Abraham Lincoln Conspiracy
Abraham Lincoln (1809-1865) is one of the most famous Presidents of the United States. Volumes are devoted to his life and death. However, historians have yet to unravel the mysteries surrounding his assassination. Here are the known facts:
* Abraham Lincoln and his wife, Mary Todd Lincoln attended the play, Our American Cousin at Ford's Theatre on April 14, 1865. They were to be accompanied by General Ulysses S. Grant and his wife Julia Dent Grant. However, Grant and his wife changed their plans and did not attend the play. The Lincoln's attended the play with Clara Harris and Henry Rathbone.
* During the play, actor John Wilkes Booth entered Lincoln's State Box undetected and shot him in the back of the head. He also stabbed Henry Rathbone in the arm.
* After shooting the President, Booth jumped out of the box onto the stage, broke his left leg and yelled something that some eyewitnesses reported as, "Sic Semper Tyrannus" (As always to tyrants).
* Co-conspirator Lewis Powell (or Paine/Payne) attempted to assassinate Secretary of State William Seward, but only managed to injure him. David Herold accompanied Powell. However, Herold fled before the deed was finished. At the same time, George Atzerodt was supposed to have killed Vice-President Andrew Johnson. Atzerodt did not go through with the assassination.
* Booth and Herold escaped the Capital and traveled to Mary Surratt's Tavern in Maryland where they picked up supplies. They then traveled to Dr. Samuel Mudd's house where Booth's leg was set.
* Lincoln was taken to the Petersen House across the street from Ford's Theater where he eventually died at 7:22 A.M. April 15, 1865.
* Secretary of War Edwin Stanton stayed with the Lincolns at the Petersen House and coordinated the efforts to capture the conspirators.
* On April 26, Herold and Booth were found hiding in a barn near Port Royal, Virginia. Herold surrendered but Booth refused to come out of the barn so it was set on fire. In the ensuing chaos, a soldier shot and killed Booth.
* Eight Lincoln conspirators were caught over the next few days and tried by a military court. They were found guilty on June 30 and given various sentences depending upon their involvement. Lewis Powell (Paine), David Herold, George Atzerodt and Mary Surratt were charged with conspiring with Booth along with various other crimes and hanged on July 7, 1865. Dr. Samuel Mudd was charged with conspiring with Booth and sentenced to life in prison. Andrew Johnson eventually pardoned him early in 1869. Samuel Arnold and Michael O'Laughlen had conspired with Booth to kidnap President Lincoln and were found guilty and sentenced to life. O'Laughlen died in prison but Arnold was pardoned by Johnson in 1869. Edman Spangler was found guilty of helping Booth escape from Ford's Theater. He was also pardoned by Johnson in 1869.
As stated before, these are the known facts. However, who was really involved in the death of Abraham Lincoln? Over the years, numerous theories have arisen to try and shed light on how this terrible tragedy could have occurred. On the following pages, a few of these theories will be explained in depth.
Part 2: Simple Plots or Grand Conspiracies?
Was assassination the first goal? The general consensus today is that the first goal of the conspirators had been to kidnap the President. A few attempts to kidnap Lincoln fell through, and then the Confederacy surrendered to the North. Booth's thoughts turned to killing the President. Up until recent times, however, there was a great deal of speculation as to the existence of an abduction plot. Some people felt it might be used to exonerate the hanged conspirators. Even the judge advocates feared talk of an abduction plot might lead to an innocent verdict for some if not all of the conspirators. They are believed to have suppressed important evidence such as John Wilkes Booth's diary. (Hanchett, The Lincoln Murder Conspiracies, 107) On the other side, some people argued for the existence of a kidnapping plot because it bolstered their desire to connect Booth with a larger conspiracy masterminded by the Confederacy. With the abduction plot established, the question remains: Who was actually behind and involved in the assassination of the President?
The Simple Conspiracy Theory
The simple conspiracy in its most basic form states that Booth and a small group of friends at first planned to kidnap the president. This eventually resulted in assassination. In fact, the conspirators were to also assassinate Vice-President Johnson and Secretary of State Seward at the same time dealing a major blow to the government of the United States. Their goal was to give the South a chance to rise again. Booth saw himself as a hero. In his diary, John Wilkes Booth claimed that Abraham Lincoln was a tyrant and that Booth should be praised just as Brutus was for killing Julius Caesar. (Hanchett, 246) When Abraham Lincoln Secretaries Nicolay and Hay wrote their ten-volume biography of Lincoln in 1890 they "presented the assassination as a simple conspiracy." (Hanchett, 102)
The Grand Conspiracy Theory
Even though personal Secretaries of Lincoln presented the simple conspiracy as the most likely scenario, they acknowledged that Booth and his co-conspirators had 'suspicious contacts' with Confederate leaders. (Hanchett, 102). The Grand Conspiracy theory focuses on these connections between Booth and Confederate leaders in the south. Many variations exist of this theory. For example, it has been said that Booth had contact with Confederate leaders in Canada. It is worth noting that in April 1865 President Andrew Johnson issued a proclamation offering a reward for the arrest of Jefferson Davis in connection with the Lincoln assassination.
He was arrested because of the evidence by an individual named Conover who was later found to have given false testimony. The Republican Party also allowed the idea of the Grand Conspiracy to fall by the wayside because Lincoln had to be a martyr, and they did not want his reputation sullied with the idea that anyone would want him killed but a madman.
Eisenschmil's Grand Conspiracy Theory
This conspiracy theory was a fresh look at the Lincoln assassination as investigated by Otto Eisenschiml and reported in his book Why Was Lincoln Murdered? It implicated the divisive figure Secretary of War Edwin Stanton. Eisenschiml purported that the traditional explanation of Lincoln's assassination was unsatisfactory. (Hanchett, 157). This shaky theory is based on the supposition that General Grant would not have changed his plans to accompany the President to the theater on April 14th without an order. Eisenschiml reasoned that Stanton must have been involved in Grant's decision because he is the only person other than Lincoln from whom Grant would have taken orders. Eisenschiml goes on to offer ulterior motives for many of the actions Stanton took immediately after the assassination. He supposedly left one escape route out of Washington, the one Booth just happened to take. The presidential guard, John F. Parker, was never punished for leaving his post. Eisenschiml also states that the conspirators were hooded, killed and/or shipped off to a remote prison so they could never implicate anyone else.
Numerous other Lincoln assassination conspiracy theories exist. Two of the most interesting, involve Andrew Johnson and the papacy. Members of Congress tried to implicate Andrew Johnson in the assassination. They even called a special committee to investigate in 1867. The committee could not find any links between Johnson and the killing. It is interesting to note that Congress impeached Johnson that same year.
The second theory as proposed by Emmett McLoughlin and others is that the Roman Catholic Church had reason to hate Abraham Lincoln. This is based on Lincoln's legal defense of a former Priest against the Bishop of Chicago. This theory is further enhanced by the fact that the Catholic John H. Surratt, the son of Mary Surratt, fled America and ended up in the Vatican.
The degree of Dr. Mudd's culpability remained a controversy for over a century after his death. Some, including Mudd's grandson Richard Mudd, claimed that Mudd was innocent of any wrongdoing and that he had been imprisoned merely for treating a man who came to his house late at night with a fractured leg. Over a century after the assassination, Presidents Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan both wrote letters to Richard Mudd agreeing that his grandfather committed no crime. However others, including authors Edward Steers, Jr. and James Swanson, point out that Samuel Mudd visited with Booth three times in the months before the failed kidnapping attempt. The first time was November 1864 when Booth, looking for help in his kidnapping plot, was directed to Mudd by agents of the Confederate secret service. In December, Booth met with Mudd again and stayed the night at his farm. Later that December, Mudd went to Washington and introduced Booth to a Confederate agent he knew.John Surratt. Additionally, George Atzerodt testified that Booth sent supplies to Mudd's house in preparation for the kidnap plan. Mudd lied to the authorities who came to his house after the assassination, claiming that he did not recognize the man who showed up on his doorstep in need of treatment and giving false information about where Booth and Herold went. He also hid the monogrammed boot that he had cut off Booth's injured leg behind a panel in his attic. A thorough search of Mudd's house soon revealed this further damning evidence against him. One hypothesis is that Dr. Mudd was active in the kidnapping plot, likely as the person the conspirators would turn to for medical treatment in case Lincoln were injured, and that Booth thus remembered the doctor and went to his house to get help in the early hours of April 15.[
Jury two-thirds majority for a death sentence.Mudd escaped execution by a single vote, the tribunal having voted 5-4 to hang him.
Oddly, after sentencing Mary Surratt to hang, five of the jurors signed a letter recommending clemency, but Johnson refused to stop the execution. (Johnson later claimed he never saw the letter.)
Approximately seven hours before shooting the president, Booth dropped by the Washington hotel which was Vice-President Andrew Johnson's residence. Upon learning from the desk clerk that neither Johnson nor his private secretary, William A. Browning, was in the hotel, Booth wrote the following note: "Don't wish to disturb you Are you at home? J. Wilkes Booth." Browning testified before the military court that he found the note in his box later that afternoon. Did Johnson and Booth know each other? In the 1997 publication "Right or Wrong, God Judge Me" The Writings of John Wilkes Booth edited by John Rhodehamel and Louise Taper it is stated on p. 146 that Booth had previously met Johnson in Nashville in February, 1864. At the time Booth was appearing in the newly opened Wood's Theatre. Also, author Hamilton Howard in Civil War Echoes (1907) made the claim that while Johnson was military governor of Tennessee, he and Booth kept a couple of sisters as mistresses and oftentimes were seen in each other's company. Lincoln had essentially ignored Johnson after Johnson's embarrassing behavior on Inauguration Day. Mary Todd Lincoln felt Johnson was involved. On March 15, 1866, she wrote to her friend, Sally Orne:
Mary Todd Lincoln
"...that, that miserable inebriate Johnson, had cognizance of my husband's death - Why, was that card of Booth's, found in his box, some acquaintance certainly existed - I have been deeply impressed, with the harrowing thought, that he, had an understanding with the conspirators & they knew their man... As sure, as you & I live, Johnson, had some hand, in all this..."
Mary Todd Lincoln to her friend, Sally Orne, in a letter dated March 15, 1866
Some members of Congress also thought Johnson was involved and a special Assassination Committee was established to investigate any evidence linking Johnson to Lincoln's death. Nothing suspicious was ever found by the committee; yet a belief by some Americans that Johnson was somehow involved with Booth continued for many years.
LINCOLN'S ASSASSINATION WAS THE RESULT OF A CONFEDERATE PLOT
The idea that Lincoln was killed as part of a grand conspiracy of Confederates arose almost immediately after the assassination. Coded letters found in Booth's trunk back at the National Hotel tied him to the Confederacy. This theory has undergone a marked revival in the past 20 years. In 1977 a statement conspirator George Atzerodt made before the trial in 1865 was uncovered. In it Atzerodt told of Booth's knowledge of a Confederate plot to blow up the White House. The hypothesis of a Confederate grand conspiracy was detailed in 1988 by William A. Tidwell, James O. Hall, and David Winfred Gaddy in Come Retribution: The Confederate Secret Service and the Assassination of Lincoln. Tidwell supplied further evidence in 1995 with the publication of April '65: Confederate Covert Action in the American Civil War. (Another work which stresses Confederate involvement, but lacks the detail of the aforementioned books, is Larry Starkey's Wilkes Booth Came to Washington.) Proponents of the Confederate grand conspiracy point out that as the Confederacy's situation deteriorated, more daring and reckless planning was needed. Lincoln was viewed as a legitimate wartime target. This was especially true after the Union's failed Dahlgren raid on Richmond that had been approved by Lincoln himself and was evidence of Lincoln's increasing determination to take whatever steps were necessary to end the war. Colonel Ulrich Dahlgren was killed in the raid, and on his person several documents were found, one of which said, "The men must be kept together, and well in hand, and once in the city, it must be destroyed and Jeff Davis and his cabinet killed." Lincoln had hand-picked Dahlgren for the raid, and the Confederate government now believed the Union president had ordered Davis's death.
Confederate grand conspiracy theorists feel Judah Benjamin, the Confederate Secretary of State, was deeply involved in the plot to kidnap/kill Abraham Lincoln. He burned all of his records before Richmond was evacuated. Benjamin escaped to England, and he was the only member of the Confederate government never to return to the United States. He practiced law in England until 1883 and died in Paris on May 6, 1884.
The theory of a Confederate grand conspiracy portrays Booth as a rebel agent working to organize a band of men to kidnap Lincoln. When Richmond fell, the plans turned to assassination. First, there was the failed effort to blow up the White House followed by the successful effort to kill Lincoln at the theater. Just as Lincoln may have ordered the killing of Jefferson Davis and his Cabinet by Ulrich Dahlgren and his men, Judah Benjamin and Jefferson Davis were involved in the plans to kidnap and later assassinate Abraham Lincoln. The theory of Confederate complicity in the assassination of Abraham Lincoln is accepted by many of the current Lincoln assassination historians, scholars, researchers, and writers. The actual trigger for Booth's actions was the April 10th capture of explosives expert Thomas F. Harney who was on his way to Washington to bomb the White House. Booth, knowing Harney's mission had failed, tried to make up for Harney's disaster by taking matters into his own hands and killing the president at Ford's Theatre. For details on this theory see the articles entitled "Who Ordered Lincoln's Death?" by James E.T. Lange and Katherine DeWitt in the June 1998 edition of North & South magazine and "The Lincoln Assassination Revisited" by William Hanchett and "Risking the Wrath of God" by Edward Steers, Jr. in the September 2000 issue of North & South. Confederate plans to blow up the White House seem to be confirmed by George Atzerodt's Lost Confession.
LINCOLN'S ASSASSINATION WAS THE RESULT OF A CONSPIRACY OF POWERFUL INTERNATIONAL BANKERS
This theory is that Abraham Lincoln was killed as a result of his monetary policies. John Wilkes Booth would be seen as a hired gun. In its simplest terms, the theory is that Lincoln needed money to finance the Civil War. Bankers in Europe led by the Rothschilds offered him loans at high interest rates. Rather than accept the loans, Lincoln found other means to fund the war effort. More importantly, the British bankers opposed Lincoln's protectionist policies. Some Englishmen in the 1860's believed that "British free trade, industrial monopoly and human slavery travel together." Lincoln's policies after the Civil War would have destroyed the Rothschilds' commodity speculations. After the war, Lincoln planned a mild Reconstruction policy which would have enabled a resumption of agriculture production. The Rothschilds were betting the other way on high prices caused by a tough Reconstruction policy toward the South. Lincoln was viewed as a threat to the established order of things, and he was assassinated as a result. The goal was to weaken the United States so the Rothschilds could takeover its economy. An article titled "The Rothschilds' International Plot to Kill Lincoln" was published October 29, 1976, in New Solidarity.
THE ROMAN CATHOLIC CHURCH WAS BEHIND LINCOLN'S ASSASSINATION
In 1886 an ex-priest by the name of Charles Chiniquy (pictured to the left) wrote a book titled Fifty Years in the Church of Rome which portrayed the assassination of Lincoln as a Catholic grand conspiracy. Chiniquy maintained that Jefferson Davis had offered $1,000,000 if someone would "kill the author of the bloodshed." Chiniquy wrote that the money could be offered, but that "...the Jesuits alone could select the assassins, train them, and show them a crown of glory in heaven..." Booth was the tool of the Jesuits. He was corrupted and directed by the Vatican. In 1906 Chiniquy said, "The President, Abraham Lincoln, was assassinated by the priests and the Jesuits of Rome." In 1856 Lincoln had defended Chiniquy in court. Chiniquy had quarreled with his bishop and then was sued for slander by one of the bishop's friends (the bishop himself having nothing to do with the complaint). A morals charge was also involved. The case was heard May 20-22, 1856, in Urbana, Illinois. Lincoln arranged for a compromise settlement, but Chiniquy interpreted the settlement as a victory over the church. He felt some Jesuits held Lincoln responsible for the settlement.
In 1897 Thomas M. Harris, a member of the 1865 military commission, wrote a book entitled Rome's Responsibility for the Assassination of Abraham Lincoln. Other books that involve the Roman Catholic Church in Lincoln's assassination include DEMOCRACY UNDER SIEGE The Jesuits' Attempt to Destroy the Popular Government of the United States: The True Story of Abraham Lincoln's Death by C.T. Wilcox and The Suppressed Truth about the Assassination of Abraham Lincoln by Burke McCarty (1924). McCarty's opening sentence was, "In all the bloody history of the Papacy, perhaps in no one man, as in Abraham Lincoln, was there concentrated such a multitude of reasons for his annihilation by that system." An Inquiry into the Assassination of Abraham Lincoln by Emmett McLoughlin was published in 1963. Among other points, McLoughlin maintained that the majority of American Catholics were in favor of slavery and opposed to Lincoln. The author said the totalitarian Papacy considered Lincoln a major enemy, and that the Church for centuries had "been involved in numerous instances of the forcible removal of heads of state whom it condemned."
SECRETARY OF WAR EDWIN STANTON WAS THE MASTERMIND BEHIND LINCOLN'S ASSASSINATION
In 1937 Otto Eisenschiml's Why Was Lincoln Murdered was published. The book espoused the hypothesis that Secretary of War Edwin Stanton was directly involved in Lincoln's death. It alleged that Stanton was against Lincoln's mild Reconstruction policies and wanted him out of office so a more radical Reconstructionist policy could be employed. On the day of the assassination Ulysses S. Grant was expected to attend Our American Cousin with the Lincolns. Eisenschiml argued that had Grant attended, the military guards who protected him would never have allowed Booth to enter the State Box at Ford's Theatre. Eisenschiml further argued that Grant's refusal of the Lincolns' theater invitation was due to an order by Stanton to change his plans for the evening. Eisenschiml's theory was that Grant's absence left Lincoln vulnerable. Stanton was also alleged to have known that conspirators were meeting at the Surratt boardinghouse, and that he refused to release from duty the powerful Major Thomas T. Eckert after Lincoln asked for him as a bodyguard (falsely stating that Eckert had vital work to do at the War Department's Telegraph Office). Eisenschiml continued from there to make a case against Stanton by examining an entire series of events following Booth's shot. Nearly every move Stanton made is seen as suspicious and containing an ulterior motive. Among these behaviors and events were not alerting the security at the Navy Yard Bridge (over which Booth escaped), the mysterious interruption of telegraph communications, secretly arranging to have Booth killed before being brought to trial, and the suppression of evidence by removing pages from Booth's diary. Between the publication of Why Was Lincoln Murdered and the late 1970's, other books were published which supported and amplified Eisenschiml's hypothesis. For example, Theodore Roscoe's The Web of Conspiracy (1959) found Stanton's behavior very suspect. Other high government officials were also implicated.
Further evidence against Stanton was discovered by chemist Ray Neff who found cipher messages allegedly written in 1868 by Lafayette Baker, head of the National Detective Police, which implicated himself, the Secretary of War, and many others including Congressmen. David Balsiger and Charles E. Sellier's 1977 publication, The Lincoln Conspiracy, was made into a major motion picture. However, during the past 20 years, research has clearly tended to vindicate Edwin Stanton. In hindsight, behavior by Stanton that appears to be linked to a conspiracy has been shown to be innocent and in some cases, fabricated. Current scholarship indicates plausible explanations for the actions Eisenschiml and other authors of the 1937-1977 era found suspicious. One good source for those wishing to read about the vindication of Edwin Stanton is Section 3 of Part Five (pp. 170-177) of Stephen B. Oates' Abraham Lincoln: The Man Behind the Myths. Also, there is a page on the web on this subject CLICK HERE. A recent book which revives the Stanton suspicions is Robert Lockwood Mills' 1994 publication of It Didn't Happen The Way You Think. The Lincoln Assassination: What The Experts Missed.
Dr. William Hanchett's closing sentences in The Lincoln Murder Conspiracies are as follows: "Lincoln would not have enjoyed the extravagant and pseudoreligious praise being offered in his name by so many Americans. Possibly he would have been reminded of some anecdote by which to deflate the absurdities of such exaggerations. But one suspects that if he could learn of the slush written about the suggested involvement of his secretary of war in his own death he would simply become angry."
Other groups and individuals that have at times been implicated in Lincoln's assassination include Freemasons, domestic bankers, financiers and businessmen, Copperheads, certain Radical Republicans (either on their own or in concert with Edwin Stanton), the B'nai B'rith, and the Knights of the Golden Circle. Major Henry R. Rathbone, John F. Parker, and Mary Todd Lincoln have not totally escaped suspicion. Speculation that Booth's motivation was to avenge the hanging of Confederate John Yates Beall is not proven. (For details please see the November 2000 edition of the Surratt Courier.) Although it's been over 140 years since the assassination, any kind of closure on all of the circumstances surrounding the event still seems a long way in the distance.
Judging simply by e-mail messages to me over the past thirteen years, the general public favors theories 2 and 6 mentioned above. The preponderance of recent published material by scholars and writers supports numbers 2 and 3. Some experts would combine the two saying that, although Booth had strong ties to the Confederacy, the actual events of April 14, 1865, were planned by Booth, not Richmond. Most everyone admits there is circumstantial evidence that ties Confederate agents to Booth; the difference comes in the interpretation of this evidence.
It seems certain that the controversy will continue well into the current century. Future studies and interpretations are a surety. Perhaps all the answers will never be known. In his 1999 publication entitled The Assassination of Abraham Lincoln, Professor Thomas Reed Turner (author of Beware the People Weeping: Public Opinion and the Assassination of Abraham Lincoln) notes the recent trend of professional historians who have been researching and writing about the assassination. On p. 78, Turner says:
Although this trend is a very positive one, those who continue to hope that the assassination may be "solved," in the same manner as a murder mystery may be solved, are destined to be disappointed. The century which has passed, makes any new and definitive solution to the crime doubtful. It is unlikely that a smoking gun will surface even though there may still be new sources which will be discovered.
For the full text of Mary Todd Lincoln's letter to Sally Orne, see p. 345 of Mary Todd Lincoln: Her Life and Letters by Justin G. Turner and Linda Levitt Turner. For a detailed examination of many of the theories surrounding Lincoln's assassination, see Dr. William Hanchett's The Lincoln Murder Conspiracies. Also, Dr. Hanchett's article titled "Persistent Myths of the Lincoln Assassination" in the Winter 1997 edition of The Lincoln Herald (published by the Lincoln Memorial University Press) is an excellent source. Thomas Reed Turner's Beware the People Weeping: Public Opinion and the Assassination of Abraham Lincoln is very good. For more on the life of Judah Philip Benjamin, see the August 2000 issue of Frederick Hatch's Journal of the Lincoln Assassination.
The sketch at the top of the page is a Currier and Ives print (Library of Congress). The sketch shows Henry Rathbone reacting earlier than he actually did when Booth entered the State Box. Rathbone was still watching the play when Booth fired the fatal shot.