by Isaac MarkensI've placed a bit of related information regarding the Philo Parsons
62 Beaver St, New York
Portrait of John Yates Beall
taken hours before his execution.
"The Proceedings, finding and sentence are approved and the accused John Y. Beall will be hanged by the neck till he is dead, on Governors Island, on Friday the 24th day of February, 1865."
Such was the endorsement dated February 18 of John A. Dix, Major
General commanding the Department of the East on the Proceedings of a military
commission convened by his order, in the city of New York for the trial
of Beall for violation of the laws of war and acting as a spy.*
*Saturday, February 18th, was originally named for the execution. The
change to Friday, February 24th, was owing to certain technical errors
in the proceedings.
Beall's execution in conformity with the sentence was therefore the first
incident of the kind in the vicinity of New York since that of Nathan Hale
eighty nine years before. From the beginning of the war Beall had
engaged in exciting adventure but of a character in keeping with his reputation
as a man of refinement and culture. Towards the close he swerved
from what was deemed consistent with lawful warfare and for this he paid
the penalty with his life.
One of the most interesting phases of Beall's case was its disclosure
of President Lincoln in a light that refutes most forcibly the popular
impression of his pliancy, lacking in backbone and as easily swayed by
appeals for mercy in spite of his four years' previous temporizing with
transgressors of every conceivable type. In no instance was his firm
and unimpressionable side so strikingly demonstrated as in the case of
Beall when Heaven and earth were moved to save the life of a brave but
misguided soldier. Never before did Lincoln so turn a deaf ear to
supplications from all quarters without regard to the party, rank, or station.
"For days before the execution," it was said, "the President closed
the doors of the executive palace against all suppliants, male or female,
and his ears against all appeals, whether with the tongue of men or angels
in behalf of the unfortunate prisoner. From the first Mr. Lincoln
had responded to all applications for his interposition -- 'Gen. Dix may
dispose of the case as he pleases -- I will not interfere.' Gen.
Dix on his part replied, 'All now rests with the President -- as far as
my action rests there is not a gleam of hope.' Thus they stood as
the pillars of the gallows, on which Beall's fate was suspended and between
them he died."
The man who thus wrought a change in the attitude of the chief magistrate,
heretofore so susceptible, John Y. Beall, was one of seven children of
a prominent family of Jefferson County, Va. He inherited wealth and
social position, was of exemplary habits, well-read, active in Church work,
and of philosophic mind. He had taken a three years course in the
University of Virginia and while there studied law. A man of action,
enamored of movement and change he joined a Virginia regiment early in
the war, and was shortly thereafter wounded in the lungs. Thus incapacitated
from regular service he embarked in a series of independent enterprises
which culminated in his tragic death. He passed much of his time
in Canada, the rendezvous of Confederate agents and sympathizers
and it was there, presumably, that he conceived the idea of privateering
on the Lakes, levying and burning some of the adjacent cities and releasing
Confederate prisoners on Johnson's Island in Lake Erie. He flitted
between Canada and Richmond, held conferences with the Confederate authorities,
and was finally given a commission as acting master of the Confederate
Navy. As such he soon attracted attention by numerous exploits in
Chesapeake Bay and adjacent waters, such as the capture of little Yankee
vessels with prisoners and stores, cutting submarine telegraph cables and
partially destroying Cape Charles Light House. He was eventually
caught, placed in irons in Fort McHenry, and when released joined an organization
of Confederates armed with revolvers and hatchets who captured two
regular freight and passenger steamers on Lake Erie, confiscated the cargoes
and money, scuttled one of the steamers and put all on board under duress.
Thus far Beall's exploits while reprehensible were far less open to
censure than his subsequent doings which comprised three attempts to derail
passenger cars near Buffalo, NY, with a view of liberating a number of
Confederate officers -- prisoners of war -- being transferred from Johnson's
Island to Fort Warrens, Boston Harbor. By what psychological process
this man of excellent antecedents could be brought to engage in operations
of this character surpasses comprehension. The fact remains that
after two unsuccessful attempts and escapes he was after the third operation
on December 14th, 1864, caught while lingering at the railroad station
at Suspension Bridge, NY, by a local policeman, all of his companions having
escaped. He was sent to New York, confined in Police Headquarters,
and then lodged in Fort Lafayette in the lower bay. There he occupied
a room with Gen. Roger A. Pryor recently captured in Virginia. Beall
wished Pryor to act as his counsel. Charles A. Dana, as assistant secretary
of war objected on the ground that "Under no circumstances can a prisoner
of war be allowed to act as counsel for a person accused of being a spy."
Thereupon James T. Brady, a foremost member of the New York bar, was selected
as Beall's counsel. Five witnesses testified for the prosecution.
No witnesses were offered by the defense. Brady contended that Beall
was no spy nor was he amenable to a military commission. The Judge
Advocate, Major John Bolles took the ground that there was nothing of Christian
Civilization and nothing of regular warfare in Beall's operations.
Beall's conviction followed in quick order and he requested his friend
to send to the President a copy of the record of the trial and attach to
it this statement: "Some of the evidence is true, some false.
I am not a spy or guerrilero. The execution of the sentence will
Beall's friend were aroused to action, either through Gen. Dix or President
Lincoln. It was manifest from the first of Beall's life rests with
the former there was no escape. Dix, the man of resolution and iron-will,
author of the famous order promulgated on the eve of the war -- "If any
one attempts to haul down the American flag shoot him on the spot!" was
none of the yielding kind. Moreover in his approval of the death
sentence he had said that "a want of flexibility in executing the sentence
of death would be against the outraged civilization and humanity of the
age" and let it be understood from the start that he would not recede.
At this point the tide turned in the direction of the White House with
two close friends and schoolmates of Beall in the University of Virginia
in the lead -- Albert Ritchie in later years Judge of the Baltimore Supreme
Court and James A. L. McClure at a subsequent period prominent in Maryland
politics. Andrew Steret Ridgely of Baltimore, son-in-law of Reverdy
Johnson, was an early caller on the President in behalf of Beall, the result
of which confirmed him that Dix was to have his way. Francis L. Wheatly,
a leading Baltimorean, went to Washington and joined numerous New Yorkers
in a conference with the President. Congressman R. Mallory, of Kentucky,
and a party of ladies were received by Mr. Lincoln. There was in
Washington at this time Orville. H. Browning of Illinois, a close personal
friend of the President who had served in the United States Senate as successor
of Stephen A. Douglas and his services were retained by Beall's friends.
Browning prepared a statement to be laid before the President and called
at the White House with Ritchie and others. At one of these interviews
Browning was closeted for an hour with the President. On another
visit he brought with him a petition bearing the signature of 85 members
of the House and another signed by 6members of the Senate, many of which
were obtained by the aid of Rev. Dr. John J. Bullock, of the Franklin Street
Presbyterian Church of Baltimore. These petitions together with a
letter of Browning, all hitherto unpublished read as follows:
|Washington D. C., Feb 17, 1865
Capt. John Y. Beall has been tried by a court martial
at New York, found guilty and sentenced to be hung as a spy and guerrilla.
The sentence was approved by major General Dix on
the 14th of Feb'y, and directed to be carried into execution tomorrow the
This is brief time for preparation for so solemn
and appalling an event. The friends of Capt. Beall desire to appeal
to your clemency for a commutation of the sentence from death to imprisonment
and that they may have the opportunity to prepare and present to your consideration
the reasons which they hope may induce to a commutation.
They now beseech you to grant the unhappy man such
respite as you may deem reasonable and just under the circumstances.
As short respite is all that is asked for now and as that can in
no event harm, I forbear at present to make any other suggestion.
Most respectfully your friend,
O. H. Browning
Since writing the foregoing the Rev. Dr. Bullock
and others have placed in my hands a petition signed by ninety-one members
of Congress including Speaker Colfax, which I submit herewith.
To The President:
The undersigned members of the House of Representatives
respectfully ask your Excellency to commute the sentence of Captain John
Y. Beall, now under sentence to be hung on Governor's Island on the 18th
(Names of signers here)
Among the foregoing names will be recognized many who attained higher
honors in later years including that of James A. Garfield whose signature
is preceded by a note reading: "I recommend a temporary reprieve at least."
Henry T. Blow wrote before signing: "I hope that time for preparation
will be extended to this man," and J. K. Moorhead the following signer
wrote: "So say I."
D. Morris (Daniel Morris of Yates County, N.Y.) took the precaution
before appending his endorsement to insert the words: "If the public safety
will admit I concur."
This petition Mr. Browning presented to the President, retaining a copy
which he later endorsed as follows: "Feb. 17, 1865. Called on the President
and read the original of this paper to him, and left it, together with
petition signed by 91 members of Congress with him."
The appeal of the six Senators was in the following language:
|Washington, February 17th, 1865,.
To His Excellency The President:
Your petitioners respectfully represent that John
Yates Beall of Jefferson County, Virginia, was arrested on the 16th day
of December last and taken to the City of New York and there tried by a
military commission appointed by Maj. Gen'l Dix upon charges, 1st of violation
of the laws of war, and 2nd "Acting as a spy," and after a hasty trial
was found guilty and is sentened to be hung on Saturday the 18th inst.
As it is admitted that the said Beall is a Captain regularly commissioned
in the Rebel services and that Jefferson Davis, by a manifesto of the -
-- day of -- -- assumed all responsibility for the acts of Captain Beall
and Comrades in capturing the Steamer Philo
Parsons and the Island Queen, and thus publicly asserted that the several
acts specified in the charges against said Beall were done under his authority
and direction, we therefore respectfully recommend your Excellency a commutation
of the sentence of death pronounced against him.
L. W. Powerll (Ky.)
C. R. Buckalw (Pa.)
J. A. McDougall (Calif.)
Wm. Wright (N.J.)
Geo. Read Riddle (Del.)
Garrett Davis (Ky.)
As might be supposed Browning's influence with Lincoln in this instance,
went for naught. As a result of his numerous interviews he brought
to Beall's friends no more assurance than a possible commutation of sentence
should the inexorable Dix be induced to approve. The President was
uninfluenced by the visits of Richard S. Spofford, librarian of Congress,
John W. Garrett, President of Baltimore and Ohio Railroad, and Mr. Risley,
the law partner of Browning, Thaddeus Stevens of Pennsylvania, Gov.
John Andrew of Massachusetts, George W. Grafflin and Edward Stabler,
both prominent citizens of Maryland. When James T. Brady, Beall's
counsel, who had served without compensation, sought an interview he was
told by the President's secretary that the case being closed he could not
be seen. Mountgomery Blair was disposed of in like manner despite
the fact that he had been Postmaster General in Lincoln's cabinet and the
venerable Frances P. Blair of Maryland, who held confidential relations
with Lincoln gained nothing by his visit. Accompanying Montgomery
Blair was Mrs. John Gittings, wife of a well-known Baltimore banker and
railroad President. The Gittings' were no strangers to the President,
Mrs. Lincoln and her two younger sons having enjoyed the hospitality of
their home on Mount Vernon place Baltimore when the President elect made
the secret night journey to Washington four years before. This fruitless
visit of Montgomery Blair with Mrs. Gittings was in the night preceding
Beall's execution - February 23rd.
The same night witnessed a most remarkable gathering at the White House
- a joint call of John W. Forney, Republican editor, Washington McLean,
Democrat editor and Roger Pryor, Confederate Brigadier, the latter fresh
from imprisonment in Fort Lafayette where he had met Beall. The purpose
of this call was a double one -- to secure the parole or exchange of Pryor
and discuss with the President the case of Beall. Lincoln paroled
Pryor in the custody of Forney at whose house he remained as a guest for
several weeks until he left for Virginia. Next the party took up
the case of Beall at great length. Forney, McLean and Pryor urged
a respite. Lincoln was much interested in all Pryor had to say of
the young man's social standing and high reputation. Finally he showed
a telegram from Dix stating that Beall's execution was necessary for the
security of the community. Dix undoubtedly had in mind the recent
attempt to burn the city of New York and the suspicion that Beall had a
hand in it despite Beall's assurance to Pryor that such was not the case.
Finding the President obdurate the party withdrew.
Pryor had with him Beall's diary which he gave to McLean. A copy
of this he kept and another copy he gave to Gen. W. N. R. Beall.
On his arrival in Richmond three weeks' later Pryor had an interview with
President Davis to whom he fully explained his conference with Lincoln.
He then went to Petersburg his old home which was shortly afterward occupied
by Gen. Grant. The President at this time made a flying visit to
that town. While there he expressed a wish to have Pryor call and
see him. Pryor, fearing that his people at this peculiar juncture
might misconstrue his motive and resent his intercourse with the "Yankee
President" deemed it best to decline the invitation.
This visit of Forney, McLean and Pryor to the White House was probably
the last in behalf of Beall and Dix had his way the execution of Beall
taking place as ordered on February 24th. In striking contrast with
Dix's firm stand against Beall was his complaisance in the distribution
of passes to witness the execution. These were given out without
question, promiscuously and for the mere asking, the writer of this article
being one of the many thus favored.
The execution was scarcely over before the President had before him
a letter from Robert C. Kennedy, under sentence of death in Fort Lafayette.
He was one of a group of nine Confederates engaged in the plot to burn
the city of New York in November, 1864. Kennedy in his letter to
the President raised the novel plea that death was too severe a punishment
for his offense, that Beall's execution served all purpose. This
absurd contention, of course, availed nothing. His execution
followed one month after Beall's.
Writing some four months after Beall's death a close friend and school-mate,
Daniel B. Lucas, subsequently United States Senator from West Virginia,
and judge of the United States Supreme Court of that State, said of President
Lincoln's course in the Beall case: "There was one expedient which
might have been successful had it been adopted, that was to have purchased
the more influential of the Republican journals of New York over in favor
of mercy. There was one influence to which President Lincoln never
failed to yield when strongly directed against him, the voice of
his party; this he did upon principle as the head of a popular government.
Unfortunately, neither Beall nor his friends belonged to that party, hence
the doors of mercy were closed against him." Lucas was a practicing
lawyer in Richmond when Beall was awaiting trial. He wrote to Dix
asking that he be allowed to act as Beall's counsel, but Dix made no reply.
What Lucas sets forth as to Lincoln's vulnerability must not be too seriously
taken, since it was written at a time when party passion ran high and the
writer had not yet recovered from the crushing blow occasioned by the execution
of his dearest friend. Lincoln in this instance, could not well defy
public opinion, supplemented as it was with Dix's previously quoted declaration
that "a want of firmness would be against the outraged civilization and
humanity of the age," and the no less forcible report of Judge Advocate
General Joseph Holt, that "Beall's last enterprise was a crime of
fiendish enormity which cries loudly for the vengeance of the outraged
From the execution of Beall and the assassination of Lincoln has sprung
a weird and lurid story for years industriously circulated and eagerly
devoured - that Booth's deed was inspired by the President's broken promise
of a pardon made to Booth. These are in brief the alleged facts:
Beall and Booth were bosom friends, were before the war much together --
as Damon and Pythias -- and they had attended the same school. During
the war Booth was with Beall on his Lake Erie expedition. When Beall
was captured Booth sought Washington McLean, of Ohio, then in Washington,
John P. Hale, United States Senator from New Hampshire, and John W. Forney,
to aid in Beall's release. Forney was induced to implore the President
to exercise clemency. Hale, McLean and Booth, were driven at midnight
to the White House, the president was aroused and there was not a dry eye
in the room as Booth knelt at the feet of Lincoln, clasped his knees and
begged him to spare Beall's life. All present joined in the request.
At last Lincoln with tears streaming down his face took Booth by the hands
and promised Beall's pardon. The next morning, Seward said when informed
by Lincoln what he had done, that the public sentiment in the North demanded
that Beall should be hung and he threatened to resign should the President
interfere. Seward carried his point and Beall was hanged. The
effect on Booth was terrible. He brooded over schemes of vengeance
and the assassination followed.
Such is the substance of this remarkable theory of Booth's motive which
for years formed currency in numerous newspapers and periodicals.
The Virginia Historical Society regarded the story as of sufficient importance
for incorporation in its official publications. Its genesis is uncertain
but there is reason for believing that it was conceived in the brain of
Mark M. Pomeroy, the notorious editor of "Pomeroy's Democrat," a sensational
weekly published shortly after the war. John W. Forney in 1876 publicly
branded the story so far as it relates to his knowing or meeting Booth
during his lifetime, as an utter fabrication and he incidentally mentions
the name of "Mr. Pomeroy" as the author of the story as originally printed
not long before. Forney adds that if Lincoln made such a promise
to Booth as alleged he would have fulfilled it at all hazards and that
Seward would have been the last man in the world to ask him to break his
It is a matter of common knowledge that Booth's designs on Lincoln
antedated Beall's operations by quite a remote period. Extensive
research fails to disclose the slightest evidence of any acquaintance or
intercourse of Beall and Booth prior to or during the war. Finally,
the question of Booth's motive in killing Lincoln so far as it involves
Beall is disposed of by Booth's own record in his so-called diary of his
movements after the assassination wherein is found under the date of April
21 the entry: "I know no private wrong. I struck for my country and
that alone. " This diary is in the possession of the War Department.
[back to top]
I've placed a bit of related information
regarding the Philo Parsons affair [here].