The assassination of Abraham Lincoln on Good Friday (14 April), 1865, by actor John Wilkes Booth unleashed a flood of rumors regarding larger conspiracies afoot. Hardly had the president breathed his last early Saturday morning, when officials and public alike began accusing Confederate leaders and secret organizations in the North of master-minding the murder.
A New York Times editorial on 26 April vowed that when the time came for revelations, “[i]t will be seen that all the talk of ‘Knights of the Golden Circle,’ ‘Sons of Liberty,’ ‘American Knights,’ &c., was not without foundation.” President Andrew Johnson’s proclamation of 2 May 1865 ordering the arrest of Jefferson Davis and several others explicitly accused the Confederate leadership of complicity in Lincoln’s death.
While the very tangible political and emotional stresses that gave rise to these accusations abated in the years following the murder, the effort to tie the deed to a larger, hidden plan did not. Theories implicating a surprising range of persons and causes—from the Confederacy, to Andrew Johnson, the Catholic Church, Wall Street financiers, and even Lincoln’s stalwart secretary of war, Edwin Stanton—surfaced over the next century. Some remain in vogue to this day.
If the Kennedy assassination has been the greatest single source for conspiratorial expression in recent U.S. culture, Lincoln’s certainly deserves credit as the longest running. And like their contemporary cousins, conspiracy theories linked to the first presidential assassination were forged in the context of surrounding political, social, and cultural forces.
The Basis in Events
In the days following the shooting, there were legitimate reasons for fearing a larger plot. Booth accomplice Lewis Powell’s simultaneous knife-attack on Secretary of State William Seward made the possibility of an organized assault on the Union leadership very real. It was reported that officers sent to inform Stanton of the shooting accosted a man “muffled in a cloak” on the secretary’s doorstep.
Booth’s calling card left for Vice-President Andrew Johnson at the latter’s hotel raised hackles further. And the discovery of a letter in the actor’s trunk at the National Hotel, in which Booth’s correspondent advised a halt in plans until “Richmond could be heard from,” (U.S. Government, 46:3, 781) seemed to confirm the authorities’ worst suspicions.
The capture of Powell at Mary Surratt’s boarding house on 17 April, and the arrest within a few days of most of Booth’s other accomplices, provided firm evidence that the attacks had sprung from an organized center. In the minds of many, including Edwin Stanton and the officers charged with bringing the conspirators to trial, there was little doubt this center originated with the Confederacy.
The larger political and military situation preceding Lincoln’s death contributed to the climate of conspiracy. On 9 April, a mere five days before the assassination, the rebel Army of Northern Virginia under Robert E. Lee surrendered to Ulysses S. Grant at Appomattox Court House. This signaled the effective end of the Civil War and the North erupted in celebration.
But in reality Lee’s surrender marked the beginning, not the end, of the cessation of hostilities between North and South. Confederate forces remained in the field. In Virginia, some units, including Mosby’s Rangers, refused to surrender. In mid-April, there were reports that forces under his command were launching raids into Maryland from across the Potomac.
In addition to active military forces, eastern Maryland and northern Virginia were full of disbanded soldiers and displaced civilians. Refugees crowded Richmond and Petersburg, seeking food and shelter from federal commissaries. Some ex-rebels formed marauding bands, adding to the uncertain security in the countryside.
Others headed toward Washington and Baltimore, believing the federal government would provide free transportation to their homes in the South (U.S. Government, 46:3, 868–869). Thus, in addition to sustaining the loss of its chief of state, the area in and around Washington experienced a period of turmoil as hostilities gradually ended.
In the North the euphoria following Lee’s surrender quickly turned to bewilderment and a desire for vengeance as news of Lincoln’s death made its way across the country. It did not ease matters that the surrender and murder coincided with two of the most important dates, Palm Sunday and Good Friday respectively, on the Christian calendar.
The religious symbolism attached to the tragedy culminated as the funeral cortege bearing Lincoln’s embalmed body wound its way through northern cities on its 1,600-mile journey back to the president’s hometown of Springfield, Illinois. More important, however, to understanding the basis for the initial conspiracy theories, is recognizing that at the time of his death Abraham Lincoln was a controversial figure in the North.
Many held him in high esteem, but others reviled him for the war’s slaughter and for his actions in favor of black Americans. Northern political dissent was centered in the Democratic Party, and in particular among anti-war Democrats, termed “Copperheads.” It ran especially strong in the larger cities outside New England and in the old Northwest, ironically, the very region Lincoln hailed from.
In the aftermath of 14 April, newspapers reported individuals and communities celebrating his death by burning effigies and firing explosives. Irate mobs tarred and feathered some of these celebrants and others were rescued by policemen. In Westminster, Maryland, a Democratic newspaper editor was murdered for publishing anti-Lincoln comments following the assassination.
The presence of this political dissent in the North helped feed popular rumors concerning the operations of so-called dark lantern societies, secret organizations including the previously mentioned Knights of the Golden Circle, devoted to political and military treason. Historians generally agree the real extent of the groups’ activities was greatly exaggerated at the time. The exaggerated accounts were often produced by Republican newspaper editors seeking to discredit the Democrats before election time.
Regardless of the reality, the evidence indicates that a good percentage of the northern public paid attention to the rumors implicating the groups in Lincoln’s death. In the months that followed popular literary works, including Dion Haco’s pseudonymous John Wilkes Booth, the Assassinator of Abraham Lincoln, and Ned Buntline’s pseudonymous John Wilkes Booth, provided fictionalized accounts of a conspiracy involving secret northern societies.
Culture and Politics
Despite the circumstantial evidence and testimony given by government witnesses, investigating authorities never established a hard link between Booth and the Confederate government, or between Booth and northern secret societies. Following the conviction of eight of his accomplices by a military tribunal in June 1865, belief in a grand conspiracy involving the rebel chieftains slowly faded from view.
The execution of Mary Surratt (along with George Atzerodt, Davey Herold, and Lewis Powell) on 7 July 1865 dampened the public’s enthusiasm for extreme justice. Much of the testimony proving the involvement of Confederate leaders unraveled when it was revealed that the government’s chief witness, an adventurer named Charles Dunham, had fabricated most of it.
Jefferson Davis was released from prison in May 1867 without ever being indicted. The disclosure of Booth’s “missing” diary by former Secret Service chief Lafayette C. Baker during testimony before the Senate Judiciary Committee in early 1867 further discredited the government’s case. The diary had been taken from Booth’s body after he was shot on the Virginia farmstead on the morning of 26 April 1865.
Turned over to the War Department, it was never introduced in evidence at the conspirators’ trial. Its pages confirmed the testimony of most of the accomplices: the plan had been to kidnap Lincoln and escort him safely to Confederate lines. Booth acted largely on his own initiative in deciding to assassinate the president.
However, the diary did help launch the next round of conspiracy-making. It is at this point that historian William Hanchett’s thesis on the relationship between national politics and Lincoln assassination theories provides a useful perspective for understanding their subsequent development.
Baker not only revealed the diary’s existence, but when shown the book following its subpoena from the War Department, he claimed on the witness stand that pages had been removed since it had been turned over to Stanton in April 1865. Despite the testimony of federal officials that the pages had been torn out by Booth and used as notes, suspicions were immediately raised over what might have been written on the “missing” pages.
Leading the charge was former political general and recently elected Republican congressman Benjamin Butler. In March 1867, Butler accused the government prosecutors of purposefully withholding the diary during the conspirators’ trial, resulting, among other things, in the judicial murder of Mary Surratt.
Drawing from Baker’s allegation of missing pages, and Booth’s own statement in the diary that he proposed to return to Washington “and clear myself from this great crime,” Butler went on to insinuate the involvement of high government officials in the conspiracy to murder Lincoln wanting to know who had tampered with the diary after the government had got hold of it. In July, he introduced a resolution in the House of Representatives establishing a five-member committee to investigate the assassination. The resolution’s preamble reaffirmed that the crime had been abetted by many people holding high positions of power.
Butler’s target was President Andrew Johnson and his aim was shared by other Radical Republicans who, as Hanchett notes, were intent on finding evidence that could be used to impeach the president. Johnson, so the reasoning went, was the only person to gain materially from Lincoln’s death. But the evidence against him was unsubstantiated and relied almost entirely on the innuendoes of Baker and others.
The real motivations for the charges against the president lay in the bitter conflict then raging between Johnson and the Radical-controlled Congress over Reconstruction. By early 1867 the executive and legislative branches of the government were at loggerheads, with Johnson vetoing most of the congressional legislation bearing on Reconstruction policy, and Congress overriding his vetoes to pass the Civil Rights Act of 1866, the Fourteenth Amendment, the extension of the Freedmen’s Bureau Act, and more.
In February 1867, at the same time the Senate Judiciary Committee heard testimony from Baker, Congress passed the Military Reconstruction Act, which divided the South into five military districts and established more stringent conditions, including black suffrage, for readmitting the southern states. Thus, the theory implicating Johnson sprang from tangible political conflicts, and Butler’s accusations may be read as a form of political theater overlaying more serious issues.
As it turned out, the theory outlived its immediate political usefulness and lived on into the next century when most of the details explaining Johnson’s involvement would be worked out. At the time, however, it represented a significant stage in the development of Lincoln theories for alleging the malefactor was inside the government, and that the government was involved in a cover-up.
It also displayed the unique characteristic of all early theories: they were encouraged and oftentimes fabricated from inside the government, by officials and political actors like Butler and Baker. It also inspired a number of popular literary works over the next several decades, the most famous probably being Tennessee attorney Finis L. Bates’s Escape and Suicide of John Wilkes Booth (1907) in which he combined Johnson’s involvement with the legend of Booth’s escape.
In the 1880s, a fourth theory emerged, arguing that the conspiracy originated with the Catholic Church. Charles Chiniquy’s Fifty Years in the Church of Rome (1886) was the first of several works alleging a Catholic plot.
A French-Canadian priest who had emigrated to Illinois, Chiniquy met Lincoln when the latter defended him in a civil trial against his Catholic superiors. The case was settled before going to a jury, but the priest believed Lincoln had earned the bitter enmity of the Catholic Church and its Jesuit henchmen in defending him.
Worse, Lincoln stood for everything the Catholic Church hated, so Chiniquy argued. The clinching evidence in his presentation was statements reportedly made before witnesses by priests at a monastery in St. Joseph, Minnesota, on the day of the assassination, but hours before events unfolded in Washington.
A Protestant clergyman swore an affidavit stating that he had been told the priests said Lincoln and Seward were dead before the fact. How did they gain this foreknowledge? Chiniquy asserted it came through the dissemination of the plot through the church’s network: “[t]hey are members of the same body, the branches of the same tree.”
For Chiniquy and several others, the Catholic Church not only plotted Lincoln’s murder, it also planned to destroy America’s free institutions in its quest for world domination. These accusations were frequently voiced by native-born Protestants in the nineteenth century and were part of the rise in nativist sentiment in the 1890s.
Historian John Higham argues this rise reflected a larger national crisis—the class cleavages then investing U.S. society. The anti-Catholic theories may be read as belonging to this larger phenomenon. But they also appear to have served more mundane political purposes.
Burke McCarty’s The Suppressed Truth about the Assassination of Abraham Lincoln appeared in 1922, in the midst of the debate over Prohibition and six years before Catholic governor Al Smith’s unsuccessful bid for the presidency. Reprints of an earlier anti-Catholic work appeared in 1960, in time for John F. Kennedy’s successful candidacy to become the nation’s first (and only) Catholic president.
Commemoration and Revisionism
According to historian Merrill Peterson, the 1920s and 1930s witnessed the peak period of Abraham Lincoln’s commemoration in U.S. culture. Historical studies and popular texts, including Carl Sandburg’s massive two-part biography, were supplemented by works in stone. The dedication of the Lincoln Memorial in 1922 and the completion of Lincoln’s head in the Mount Rushmore group in 1937 marked the high points of this monumental commemoration.
Lincoln studies also reached an important watershed with James G. Randall’s 1934 essay “Has the Lincoln Theme Been Exhausted?” in which he decried the lack of professional historical studies of the sixteenth president (Peterson, 256). Into this mix of popular commemoration and historical dedication appeared the most radical conspiracy theory ever associated with the assassination.
Austrian-born Otto Eisenschiml’s Why Was Lincoln Murdered? (1937) presented a mass of circumstantial evidence that implied Lincoln’s own secretary of war, Edwin Stanton, was the mastermind behind the murder. The Eisenschiml Thesis, as it is termed, quickly overshadowed all previous theories by virtue of its outlandish assault on Stanton’s historical reputation, and the implication that the perpetrator of America’s greatest tragedy was Lincoln’s own trusted advisor.
Eisenschiml based his argument on a series of anomalous events that occurred just before, during, and after the assassination. These included General Grant’s sudden decision not to accept the Lincolns’ invitation to the theater, Stanton’s alleged refusal to detail the husky Major Eckert to escort the president at his request, the assignment of a derelict patrolman as the president’s bodyguard, the breakdown in the telegraph system for two hours immediately following the shooting, and more.
Behind these apparently isolated instances, Eisenchiml argued, there lay a broad plot on the part of the Radical Republicans under Stanton to seize control of the government and punish the South.
The Radicals had deliberately prolonged the war in order to ensure the abolition of slavery and the South’s destruction. At the war’s conclusion, they were dismayed at Lincoln’s proposal to “let them up easy.” The Radicals decided to remove Lincoln and the leading moderate of his cabinet, William Seward.
With these two men out of the way, so the argument went, the way would be clear for Stanton to dominate the government and for the Radicals to exact vengeance on the South. Booth’s death, and the quick trial by military tribunal of his accomplices (who were then either executed or imprisoned in the Dry Tortugas), were parts of the cover-up.
This theory and its political rationale were extreme expressions of the then-current revisionist interpretation of Civil War history. Revisionism held that the war could have been avoided, but that it was forced on the United States by the extremism of northern abolitionists. The war’s principal cause had not been slavery but the constitutional issue of states’ rights. Lincoln had been a moderate, both on matters of race and in his plans to restore the South.
The Radicals bore responsibility for turning Reconstruction into a nightmare by insisting on black suffrage and imposing harsh conditions on the former rebel states. An earlier extreme expression of these views was Thomas Dixon, Jr.’s The Clansman (1905), which served as the basis for D. W. Griffith’s silent film Birth of a Nation (1915).
The revisionist interpretation gained mainstream acceptance in U.S. society during the first decades of the twentieth century and is seen as the intellectual corollary to the growing racial intolerance of white society during the same period. The politics in Eisenschiml’s work does not appear to have raised much of a storm at the time. While several scholars noted the political implications in their reviews, the popular press praised the book for its “refreshing directness” and “just and impartial” treatment.
In the post–World War II era Lincoln conspiracy theories have, for the most part, given way to other topics. Their periodic resurgence indicates, however, that Lincoln’s death still holds power in U.S. culture. With one notable exception, the recent accounts borrow from previous material. Theodore Roscoe’s Web of Conspiracy (1959) restated the Eisenschiml Thesis, adding little that was new.
Whether his use of the thesis carries the same revisionist intentions is another matter. Emmett McLoughlin’s An Inquiry into the Assassination of Abraham Lincoln (1963) again raised the specter of a Catholic plot. Like his predecessor Joseph Chiniquy, McLoughlin was a former priest. Kennedy’s assassination in November 1963 has probably laid to rest theories of this type.
The most prolonged eruption of assassination theorizing occurred in the mid-1970s with the production of a movie and companion book titled simply The Lincoln Conspiracy (1977). This intentionally commercial production again resuscitated the Eisenschiml Thesis and for good measure threw in the legend of Booth’s escape, northern speculators, Confederate leaders, and Andrew Johnson.
Authors David Balsiger and Charles Sellier’s most original contribution to conspiracy literature was their alleged use of scientific testing, including special-light photography and chemical analysis, of physical evidence related to the assassination. Once again the famous diary took center stage when unwary officials at the Ford’s Theater museum allowed the movie producers to examine the book.
Even more shocking was their claim to have obtained transcripts of the diary’s “missing” pages through a collector of Americana who found them among papers in the possession of Stanton’s heirs. The missing pages proved, they claimed, the secretary’s involvement, and listed “the names of 70 prominent people directly and indirectly involved in Booth’s plan to kidnap Lincoln” (Balsiger and Sellier, 11).
Contrary to past episodes, assassination experts and professional historians quickly mobilized to attack the work’s credibility. The level of professional concern can be gauged by documents viewable (as of December 2001) at the FBI Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) online reading room.
Correspondence between historians and government officials, and between federal agencies, reveals the preoccupation in the post-Watergate era with protecting mainstream historical accounts against malicious fabrications.
Concern reached the level of Vice-President Mondale’s office and the FBI was requested by the Department of the Interior (parent organization of the National Park Service, the curator of Ford’s Theater) to analyze the famous diary for evidence of tampering, invisible ink, or other “hidden” messages.
After subjecting the diary to its own special-light techniques, the FBI crime lab returned a clean bill of health: no evidence of hidden messages was found. Assassination experts including William C. Davis, editor of Civil War Times, also subjected the work’s many claims to rigid scrutiny and succeeded in debunking most of them.
Despite its failure to sustain a credible case for conspiracy, The Lincoln Conspiracy once again proved the allure of theories alleging governmental malfeasance and cover-up. As several commentators noted at the time, the movie’s release was clearly tied to the popular distrust of government in the wake of Vietnam and Watergate.