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Abraham Lincoln had been on John Wilkes Booth's mind for months before he decided to shoot him at close range in a darkened theater on April 14, 1865. Around the time of Abraham Lincoln’s re-election in November 1864, Booth began scheming against the president, whom he loathed for his anti-slavery stance and for waging war against the South. At first, the well-known actor hoped to kidnap Lincoln, bring him to Richmond and exchange him for Confederate prisoners of war. However, the fall of Richmond on April 3, 1865, and the surrender of Confederate general Robert E. Lee a few days later prompted him to consider even more drastic action.
And the president wasn't his only target.
On the night of April 14, a mere two hours before heading inside Ford’s Theatre, Booth met at a boarding house with three accomplices—Lewis Powell, David Herold and George Atzerodt—and unveiled his new plan: assassination. Promising to take care of Lincoln himself, he allegedly assigned Secretary of State William Seward to Powell and Herold and Vice President Andrew Johnson to Atzerodt. Booth may have also wanted to kill Ulysses S. Grant, whom Lincoln had invited to the theater that night, but the top Union general had left Washington earlier in the day.
Powell, 20, a former Confederate soldier wounded at Gettysburg; Herold, 22, a pharmacist’s assistant; and Atzerodt, 29, a German-born carriage painter, had all been privy to the kidnapping plot (along with a handful of other Confederate agents and sympathizers). Now, despite some doubts voiced at the meeting by Atzerodt, the threesome left Booth fully intending to commit murder, prosecutors would later assert.
READ MORE: 10 Things You May Not Know About the Lincoln Assassination
Arriving at Seward’s residence within a stone’s throw of the White House, Powell rang the doorbell claiming to have a prescription for the secretary of state, who was bedridden, recuperating from a carriage accident. A servant let him in and reached out to accept the medicine, but Powell said he was under strict orders to deliver it personally. He then began pushing his way upstairs, arguing with both the servant and one of Seward’s sons who had come out to investigate the commotion. When the son refused to let him advance any further, Powell pretended to retreat but then whipped out his pistol and pulled the trigger. Luckily for the son, it misfired, but unluckily for him, Powell turned it into a blunt weapon, clubbing him on the head so severely that he fell into a temporary coma.
Powell next turned his attention to Seward’s bodyguard, slashing at him with a knife and pushing him to the floor. Only Seward’s daughter, who had inadvertently revealed her father’s location to Powell, now stood between him and his target. Maneuvering past her easily, the would-be assassin jumped on the secretary of state’s bed and began stabbing wildly downward, cutting open his cheek and neck. Before he could inflict a deathblow, however, the bodyguard and another of Seward’s sons pulled him off and wrestled him out of the room. Shouting “I’m mad, I’m mad!” Powell sliced away at both of them with his blade. Eventually tiring of the struggle, he ran downstairs and out of the house, giving one last stab to the back of a defenseless State Department messenger—his fifth victim, all of whom would live.
Herold, who was supposed to be outside waiting to guide him to safety, was scared off by the wild screams emanating from the house. Without his cohort, Powell quickly became lost. Some historians speculate that he ended up spending the night in a nearby cemetery.
READ MORE: The Final Days of John Wilkes Booth
Meanwhile, as Powell and Booth carried out their bloody rampage, Atzerodt sat at the bar of the Kirkwood House, a five-story hotel located a short walk from both Ford’s Theatre and Seward’s residence. Atzerodt, who had foolishly rented a room there in his own name, was hoping to imbibe some liquid courage before going upstairs to kill Vice President Johnson, who stayed there intermittently since his vice presidential inauguration. That night, Johnson was alone and unguarded in his suite—a sitting duck.
Yet Atzerodt, though armed with a gun and a knife, could not bring himself to knock on the door. Instead, he went outside and began drunkenly wandering around the city, finally checking into another hotel at around 2 a.m. He then pawned his gun the next morning and set out for the home of his cousin in Maryland, unaware that investigators had already found a second gun and knife in his room at the Kirkwood House, as well as a bankbook belonging to Booth. After being arrested on April 20, Atzerodt confessed to his role in the plot and informed on his co-conspirators.
By that time, Powell had also been taken into custody, having shown up at the boardinghouse of Mary Surratt, a Booth confidant, with a pickaxe and bloodstains on his sleeves. Herold lasted a bit longer on the lam. Meeting up with Booth in Maryland, the two managed to evade a massive federal manhunt for 12 days prior to being tracked down at a Virginia farmhouse. Booth was shot to death there, whereas Herold surrendered unharmed. Yet the reprieve was only temporary. A military tribunal found him guilty, and on July 7 he was hanged, along with Surratt, Atzerodt and Powell.
READ MORE: Who Received the Reward for John Wilkes Booth's Capture?
The Men Behind President Lincoln's Assassination
The most infamous conspiracy in American history, the assassination of President Lincoln, was actually John Wilkes Booth's "plan B." With his accomplices, Booth hatched a different scheme in which the president was to be kidnapped and taken to Richmond, the Confederate capital, where he'd be used as a bargaining chip. In March 1865, Booth and Lewis Thornton Powell&mdashwho would later attempt to assassinate Secretary of State William Seward&mdashmade ready to capture Lincoln as he traveled from his presidential summer home to an event at a Washington hospital. They hid themselves along the road to the hospital, but Lincoln chose to attend another function instead, foiling their plans.
A month later, Booth and Powell were listening to Lincoln make a speech near the White House. Incensed by Lincoln's message, which outlined his belief that at least some freedmen should be allowed the right to vote, Booth changed his plan from kidnap to murder. By then, more conspirators had been added to his scheme. John and Mary Surratt of Maryland, a Confederate spy and his mother, owned a meeting place for Confederate sympathizers. David Herold, who would later aid Booth in his escape from Washington, was a former schoolmate of John Surratt. George Atzerodt, owner of a Virginia carriage-painting business, knew the backwoods and waterways of Maryland and Virginia better than anyone. He was introduced to Booth by Surratt. Dr. Samuel Mudd was a physician and slave-owning tobacco farmer from Maryland who introduced Booth to the Surratts. Samuel Arnold and Michael O'Laughlen (whose name sometimes appears as O'Laughlin) were former schoolmates of Booth's and Confederate veterans.
After deciding on assassination, Booth hurriedly organized his co-conspirators. Booth himself would be tasked with shooting the president at Ford's Theatre, while Powell would kill Secretary of State William Seward and Atzerodt would kill Andrew Johnson. The three assassinations were all supposed to take place just after 10 p.m.
According to Lincoln expert Hugh Boyle, before entering Ford's Theatre, Booth stopped at a tavern for a drink. In the tavern, he was told by a patron that he wasn't the actor his father had been. Booth's response was, "When I leave the stage, I'll be the most famous man in America." Shortly after, Booth shot Lincoln in the back of the head at point-blank range. At the same moment, Powell was sneaking into the home of William Seward as David Herold minded their horses outside. Powell had to first fight off a male nurse and Seward's daughter before attacking the Secretary of State with a Bowie knife. As Seward lay bleeding, Powell had to contend with Seward's son and a State Department courier. He slit the courier's throat, then made his way outside. Once on the street, Powell discovered Herold had fled with the horses during the commotion, stranding him.
Atzerodt, on the other hand, found himself at the appointed time at the hotel bar of Kirkwood House, where Andrew Johnson was staying. Full of drink and unable to carry out his part in the plot, Atzerodt spent the evening of April 14 wandering the streets of Washington.
In addition to Booth, who was cornered by Union cavalry after escaping to Virginia, eight conspirators were tried for their parts in the assassination. Four of them, Herold, Powell, Atzerodt and Mary Surratt, were hanged. Michael O'Laughlen was sent to a penal colony off Key West, Florida, where he eventually died of Yellow Fever. Dr. Samuel Mudd was sentenced to life in prison but was pardoned in 1869. Edmund Spangler, a Ford's Theatre employee who had been unwittingly drawn into the plot by Booth, was pardoned by Andrew Johnson. John Surratt managed to escape to Europe, where he lived as a fugitive until he was apprehended in 1866. Tried but not convicted, he died in 1916.
The Nation Mourns
Laments came from every pulpit in the Union as preachers from all over America paid their respects to the fallen president.
"It is doubtful if the nation had a single other mind better qualified than his to grapple with the great necessities of the presidential office during his term. The world, I think, consents that he was a man remarkable for quick and clear perception for cautious, acute, almost unerring judgment for a will in which pliancy and strength were combined, in a singular degree."
&mdashRev. J.A. McCauley, Baltimore, Maryland
"Great as was the work performed by Abraham Lincoln in the deliverance of this nation from the threatened danger of its anarchy and ruin, his place in history will not be bounded by the narrow limits of one nation's gratitude his name will mark, throughout all after time, one of the epochs, from which the world will date the opening of a new era in the onward progress of God's providential leadings of the race of man."
&mdashRev. J.F. Garrison, Camden, New Jersey
"How different the occasion which witnessed his departure from that which witnessed his return! Doubtless you expected to take him by the hand, and to feel the warm grasp which you had felt in other days, and to see the tall form walking among you which you had delighted to honor in years past. But he was never permitted to come until he came with lips mute and silent, the frame encoffined, and a weeping nation following as his mourners. Such a scene as his return to you was never witnessed."
&mdashRev. Matthew Simpson, Springfield, Illinois
"Our beloved president is dead! Lost forevermore to us! Lost forevermore to his country! What is there so dear that you would not freely have given it to have saved him for the nation? I know that there are thousands of patriots, the language of whose hearts today is, 'Would to God I had died for thee!' I am sure there are those here present, who, if the Almighty God had given them the choice, would have said: 'Take my child, my only child but, oh God, spare the head of the nation.' I know the depth of your love for our murdered president, and therefore I ask you to weep with me today while we consider his late relations to us as a people. As I ponder over them, they seem to me to bear a striking analogy to those which Moses sustained to the children of Israel."
&mdashRev. John Falkner Blake, Bridgeport, Connecticut
"Never before, in high joy or deep grief, has the normal simplicity of America given way to such pageant grandeur. The great fountains of public sorrow have been broken up, and a whole people have turned out to herald their president returning in silence to the dust of the prairie."
The assassination Conspiracy That Would Not Die
There is a curious parallel between the current demands for release of the secret files of the Warren Commission and a House Committee which investigated the assassination of President John F. Kennedy, and a furor over long-sealed documents concerning the murder of Abraham Lincoln a century before.
And if this parallel continues, there will be severe disappointment for those who contend that these files provide the clinching evidence -- some magic piece of paper, some unheralded document -- that Kennedy was the victim of a wide-ranging conspiracy rather than of Lee Harvey Oswald, the lone gunman fingered by the Warren Commission.
But as in the Lincoln case, true believers in such a plot will not be put off by the lack of evidence. A determined and passionate breed, they will convince themselves, as they did in the Lincoln murder, that evidence of a conspiracy is lacking because the evidence has been destroyed to protect the conspirators.
Pressure for release of the files in the Kennedy case stems from the furor aroused by Oliver Stone's controversial movie, "J.F.K.," Mr. Stone and other long-term conspiracy mongers charge that Kennedy was the victim of a conspiracy involving a wide range of suspects: the CIA, the FBI, successor Lyndon B. Johnson, the Mafia, billionaire Texas reactionaries, the military-industrial complex, Fidel Castro and anti-Castro Cuban exiles or all of the above.
Similarly, in the years following Lincoln's assassination on April 14, 1865, many Americans refused to accept the official version that the assassin, John Wilkes Booth, had, with the exception of a small band of henchmen, acted alone.
Instead, they were convinced Lincoln was the victim of a conspiracy. At one time or another, Booth is said to have been aided, abetted and controlled by forces as diverse as the Confederate government, the Catholic Church, the Masons and radical Republicans opposed to Lincoln's policy of conciliating the defeated South.
These charges came to a head in 1937, when Otto Eisenschiml, a wealthy Chicago chemist, published a book, "Why Was Lincoln Murdered?" that pinned the responsibility for the presidential assassination directly on Edwin M. Stanton, who served in Lincoln's cabinet as secretary of war.
By manipulating evidence and framing loaded questions as suggestions, Mr. Eisenschiml built a case that Stanton had conspired to murder his chief to make certain that the South was treated as a conquered province and the Republican Party would remain in control of the nation.
As in Mr. Stone's movie, there was just enough leavening of fact in Mr. Eisenschiml's sensational book to convince the uninitiated of the veracity of his charges. Only those with detailed knowledge of the affair could refute his "evidence" and disentangle fact from fiction.
Further fire was provided by another account, published two years later by Philip Van Doren Stern, "The Man Who Killed Lincoln."
Mr. Stern related that in 1923, a friend of Robert Todd Lincoln had visited the president's son and found him burning papers in a fireplace. These papers, Lincoln is supposed to have said, contained the evidence of treason by a member of his father's cabinet.
Having related this story, Mr. Stern added that the Lincoln papers, which had been deposited by Robert Lincoln in the Library of Congress, were to be opened in 1947. In that year, he said, "we shall find out who it was that sat at the Cabinet table betraying the President and the people he served. Perhaps we shall even be able to trace some connection to the men who shared with John Wilkes Booth the responsibility for the murder of Abraham Lincoln."
But when the papers were finally opened in 1947, nothing relating to the assassination was discovered.
That did not stop the conspiracy theorists, however. "Whether Robert Todd Lincoln had destroyed important evidence or whether such evidence had never existed in this last great collection of Lincoln papers will probably never be known," Mr. Stern wrote in a later edition of his book.
The picture of Robert Lincoln burning "evidence" was promptly incorporated into a new grand conspiracy theory, and in a perverse way, seemed to confirm it. Undoubtedly, we can expect the repetition of this phenomenon when the documents in the Kennedy assassination are unsealed.
Nathan Miller is the author of "Spying for America: The Hidden History of American Intelligence," and other books.
The Other Targets of John Wilkes Booth’s Murder Conspiracy - HISTORY
George Atzerodt (1835 – 1865) was one of the conspirators, with John Wilkes Booth, who conspired in the assassination of President Abraham Lincoln in 1865. His original intention was to kill Andrew Johnson, the Vice President, but he was unable to carry out that plan due to a failure of nerve. Atzerodt was hanged for the crime, along with three other conspirators in the plot.
Atzerodt’s family emigrated to the United States from Germany in 1843, when he was still a child. In adulthood, he settled in the small Maryland town of Port Tobacco, where he set up a business repairing carriages. His life proceeded quietly for the next few years, until he traveled to Washington, D.C. and met John Wilkes Booth. Atzerodt never married during his short life.
While in Washington, Booth suggested that Atzerodt should join him in an attempt on the life of the President. As Atzerodt was later to confess during his trial, he was willing to join the conspiracy from an early stage. Booth gave Atzerodt the task of assassinating the Vice President, Andrew Johnson, and on the morning of April 14, 1865, he checked into the Kirkwood House hotel in Washington. This was the same building in which Johnson was residing.
In the event, Atzerodt’s nerves failed him, and he was unable to muster up the courage to proceed with his plan to kill Johnson. Instead he went to the bar of the hotel and drank heavily. Because of the effects of his intoxication, he walked the streets of Washington all night. However, a bartender had become suspicious when Atzerodt had asked him about the whereabouts of the Vice President, and told the police that a man in a gray coat (Atzerodt) seemed suspicious.
The following day, after the assassination of the President had taken place at Ford’s Theatre, military police arrived to search Atzerodt’s room. They quickly ascertained that his bed had not been occupied the previous night, and that under the pillow were concealed a Bowie knife and a loaded revolver. Additionally, they discovered that one of Booth’s bank books was in the room. Five days later, on April 20, Atzerodt was arrested in Germantown, Maryland, where he had sought refuge with a cousin.
Trial and Punishment
Captain William Doster, representing Atzerodt in court, claimed that his client was a “constitutional coward”, and that for this reason he was simply incapable of assassinating the Vice President. He further claimed that Booth would therefore not have given him that job. The court rejected this argument, and Atzerodt was convicted and sentenced to death by hanging. A little later, Atzerodt confessed to a minister in his cell the minister said later that Atzerodt had told him that Booth’s original plan was to kidnap the President.
This week in history: William Seward attacked in John Wilkes Booth's conspiracy
The Bowie knife used by Lewis Powell in his unsucessful attempt to assassinate William Henry Seward is on display at Union College in Schenectady, N.Y., Wednesday, Nov. 21, 2001. Jim Mcknight, Associated Press
On the evening of April 14, 1865 — the same night that President Abraham Lincoln was assassinated — Secretary of State William Seward was the victim of an assassination attempt as well. Both men, as well as Andrew Johnson, the vice president, were targeted by John Wilkes Booth's conspiracy.
Seward had been a lawyer and politician from New York, eventually rising to become governor and then U.S. senator. (His home in Auburn, N.Y., boasted a fireplace built by a young Brigham Young.) During the 1850 crisis, when many Southern states threatened to secede from the Union if California was admitted as a free state, Seward gave his famous “Higher Law” speech, in which he argued that basic morality was a higher law even than the U.S. Constitution, and that the continued practice of slavery was antithetical to basic morality.
In the mid-1850s, when it appeared that the country was no closer to solving the fundamental problems of slavery than it had in 1850, Seward and several like-minded politicians formed the Republican Party. When the party had its convention to nominate its candidate for president in 1860, many were convinced that it would be Seward. After some deft political maneuvering, Lincoln gained the nomination, and soon asked Seward to serve as his secretary of state.
The two men worked closely together throughout the Civil War and came to admire each other greatly. It was Seward who suggested to Lincoln that he wait until after a major Union victory before issuing the Emancipation Proclamation in 1862, lest it look like the Union was only attempting to free the slaves out of desperation owing to the poor military situation. With the end of the war in sight, early April 1865 saw Seward involved in a carriage accident that broke his jaw and dislocated his shoulder.
That same month saw John Wilkes Booth advancing his nefarious plans against the U.S. government. Booth's original plan was not assassination, rather he hoped to kidnap key members of the government and hold them for ransom against the release of Confederate prisoners of war. After Gen. Robert E. Lee surrendered to Ulysses S. Grant at Appomattox Courthouse on April 9, Booth twisted his original plan into one of revenge.
Booth's fellow conspirators were an odd bunch: there was the pharmacist's assistant David Herold, the German-born repairman George Atzerodt, and Confederate spy John Surratt. Often meeting in the home of Surratt's mother, Mary, the motley crew also included the former Confederate soldier Lewis Powell.
In his book “Manhunt: The 12-Day Chase for Lincoln's Killer,” historian James L. Swanson wrote: “Lewis Powell, 21-year-old son of a Baptist minister, enlisted in May 1861 as a private in the Second Florida Infantry. An attractive, well-muscled six-footer, Powell exemplified the best that the Confederate army could muster. A loyal, obedient, and hard-fighting soldier, he saw plenty of action until he was wounded and taken prisoner at Gettysburg in July 1863. Paroled, he made his way to Baltimore and fell into the orbit of Surratt and Booth.”
The plotters decided that on the night of April 14, Booth would target Lincoln, Atzerodt would assassinate Johnson, and Powell would kill Seward. Atzerodt booked a room in the Washington, D.C., hotel where Johnson was staying, though could not find the courage to act. Instead, Atzerodt got drunk in the hotel bar.
Powell, however, was determined to carry out his part of the plot. In a sense, Powell had it much easier than his fellow conspirators. While Booth and Atzerodt would have to improvise to find out exactly where Lincoln and Johnson would be when they wanted to strike, Powell knew exactly where to find Seward. The secretary of state was convalescing in his Washington home. Beyond that important fact, however, Powell was in the dark. Where in the house was Seward? Who else was in the house with him? How would Powell gain access to the house?
Accompanied across town by Herold, who waited across the street, the veteran of Gettysburg knocked on Seward's front door. Seward's servant, a young free black man named William Bell, answered. Powell explained to him that he had medicine for Seward and must deliver it personally, as he must transmit specific instructions from the doctor for its use.
When Bell refused, stating that the secretary of state was sleeping, Powell firmly moved into the room, pushing past Bell, though still maintaining that he was there to deliver medicine. As he made his way upstairs (it was unlikely that Seward was recuperating on the ground floor), Seward's son Frederick stopped him and told him that he could take the medicine, but Powell would not be admitted to Seward's room.
The two men argued for a few moments when Seward's daughter Fanny emerged from a side room, and indicating that Seward was asleep inside. Powell appeared to relent and started moving back down the stairs when he spun around suddenly and jammed a .36 caliber pistol in Frederick's face. The gun misfired, and though several more rounds were loaded, in his frustration Powell brought the gun down hard on Frederick instead of firing. The force of the impact damaged the gun, rendering it useless.
Bell bolted out the front door and yelled in the street “Murder!” Hearing this, Herold fled. Also sitting with Seward was his army nurse, Private George Robinson, himself a recovering wounded veteran. Robinson went into the hall to see what was happening. When the door opened, Powell turned from the business of beating Frederick, and bolted past Robinson into the room. With his knife, Powell slashed at the army nurse, cutting his forehead. Fanny moved in between Powell and Seward, imploring Powell not to kill her father.
At this, Seward roused and noticed Powell, recalling later that his thoughts were simply that his assailant was a good looking young man and noting “what handsome cloth that overcoat is made of.”
Powell leaped over to Seward and started slashing with his knife. A deep cut into his cheek produced copious amounts of blood. Seward was wearing a metal device to keep his jaw in place, and some have theorized that it successfully deflected Powell's attacks, which otherwise easily could have cut into his jugular vein. In her book, “Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln,” historian Doris Kearns Goodwin wrote:
“Fanny's screams brought her brother Gus into the room as Powell advanced again upon Seward, who had been knocked to the floor by the force of the blows, Gus and the injured Robinson managed to pull Powell away, but not before he struck Robinson again and slashed Gus on the forehead and the right hand. When Gus ran for his pistol, Powell bolted down the stairs, stabbing Emerick Hansell, the young State Department messenger, in the back before he bolted out the door and fled through the city streets.”
Seward, Bell, Robinson, Hansell and Seward's sons all survived Powell's attack, though his wife died just two months later, the excitement of the attack devastating her health. Her funeral was said by many to be “the largest assemblage that ever attended the funeral of a woman in America,” according to "Team of Rivals." The next year, Seward's daughter Fanny died from tuberculosis, only two months before her 22nd birthday. Seward made a full recovery, though he sported the scar on his cheek for the rest of his life. He continued to serve as secretary of state until 1869, notably acquiring Alaska for the U.S. in 1867. He died in 1872.
Powell fled the scene of the assassination attempt and hid for three days, finally emerging to seek refuge with Mary Surratt. His timing couldn't have been worse. He arrived just as federal authorities were taking her into custody for her part in the plot. His identity was soon discovered and he was arrested as well.
The Secret Plot Against Lincoln
As we historically know it, the ultimate end of the plans regarding Lincoln came to a head when he was murdered. However, that was not the initial purpose that John Wilkes Booth and his company intended for their plot. The assassination of Abraham Lincoln came to fruition out of desperation, as opposed to being the result of a successful military stratagem. In fact, the assassination was the third attempted plot on Lincoln’s well-being.
When John Wilkes Booth began entreating Confederate hubs in his area, his initial intention with the President was a kidnapping. The first plot began unfurling in the fall of 1864, during which the Confederacy was losing ground and the war. While arguments had been made that President Jefferson Davis himself approved of all the Lincoln plots, there was never sufficient evidence to link the two.
Though President Jefferson Davis didn’t officially sign off on the attempts made on Lincoln, those who took part in them were Confederate soldiers and sympathizers. To fortify the waning South’s hopes for victory in the Civil War, John Surratt and John Wilkes Booth coordinated their efforts in a plan to kidnap Lincoln from the Ford Theater on January 18th.
This first kidnapping plan was aborted before it began. Essentially, John Wilkes Booth had planned to overpower Lincoln with his associated, bind him, and then lower him to the stage before escaping into the night. Most will agree that this plan was impractical, full of holes, and wouldn’t have a chance at success. Regardless of whether or not John Wilkes Booth had actually planned on following through on this farce will never be known, as Lincoln ended up staying the night at home due to poor weather.
It was two months later that a second kidnapping plan was pulled together, featuring a much more reasonable plan. It was discovered that, on March 17th, Abraham Lincoln was scheduled to attend a performance of Still Waters Run Deep at a hospital. It presented an opportunity that John Wilkes Booth and his company couldn’t pass up.
John Wilkes Booth recruited six accomplices to participate in the abduction. The plan was to ambush Lincoln’s carriage while en route to the performance, riding along the outskirts of the city. Not only would he be without a meaningful protection detail, but it would also give them the opportunity to escape across the Potomac into Confederate territory.
This second kidnapping attempt wouldn’t come to be either. While their second secret plot had better credibility of execution, and certainly had a modicum chance of success, their plan was foiled. Once again, rather than attending the performance, Abraham Lincoln decided to change his plans at the last minute, instead reviewing a regiment of Indian volunteers returning to the city.
What Were the Intentions of the Secret Plots?
In the fall of 1864, when John Wilkes Booth began cooperating with his co-conspirators, the South was fighting a losing battle. With a stoppage on trading prisoners of war set in place, the South was being weakened with a lack of troops to supplement their forces. Confederate agents, including John Wilkes Booth and his company, took it upon themselves to aid the army in any way they could.
Had the kidnapping attempts on Lincoln been successful, they would have spirited him away to a Southern territory. There he could be propped up as ransom to the Union, forcing them to provide a massive influx of Confederate soldiers to be released in exchange for their President’s safe return. As one of the Confederacy’s greatest weaknesses at the time was a shortness of manpower, this boon would lengthen the Civil War for an indefinite amount of time.
While the kidnapping attempts would have, in John Wilkes Booth’s eyes, given victory to the Confederacy, the failure to complete either kidnapping attempts created a desperate situation. With time running out on the Confederacy’s hopes for victories, assassination became Booth’s final option. He hoped that, by eliminating three of the Union’s most prominent and powerful figures on the same night, they would cripple their morale, structure, and resolve, effectively resurrecting the South’s hopes of victory.
The Lincoln Assassination Conspiracies
Many are acquainted with at least one good JFK assassination conspiracy, but fewer are aware of the alleged plots involving the Lincoln assassination. His murder, which took place 150 years ago this Apr. 14, prompted a number of very different conspiracy theories.
Any theory that gained more than a handful of credulous adherents had to agree with the overwhelming evidence that John Wilkes Booth, the famous actor and Confederate sympathizer, was the assassin. Beyond that point, however, things began to take different trajectories, and Booth’s alleged co-conspirators ranged from the somewhat plausible to the fascinatingly bizarre.
A Vice Presidential Conspiracy
It’s only natural for a Vice President to want to become President, and there’s one quick and easy way to accomplish that objective. Andrew Johnson, who became President after Lincoln’s death, was an immediate target for conspiracy theorists, according to William Hanchett, author of The Lincoln Murder Conspiracies.
One titillating detail is that, on the afternoon before the assassination, Booth paid a visit to the hotel where Johnson resided. He didn’t meet Johnson, but left a card saying, “Don’t wish to disturb you are you at home?”
Lincoln’s widow, Mary Todd Lincoln, wrote in a letter to a friend that her: “own intense misery, has been augmented by the same thought – that, that miserable inebriate Johnson, had cognizance of [her] husband’s death – why, was that card of Booth’s, found in his box?”
She added that she was “deeply impressed, with the harrowing thought, that [Johnson] had an understanding with the conspirators…Johnson, had some hand, in all this.”
Even before the assassination, it was no secret that Mary Todd Lincoln disliked ‘that miserable inebriate Johnson,’ who had been disgracefully drunk at Lincoln’s Second Inaugural on March 4, 1865. Her dislike, combined with the trauma of her husband’s murder and Johnson’s benefiting from it, easily could have distorted her viewpoint.
However, some members of Congress did express suspicion that Johnson had been involved, and in 1867 a special committee was formed to investigate his possible role. This committee did not find enough to incriminate Johnson, and it’s very possible that the congressional “suspicion” was just an attempt to remove him from office.
It is commonly accepted that there was a plot to kill Vice President Johnson along with President Lincoln. However, Johnson’s would-be assassin, George Atzerodt, lost his courage and, instead of killing the Vice President, got drunk and wandered the streets of D.C.
Did Johnson arrange this abortive attempt on his life, just to make himself look like an intended victim instead of a conspirator? Some thought so.
The Cotton Investor Conspiracy
There is evidence that, during the Civil War, Lincoln violated the official Union trade blockade by allowing a select group of Northerners to invest in Southern cotton. The President did this to “head off national bankruptcy and finance the Union war effort,” according to Leonard Guttridge and Ray Neff, authors of the Lincoln conspiracy book, Dark Union.
When Lincoln began to waver in his unofficial position on allowing trade with the Confederates, there were investors who stood to lose a lot of money – perhaps enough to kill over.
The Eisenschiml Theory
Otto Eisenschiml, born in Austria in 1880, was a trained chemist and oil tycoon who developed a fixation on the Lincoln assassination. Following nine years of research, he published Why was Lincoln Murdered? – a book which argued that Lincoln’s murder was orchestrated by his own Secretary of War, Edwin Stanton. The book sold very well, whether or not its readers fully believed the contents.
Eisenschiml contended that Stanton covertly teamed up with a small group of people looking to profit by taking over Southern territory. He claimed that Stanton, who headed the manhunt after Lincoln’s killing, purposely left open an escape route for Booth, whom he then ordered killed before the assassin could go to trial (and possibly reveal Stanton’s involvement).
Though Stanton and Lincoln had their political disagreements, there also was a good deal of respect between these two men, and most historians contend that Eisenschiml’s theory is groundless.
Killed by Resentful Northerners
Shortly before his death, Lincoln was aggravating many Northern politicians with a Reconstruction policy which they regarded as being far too lenient and forgiving. Well over 300,000 Union lives had been sacrificed to defeat the Confederacy, and now Lincoln was allowing Confederate officials to return to positions of considerable power.
Ben Wade, a senator from Ohio, said about Lincoln before he was shot: “By God, the sooner he is assassinated the better.” Though such a remark does not make Wade a conspirator, it does reflect a sentiment that some politicians of the North had toward Lincoln and his Reconstruction policies.
A Catholic Conspiracy
When, some 19 months after the assassination, Booth co-conspirator John Surratt, Jr. was tracked down by American officials in Alexandria, Egypt, it was revealed that he had served in the Papal Zouaves, a now-defunct army that had fought on behalf of the pope.
His mother, Mary Surratt – in whose boardinghouse the Lincoln murder plot was engineered – was a Catholic, and there were rumors that Booth himself recently had converted to Catholicism. These details, combined with sensationalist, inaccurate reporting that all the arrested conspirators were Catholic, led many to proclaim that Lincoln’s murder was the work of a Catholic conspiracy, one possibly leading all the way to the Vatican.
Ensuing decades would see a succession of works, some authored by discontented ex-priests, arguing that the Catholic Church had Lincoln assassinated because they wanted to destabilize an American democracy which they felt was a threat to their power.
The grand Catholic conspiracy theory was enduring. As recently as 1963, Emmett McLoughlin, a former Franciscan priest, wrote An Inquiry in the Assassination of Abraham Lincoln, a book which implicated the Vatican for Lincoln’s murder.
Of course, the same year McLoughlin’s book saw publication, JFK was assassinated, and a whole new world of intrigues and conspiracy theories came to the national forefront.
Misinformation and Conspiracy Theories about the Lincoln Assassination
Today, most historians and the general public agree that John Wilkes Booth, one of President Abraham Lincoln&rsquos favorite actors, headed the conspiracy to murder the President, cabinet officers and Vice President Andrew Johnson. Throughout the 149 years since the Lincoln assassination, some Americans &ndash and even some historians &ndash have found it difficult to believe that John Wilkes Booth, a mere actor, could orchestrate such a horrible crime. That one individual, acting with a rag-tag assemblage of comrades, could actually change the course of history and fell a national hero at the height of his popularity and at a time of great celebration, seems far-fetched to many.
Emotions ran high and misinformation flowed in the weeks and months following the assassination, as newspapers that will form part of Ford&rsquos Theatre&rsquos Remembering Lincoln digital collection (for which I serve as an advisor) make clear.
The morning of Lincoln&rsquos death, the Nashville Union, a newspaper in Tennessee&rsquos capital that opposed secession, headlined its story about the assassination with &ldquoThe Rebel Fiends at Work&rdquo&mdashimplicitly linking Booth&rsquos deed to something beyond his small group. Meanwhile, the April 19, 1865, Demopolis (Alabama) Herald not only celebrated Lincoln&rsquos death but erroneously (like many other newspapers) printed that Seward had perished, and, unlike other newspapers, that Lee had defeated Grant. Most other newspapers mourned Lincoln and printed whatever information&mdashtrue or false&mdashthat they received.
A false report in the Demopolis, Alabama, Herald on April 19, 1865, reporting that not only had both President Lincoln and Secretary of State Seward had died, but that Robert E. Lee&rsquos Confederate army had defeated Ulysses S. Grant&rsquos Union army. Courtesy Alabama Department of Archives and History.
This high emotion and misinformation of that immediate moment provided fertile ground for conspiracy theories, both then and in the future. Scapegoats beyond Booth and his small group emerged in the minds of many.
Given the context of Confederate defeat, it was not surprising that suspicion fell on Confederate President Jefferson Davis if not Davis, then perhaps Judah P. Benjamin, the Confederate Secretary of State. Not only was Benjamin a tried-and-true Rebel, but he also was Jewish and, allegedly, had connections to the Rothschilds&rsquo banking empire in Europe. European bankers were concerned about the Lincoln&rsquos trade policies, supposedly, and Benjamin was motivated further by revenge. Besides, many believed, &ldquothis is what Jews do.&rdquo
Keep in mind that the Republican Party contained a virulent anti-immigrant wing, formerly the Know-Nothings, with clear anti-Semitic and anti-Catholic overtones. Many of the convicted conspirators, including Mary Surratt, were ardent Catholics.
The fact that John Surratt turned up at the Vatican after he fled the United States helped cause false speculation that the Pope was involved in the Lincoln assassination. Courtesy Library of Congress Prints & Photographs, LC-DIG-cwpbh-00483.
This led to the theory that the Pope, or at least some high-placed Roman Catholics had a hand in Lincoln&rsquos assassination. Irish immigrants generally opposed the war and supported the Democratic Party. A bloody riot in New York and other cities in 1863 against the Republican-initiated draft featured violence by Irish residents. The theory received further credence by the fact that Lincoln had once defended a priest against the Bishop of Chicago. And John Surratt, the son of Mary Surratt, fled the United States and, oddly, turned up at the Vatican.
But those conspiracy theories did not stop in the frenzied days following the assassination. Perhaps the most lasting of the conspiracy theories was the Eisenschiml thesis. Otto Eisenschiml was not a historian. He was an Austrian-born chemist who emigrated to the U.S. in 1901 and became an oil company executive in Chicago. After nearly a decade researching Lincoln&rsquos assassination, he published Why Was Lincoln Murdered in 1937, claiming that Secretary of War Edwin Stanton masterminded Lincoln&rsquos assassination.
Otto Eisenschiml falsely alleged that Secretary of War Edwin Stanton (pictured) masterminded the conspiracy to kill President Lincoln. Courtesy Library of Congress Prints & Photographs, LC-DIG-cwpbh-00958.
As &ldquoproof,&rdquo Eisenschiml offered several circumstantial pieces of evidence. First, Stanton had a motive: he was worried that Lincoln&rsquos moderate proposals for southern reconstruction would let the former Confederate states off too easily for the carnage they initiated.
Second, Union general Ulysses S. Grant had planned to attend the play at Ford&rsquos Theatre with the President on the night of April 14 but Eisenschiml alleged that Grant cancelled when Stanton ordered him out of Washington. Further, Stanton had allegedly turned down the President&rsquos request to have Major Thomas T. Eckert serve as his bodyguard for the evening. Following Booth&rsquos dramatic exit from the theatre, Stanton closed all bridges from the city, except one &ndash the Navy Yard Bridge &ndash which Booth took as his escape route. Stanton also allegedly ordered that Union soldiers should kill Booth rather than arrest him. And, finally, investigators noted 15 pages torn from Booth&rsquos diary, deliberately ripped out by Stanton, Eisenschiml claimed.
So powerful were these allegations that Eisenschiml&rsquos book appeared on most Civil War graduate seminar reading lists through the 1970s. But not a shred of hard evidence has corroborated Eisenschiml&rsquos thesis in the ensuing eight decades.
This is far from the end of Lincoln conspiracy theories, especially in the Internet age, but, unlike with the Kennedy assassination, a majority of Americans are in agreement with the consensus of professional historians that John Wilkes Booth murdered Abraham Lincoln and led the conspiracy to assassinate other members of the administration without outside direction.
David Goldfield is Robert Lee Bailey Professor of History at the University of North Carolina Charlotte. He serves as an advisor on the Remembering Lincoln digital project. Learn more about him here.
Editorials about the Death of John Wilkes Booth, Lincoln’s Assassin
The assassination of President Abraham Lincoln on 14 April 1865 by John Wilkes Booth, a 26-year-old actor and fervent Southern sympathizer, shocked and saddened the North. This same reaction was felt by many in the South as well – no American president had ever been assassinated before (although an attempt was made on the life of Andrew Jackson in 1835).
Photo: John Wilkes Booth, c. 1865. Credit: Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division.
Just five days prior to Lincoln’s assassination, Confederate General Robert E. Lee had surrendered the Army of Northern Virginia, and it was apparent the nation’s bloody four-year nightmare, the Civil War, was at last coming to an end. Just as the nation was beginning to turn its thoughts beyond war to reconciliation and reconstruction, the president who was to lead the way was suddenly gone.
Photo: marker at site of John Wilkes Booth’s capture in 1865, on U.S. Rt. 301 near Port Royal, Virginia. Credit: JGHowes Wikimedia Commons.
After a furious 12-day manhunt Booth himself was shot dead on 26 April 1865, after being discovered hiding in a barn in northern Virginia. Two days later, the following newspaper editorials were published, one by a Northern paper and one by a Southern, both lamenting the death of Lincoln and castigating Booth.
Philadelphia Inquirer (Philadelphia, Pennsylvania), 28 April 1865, page 4
Here is a transcription of this article:
THE DEATH OF J. WILKES BOOTH.
“They that take the sword shall perish by the sword.” Retaliation is, in many respects, a natural human emotion, and when aspirations for vengeance are most fierce, the lex talionis, “an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth,” seems to be agreeable to the mind. In the history of the terrible circumstances which attended the assassination of the late President of the United States, the curious mind will not fail to notice that the manner of the death of the victim and the assailant was nearly similar. President Lincoln was killed by a ball from a pistol, which entered his head in the left side, back of the ear. John Wilkes Booth, the murderer, was shot on Wednesday last by soldiers who were pursuing him, severely in the same part of his body. Exactly what President Lincoln suffered, John Wilkes Booth suffered. It is in doubt from conflicting statements, whether he was sensible after he was shot. If he was not he expired as his victim expired. If he was, he endured in those two hours terrible tortures.
In the manner of their taking off there was much similarity, but in their mental conditions at the time of death the dissimilarity was great. The President was in a happy condition of mind the prospects of the country were cheering to him he had hope of speedy peace his heart overflowed with good will and kindness. At the moment of death he was enjoying the relaxation of the scene his mind was cheerful and his heart free from other than pleasurable emotions. The swift course of the bullet deprived him of consciousness, without warning, and it is not likely he ever knew the cause which deprived him of self-control. Take, on the other hand, the circumstances attending the subsequent career of the assassin. The moment of the murder was the only minute of happiness or exultation which he could have experienced. With the theatrical flourish of his knife, and the exclamation, sic semper tyrannis, his transitory joy ceased. Agitation, anxiety, the fear of pursuit followed.
In the long journey which succeeded, the precautions necessary to evade pursuit, the disguises assumed, the subterfuges resorted to, the concealments which were necessary, the assassin endured intense misery, knowing that the hue and cry would follow him wherever he should go, having cause of suspicion of each man who approached him, and bearing beside in his conscience the fearful curse of Cain. There were crowded in the twelve days which had elapsed since the assassination at Ford’s Theatre, emotions, thoughts and remorse equal to a lifetime of misery. Whilst it was the will of God that Abraham Lincoln should be removed from this life when his heart was lightest, and his hopes for the future were assuming pleasing shapes, it was also His will that John Wilkes Booth should be taken off after suffering, of a mental nature, which make of earth a hell.
The one was taken away like a flower suddenly plucked from the stem. The other was crushed like a wounded scorpion, stinging itself to death and expiring amid its fury by an enemy’s blow. The circumstances of the assassination and the punishment are remarkable, and prove the mysteries of Providence. There are many who would have preferred that the murderer should have died by the hands of the law, and they lament that the gallows has lost a victim. But the retribution has been remarkable, the retaliation for the crime almost identical with the incidents of its perpetration.
The capture of Harold (co-conspirator David Herold – ed.) is regarded by the Government as important. What his precise connection was with the crime is not generally known. He was, we presume, an accessory before the fact, and possibly one of the principals in the great conspiracy.
The Southern press editorialized about John Wilkes Booth as well. This article was published by the Meridian Clarion on April 22, before Booth’s capture, and reprinted by the Times-Picayune.
Times-Picayune (New Orleans, Louisiana), 28 April 1865, page 1
Here is a transcription of this article:
The Meridian Clarion, of the 22 nd inst., contains the following:
We hope that the crime was not perpetrated by a Southerner, whom its very barbarity would disgrace. Such deeds could never do honor to the cause we espoused, nor to those who make themselves martyrs to madness. We are not his apologists but men have been as insane, as we deemed Lincoln, and yet history has attested their virtues. He deemed slavery a continental sin and the Union a continental necessity. His monomania was steadily pursued, even to the death of his enemies. We cannot, in view of the fact that Johnson must be his successor, approve the sentiments of those who make a crime, at the bare recital of which chivalrous courage shudders, the subject matter of rejoicing.
A previous number of the same paper says:
Wilkes Booth, we are told, was an actor in the Richmond Theatre. He is said to be an illegitimate son of the great tragedian. We regret the truth of this story, if it be truth. We deem the independence of the South eminently desirable, but never dreamed that it was to be achieved by assassins. Providence rarely rewards crimes against which humanity revolts, with the greatest blessings of which humanity dreams.
Note: An online collection of newspapers, such as GenealogyBank’s
What does John Wilkes Booth have to do with treasure you might ask? Well, there is a hidden treasure of a different sort waiting to be found by the persistent treasure hunter. This one isn't gold, silver, or rare jewels but items of historical value that would be worth more than their weight in gold.
During the twelve day manhunt for Lincoln's killer, Booth and his accomplice hid themselves in a pine thicket for five of those days. It was during this period that the horses, that J. Wilkes Booth and David Herold had ridden to make their escape from Washington D.C. after the murder of President Lincoln, were put down. The horses were killed still wearing the saddles, bridles, and bits used during the daring get away. While the leather has more than likely rotted away, the metal parts should still be intact. These items would be of immense historical value!
In a quicksand morass about a mile from the pine thicket lay the skeletons of the two slain horses. The question is where do you start searching? Well for our fellow treasure hunters in Maryland you can get a quick head start on the rest of us. The pine thicket was located about a mile west of Rich Hill which was the farm of Colonel Samuel Cox. With some internet searching I'm sure the farm and thicket can be located and a quick study of a topo map should narrow the search area down to manageable size. A quest of this sort might even be made into a History Channel show.
Now for you KGC conspiracy guys who believe that Booth didn't die as history records, but was killed Jan. 14th 1903 in Enid Oklahoma by none other than Jesse James aka J. Frank Dalton. I suggest you you read Manhunt by James L. Swanson. After reading this very well researched and written book I think you will come to the conclusion that Booth really did die as history says. The death of David E. George who was the Booth impostor who committed suicide in Enid in 1903 was colorfully woven into one of the many lies that Orvus Lee Houk told during his many years as a Dalton promoter.
I would be happy to help anyone interested in searching for the remains of the horses to narrow down the search area. I haven't taken the time to look for it myself, but I would enjoy the challenge. The exact spot Booth hid out in the pine thicket would also be a good spot to search. This could also be narrowed down to within 50 yards or so just from clues found in the book.
8. Lewis Carroll was Jack the Ripper.
To some, the author of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland was no demure children’s book author. He could have been notorious serial killer Jack the Ripper. That was the theory offered up by author Richard Wallace, who assembled a laundry list of suspicious and potentially incriminating facts about Carroll in his book, Jack the Ripper: Light-Hearted Friend. Wallace believes Carroll—born Charles Lutwidge Dodgson in 1832—experienced traumatic events in boarding school that would plague him for the rest of his life. He also believes Carroll hid secret messages in his books in the form of anagrams that confessed to his involvement. Carroll was also geographically close to the sites of the Ripper murders.
Doubters pointed out that “confessions” could be extracted from Wallace’s own words in the same fashion—including incriminating statements about murder and even that Wallace was the secret author of Shakespeare’s sonnets.