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Parshat Vayera: Quid pro quo

Knowing people with the right connections definitely helped back in Lincoln's time, and still helps to this day
Edmund Spangler. (Public Domain/ Wikimedia Commons)
Edmund Spangler. (Public Domain/ Wikimedia Commons)

Until his dying day, Edmund (Ned) Spangler insisted he was innocent. But on June 29, 1865, a military court found Spangler guilty of helping John Wilkes Booth escape from the Ford Theater after assassinating President Abraham Lincoln.

Spangler was a carpenter and stagehand who worked at the theater. In the early 1850s, he met Booth who was still a child. In 1861, they met again, but now Booth was a popular actor, and Spangler was star-struck. Even though Spangler was 13 years older, he would always rush to help Booth with anything he could.

On the afternoon of April 14, 1865, Booth showed up unexpectedly at the back door of the theater. He invited Spangler and a few others for a drink and told them he may come back later for that evening’s performance of “Our American Cousin.” At about 9:30pm, Booth returned and asked Spangler to watch his horse while he went inside for a short while, but the stagehand replied that he was busy working. Booth got another Ford Theater employee, Joseph Burroughs, to watch his steed. At about 10:15 pm Booth entered the presidential box, assassinated Lincoln, then jumped down to the stage where he raised a knife and shouted, “Sic semper tyrannis,” (“Thus to the tyrants always”) and ran out through a back door.

On the same night, two of Booth’s accomplices attempted to murder Secretary of State William H. Seward and Vice President Andrew Johnson. Lewis Powell managed to enter Seward’s room in his residence on Lafayette Square and stabbed the Secretary of State several times in the head but was chased off by Seward’s family members and staff, several of whom he also stabbed. The conspirators assigned George Atzerodt the task of murdering the Vice President, but he lost his nerve and spent the evening drinking instead.

Lithograph of the Assassination of Abraham Lincoln. From left to right: Henry Rathbone, Clara Harris, Mary Todd Lincoln, Abraham Lincoln, and John Wilkes Booth. By Currier & Ives, 1865. (Public Domain/ Wikimedia Commons)

Spangler was originally accused of conspiring to kill and murder Lincoln, helping Booth get into the presidential box and blocking the entrance to prevent anyone from saving the president. He was also charged with opening the rear door of the theater to help Booth escape.

He was acquitted of all but the final charge and was sentenced to six years hard labor and transferred to Fort Jefferson in Florida, along with three other convicted conspirators. Four others accused of aiding Booth received the death penalty and were hanged.

Image of Dr Samuel Mudd from ‘The life of Dr. Samuel A. Mudd.’ (Public Domain/ Flickr)

One of those was Dr Samuel Mudd, who treated Booth’s fractured leg after he escaped from the theater. Because he did not report this to the authorities, he was found guilty of aiding and conspiring to murder, and sentenced to life imprisonment. He was only saved from the hangman by a single vote.

Michael O’Laughlen and Samuel Arnold were also sentenced to life imprisonment. O’Laughlen died of yellow fever while in jail.

After years of petitions from Mudd’s wife, Spangler’s former boss, John T. Ford, owner of the Ford Theater, and their lawyer, Thomas Ewing, Jr., Mudd was pardoned by President Andrew Johnson on February 8, 1869. Three weeks later, on March 2, Spangler and Arnold were also pardoned.

Mudd went back to his home, a farm in Maryland. Arnold also returned to his home, and lived quietly, out of the public eye for more than 30 years. In 1902, however, he wrote a series of articles about his time in jail for the Baltimore American.

Spangler arrived back in Baltimore on April 6, and went to work for Ford at the Holliday Street Theater. When the theater burned down, Spangler went to live with Mudd and his wife on the farm.

Spangler died a few years later, on February 7, 1875.

The obvious question is, why would President Johnson pardon the men convicted of abetting a plot to murder him? Was there some kind of quid pro quo?

Hon. Thomas Ewing, Jr. Delegate to the Peace Convention held in Wash., D.C. in 1861. (Public Domain/ Wikimedia Commons)

Ewing, the lawyer who convinced Johnson to pardon Mudd and Spangler, was also very involved in defending the president in his impeachment trial. He lobbied many of the 54 senators to vote against removing the president from office (there were only 27 states at the time as the 10 former Confederate States had not yet been readmitted to the Union).

Ahead of the vote on May 16, 1868, things were very tight. Achieving the two-thirds majority to remove the president would require 36 of the 54 senators to vote in favor. All nine Democrats and nine of the Republicans were planning to vote against conviction. But they still needed one more Republican to side with the president and vote against removing him from office. In the end, Kansas Senator Edmund G. Ross decided to vote with the Democrats, saving Johnson by the narrowest of margins.

Ross had served under Ewing in the Civil War and was heavily influenced by him. With the encouragement of his former commander, Ross may have been convinced to change his mind, considering it an act of bravery.

Afterwards, Ewing sent Ross a letter in which he praised him as being “preeminent for courage.”

“In making [that] decision, you knew perfectly well that it could consign you to private life and the vehement denunciation of almost all your party friends,” he wrote. There is also evidence that Ross was bribed.

The Senate as a Court of Impeachment for the Trial of President Andrew Johnson. Illustration in Harper’s Weekly, April 11, 1868. by Theodore R. Davis. (Public Domain/ Wikimedia Commons)

Is it possible that after Ewing had worked so hard to keep the president in office, bringing him the final, decisive vote, Johnson was more inclined to grant the pardon that Ewing requested? Were Mudd and Spangler released due to a quid pro quo deal between the president and his lawyer?

I suppose we’ll never know the answer to that question but knowing people with the right connections definitely helped back then and still helps to this day.

But how about further back, in the days of the Bible?

In this week’s Torah reading, Vayera, Abraham is told of the imminent destruction of the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah. The cities and all those who live there (with the exception of Abraham’s nephew Lot and his immediate family) are to be killed by God for their crimes.

Immediately, Abraham begins to argue with God (Genesis 18:20-33).

‘What if there are 50 righteous people in the city? Would You destroy a city with 50 righteous people?,’ Abraham pleaded with God. ‘How about if there are 45 people? What about 40, 30, 20. Maybe there are just ten righteous people. Would you destroy the city if it has ten righteous people?’

Why would Abraham, embodiment of kindness and hospitality, want to save the inhabitants of a city known for their cruelty and intolerance of foreigners?

It certainly wasn’t because Abraham hoped to profit financially from saving them. He had already saved their kings once before, in an episode recorded in chapter 14.

After risking his life to rescue the king of Sodom, Abraham swore that he wanted nothing in return (Genesis 14:23):

From a needle to a shoelace, I will take nothing from all that you have, so that you won’t say, ‘I made Abram wealthy.’

So there was certainly no financial quid pro quo in Abraham’s prayer.

Perhaps he felt it would be better to live in an area which was inhabited, which had cities nearby and green pastures. This would be good for trade and would bring tourists and visitors, who he could then welcome into his tent. Rashi alludes to this in his commentary to Genesis 20:1:

When he saw that the cities were destroyed and there were no more people passing by he left the place.

Maybe Abraham felt a sense of gratitude to the people who had accepted his nephew Lot into their city. They even appointed Lot as one of their judges. So Abraham may have felt a certain amount of obligation on behalf of his relative. On the other hand, surely he had already repaid any moral debt he had when he risked his life earlier to save the king of Sodom. But it is possible that there is no limit on gratitude.

Photo of President Andrew Johnson by Mathew Brady. (Public Domain/ Wikimedia Commons)

Or, Abraham may have felt a sense of responsibility for all those around him. God had promised him the land. If he was to rule the land, he must also be responsible for anyone who lived in his land. Even if the people of Sodom and Gomorrah held diametrically opposing views to him, even though he abhorred their lifestyle, they were still his concern because they were living on the land that would one day be his.

These values of hospitality, gratitude and responsibility for others are the hallmark of Abraham. He dedicated his life to these values. And when he pleaded with God to spare the people of Sodom he showed the depth of his commitment to those values.

Andrew Johnson may have pardoned Spangler, Mudd and Arnold in return for the vote of Ross which kept him in office. Ross may have voted against removing him from office because he felt a moral debt to Ewing, or perhaps because he was bribed.

But the only quid pro quo that Abraham accepted was the knowledge that he was doing the right thing, caring for those around him regardless of their views, and out of a deep sense of thankfulness for even the smallest of favors done for him.

About the Author
David Sedley lives in Jerusalem with his wife and children. He has been at various times a teacher, translator, author, community rabbi, journalist and video producer. Born and bred in New Zealand, he is usually a Grinch, except when the All Blacks win. And he also plays a loud razzberry-colored electric guitar.
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