William D. Stites

8th Illinois Cavalry

Who was at Ford's Theatre when President Lincoln was Shot

This biography appears on pages 103-105 in "History of Dakota Territory" by George W. Kingsbury, Vol. V (1915) and was scanned, OCRed and edited by Maurice Krueger, mkrueger@iw.net.


William D. Stites has proved a wise and conscientious officer of justice as desk sergeant of Sioux Falls and has succeeded in the difficult task of upholding the dignity of the law and also of making due allowance for circumstances in dealing with the many cases that come before him for trial. He was born in Stroudsburg, Pennsylvania, on the 12th of September, 1844, a son of George and Martha Stites, the former a contractor of that place. The family removed to Rockford, Illinois, when our subject was ten years old and there the parents continued to reside until their deaths. Mr. Stites was educated in the public schools and in the Rockford high school. At the early age of seventeen years he joined the Eighth Illinois Cavalry and was with the Army of the Potomac from September, 1861, to July, 1865, He was wounded and was afterward made hospital steward of the First Separate Brigade, department of Washington. He was twice taken prisoner by Moseley and endured all of the hardships and privations of war. When peace was concluded and his services were no longer needed in defense of the Union he was mustered out and went to Chicago, where he clerked in a drug store for a year. At the end of that time he removed to Sioux City, Iowa, and became connected with the drug business there, being associated with C. K. Howard and C. Kent,

In 1872 he disposed of his interest in Sioux City and moved to Sioux Falls. He joined his former partner, C. K. Howard, in the formation of a mercantile firm, which conducted a general store in Sioux Falls until 1886. During that time Mr. Stites served as deputy treasurer for fourteen years and at the time of the admission of the state to the Union he was serving as clerk of the court. His next official preferment came to him when he was elected police justice at the time that the city adopted the commission plan of government. He served in that office for six years and after it was abolished was appointed day desk sergeant, which position he still holds. The duties of his office demand, in addition to a knowledge of the city ordinances and general principles of law, an ability to judge men accurately and to use tact and above all common sense in dealing with them. He has unusual insight into human nature and his nice sense of proportion and practical wisdom enables him to so effectively deal with the offenders that come before him that the number of petty crimes and misdemeanors in the city is kept at a minimum.

Mr. Stites was married in 1868 to Miss Helen Howard, a daughter of Hiram Howard, and they have become the parents of the following children: William H., who died at the age of thirty-three years and who was manager of the Cudahy Packing Plant at Kansas City; Mrs. Grace H. Steensen; Charles K.; Mrs. Faye Hitchcock; and Stanley. Mr. and Mrs. Stites also have three grandchildren. He is a Protestant and his political allegiance is given to the democratic party. He has attained the thirty-second degree in Masonry and has held all of the offices in the Masonic bodies. He was grand commander of the state of South Dakota and organized the chapter, commandery and Shrine of Sioux Falls. He maintains pleasant relations with his old army comrades in blue as a member of the Grand Army of the Republic and finds satisfaction in the thought that at the time of his country's need he did not fail her. He was present at Ford's theater when Lincoln was shot and his graphic account of this and its historic significance was most interestingly given to his Grand Army Post in the following words:

Dear Comrades and Sons of Veterans:

It is appropriate that upon this occasion, we should consider one of the greatest and most sorrowful events in the history of the United States as well as in the civilized world, for in that event was finished the life work of the man whose Emancipation Proclamation made possible the establishing of the Orders to which we as Veterans and Sons of Veterans are proud to belong.

Every G. A. R. button and every souvenir badge worn in the United States today, is but a part of the magnificent monument, which the citizens of the United States have erected, in history, to the memory of Abraham Lincoln, and were George Washington alive today, his voice would be heard in praise of the man who died, that all men, of all creeds and colors and previous conditions of servitude, in these United States might be free.

Two great incidents mark as many epochs in the history of our beloved country. One was the birth of George Washington and the other the death of Abraham Lincoln. Washington's birth marked the dawn of our day of freedom from British oppression and Lincoln's death sounded the death knell of the last fabric of that sentiment which harbored a desire to enslave one race to enrich another, upon this continent.

It was my privilege to be in the audience in Ford's theater in Washington, on the night of the 14th of April, 1865, when the shot was fired which forever sealed the doom of the slave traffic in the civilized world, as did the shots which the men with Sherman on his way to the sea, fired at Rebellion, seal the doom of the confederacy. The memory of that night will linger with me longer than any other incident of my life. I could not forget it if I would. Some things are written upon the tablets of our memory, indelibly and forever. I wish I might take you back over the half century which has elapsed since that night and have you sit with me in Ford's theater, in Washington. I wish you might experience what I experienced that night when the words "Lincoln is Shot" came to us from a man who had climbed to the theater box where the martyr had been witnessing the play of Laura Keene, a charming American actress, presenting "Our American Cousin" and President Lincoln was present.

It was about 9:30 o'clock. The play had progressed smoothly and there had been nothing to cause a ripple of discomfort, when suddenly a shot rang out upon the air. The stage was clear at that moment and we thought that this shot was but one of the incidents of the drama. Immediately a man appeared upon the railing which ran around the box in which President Lincoln was sitting. He jumped for the stage. A spur on one of his feet caught in the folds of the American flag and the grand old banner tripped that traitor, just as she has tripped every traitor who has been disloyal to her. He struck the stage and his leg was broken, but he halted not. Arising, he waved a revolver in the air, shouted his defiance and fled from the theater.

The scene which followed was a tragedy in itself. Absolute quiet and then a growling uproar. People crowded like mad for the entrances and having gained the outer air, in frantic effort to know more of what had happened struggled like madmen to get in again. Mr. Lincoln was carried to a house opposite the theater, where he died at about seven o'clock the next morning.

His assassin aided by confederates crossed the Potomac river, near Port Tobacco, Maryland to Mathias Point, Virginia, on Saturday, April 22, and on Monday, April 24; he crossed the Rappahannock river from Port Conway to Port Royal and took refuge in a barn. He was located in that stable, on Wednesday, April 26, and killed by members of a detachment of cavalry from the Sixteenth New York.

The assassination of Lincoln was the result of a conspiracy to kill the men who were putting down the rebellion. History tells of the attempt to kill Secretary of State Seward, on the same night that Lincoln was shot, which attempt was made by Lewis Payne, who was in the conspiracy with Booth. Of the conspirators the following were caught and tried before a military commission in Washington, on May 9, 1865, upon a charge of conspiracy to kill the president and other high officials of the government: David H. Harold, G. A. Atzerodt, Lewis Payne, Michael O'Laughlin, Edward Spangler, Samuel Arnold, Mary E. Surratt, and Dr. Samuel A. Mudd. Harold, Atzerodt, Payne and Mrs. Surratt were hanged, O'Laughlin, Arnold and Mudd sent to prison for life and Spangler was imprisoned for six years.

I belonged to the Eighth Illinois Cavalry, which was then on duty at Fairfax Courthouse, Virginia, a few miles from Alexandria. I was in Washington on April 14 on business and attended the theater that night. My seat was located where I could see into Lincoln's box and after the shot was fired Booth jumped from the box to the stage, his spur caught in the folds of a flag which was draped in front of the box. After lighting he limped across the stage and escaped from the theater by the back door to his horse which was waiting in the rear. I cannot describe the excitement which followed. I could not get out of the city until the night of the 15th. No one was allowed to leave the city until after the government was satisfied that John Wilkes Booth had escaped, and when I arrived in camp I gave the first information my regiment had of the assassination of Lincoln.

After being shot Lincoln was carried across the street to a brick house where he died. That building is owned by the government now and is called "Lincoln Memorial Museum" and some three thousand Lincoln relics are to be seen there. Among those relics is the flag which was draped in front of Lincoln's box where he was shot, and the rent in the flag, made by Booth's spur, is plainly seen. The spur is also among the relics. That spur, catching in that flag, caused Booth to fall and break his leg, which fracture undoubtedly made his capture more easy.

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