The Disappearance of Sarah Slater: Confederate Spy and Lincoln Conspirator

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.

Mary Surratt's boarding house at 604 H St. NW Washington D.C. circa 1890 - 1910. Slater stayed here a number of times prior to Lincoln's assassination.

Mary Surratt’s boarding house at 604 H St. NW Washington D.C. circa 1890 – 1910. Slater stayed here a number of times prior to Lincoln’s assassination.

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.”

Sources:
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

Disappearance of Sarah Slater: Confederate Spy and Lincoln Conspirator

5 thoughts on “The Disappearance of Sarah Slater: Confederate Spy and Lincoln Conspirator

  1. James Roberts

    A Sarah Gilbert was living in a NY boarding house and working as a seamstress in 1880. The name. age and birth place of her parents match those of the 1860 NC census. The 1899 death records of NY lists a Sarah Gilbert. Also I have read claims, without seeing the evidence myself, that Sarah Gilbert divorced Rowan in NY and used her brother’s address as home. Oceans of Steam a Kindle Ebook by Aaron Platt: Yes, it’s fiction but I needed to know.

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  2. Sandy Prindle

    There is a lot more information on Sarah Slater in the James O. Hall library at the Surratt Society in Clinton, MD. Their main number is 301 868 1121. One of the Surratt researchers, John Stanton, has an unpublished essay on Sarah Slater that has a few details that differ from this version, but this version, for the most part, is pretty accurate. Slater was arrested and held for a brief period of time following the Lincoln assassination but was released for lack of evidence. She did divorce her husband, Rowan Slater, in New York in 1866 for abandonment. She then married others, hiding under new married names. She lived in quiet seclusion until April 20, 1920, outliving every other character in the Lincoln assassination story.

    Sarah Slater becomes a person of interest in the assassination conspiracy because of her movements in the last two weeks of March 1865. She leaves Montreal on March 22nd, carrying dispatches to Richmond, and travels to New York City where John Wilkes Booth is meeting with some Southern sympathizers at the St. Nicholas Hotel. Booth and his action team had just attempted a kidnapping attempt on March 17th. Apparently, the St. Nicholas Hotel meeting disclosed that the White House had an entrance underground that would present an opportunity to place a bomb just under the cabinet room. However, the New York crowd had no explosives or expertise in that area. Slater next appears in front of Mary Surratt’s boarding house on March 25th in a fancy carriage accompanied by Mary and John Surratt. Later the same day, the three then appear at Surratt’s tavern, some fifteen miles south in what is now Clinton, MD. There, the three discover that Slater’s escort, Augustus Howell, has been arrested the night before at the tavern. Slater is carrying dispatches from General E. G. Lee in Montreal to Judah Benjamin and must proceed. John Surratt who has just participated in the March 17th kidnap attempt escorts her on to Richmond. They arrive in Richmond on March 29th, registering in one room under the alias of Harry Sherman. According to Benjamin’s head clerk, L.Q. Washington, both met Benjamin. Obviously not a coincidence, the head of the Confederate Naval Ordinance Bureau, General Gabriel Rains, receives an order on the same day to send a demolition expert with detonators and fuses north to Col. John Mosby for insertion to Washington D. C. The man sent was Thomas Harney (see Wikipedia). Circumstances dictate that only Slater could have gotten this information to Judah Benjamin this quickly. In addition, a dispatch was given to John Surratt to deliver to Montreal ordering the transfer of the remaining money in Canada to either England or France ($649,000). John Surratt was paid $200 in gold for this service. A document exists at Duke University that transfers $1500 in gold to Benjamin for secret service work. A copy is included in my just released book “Booth’s Confederate Connections”. This money could only be for expenses to insure the bombing of the White House and probably the $200 paid to Surratt.

    Surratt and Slater then leave Richmond on April 1st, one day before the Confederates evacuate Richmond. Future actions by both couriers suggest that this made John Wilkes Booth a plan B. This fact is also supported by a confession by Booth accomplice, George Atzerodt, that wasn’t discovered until 1977 by Surratt Society historian Joan Chaconas. Surratt and Slater arrive in Washington D. C. about 4:30 pm on April 3rd. They miss Booth there and travel on to New York City the next morning where they miss Booth again. Surratt travels on to Montreal to deliver the dispatch from Benjamin and Slater’s movements remain obscure. However, the lost confession reveals that Booth knew of the bomb plot on the night of the assassination. This means that he could have only found this out from either Surratt or Slater.

    This is only a short part of the story told in my new book “Booth’s Confederate Connections”, published by Pelican Publishing out of New Orleans.

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  3. DONUT

    This was very informational and really helped me in the role of being “Sarah G. Slater” (or so we think that’s her name) since my school class is doing a trial on the Lincoln Conspiracy. I don’t think my part is that important though now.

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