was,” says Swanson. “His lie—‘I didn’t know this man, I didn’t recognize him’—that’s like saying Taylor Swift showed up at my house in her car, and she just committed a crime and assassinated someone, and she spent a night at my house, and I didn’t know who she was.”

Mudd and Booth knew each other, but a trip to the doctor’s residence wasn’t part of the initial plan. It was a necessary detour due to Booth breaking his left leg, either when jumping onto the stage at Ford’s Theatre or falling from his horse during the escape. The delay kept him and Herold off the road until around 7 p.m. on April 15, when the two left the doctor’s home on horseback. They subsequently got lost but hired a local man to help them find the home of Captain Samuel Cox, who told them to hide in a pine thicket near the Potomac River. Thomas Jones, a Confederate agent and Cox’s foster brother, agreed to smuggle the men to safety.

David Herold
David Herold Public domain via Wikimedia Commons
Mary Surratt, the first woman executed by the U.S. government
Mary Surratt, the first woman executed by the U.S. government Public domain via Wikimedia Commons

“[Booth’s] voice was pleasant,” Jones later recalled. “Though he seemed to be suffering intense pain from his broken leg, his manner was courteous and polite.” The assassin’s charm won Jones over, and he convinced the fugitives to wait in the pine barrens for five days and four nights, until the detectives and soldiers hunting them had moved on. The men left the wilderness on the evening of April 20, with Jones leading them to a small boat they could use to cross the Potomac into Virginia.

But Booth and Herold got confused in the night and rowed in the wrong direction. They ended up landing once again on Maryland soil, no closer to Virginia. After acquiring food from a friend of Herold’s at a nearby farm, the two inexplicably remained in Maryland another night, only rowing on to Virginia on April 22. At 1 p.m. the following day, they finally connected with Jones’ contact: Elizabeth Quesenberry, a member of the Confederate Secret Service, a spy network whose reach extended from the South to Canada.

In Virginia, the fugitives sought help from a series of other Confederate sympathizers, some more accommodating than others. They also threatened their way into the cabin of William Lucas, a free Black man, at knifepoint. On April 24, the pair forced Lucas’ son to give them a ride to Port Conway, where they encountered a group of former Confederate soldiers. Booth convinced the soldiers to help him and his accomplice cross the Rappahannock River into more Confederate-friendly territory. The assassin was so elated by his arrival in the state’s heartland that he reportedly cried out, “I’m safe in glorious old Virginia, thank God!”

The death of John Wilkes Booth

Booth’s declaration quickly proved wrong. The rest of his journey—and his life—lasted little more than a day. He only made it 3.5 miles past the Rappahannock before Union troops caught up with him.

Stanton had called on both the Union Army and New York City detectives to hunt down Lincoln’s killers. As days passed without success, the secretary of war grew more and more agitated. On the morning of April 20—the day after Lincoln’s funeral procession in Washington—Stanton issued a proclamation offering a combined $100,000 reward for Booth; Herold; and John Surratt, Mary’s son, who’d fled to Canada after hearing about the assassination.

“Let the stain of innocent blood be removed from the land by the arrest and punishment of the murderers,” the reward poster stated. “All good citizens are exhorted to aid public justice on this occasion. Every man should consider his own conscience charged with this solemn duty, and rest neither night nor day until it be accomplished.”

A wanted poster issued for Booth, Herold and John Surratt
A wanted poster issued for Booth, Herold and John Surratt Public domain via Wikimedia Commons

Stanton hoped the bounty—$50,000 for Booth and $25,000 each for Herold and John—would galvanize his forces. Most of the hunters believed the fugitives were still in Maryland, hiding out in the pine barrens. But a telegram sent to the War Department on the morning of April 24 shifted the search’s focus to Virginia.

The missive stated that soldiers had tracked Booth to Mudd’s house and were considering two main theories: first, that Booth and Herold were still hiding in the Maryland wilderness, and second, the “belief that they crossed from Swan Point to White Point, Va., on Sunday morning, April 16, about 9:30, in a small boat, also captured by Major [James] O’Beirne.”

Colonel Lafayette C. Baker, one of the New York City agents called in by Stanton after Lincoln’s death, read the telegram and decided the hunt should move to Virginia. He ordered 26 members of the 16th New York Calvary to take two detectives—including his cousin Luther Byron Baker—to Port Conway. The group arrived on the afternoon of April 25, just a day behind Booth and Herold.

The fugitives had sought refuge on the 500-acre farm of Richard Garrett, who took them in under the assumption that they were wounded Confederate soldiers, not the already-infamous fugitives responsible for Lincoln’s death. The first night, Garrett allowed the men to sleep inside his house with his family. The second night, however, he grew suspicious and told them to sleep in the tobacco barn.

Early on the morning of April 26, the Union cavalry surrounded the tobacco shed, trapping the fugitives inside. Herold surrendered, leaving Booth alone inside the barn. Though Stanton wanted Booth alive for questioning, the assassin had no intention of surrendering: Writing in his diary while on the run, Booth reflected, “I have too great a soul to die like a criminal.”

An illustration of Union soldiers dragging the dying Booth out of Garrett's tobacco barn
An illustration of Union soldiers dragging the dying Booth out of Garrett's tobacco barn Public domain via Wikimedia Commons

With this aim in mind, Booth addressed Luther directly, saying, “I know you to be a brave man, and I believe you to be honorable. … I have got but one leg. If you will withdraw your men in line 100 yards from the door, I will come out and fight you.” In an effort to convince Luther of his honorable intentions, Booth added, “Captain, I have had half a dozen opportunities to shoot you, but I did not.”

In response, the soldiers tried to smoke Booth out by setting fire to the barn. The assassin was prepared to storm out with guns blazing, but before he could make his move, Sergeant Boston Corbett shot him through a gap in the barn’s slats. The bullet struck the back of Booth’s head, in approximately the same spot where he had shot the president.

“The night at the Garrett farm was Booth’s last performance on the American stage,” says Swanson. “He acted in a Shakespearean manner. He was an actor. Just as he performed the assassination of Abraham Lincoln, he didn’t just do it, he performed it.”

Booth died on the porch of Garrett’s house as the sun rose on April 26. His last words, uttered while looking at his hands, were “useless, useless.”

Punishing the co-conspirators

Stanton’s manhunt didn’t end with Booth’s death. His investigation extended to the actor’s co-conspirators, including Mudd; failed assassins Powell and Atzerodt; boarding house owner Mary and her son John; Michael O’Laughlen and Samuel Arnold, who were involved in Booth’s earlier kidnapping plot but not the assassination; and Edman Spangler, who’d held Booth’s horse outside of Ford’s Theatre during the murder.

Rumors of a grand conspiracy circulated, but in truth, most of the individuals who helped Booth were more loyal to him than the Confederate cause. “Booth’s inner circle of conspirators got involved because they were admirers of [him],” says Swanson. “He did not hold himself above these followers of his, and they really basked in his glory and friendship.”

Illustrations of the co-conspirators
Illustrations of the co-conspirators Public domain via Wikimedia Commons

Mary and John, who was captured abroad in 1866 but ultimately escaped punishment, were the exceptions. “They were really angry about Lincoln and the North wanting to end slavery,” says Kate Clifford Larson, author of The Assassin’s Accomplice: Mary Surratt and the Plot to Kill Abraham Lincoln. “Mary was a very bright woman, and she knew how to take care of herself and her family, her farm, her boarding house. She watched and she listened, and she aided and abetted the assassination of Abraham Lincoln.”

Though John was involved with the Confederate Secret Service, no evidence suggests that the plot to assassinate Lincoln originated with anyone besides Booth. “It was really Booth’s passions and Booth’s mental state that led to the assassination,” says Swanson. “But there was a strong feeling in popular sentiment that it was the last act of a slave empire to slaughter Abraham Lincoln and change the outcome of the war. … Probably almost everyone in the North believed that there was a Confederate plot, believed that the Confederate Secret Service was involved. But there ended up being no proof of that.”

Charles A. Dunham, a spy who worked for both sides, claimed Confederate President Jefferson Davis was connected to the plot before reversing his testimony. But, Larson says, “there’s no evidence whatsoever that [Davis] knew that Booth was going to do this.” She adds, “People under Davis may have known. … But it’s not clear. There were Confederate agents everywhere who were working independently, just like there were United States agents working independently in the South.”

An illustration of the conspirators' trial in May and June 1865
An illustration of the conspirators' trial in May and June 1865 Public domain via Wikimedia Commons

Ultimately, no Confederate leader was put on trial for the assassination. Eight of the conspirators faced a military tribunal in May and June 1865; the transcripts of that trial helped Beletsky and the “Manhunt” team depict the series’ tribunal hearings and develop another major character in the show, Mary Simms (played by Lovie Simone).

“Simms is listed as one of about ten African American witnesses for the prosecution,” says Beletsky. “And so we have her testimony, and we know that she worked for Mudd as an enslaved person and then as a servant.”

Records of Simms’ life beyond these scant biographical details are scarce—Beletsky points out that historians know more about Booth’s horse than Simms—so the production team had to imagine what her life was like. Though Simms had left Mudd’s farm by the time of the assassination, her testimony offered concrete evidence of his ties to Confederate agents.

“It was really an honor and very moving to me to highlight [Simms], because she’s absolutely an unsung American hero,” says Beletsky. “African Americans were only legally allowed to be a witness in court a few years before the assassination, so she was very likely one of the first Black people to stand trial as a witness, which was extremely courageous of her, knowing what the consequences outside the courtroom for her might have been.”

Lovie Simone (left) as Mary Simms in "Manhunt"
 Lovie Simone (left) as Mary Simms in "Manhunt" Apple TV+

On July 7, 1865, the government executed four of the conspiratorsMary, Powell, Atzerodt and Herold—by hanging. The tribunal also sentenced O’Laughlen, Arnold and Mudd to life imprisonment and Spangler to six years. O’Laughlen died in prison in 1867, but none of the others served their full sentences: Shortly before leaving office in 1869, Johnson issued presidential pardons to Arnold, Mudd and Spangler.

In 1868, Johnson had faced impeachment for a range of “high crimes and misdemeanors,” chief among them his attempt to fire Stanton after they repeatedly disagreed on how to handle Reconstruction of the South. The Senate failed to convict Johnson by one vote, but the proceedings squandered any hopes the president harbored of securing re-election. The winner of the next presidential election, Ulysses S. Grant, appointed Stanton to the Supreme Court, but the former secretary of war died just one day before he was set to take office. Stanton faded from common knowledge, his many achievements—from leading the manhunt for Booth to helping Lincoln guide the Union to victory—largely forgotten.

“As far as I’m concerned, Edwin Stanton is one of the great heroes of the Civil War and of American history,” says Swanson, who adds he is “very happy to see that Stanton has finally gotten his due.”

Stanton appears at far left in this illustration of the first reading of the Emancipation Proclamation.
Stanton appears at far left in this depiction of the first reading of the Emancipation Proclamation. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons

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