It was a very short ride from the Post Office building to 6th and H Streets. Alex turned the corner and studied the buildings on H Street carefully, looking for 604. After passing a barber shop and a gunsmith, he saw the number etched on a wooden board that swayed from a metal signpost.
It was now approaching 6 o’clock. Alex alit from the horse and stood transfixed, staring at the building. It was an unassuming, wooden three-story structure, with shutters and two dormers. Although there was a door on the ground floor, a set of wooden steps ran up and parallel to the front of the house, leading to a second-floor landing and an ornately framed door that was clearly to be used to gain entry. Alex steeled himself and, in an almost surreal state, began to ascend the stairs.
He reached the top landing and turned to his left to face the door. Suddenly he realized that he had never been to a boardinghouse before. What was the proper protocol? Did one just walk in as if it were a hotel, or knock and wait for someone to open the door? Deferring to the course that seemed least intrusive, Alex knocked.
A woman’s voice called, “It’s open. Come on in.”
Gradually opening the door, Alex saw a middle-aged woman walking toward him. He froze with his left hand still on the doorknob and stared. It was actually her. In the books he had read, especially those dealing particularly with the assassination, there were photographs of all the conspirators. He had read these enough times to be able to recall the faces of the primary people involved in the plot. The approaching woman looked just like the photographs Alex had seen. She was unmistakably Mary Surratt. A chill went up and down Alex’s spine as he thought, This just got real.
Mary Surratt was of medium height and somewhat stout. Her thick, straight brown hair was parted in the middle and pulled back so that it barely covered her ears. She had penetrating dark eyes and a stern expression punctuated by somewhat heavy eyebrows. As with many people of this era, she appeared older than her 35 years of age.
Alex continued to stare at the woman until her voice brought him back to consciousness. “Can I help you?” Her tone clearly suggested it was not the first time she had asked him this question. Just as he was about to speak, he heard footsteps coming up the stairs behind him, and a man brushed past him and entered the building.
“Hello, Mrs. Surratt,” said the man. And then turning his head back toward Alex he asked, “Who is this?”
“Oh, hello Davey,” replied Mary Surratt.
Alex could not believe his ears or his eyes. David Herold had just pushed past him and into the house. This was the same David Herold who, in less than thirty hours, would be accompanying Booth into the Maryland countryside after the assassination. The same David Herold who, with Booth, spent the night at the home of Dr. Samuel Mudd after the doctor set Booth’s broken leg. The same David Herold who was with Booth in the barn on the Garrett Farm when Booth was shot and killed by Union troops, and who himself surrendered rather than face the same fate. And the same David Herold destined to be tried, convicted and hanged as one of the co-conspirators.
“How was your day?” Mary asked him. “And, as for this fellow,” she said a bit more gruffly, jerking a thumb in Alex’s direction, “I am trying to find that out.”
Herold continued toward the back of the building. Mary Surratt stood glaring at Alex. “Well?” Her voice clearly implied that she was not going to ask again.
Alex somehow regained his composure and began to speak. “Good evening, ma’am,” Alex said. “Is John Wilkes Booth in?” incredulous that these words actually passed through his lips.
Mary looked at him suspiciously and took a half-step back. “What do you want with Wilkes?”
“Well,” Alex began, stumbling slightly over his words as he had not rehearsed this part in his head. “I am a big admirer of his and I have seen him perform many times. I heard that he frequents this home and I was hoping to say hello and get one of his calling cards and an autograph.”
Mary’s jaw seemed to relax a bit and her demeanor softened slightly. “He is not in just now. I’m afraid that I do not know where he may be, or when he may be returning. I am sorry I cannot be of any further help to you.”
She then stood stock-still and stared into Alex’s eyes, saying nothing, but it was clear from her body language that it was now time for Alex to take his leave.
“Thank you,” he said. “Sorry for the intrusion.”
Alex exited through the door onto the exterior landing. Mary Surratt did not say another word and the door closed behind him.
• • •
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