In the early morning hours of April 27, 1865, Colonel Everton J. Conger, a Secret Service agent, raced through the streets of Washington, D. C., heading for the War Department to report the capture and death of John Wilkes Booth. A relieved and grateful Secretary of War Edwin Stanton announced to a grieving nation that President Abraham Lincoln’s assassin was dead.
Everton J. Conger was the son of Rev. Enoch Conger, Presbyterian minister of Lyme Church. In 1856, Conger moved to Fremont, Ohio, where he established a dental practice. At the outbreak of the Civil War, the twenty-five-year-old Conger immediately enlisted in Company F of the 8th Ohio Volunteer Infantry. Intelligent, highly-organized, and a natural leader, Conger’s early military service impressed Rutherford B. Hayes when the two met in West Virginia. After returning to Fremont to marry Kate Boren, the postmaster’s daughter, Conger joined the Third West Virginia Cavalry.
By war’s end, Conger had suffered three severe wounds, but had risen to the rank of lieutenant colonel with the First District of Columbia Cavalry. No longer well enough for field command, Conger accepted detached duty as an agent serving secretly under the direct command of the War Department.
Stanton ordered Conger and a cavalry unit of 25 men to join the search for John Wilkes Booth. Tipped off by a former slave whom he had befriended, Conger discovered Booth at Garrett’s barn near Port Royal. Conger fired the barn to force Booth and his accomplice to surrender. He stated that Booth “knew that the end was near. Righting himself on his feet, he plunged for the door…” Against all orders, Sgt. Boston Corbett shot Booth through the neck. As Booth lay dying, Conger, carrying Booth’s weapons and notebook as evidence, raced for Washington where he reported Booth’s capture to Stanton.
Justly proud of their fellow townsman, the citizens of Fremont presented Col. Conger with an inscribed pair of silver-handled pistols. Congress wrangled over the division of the reward money. At the “eleventh hour,” Representative Rutherford B. Hayes put forth a compromise bill that Ohioan John Sherman rammed through the Senate. Hayes’ plan awarded Conger the largest share of the reward - $15,000. Hayes reasoned that it was Conger who had commanded the unit, developed the leads, and successfully orchestrated Booth’s capture.
Conger eventually moved to Carmi, Illinois where he practiced law. The home he built with the reward money still stands. The Illinois Historical Society erected a marker at the “Colonel Conger House” that recounts Conger’s unique place in history.
Everton J. Conger
(Courtesy of Find A Grave)
In 1880, President Rutherford B.Hayes, once more, played a prominent role in the courageous colonel’s life. He appointed Conger the first associate judge of Montana Territory. Throughout the remainder of his life, Conger would relate the events of the capture of John Wilkes Booth for newspaper reporters and magazines editors across the nation.