Sarah Gilbert Slater was a mysterious Confederate spy who worked with both John Wilkes Booth and John Surratt prior to the assassination of Abraham Lincoln but disappeared shortly after without a trace.
Federal investigators began pursuing Sarah Slater after she was mentioned in a number of testimonials during the 1865 Lincoln conspiracy trial and the 1867 trial of John Surratt. Since her true identity was unknown at the time, those who encountered her often identified her merely as “the french woman” or “the lady in the veil” or sometimes mistook her for other women, according to the book “Hidden Heroines of the Civil War”:
“Sarah was so mysterious she was often misidentified by her enemies and by other Confederate agents. A congressional committee believed she was Olivia Floyd. They were wrong. Three prominent historians said she was also known as Kate Thompson. The real Kate Thompson would have resented that. A fellow agent introduced her as Mrs. Brown, an alias Sarah used.”
Slater, who was born Sarah Gilbert in Middletown, Connecticut, was the granddaughter of Revolutionary War veteran Ebenezer Gilbert and the daughter of french-speaking parents John Gilbert and Antoinette Reynaud. In 1851, she moved with her family to North Carolina and later married a dance instructor named Rowan Slater. Her husband later joined the North Carolina Infantry and marched off to war in 1861. In 1865, while being interviewed in Richmond for a passport to travel to New York City to see her mother, Slater was recruited to work as a spy by Confederate Secretary of War James A. Seddon, who was impressed by her beauty, french-speaking skills and spunky attitude. Soon after, she began carrying messages for the Confederates to and from Quebec, Canada.
Although she only served as a spy for a few months, she managed to work her way into John Wilkes Booth’s inner circle, occasionally staying at Mary Surratt’s boardinghouse in Washington D.C., receiving personal escorts during her missions from Surratt’s son, John, and meeting frequently with John Wilkes Booth. A few weeks before the assassination of Abraham Lincoln, Slater embarked on a mission to Canada and was never heard from again, according to the book “Women in the American Civil War”:
“Her last mission, April 1 1865, was to bring money, originally intended to fund the Canadian operations, to Montreal to be sent to London for private use after the war. Slater met Booth one last time in Washington, departing on April 4. After that, she and the money disappeared.”
Her role in the conspiracy might have escaped the attention of federal investigators altogether if it wasn’t for the testimony of Louis J. Weichmann, a friend of John Surratt’s and a boarder at Mary Surratt’s boardinghouse, as well as several other witnesses who claimed to have seen or met her. Due to their limited interactions with Slater, the witnesses gave the investigators little to go on, according to the book “Women in the American Civil War”:
“Weichmann told officials that Slater was a French-speaking Confederate agent from North Carolina who carried dispatches to the Confederate organization working out of Montreal. He said she had been to Surratt’s boarding-house twice in recent weeks, and once remained all night. But, he added, none of the boarders ever got a good look at her, ‘as she always wore a [thick] veil over her face’…Her name came up dozens of times during the 1865 conspiracy trial and the 1867 trial of John Surratt. But no witness could give her first name, and several of them weren’t sure if Slater was her real name. ‘The government did its best to find out who the woman was, but was unable to find her,’ Weichmann later wrote.”
After her disappearance, even her own husband, Rowan, tried to find her, writing to his brother James in New York City: “You wrote me that you heard that Nettie (Sarah) was dead. I hope she is in a better world. If you have any of the particulars about her, let me know…I wish to know all.” James, unfortunately, knew nothing about Sarah’s fate and Rowan never saw her again.
According to the book “Hidden Heroines of the Civil War,” it seemed Sarah Slater desperately wanted to disappear, although no one knows why:
“Sarah vanished for a reason, but no one knows what it was. Were her contacts with Booth, Howell, the Surratts, and Atzerdot merely incidental to her work as a courier, or were they something more sinister? Or maybe Sarah finally became aware of the heinous plot these persons were part of and decided to disassociate herself from them promptly. She may have reconnected with her two brothers, who had also mysteriously disappeared [after being convicted of persuading soldiers to desert the army] and all of them may have escaped to Europe. That, however, is just speculation. The real answers will probably never be known.”
FBI: Forensic Science Communications: http://www.fbi.gov/about-us/lab/forensic-science-communications/fsc/april2006/research/2006_04_research01.htm
“Trial of John H. Surratt in the Criminal Court of the District of Columbia“; John Harrison Surratt, George Purnell Fisher; 1867
“Women in the American Civil War, Volume 1”; Edited by Lisa Tendrich Frank; 2008
“Women During the Civil War: An Encyclopedia”; Judith E. Harper; 2004
“Hidden Heroines of the Civil War: Remarkable True Stories of Espionage”; H. Donald Winkler; 2010