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Ned Spangler didn’t find Fort Jefferson a nice place to visit

Fort Jefferson in the 1860s. Digital source: U-M Library Digital Collections. Harper Weekly.
Fort Jefferson in the 1860s.
Digital source: U-M Library Digital Collections. Harper Weekly.

Native Yorker Edman (Ned) Spangler was among the eight defendants tried for conspiracy in the assassination of President Lincoln. He was the only one of the eight found not guilty of conspiracy. The 1865 military commission presiding at the trial did find Spangler guilty of aiding and abetting Booth’s escape from Ford’s Theater, and he was sentenced to six years of hard labor at Fort Jefferson on the Dry Tortugas, isolated islands off southern Florida. This link will take you to my previous York Sunday News article on Spangler.

Spangler was pardoned, along with Dr. Samuel Mudd and Samuel Arnold by President Johnson in 1869, perhaps in part because of the assistance rendered by these prisoners during a devastating yellow fever outbreak at Fort Jefferson in 1867. Lincoln conspirator Michael O’Laughlen died there from the disease.

Spangler spent his life proclaiming his innocence, writing articulate letters and statements in his defense. Copies of some of these items are on file at the York County Heritage Trust Library/Archives. One item I came across was published October 25, 1865 in the Aledo [Ill.] Weekly Record. He was probably writing to a friend or relative who had moved west. It describes daily life at Ft. Jefferson, where Spangler had been for three months by then. The first part of the letter reads:

“My dear friend,
I take my pen in hand to write to you these few lines to let you know that I am well and hope you are the same. This is a pretty hard place to live. The sun is very hot and we have hard grub, salt horse and one pc. of bread. We sometimes get soup. There is some small fish in the break water that we can catch from our cell window, but we have no fish hooks small enough here. Have no money to send for them. There is a sutlers store here. You can get anything you want if you have the money. There is about 500 prisoners here. We have the privilege of going over the whole island. It is about 13 acres of sand and some few trees. I am at work at my trade. You have no doubt been acquainted with the facts and circumstances connected with my trial and sentence and imprisonment. Nothing that I can say or do can alter the opinion of the world or the public. Before God and all that is sacred I am perfectly innocent of all charges and specifications brought against me by the prosecution. I have no knowledge or idea of anything nor did I aid or assist the villain or the assassin of the President either before or after the assassination. You know that I was not more intimate than others that were around him, not as much as some of them. He asked me to see to his horses which I did. He said that he would make me a handsome present which he did, six years on hand of Dry Tortugas. I never enjoyed his confidence or his favor except occasionally when we met at a restaurant he would ask me to have something to drink….”

To be continued in my next post.
Today Fort Jefferson is a national park, a picturesque place to visit. Exploring the dark and dank interior, however, where Spangler and the others were imprisoned, quickly convinces you that it was not a nice place to live.

Fort Jefferson today
Fort Jefferson today