The Assassin Hunter of West Seneca
Updated: Nov 9
Christian Ulrich, buried at Trinity Lutheran Church cemetery,
helped capture John Wilkes Booth after Lincoln’s murder
A 23-year-old West Seneca farmer participated in a pivotal historic moment in 1865: the dramatic capture of John Wilkes Booth, the actor who had assassinated President Abraham Lincoln 12 days earlier, as the Civil War sputtered to a close.
Christian Ulrich was one of 26 soldiers who had been ordered by Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton to pursue Lincoln’s murderer and bring him to justice.
Yes, a man who hunted and captured one of the world’s most notorious killers lived in Western New York.
Later, Ulrich used his share of reward money to buy property in West Seneca and build a homestead on a triangle of land formed by Orchard Park, Union, and Michael Roads, not far from the Orchard Park border. The house where he lived — which no longer exists — featured a curious design: his bedroom offered no direct access to the outside.
Ulrich’s life was never completely content. In the years that followed Booth’s death, he voiced concerns that he and his fellow soldiers had captured the wrong man, and may have worried about Confederate sympathizers hunting him down to seek revenge. That may have been why four separate doors, spanning different rooms in his home, led to the bedroom. Ulrich did not want to be exposed to anyone lurking outside who might seek revenge.
Born in Germany on December 12, 1839, Ulrich lived until March 1906, although his last years were plagued by health issues. With roots in the West Seneca community, he is buried in the cemetery at Trinity Lutheran Church on Reserve Road, not far from his home. A marker adjacent to his tombstone identifies him as a member of the cavalry group nicknamed “Lincoln’s Avengers.”
“It’s really interesting history, with a bit of a mystery as well,” said James Pace, West Seneca’s Town Historian. “His pension records are rather obscure. It’s hard to find him receiving a Civil War pension. There is some speculation, based on anecdotal stories, that he didn’t want his name associated with that.”
Some of this you may remember from high school history class.
On April 9, 1865, Confederate General Robert E. Lee surrendered to Union General Ulysses S. Grant, at Appomattox Court House, a tiny town in south-central Virginia. Because the news spread slowly, however, the Civil War did not immediately end. Begun in 1861, it remains the bloodiest war in our nation’s history, with more than 620,000 Americans killed — about 2% of the population, according to figures from the National Park Service. Citizens from both the North and South had experienced the impact of devastating battles like Shiloh, Antietam, and Gettysburg.
Five nights later, on April 14, President Lincoln left the White House to see the play Our American Cousin at Ford’s Theatre, a few blocks away. During a moment of audience laughter, Booth, 26, burst into the presidential box and fired a single shot that struck Lincoln’s head. Booth leaped from the loge, where a spur on his boot became tangled in the curtain. Although the drop was only ten feet, he landed awkwardly on the stage, breaking his leg. Amid the confusion, audience members acknowledged that he yelled something. Several agreed it was the state motto of Virginia: “Sic semper tyrannis” — “Thus always to tyrants.”
Lincoln had previously seen Booth perform in a play at Ford’s Theatre two years earlier. Booth, a problem drinker and pro-slavery secessionist, came from a family of famous actors, and was well-respected for his theatrical talent. The president, in fact, had invited Booth to be a guest in the White House, although no answer ever arrived. Despite each knowing about the other, the two men never met. Booth, however, did attend Lincoln’s second inauguration in March 1865, and wrote in his diary that he wished he had killed the president then.
Lincoln’s assassination was part of a larger plot that Booth undertook to simultaneously eliminate other high-ranking government officials, creating a vacuum in leadership so the Confederacy might rise again. Plans were made to kill Vice President Andrew Johnson and Secretary of State William H. Seward on the same night.
One would-be assassin, Lewis Powell, arrived at Seward’s home after 10 p.m., explaining that he was a messenger from Seward’s physician with special medicine that needed to be administered in person. Seward’s son and daughter met Powell at the top of the stairs, where Powell rushed into Seward’s bedroom and stabbed the Secretary in the face. Although wounded, Steward survived.
George Atzerodt, another potential assassin, secured a room directly above the Vice President’s at Kirkwood House in Washington, but began drinking at a bar downstairs, became drunk, and wandered through the streets of Washington D.C., tossing away the knife he had planned to use. “Liquid courage” had the opposite effect. He never approached Johnson.
Booth’s plot to resurrect the Confederacy failed, but Lincoln’s assassination shocked the world.
A Granddaughter’s Memories
In 1987, Carole Taylor, working with the West Seneca Historical Society, spent time interviewing Eleanor Petrie, one of Ulrich’s granddaughters, who lived on Milestrip Road in Orchard Park. Taylor recorded those memories, which are on file with the West Seneca Historical Society.
Petrie was born in 1910; her grandfather had died four years before, so Petrie had no personal recollections of Ulrich. But she had many childhood discussions about him with her grandmother, Barbara Ulrich — Christian’s wife. Petrie was the daughter of John W. Ulrich, one of the couple’s 10 children.
Ulrich, according to documents, stood 5 feet, 10 inches, with light hair, blue eyes, and a fair complexion. At the time of his enlistment, he lived on the northeast corner of what is today Union and Allendale Roads. During the war, Ulrich broke a hip, managing to crawl back to camp despite his injury.
“His portrait in the Civil War uniform portrays him slightly leaning as he stands, due to this injury,” Taylor wrote. “Although he was a semi-invalid, he received no pension after his discharge; his wife received a pension upon his death.”
Petrie recounted that her grandfather believed that Generals Lee and Grant were “in cahoots,” and that Grant fed Confederate soldiers with food intended for the Union army. As a result, Ulrich and his fellow Union soldiers were forced to forage in the woods for bee hives and wood sorrel — an edible, white-flowered plant. By adding flour, the men cooked sorrel pie, a dish they compared to rhubarb pie. (Grant did, in fact, authorize sharing rations with the surrendering Confederate troops. By paroling them, the Union avoided the longer responsibility of feeding them as incarcerated prisoners.)
Petrie possessed several letters that Ulrich wrote to a friend while serving in Virginia during the Civil War. One was originally written in German but translated to English. This is an excerpt from September 2, 1864, addressed to “Michael Horner of West Seneca, Erie County, N.Y."
Ever Dear Friend Michael:
Received and seen that you are well and I hope this few lines will meet you so well as the last one. I am well and healthy. Michael, you must excuse me for not writing any sooner. I have got not much time to write here. Sometimes no paper and the most time no money to buy it. We have not been paid in four months but I think in two or three weeks we are mustering in for four months pay. Michael, we have not been in no regular battle, just a few days ago we went out and met Mosby and his gang but they were too strong for us. We fought them for a short time. Our boys was brave enough but the spurs was not brave that they had on their feet. They kept spurring the horse to get away.
In a different letter, he wrote:
Think about this country. Looks as though there is a great army of grasshoppers through this country. They eat most everything that grows.
Taylor assumed this meant that the Union army was forced to forage for food wherever they went. Foraging, in fact, was common practice by both Union and Confederate soldiers during the war. Cavalry, which traveled wide areas, were often away from a permanent location with access to regular supplies.
Petrie died in 1994, at age 83.
The Civil War had been underway for two years when Ulrich enlisted in the Union army as a private in Company E, 16th New York Cavalry, on July 31, 1863. Organized in Buffalo, there were two other locals enlisted as well: David Baker and Frederick Dietz, both privates. The regiment drew recruits from across New York state.
The day after Lincoln’s death on April 14, 1865, Secretary of War Stanton ordered Lincoln’s murderer to be captured. The task was assigned to the 26 men of Company E, known as the Sprague Light Cavalry, led by Lieutenant Edward P. Doherty, assisted by Lieutenant L.B. Baker, a war department detective.
“From what I understand, they were an excellent unit in their war records,” Pace told WGRZ-TV’s Pete Gallivan in 2020. “They really distinguished themselves. So when it came time to find a mobile and talented group to quickly go after Booth, apparently they plucked the best people from this 16th New York Cavalry.”
After shooting Lincoln, Booth fled Washington D.C. on horseback alongside a friend, David Herold, through southern Maryland and into Virginia. Federal troops searched woods and swamps for the fugitives.
Over the course of several days, Booth and Herold hid out and continued moving south, with Booth recording events in a diary. They stopped 25 miles from the capital, where Booth’s broken leg was treated by Dr. Samuel Mudd, who had conspired with Booth earlier in plots to overthrow the government.
On April 24, Booth and Herold were tracked to the farm of Richard Garrett, just south of Port Royal, Virginia. Booth had introduced himself to the Garretts as James W. Boyd, a wounded Confederate soldier who was returning home, explaining that Herold was his brother, Davey. The name James W. Boyd matched the initials “JWB” that were tattooed on Booth’s hand. Mail had stopped being delivered in Virginia when the Confederacy collapsed, so the Garretts did not know that Lincoln had been assassinated. Unaware they were housing the country’s most wanted man, the family provided both men with food and lodging.
Before dawn on April 26, the 16th Cavalry tracked the fugitives, surrounding the Garretts’ tobacco barn. Herold emerged, but Booth refused orders to surrender, saying “I prefer to come out and fight,” claiming he could see the soldiers through spaces in the barn’s wood and had been a gentleman by not shooting them. Troops set fire to the structure, and it is likely that a soldier shot Booth in the neck, although other reports suggest that Booth turned a pistol on himself.
Booth was dragged from the burning barn and laid on the Garrett’s front porch. The bullet had struck three vertebrae, partially paralyzing him. He died three hours later.
Ulrich never saw Booth’s face, and as years passed, he told his family that he wondered if they had captured the right man.
Back to West Seneca
Discharged on September 21, 1865, Ulrich shared the $50,000 reward money for capturing Booth. Each of the men in Company E came away with $1,653 — a significant sum. For comparison, New York’s average farm wage (without board) in 1866 was $1.70 per day, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
The money was used, in part, to buy a 14-acre parcel of land where Ulrich built his farm. After worries about remaining a bachelor, Ulrich married Barbara, 10 years his junior, and raised a large family.
“There are stories of him converting his farmhouse after he got back from the war, so there were baffles with no direct line of accessibility from the outside,” Pace said. “It’s like he was afraid of something. Maybe he had his Civil War records expunged so he couldn’t be traced. It all points to him being awfully afraid of people finding out he was part of the unit that killed John Wilkes Booth. One theory is that he thought some ex-Confederates would hunt him down and shoot him too. It’s a nasty idea.”
Today, the land where Ulrich’s house stood is occupied by a plaza, across the street from Strikers Lanes.
The Ulrichs raised 10 children — Helen (married name Edinger), John W., Lucille (married name Ewald), Kathryn, Amanda (married name McDonald), Henrietta, Emma (married name Schulz), Luke, Fred, Ella (married name Pabst Miller), and an adopted niece, Margaret Hantz Mitzell.
After the Civil War, Ulrich opened The Town Line House, located at the corner of Berg and Orchard Park roads, in the building that later became well known as The Feed Store, according to Pace. At one point, Ulrich added an addition, which served as a way-station for travelers.
“He also had another place which became another bar, that became the Saddle Inn, then it was Riley’s,” Pace said.
An undated newspaper article claims that the Saddle House burned to the ground.
“It was torn down,” Pace said. “That traces back to him and his family, but we can’t find much in the way of records with that.”
According to a family tree at the West Seneca Historical Society, “None of the children are living. A few of the grandchildren and great-grandchildren are no longer living. The rest are in the states of Washington, California, Nebraska, New York, Colorado, Ohio, and Florida.”
The West Seneca Historical Society, at 919 Mill Road, displays photos of Ulrich and information about his life. Ulrich’s descendants have visited the site, according to Pace.
“I think one is local, and another is from out of town,” Pace said. “One woman came in here a year or two ago and was beside herself to see the information that we have on display.”
How’s this for historical irony? Eleanor Petrie, who shared information about her grandfather in 1987, had a cousin, Madeline Bradshaw, who married the great-nephew of Dr. Samuel Mudd. Mudd treated Booth’s broken leg as he fled, later serving jail time for his role in aiding the assassin.
And that’s not all, according to Pace. Some people wrongly believe that Booth himself has ties to West Seneca.
“Every once in a while we get a call saying ‘Where’s that cemetery were John Wilkes Booth is buried in your town?’” Pace said. “I say, ‘what are you talking about?’ People say, ‘I heard there’s a connection with West Seneca.’ ‘Yeah, there was a guy who was part of the unit that hunted him down.’ For some reason, people think John Wilkes Booth ended up here. That’s happened more than once.”
After being interred and exhumed three times, today Booth is buried with other family members in Green Mount Cemetery in Baltimore, the city where he spent his childhood. Visitors there place pennies — featuring Lincoln’s likeness — face up on Booth’s unmarked gravestone. Some believe that Lincoln’s spirit, symbolized by the pennies, will keep Booth locked below ground.
He’s there, in part, because of Christian Ulrich.
text © 2023 by Jeff Schober
Special thanks to the Buffalo Presidential Center for the story idea and Dr. Thomas M. Grace for ancestry research and fact-checking.
Here is a 2-minute video from The History Channel summarizing Booth's escape:
Jeff Schober has a journalism degree from Bowling Green State University and a master’s degree in English and History from the University at Buffalo. He teaches English and Journalism at Frontier High School and is the best-selling author of ten books, including the true crime book Bike Path Rapist with Det. Dennis Delano, and the Buffalo Crime Fiction Quartet. Visit his website at www.jeffschober.com.
Steve Desmond is an award-winning photographer. With his son, Francis, he is the author of A Life With A Purpose which raises money for Duchenne Muscular Dystrophy research. To view more of Steve's work, search Facebook under "Steve Desmond" and "Desmond's PrimeFocus Photography," or on Instagram at "Stevedesmond9."
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