The Weekly Quill — Bleeding the House — U.S. Residential Real Estate Slowing Broader Economy

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“No act ever committed has called forth such universal execration as the murder of that great and good man, Abraham Lincoln.”

Thomas A. Jones, 1893

Regret is not something easily acknowledged in the best of our breed. Publicly repenting for the aiding and abetting of a president’s murder qualifies as exceptionally courageous, to say nothing of reckless. One thing is clear of the conscience of Thomas A. Jones – his guilt was too heavy to bear. We’ve all experienced some form of idealism in our youth. In Jones’ case, as a 45-year-old, he had a certain “zeal” for the Confederate cause, one that blinded him of reason in his summation. In 1861, when the Civil War started, he resided in a place that was strategically ideal for those inclined to support the South. Thomas had purchased “Huckleberry,” a 500-acre farm bounded by the Potomac River to the west and Pope’s Creek in Charles County, Maryland to the north. The small one-story house was perched atop a bluff 80 feet high overlooking the vast expanse of the river.

As any map will tell you, though, Pope’s Creek is only two miles across from Virginia. The area was also filled with those sympathetic to the South. As Jones recalled 1893’s John Wilkes Booth: By a Man Who Helped Him Escape, “It was, therefore, when the war had put an end to intercourse in Washington and above it with Virginia, that hundreds of people came to the neighborhood of Pope’s Creek to get put across to the river.” Nearly every night after the war broke out, Jones facilitated the migration by ferrying evacuees across the river. If the winds and mighty currents were calm, he would make the journey more than one time in one night.

By April 14, 1865, the Confederate agent was well known on both sides of the war. As history tells it, John Wilkes Booth leapt over the balustrade of President Abraham Lincoln’s box in Ford’s Theater after shooting him through the back of the head with a .44-caliber derringer. “Sic semper tyrannis!” he shouted. Translated from Latin, the battle cry was short for “Thus, always I bring death to tyrants!” The phrase was first used during the assassination of Julius Caesar and befitting Booth who was an accomplished thespian but also America’s first heartthrob, the 1860s answer to Brad Pitt said to have been the first to have his shirt ripped off by adoring fans of the fairer sex. Leg broken by the leap to the stage, Booth was consumed with the fight to flight. Virginia was to be his end point. Escaping by horseback from the alley behind the theater, he rode through the night to the house of Dr. Samuel Mudd near Bryantown, Maryland. At 7 a.m. the next morning, Lincoln passed, setting off a Union soldier manhunt that was 1,000 strong.

His left leg set, Booth’s attempted escape would last nearly two weeks. The reward money of $100,000 didn’t register with Jones, who skirted Booth and a co-conspirator to a pine thicket near his farm where the two laid low, sustained by provisions Jones provided from April 16 to 21, 1865. The weather appeared to be in the fugitives’ favor and Union soldiers were far enough away for a shot at crossing over to Virginia. Under the cover of darkness, Jones refused Booth’s offer of money; he only took the $18 to cover the cost of the flat-bottomed boat. The only mystery that stands to this day is that Jones failed to warn the two men about the Potomac’s strong flood tide. As such, the boat was swept upriver to Nanjemoy Creek on the river’s Maryland side. Though fate was not on his side in the end, Booth did manage to land in Virginia on a subsequent attempt two days later.

This past weekend, I was fortunate enough to attend a wedding at Mount Air, a farm bounded to the south by Huckleberry, where the original Jones homes still stands. The 1,600-acre farm is still graced with its original two-story manor, which is on the National Historic Landmark Registry. Had I chosen to risk the journey (in impossibly high heels) down the steep 100-foot bluff over which I took in the breathtaking beauty of the sweeping Potomac, I could have stood where a president’s assassin once did. The short trip from Bethesda to La Plata was most striking to this economist for one reason – tear downs are conspicuous in their absence.