At 10pm on April 14th, 1865, John Wilkes Booth mortally wounded President Abraham Lincoln in Ford's Theatre. He was aided in his plot by Davy Herold, George Atzerodt, John H. Surratt, Mary Surratt, and a host of others whose names are all too familiar. One name not so well known is Sarah Slater or Kate Thompson as she was sometimes called. What her role was, if any, in the murder of Lincoln is still open to conjecture.
Very little is known about Sarah except that she was born in Connecticut and somehow ended up in New Bern, North Carolina. There she married Rowan Slater on June 12, 1861. Two weeks later the new groom went into the army and his bride departed to parts unknown. Although her husband survived the war and returned home, he never saw Sarah again.
William Tidwell's book Come Retribution describes her as "an exotic young French-speaking Confederate agent and courier also known as Kate Thompson." Her command of the French language would stand her in good stead as a conduit between Richmond and Montreal. This fact was not lost on Confederate Secretary of War James A. Seddon, who recruited her to carry messages between Richmond and Confederate agents in Canada. Her first assignment was to carry papers and money to the agents who had participated in the St. Albans, Vermont raid and bank robbery. On October 19, 1864, twenty-six Confederates dressed in civilian clothes invaded the small town twenty miles south of the Canadian border to take hostages and then burn the town. It was part of a scheme hatched by the Confederate Secret Service to launch a series of lightning raids in the North. The thought was the Federal government would be forced to remove troops from the battlefields to defend these Northern towns. The first attempt to implement their plan was a disaster. The Rebel raiders failed to do any substantial damage to St. Albans, but they did take time out to rob the three banks in the town. Setting fire to a covered bridge, the twenty-six eluded the small posse sent to catch them and escaped across the border. The Canadian authorities captured them and put them in jail. The Federal government demanded their return to the States to stand trial for the bank robberies. Sarah carried papers from Richmond to Canada, which convinced the court that the men were not mere criminals, but agents acting on the lawful orders of their government; extradition was denied. Eventually the men were freed and the money they had taken from St. Albans returned to them.
The next news of Mrs. Slater is when she returned to Richmond in late February 1865. Escorting her from Maryland was John Harrison Surratt, a known associate of Booth. Over the next two months she was in Washington several times, once spending two nights in the home of Mary Surratt. Her name appears frequently in George Atzerodt's confession, where he stated she was often a companion of Booth's in those critical days before the assassination.
Sarah was assigned one more mission for the Confederacy. By the first of April, it was clearly apparent Richmond was doomed to fall. The decision was made to remove all the money remaining in the Confederate coffers earmarked for clandestine operations out of Canada to the safety of England. Sarah was given the job of carrying the money, mainly in gold. She left the Confederate capital immediately, bound for New York City.
On her way north she passed once again through Washington taking time to pay a call on Booth. On April 4th, Booth left for Boston and she for New York. Neither Sarah Slater, nor the money, was ever seen again. Based on testimony given at the 1865 Lincoln conspiracy trial and again in Surratt’s 1867 trial, Federal authorities were convinced Mrs. Slater was the vital link that connected Booth's cabal with Richmond and Canada. Since no trace of her was ever found, nothing could ever be proven.
By Tonia J. Smith