BREAKING (in 1865): Search for Lincoln’s Killer Starts at GSA’s Winder Building

On the morning of April 15, 1865, Americans learned that, for the first time in history, their president had been assassinated.  As the country began mourning President Lincoln, the hunt for John Wilkes Booth and potential conspirators was already underway, with the military at the helm.

Winder Building, circa 1870. (Library of Congress)
Winder Building, circa 1870. (Library of Congress)

The headquarters for this unprecedented criminal investigation was a simple, five-story building at the corner of 17th and F streets in Washington, D.C., known as the Winder Building.  Constructed in 1848, the building figured prominently in U.S. military operations, with Lincoln visiting it often to meet with his officers, including Brigadier General Joseph Holt. Appointed judge advocate general by Lincoln in 1862, Holt later became the chief prosecutor in the case against the accused assassins.

From his offices in the Winder Building, Holt collected evidence, issued documents for President Johnson’s signature, and prepared for the trial. On May 12, 1865, testimony began in the case against eight conspirators. (Booth had been shot and killed on April 26.)  Two months later, a military commission found all eight guilty, sentencing four to death by hanging and four to prison.  After the trial, Holt’s public image was tarnished and criticism—including questions of withheld evidence, low burden of proof, and lack of opportunity for the defense to prepare—followed him for the rest of his life.

More than twenty years later, artifacts from the case remained in the building.  An 1886 newspaper reported, “Among the most interesting things connected with the assassination of President Lincoln are what are known as the Booth relics . . . kept in a small green safe in the Winder building, just west of the State, War and Navy Department building.”  One of these items, the paper goes on to note, was Booth’s diary, which was never introduced as evidence during the trial.

On the 150th anniversary of Lincoln’s death, the Winder Building’s austere stucco facade is usually overshadowed by its more ornate and world famous neighbors, but its story places it among the most historically significant buildings under GSA stewardship.   It continues to serve the United States, housing the Office of the U.S. Trade Representative.