Part 1: Conspirators, Indicted and Unindicted
In The Paranormal Presidency of Abraham Lincoln, I document President Lincoln’s fatalism, as well as several incidents that led him to believe he would not survive alive his term of office. That much is historical fact. Whether or not Lincoln did indeed experience genuine presentiments of his own death–and whether these dreams, portents, prophecies and other unexplained portents surrounding his life and death were truly supernatural is not susceptible to proof. However, we do know that Lincoln possessed ample evidence that his life was in immanent danger on numerous occasions throughout his presidency. John Wilkes Booth’s conspiracy to assassinate Lincoln was only the last and most successful of several threats to Lincoln’s life.
As Lincoln was on his way to Washington to be inaugurated in February of 1861, for example, a plot was uncovered to murder the President as he traveled through Maryland. It was well known that the city of Baltimore was a hotbed of Secessionism.
To foil the assassins, the President Elect was snuck through Baltimore in disguise. Unfortunately, the anti-Lincoln press had a field day with this fact and the anti-Lincoln press to ridicule him mercilessly. As a result, Lincoln resolved never to shrink from the threat of assassination again.
Here Lincoln’s fatalism came into play. For the remainder of his presidency, Lincoln’s attitude was that if it was his time to die, nothing could prevent it; if it was not, then no plot could possibly succeed. Lincoln believed he would not die before he had accomplished the mission he was foreordained to carry out.
Although there were several instances when his life was in danger during the war, he ignored those threats. Because these plots were not successful and the conspirators essentially escaped, details of them remain murky.
Of course, our main interest is with the one plot that did succeed. Who were involved in the Booth plot? How far up in the Confederacy did it go? Were members of the Lincoln Administration involved and why?
The accepted version of the Booth Conspiracy is that all members of the assassination ring were apprehended and brought to justice save one—Mrs. Surratt’s son. John Surratt did indeed flee to Europe, where he spent some years as a member of the Swiss Guards, the Pope’s bodyguard, and eventually returned to the United States without suffering either death or imprisonment. Were there others involved; and if so, who were they?
It has long been believed that there were conspirators who may have escaped justice–including, perhaps, the chief conspirator himself.
Immediately after his capture by Union forces, Jefferson Davis, the former president of the Confederacy was accused by the Republican administration that followed the death of Lincoln of complicity in the assassination plot. However, there was no paper trail leading to Davis being implicated in the plot. The truth died with John Wilkes Booth on a farm in northern Virginia–perhaps–so no formal charges were ever brought against Davis.
Just because there was no hard evidence of the Booth Plot going higher up in the Rebel government, it does not follow that the Confederate government was not involved in the conspiracy. Then, as now, governments used “plausible deniability” when conducting black operations which they knew the public might condemn. Jefferson Davis may well have been unaware of the Booth Conspiracy; but the Confederate Secret Service was aware of it on a certain level, and perhaps even involved in its planning and execution. Unfortunately, when Richmond fell to the Yankees, the most sensitive documents of the Confederate espionage apparatus went up in flames. Some documents were destroyed deliberately, others fell prey to the chaos of the abandonment of the city and in the subsequent Yankee occupation.
Yet there are hints that Confederate Intelligence was involved and that Booth was not the “lone assassin” historians portray him as. It is known that Booth traveled to Canada and made contact there with Confederate spies. There was an active Rebel covert network operating along the Canadian border and while there Booth received money to further his clandestine activities on behalf of the Confederacy.
The accepted line traditionally has been that the Confederate spy ring in Canada was just humoring an independent operator and simply gave him money in the hopes he might do a bit of mischief on his own. Believe that if you will; but again bear in mind we are dealing with a clandestine organization where incriminating documents would have been foolish to leave behind.
THE UNKNOWN CONSPIRATOR
There is evidence that at least one member of the Booth ring escaped undetected. Mrs. Grant—who, along with her husband, also believed in presentiments as the Lincolns did. In her memoirs, Julia describes how on the day of Lincoln’s assassination she was being shadowed by suspicious men. One of them may have been Booth himself; but the other she never could identify. Julia relates how the unknown conspirator even followed her and the General that day to the train station when they left on vacation.
For reasons unknown, this conspirator did not fulfill his mission of killing General Grant—surely a “high value” target in the Lincoln administration—but he did send the couple an anonymous note admitting he was detailed to kill them that day. The note never became part of the official record of the Booth assassination, so we have only Julia Grant’s word for it.
But why would Mrs. Grant lie about such a thing in her memoirs? We have first hand testimony, therefore, that at least one conspirator who escaped the Federal manhunt. There may have been more.
For more about Lincoln and the Booth Conspiracies, go to The Paranormal Presidency of Abraham Lincoln and Ghosts and Haunts of the Civil War. Also dealing with the Late Unpleasantness is Ambrose Bierce and the Period of Honorable Strife, an in depth look at the wartime experiences of a famous American author.