David Herold was born in Maryland on 16th June, 1842. He was the sixth of eleven children born to Mary Herold. David's father, Adam Herold was the chief clerk at the Navy Store at the Washington Navy Yard.
Herold was educated at Charlotte Hall Academy. It was here that he met John Surratt who in 1863 introduced him to his friend, John Wilkes Booth. Booth asked Herold to take part in his plot to kidnap Abraham Lincoln in Washington. The plan was to take Lincoln to Richmond and hold him until he could be exchanged for Confederate Army prisoners of war. Others involved in the plot included Lewis Powell, George Atzerodt, Michael O'Laughlin and Samuel Arnold. Booth decided to carry out the deed on 17th March, 1865 when Lincoln was planning to attend a play at the Seventh Street Hospital that was situated on the outskirts of Washington. The kidnap attempt was abandoned when Lincoln decided at the last moment to cancel his visit.
On 9th April, 1865, General Robert E. Lee surrendered to General Ulysses S. Grant at Appomattox. Two days later Booth attended a public meeting in Washington where he heard Abraham Lincoln make a speech where he explained his views that voting rights should be granted to some African Americans. Booth was furious and decided to assassinate the president before he could carry out these plans.
Booth persuaded most of the people, including Herold, who had been involved in the kidnap plot to join him in his plan. Booth discovered that on 14th April, Abraham Lincoln was planning to attend the evening performance of Our American Cousin at the Ford Theatre in Washington. Booth decided he would assassinate Lincoln while George Atzerodt would kill Vice President Andrew Johnson and Powell agreed to murder William Seward, the Secretary of State. All attacks would take place at approximately 10.15 p.m. that night.
At 10.00 p.m. Herold and Lewis Powell arrived at the home of William Seward, who was recovering from a serious carriage accident. When William Bell, a servant opened the door, Powell told him he had medicine from Dr. Tullio Verdi. When Bell refused to let him in, Powell pushed past him and rushed up the stairs. Frederick Seward, the Secretary of State's son, came out and asked him what he wanted. Powell hit Steward with his revolver so hard he fracturing his skull in two places. Powell was now confronted with George Robinson, Seward's bodyguard. Powell slashed him with his bowie knife before leaping onto Seward's bed and repeatedly stabbed him. Powell, thinking he had killed him, racing out of the house where Herold was waiting with his horse.
At 4.00 a.m. Herold and John Wilkes Booth arrived at the home of Dr. Samuel Mudd who treated Booth's broken leg. With the help of other sympathizers they reached Port Royal, Virginia, on the morning of 26th April. They hid in a barn owned by Richard Garrett. However, federal troops arrived soon afterwards and the men were ordered to surrender. Herold came out of the barn but Booth refused and so the barn was set on fire. While this was happening one of the soldiers, Sergeant Boston Corbett, found a gap in the barn and shot Booth. His body was dragged from the barn and after being searched the soldiers recovered his diary.
On 1st May, 1865, President Andrew Johnson ordered the formation of a nine-man military commission to try the conspirators. It was argued by Edwin M. Stanton, the Secretary of War, that the men should be tried by a military court as Lincoln had been Commander in Chief of the army. Several members of the cabinet, including Gideon Welles (Secretary of the Navy), Edward Bates (Attorney General), Orville H. Browning (Secretary of the Interior), and Henry McCulloch (Secretary of the Treasury), disapproved, preferring a civil trial. However, James Speed, the Attorney General, agreed with Stanton and therefore the defendants did not enjoy the advantages of a jury trial.
The trial began on 10th May, 1865. The military commission included leading generals such as David Hunter, Lewis Wallace, Thomas Harris and Alvin Howe and Joseph Holt was the government's chief prosecutor. Mary Surratt, Lewis Powell, George Atzerodt, David Herold, Samuel Mudd, Michael O'Laughlin, Edman Spangler and Samuel Arnold were all charged with conspiring to murder Lincoln. During the trial Holt attempted to persuade the military commission that Jefferson Davis and the Confederate government had been involved in conspiracy.
Joseph Holt attempted to obscure the fact that there were two plots: the first to kidnap and the second to assassinate. It was important for the prosecution not to reveal the existence of a diary taken from the body of John Wilkes Booth. The diary made it clear that the assassination plan dated from 14th April. The defence surprisingly did not call for Booth's diary to be produced in court.
Herold's lawyer, Frederick Stone, called several witnesses to show that his client did not hold strong political opinions. He also claimed that Herold had the mentality of an 11 year old and was not responsible for his actions.
On 29th June, 1865, Herold, Lewis Powell, Mary Surratt, George Atzerodt, David Herold, Samuel Mudd, Michael O'Laughlin, Edman Spangler and Samuel Arnold were found guilty of being involved in the conspiracy to murder Abraham Lincoln. Herold, Powell, Surratt and Atzerodt were hanged at Washington Penitentiary on 7th July, 1865.