On Good Friday, April 14, 1865, Abraham Lincoln was assassinated by John Wilkes Booth; that much is not in dispute. Twelve days later, Booth was tracked down and fatally wounded in a burning barn on the Garrett farm in northern Virginia; that, at least, is the official version of this tragic finale to the Civil War.
Of all the conspiracy theories that continue to circulate, none is more fascinating—or more debated—than John Wilkes Booth’s successful plot to assassinate the President. Of course, the fact of the conspiracy itself has never been in debate: no one doubts that Booth conspired to murder Abraham Lincoln and some of his cabinet, and succeeded in that goal. But unlike presidential assassinations since, Booth has never been characterized as a lone assassin. We know he had a large group in on the plot. Where the various theories conflict with the official version of the assassination is exactly how wide the Booth Conspiracy really was. In this regard, the debate about the Booth Conspiracy has long raged and remains hotly debated to this day.
What sparked this latest entry in the debate is the publication of a new book on the assassination and the mysteries which surround it: John Wilkes Booth: Beyond the Grave, by W. C. Jameson (Rowan & Littlefield, 2014). In all honesty, I have yet to read it; the book review in Civil War News, however, gives it generally positive reviews. It lacks footnotes documenting its assertions (a big no-no among both scholars and Civil War enthusiasts), but apparently does contain a substantial bibliography. Since I have delved deeply into aspects of the Lincoln assassination in both Ghosts and Haunts of the Civil War (not footnoted) and The Paranormal Presidency of Abraham Lincoln (extensively footnoted) needless to say the topic interests me very much and I have this new title on my to-read list—a list which grows longer by the day.
Apparently Jameson—a Booth descendent—gives first the “official” version of the assassination then dissects all the inconsistencies and contradictions inherent in government version. There is nothing new in that—researchers have long pointed out the many holes in the accepted accounts of the assassination, Booth’s escape and his alleged death. Brad Meltzer produced a television documentary delving into the issue on his History Channel series and there are several other documentaries which have also investigated this issue. But no matter how much the Federal government at the time, or modern historians today, assert the orthodox line about the limits of Booth’s conspiracy and of his death, there have always been dissenting voices that 1) the conspiracy was far wider and deeper than the succeeding administration was willing to concede, and 2) that in fact John Wilkes Booth did not die on the Garrett farm after being shot by Federal cavalry.
How soon after the murder of Lincoln did these alternate scenarios of his assassination take shape? Would you believe within days of Lincoln’s death? In Ghosts and Haunts of The Civil War, for example, in chronicling Mrs. Grant’s own premonitions about going to the theater that Good Friday, I cite her own words to the effect that she and her husband were being stalked by suspicious characters that afternoon and that the general’s wife always believed that a team of assassinations had been detailed to murder her husband who were never apprehended. You may read that chapter in GHCW for more details about the Grant’s very real dangers and premonitions; suffice it to say that, while I did not footnote it in that book, the chapter is based on primary sources relating those events.
Even more telling than the facts surrounding the General and Mrs. Grant’s close brush with death on April 14, 1865, we have the testimony of the first person to make accusations of a wider conspiracy: Mrs. Lincoln herself. Bear in mind that the backstage personnel of Ford’s Theatre were all friends and close associates of John Wilkes Booth and while they all denied any complicity in the crime, it remains a moot point how involved they may have actually been in the plot, denials after the fact not withstanding. More importantly, the body guard that had been detailed to stand watch just outside the door to the box seats where the Lincolns were watching the play that night was conveniently missing at the very moment when Booth entered the balcony box to murder Lincoln. Mary Todd Lincoln did not mince words and she directly accused the body-guard of being in on the plot. Moreover, Mary went on to accuse Andrew Johnson of complicity in the plot to murder her husband. Much of this is detailed in the sections on the assassination in Ghosts and Haunts of the Civil War and The Paranormal Presidency of Abraham Lincoln.
Of course, Mary Todd Lincoln has always been given a bad rap by historians: “crazy Mary” has always been the refrain when it comes to her actions and words. Yet Mary Todd Lincoln was a highly educated, cultured lady—far more so than many of her male contemporaries in Washington—a fact which only increased their resentment for the Kentucky blue blood who had relatives in the Confederate army and she neither crazy nor stupid and, moreover, well aware of the danger her husband was in. Granted, that after watching her husband being murdered before her very eyes, she was a mite upset and lashed out at all those she thought responsible; yet there is a strong ring of truth in her accusations.
Where was the body-guard that night and why was he not at his post? Certainly there were many others willing to die defending the President had they known he was not adequately protected. Moreover, Mary Todd Lincoln’s accusations aimed at Vice-President—now President—Johnson also have a ring of truth about them. We have one curious fact: some seven hours before the murder, John Wilkes Booth paid a visit to the hotel where Johnson was staying and left a note for the VP: “Don’t wish to disturb you. Are you at home? J. Wilkes Booth” read the note. What business did the leader of the plot have with the prospective new President? How deeply was Johnson involved in the plot?
Although Andrew Johnson was considered a loyalist Southerner, with political connections to Unionist East Tennessee, he was hardly a paragon of virtue and in fact had many suspicious connections. He was a man fond of strong drink and loose women—a fact not lost on the more straight-laced members of the Republican Party. Moreover, when he was Military Governor of Tennessee, he was known to be a close associate of none other than John Wilkes Booth. In “Right or Wrong, God Judge Me” The Writings of John Wilkes Booth, edited by John Rhodehamel and Louise Taper (1997), evidence is presented that Booth knew Johnson dating back at least to February of 1864, when Booth performed at the newly opened Wood’s Theatre in Nashville. According to Hamilton Howard in Civil War Echoes (1907), whenever Booth visited Nashville in his guise as actor (although he probably was already in the employ of the Confederate Secret Service) he and Governor Johnson went boozing and wenching together, sharing the sexual favors of two sisters on more than one occasion.
How deep Andrew Johnson was in the Booth Conspiracy shall never be known—but clearly Mary Lincoln was neither hysterical nor “crazy” when she lashed out against him after her husband’s death:
“..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
We come to the person of Booth himself: actor, lover, spy, assassin; as Shakespeare once observed, a man may play many roles in his life and we know that Booth played more than a few. It has never been proven, but many believe that Booth was not the mastermind behind the plot to kill Lincoln; certainly he had connections to the Confederate spy ring operating in Canada and residing in Washington, DC, just across the Potomac from Richmond, he could not help but have been in easy contact with the Rebel spy masters in that capital. Unfortunately, when Richmond fell to Union troops in April of 1865, most of the Confederate Secret Service’s records disappeared—whether by accident or to purpose remains a moot point. We shall never know exactly what secrets of the Booth Conspiracy disappeared with the loss of those files, but the suspicion remains that the loss was great.
One thing we know for sure: John Wilkes Booth was not on a suicide mission. He had escape routes clearly planned out for himself and his co-conspirators. What remains under debate is how successful Booth really was in making good his escape. The accepted consensus is that he ultimately paid the price for his treachery and treason; but there are dissenters, his descendent Mr. Jameson among them. In the years following the war, various researchers have followed the convoluted trail of evidence indicating that booth did indeed live a long life after the assassination. Newspaper reports days after the assassination had Booth in various cities around the country—none of them seemingly true. In the years following however, there were various accounts of Booth sightings in foreign lands in newspapers, some of which may have had some credence. The reports placed Booth in India and Ceylon, in China, in Mexico, and even in the South Seas. Common to these all these accounts was the figure of Booth as an honorable gentleman with no remorse for his deed. Interestingly enough, most of the locations where he was sighted also coincided with locations where émigré Confederates actually did establish colonies during Reconstruction.
Some serious researchers believe Booth did make good his escape and, like Jameson, have presented their evidence; but positive proof remains elusive 150 years later.