German-born George Atzerodt immigrated to the United States with his family in 1843, at the age of eight. The family settled in Maryland. Atzerodt eventually opened a carriage repair business in Port Tobacco. An acquaintance in Port Tobacco would later, at Atzerodt's trial, describe him as "a good natured kind of fellow" who was "a notorious coward."
During the Civil War, Atzerodt helped Confederate agents--including John Surratt--cross the Potomac River. Surratt invited Atzerodt to Washington, where he stayed for a time at Mary Surratt's boarding house until he was evicted for drinking alcohol in his room.
Through the Surratt's, Atzerodt met John Wilkes Booth, who persuaded him to participate in his plan to kidnap President Lincoln, and hold him in Virginia in exchange for Confederate POWs. Atzerodt met Booth and other conspirators at Gautier's Restaurant on Pennsylvania Avenue to discuss the President's abduction. In a confession (excluded from trial) given on May 1, 1865 to Maryland Provost Marshal James McPhail, Atzerodt admitted his willingness to join the kidnapping conspiracy.
After the kidnapping plan changed to one of assassination, Booth, according to the prosecution, assigned Atzerodt the job of killing Vice-President Andrew Johnson. On the morning of April 14, Atzerodt (using his own name) checked into room 126 of the Kirkwood House in Washington, the same hotel in which the Vice President was staying. At ten o'clock, when he was supposed to begin making his move against Johnson, Atzerodt was attempting to build up his courage by drinking at the hotel bar. He never got any further, and spent the next several hours wandering aimlessly around the streets of Washington.
Atzerodt had aroused suspicion by asking a bartender about the Vice President's whereabouts. The day after Lincoln's assassination, a hotel employee contacted authorities concerning a "suspicious-looking man" in "a gray coat" who had been seen around the Kirkwood. John Lee, a member of the military police force, visited the hotel on April 15 and conducted a search of Atzerodt's room. The search revealed that the bed had not been slept in the previous night. Lee discovered under a pillow a loaded revolver and, between the sheets and the mattress, a large bowie knife. He also found in Atzerodt's rented room a map of Virginia, three hankerchiefs, and a bank book of John Wilkes Booth.
The search of Atzerodt's room, needless to say, made him in the eyes of authorities a prime conspiracy suspect. Atzerodt's arrest came on April 20 at the home of his cousin, Hartman Richer, in Germantown, Maryland.
At trial, Atzerodt's attorney, Captain William E. Doster, argued that Atzerodt's cowardice made it unlikely that he played any significant role in the assassination conspiracy. "I intend to show," Doster told the Commission, "that this man is a constitutional coward; that if he had been assigned the duty of assassinating the Vice President, he could never have done it; and that, from his known cowardice, Booth probably did not assign to him any such duty." Doster presented defense witnesses who described Atzerodt as a "notorious coward" and as a man "remarkable for his cowardice."
The prosecution, through its witnesses, showed that Atzerodt had met frequently with Booth in front of the Pennsylvania House in Washington. John Fletcher, an employee of J. Naylor's livery stable testified that on April 14 Atzerodt showed up at the stable with co-defendant David Herold, bringing with them a dark-bay mare. Fletcher testified that at ten o'clock at night (when Atzerodt should have, presumably, been launching his attack on the Vice President), Atzerodt invited him out for a drink at the Union Hotel. Fletcher described Atzerodt as "very excited-looking." He said that Atzerodt told him, "If this thing happens tonight, you will hear of a present."
Another witness told of Atzerodt's late night check-in (after midnight) on the night of Lincoln's assassination at the Pennsylvania House, his leaving again and returning around two, and then his checking out of the hotel between five and six in the morning.
The Commission found Atzerodt guilty and sentenced him to death. After his conviction, Atzerodt offered a confession to Reverend Butler, a minister who came to his cell to offer him comfort. According to Butler, Atzerodt admitted attending a meeting in mid-March to plan the abduction of Lincoln. Atzerodt said he first learned of Booth's plan to assassinate the President less that two hours before the shooting. Atzerodt claimed that Booth wanted David Herold to assassinate Vice President Johnson because, Booth thought, Herold had "more pluck" than he did. Atzerodt said Booth's chosen role for him was to "back up" Herold and "give him more courage."
Atzerodt, along with three other convicted conspirators, was hanged in Washington on July 7, 1865. Atzerodt offered his last words as the trap sprung, "May we all meet in the other world. God take me now."