To only a handful of individuals interested in the Lincoln assassination, the name of Nathan Simms evokes quizzical looks. Simms is one of several individuals who claimed to have held the reins of John Wilkes Booth’s horse on the night of April 14, 1865. Dr. Edward Steers ably demonstrates the problems with Simms’s claims and credits John “Peanut” Burroughs as the rightful holder of Booth’s horse on that fateful night. But if Simms was mistaken about his role on April 14, 1865, it might be premature to dismiss his connection to the assassination.
A letter by architect Walter F. Price to President Herbert Hoover suggests that Simms — misspelled as “Sims” throughout the letter — worked for Mary Surratt. Beyond the new information on Simms, Mr. Price also enclosed three photographs to provide additional visual reference of this obscure individual. The text of the February 3, 1931, letter follows:
“Some weeks ago I went to Marshalton, Chester County, Pa., to visit an old Meeting House; the aged care-taker as I was leaving pointed to a frame House in the edge of the village. He said ‘in that house lived a colored man named Nathan Sims; when he was about seventeen he held a horse for J. Wilkes Booth while he went into the theatre to assassinate President Lincoln.’
“On the 9th of January last I went again to Marshalton about four miles west of West Chester and called at his house. A mulatto woman came to the door and said she was Mrs. Nathan Sims, then added that her husband was in the village getting slop. On my inquiry as to how I should know him, she said he will be carrying two buckets. Within five minutes I met him with his buckets; he admitted he was the Nathan Sims who held the horse for Booth. I turned to walk back with him to his house. He seemed shy and taciturn. To my question as to whether he was the slave of Mrs. Surratt, he said he had been, but later in our short talk, he referred as to having been her bond servant. Of Mrs. Surratt he said only, the soldiers came and bundled her up and took her away. I don’t know what became of her. Near his house I had him stand for his picture by his pump. I took a second picture, trying to secure a little better light on his face.
“I went again on the 25th of January and took a promised picture. In the town I asked for an old and reliable citizen, and was referred to a Mr. Peterson, who said relative to N. Sims’ veracity, that from his knowledge of the man, he felt sure we could depend on anything he might say. Just as I reached the house he came around the corner and I gave him the picture and asked more questions. For example; who are his parents? He replied they were slaves of Dr. Gunton of Maryland. There were several boys in the family and as he was not needed, he was bound over by his master to Mrs. Surratt, and that he worked for her on her ‘big’ farm at Surrattville, where she had much property. He finished by saying that he had lived in Marshalton thirty-six years.”
Nathan Simms may not have held Booth’s horse but he clearly seems to be connected to Mary Surratt. To this extent, he is worth knowing more about as an historical actor.