by Peter Amram
Jim Crawford of NEOC alerted me to yet another instance of Lit-O, in which the written page yields a union of life, art, and orienteering.
It was a very high-profile race, featuring a unique chase start, and it began at 10:13 p.m. on Friday, April 14, 1865. The start triangle was in Washington, D.C., centered precisely on what is now 511 Tenth Street, where there was then, and there is still, a theater. Oddly, the Finish was vague: anyplace in the Deep South. The two leaders were traveling together, rogaine-style. Their trailing competition consisted mainly of a detachment of twenty-six men from the Sixteenth New York Cavalry.
The format was less of a standard O-event and more of an adventure race, for it combined the separate disciplines of horseback riding, night-time rowing, navigating, sleeping rough, and dissembling. Now, it is well known that AR types often pack more enthusiasm than navigational skill. During the night row-O leg (April 20-21), a little-known competitor named David Herold was alone in providing boat-moving power because his team-mate and boat-mate had, at the very onset of the race, sustained a broken fibula.
A twenty-first-century narrative describes the situation:
Herold dipped the blades of the oars deep and pulled hard. ... it felt good to be on the move again. Booth [the team-mate] checked the compass bearings. They were supposed to be rowing from Maryland west across the Potomac to Virginia, then south. But the needle on the compass indicated that they were headed north. Was the compass broken? No, the compass was true. Herold was a good enough navigator during the daylight, but not under cloak of darkness ...
Regardless of whose fault the bad bearing was, the leading pair failed to cross the Potomac that night and they ended up back on the Maryland shore north of where they had embarked. This lost time was a disappointment, to put it mildly. Finally, on April 23, the leaders made it to the Virginia shore and continued southward. But, very early on the morning of April 26, perhaps 25k further on, the New York cavalrymen caught up with Herold and Booth, who were pretending to be Confederate soldiers returning home, and who were spending the night in a tobacco barn.
Herold thought things over and decided that since he had been peripheral to the plot to murder President Lincoln, he was better off simply dropping out of the contest. Herold exited the barn and surrendered, thinking, incorrectly as it turned out, that he would avoid the most extreme judicial penalty.
John Wilkes Booth had abundant reason to see things differently than Herold, and he refused to surrender. The cavalrymen promptly set fire to the tobacco barn. Booth, a famous actor with the requisite flair for the dramatic and no hope of escape, prepared to come out shooting. Meanwhile, a trooper named Boston Corbett crept to a position from which he could take clear, close aim at the assassin of the sixteenth president of the United States.
The race had lasted twelve days and ranged over many miles. Across the land were many more participants than the several dozen who gathered at that tobacco barn in eastern Virginia, and the public’s interest in the outcome was enormous. So, how did the name of John Wilkes Booth show up on the official results list?
Well, let’s just say ... he was a DNF.
The quotation above about the mistaken compass bearing is from page 148 of Chasing Lincoln’s Killer, by James L. Swanson, an abridged adaptation of Swanson’s bestselling book, Manhunt.
Again, thanks to Jim Crawford for his notice of this material.