Today is the day that Lincoln died. It was on April 14, 1865—another Good Friday to be precise—that Abraham Lincoln, our sixteenth President, was murdered in cold blood.Young Mary Brennan, an Irish immigrant only recently arrived to our shores, remembered well that dreadful day for the rest of her life.A devout Catholic, she, like many a Protestant of the day, regarded Good Friday, the day Christ died, as a solemn holy day and one not to be commemorated by going out the theater.“He never would have died,” she would often say, ”had he not gone to see a play on Good Friday.”Great grandmother was a font of such sayings and superstitions, she was, and her many descendants can still recite one or another of her sayings at will.
But Abraham Lincoln, never a “technical Christian,” had ample reason to celebrate that Friday, April 14 so many years ago.Robert E. Lee and his army had surrendered to General Ulysses S. Grant scarcely a week before and that very morning the general was delivering his report to the President and Cabinet in person.For the first time in four years, Lincoln, who frequently suffered from “melancholy” seemed uncommonly hopeful, now that the end of the Rebellion was in sight.Lincoln could at last look ahead to the future, to peace and to the task of rebuilding a nation torn apart by a fratricidal conflict.
As his Cabinet chatted before the official beginning of the meeting, Lincoln also told them that Friday about the “usual dream” he had had only the night before.He explained that before every major event of the war he had dreamed the same dream: of a ship sailing towards a distant shore.It always portended important war news.Lincoln, raised on presentments, omens and prophetic dreams, believed that this latest portent was a sign of something momentous about to happen.
Cabinet met, Lincoln was expecting news from Sherman in North Carolina, where “Uncle Billy” had run to ground the once proud Confederate Army of Tennessee, now commanded by “Uncle Joe” Johnston.Johnston’s force was but a hollow shell of what it had once been, but the proud Rebels, barefoot and in rags, could still fight like wildcats—albeit cornered wildcats.Lincoln hoped to hear that Johnston too had surrendered, marking the end of organized resistance.Surely the “usual dream” portended this, thought Lincoln.
Later that day, as Lincoln and his wife readied for the theater, the President was in an uncommonly optimistic mood, not realizing the prophetic dream portended not good news on Good Friday, but ill.For even as they dressed for the night, across town a band of conspirators were also preparing for the night—but their performance would end in death and mayhem.
Much has been written about that day and about the conspirators led by John Wilkes Booth; yet, to this day there is no certainty as to how deeply the Booth Conspiracy to do away with Lincoln and his Cabinet ran.To be sure, many were arrested and most of the leading conspirators executed.But Mary Lincoln, for one, had her suspicions that there were others involved who got away—including some high placed in the Lincoln administration.Mrs. Grant too, had had a terrifying incident that day that lead her to believe not all the culprits had been caught.But historians hate loose ends and the strands of evidence pointing to a broader conspiracy lie moldering in archives and museums little looked at or considered. Still, the truth may still be out there.
What is proven about the events of Good Friday, April 14, is tragic enough, however.Just as Lincoln’s ship of state was about to reach that far and distant shore of peace, the captain—Lincoln—was cut down.How different our history would have been had Lincoln survived to oversee the peace as he had the war!We can be sure that the “Better Angels of our Nature” would have thrived under his leadership and the postwar darkness and violence, and the enduring aftermath of meanness and divisiveness that still dogs our nation to this day would have been greatly diminished, if not prevented entirely.
Greatness is not to be measured in the number of bombs one drops or the number of innocents one kills; Lincoln did not rejoice in war and wished it brought to a speedy end.No, what was great about Lincoln and Lincoln’s America was its struggle for equality, for social justice, and for the betterment of the average worker, not some aristocratic elite. The President who created land-grant universities to provide free college education, who redistributed millions of acres of land to any who would settle and till it, who fought and died for racial equality, and who sought to unite the nation from seas to sea with modern transportation: these and other social and economic programs were what truly made Lincoln great—not his leadership of a war that was forced on him by the Cotton Slaveocracy and other elites who benefitted from human bondage.In the end, Lincoln paid for his achievements in human progress with his life.As we commemorate Good Friday this April 14, this too should be borne in mind.
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.
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 alternative 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 raged long and hard and remains hotly debated to this day.
What sparked this latest entry in the debate by yours truly is the publication of a recent book on the assassination and the mysteries which surround it: John Wilkes Booth: Beyond the Grave, by W. C. Jameson (Rowan & Littlefield, 2014). A recent book review in Civil War News, gives it generally positive reviews. However, the book lacks footnotes documenting its assertions (a big no-no among both scholars and Civil War enthusiasts) and given that the book’s assertions are fairly radical, that seems a curious omission. The book does apparently contain a substantial bibliography, though.
Apparently Jameson—allegedly 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 many holes in the accepted accounts of the assassination, Booth’s escape and his alleged death. Brad Meltzer produced an excellent television documentary delving into this issue on his History Channel’s History Decoded series and there are several other documentaries available 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. I have gone into both these issues in previous articles on The Late Unpleasantness.
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 isbased 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; 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. 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.
Mary Todd Lincoln’s accusations aimed at Vice-President—now President—Johnson have a ring of truth about them.
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 President of Vice:
“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. 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 coincide 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.
“Presentiments are strange things! and so are sympathies; and so are signs; and the three combined make one mystery to which humanity has not yet found the key” Charlotte Bronte, Jane Eyre
As every school child knows–or should know–Abraham Lincoln, our sixteenth President, was assassinated on April 14, 1865, breathing his last in the early morning hours of the following day, April 15. Less well known is that, on the very morning of his assassination, Lincoln revealed to his cabinet a premonition—a presentiment some would call it—of his very own death.
The incident has been a favorite anecdote of Lincoln biographers for generations, although academic historians have tended to dismiss or ignore it. In researching The Paranormal Presidency, however, I went back into the primary sources, to people who worked with Lincoln or were his friends, to verify the story. Often times an anecdote, especially one about Lincoln, makes for a good story and is repeated over and over, yet has no basis in fact. At first glance, this premonition of Lincoln’s might seem to fit that category.
While I give Lincoln’s final premonition in full in Chapter 17 of the Paranormal Presidency of Abraham Lincoln, for those poor deprived souls who have not yet had the opportunity to read it, a brief synopsis is warranted.
During the cabinet meeting on the morning of April 14, while waiting for the meeting to begin in earnest, Lincoln related a strange dream he had had the night before. It was about a ship sailing to an indefinite shore. What was peculiar about the dream was, he told his cabinet (which included General Grant on that day) that he had had this very same dream before every major event of the war. As Lincoln was hourly expecting news from the Carolinas from Sherman, that the last major Confederate army had surrendered, Lincoln assumed it would be good news from that front.
Doubtless at the time of the meeting, it was regarded as yet another of Lincoln’s little anecdotes that his cabinet had to suffer through. It was only after he was assassinated that night that everyone present realized that Lincoln had actually foretold his own death.
As noted above, this incident has been told and retold by many folks over the years. Charles Dickens gave a dramatic version of the story, obviously with added Dickensian touches. Lincoln’s close friend and sometime bodyguard, Ward Hill Lamon, likewise ornamented the story a bit. Moreover, as time went on, many other writers further elaborated on it. So, for the professional debunkers out there, it has been easy to dismiss the story as fiction, something invented long after the fact.
The trouble with professional cynics is that, starting from a priori assumptions, they rarely look at the facts objectively. More often than not they skip over primary sources that are inconvenient to their already formed thesis. Certainly, a healthy skepticism is a good thing: cynicism in not. Neither is shoddy scholarship.
In fact, there were at least two men present during the Cabinet meeting in question who reported Lincoln’s prophetic dream. There are slight variations in quoting Lincoln’s exact words, as there are with Lamon’s account. However, any researcher who has dealt extensively with eyewitness accounts knows that such things are to be expected, especially concerning famous or traumatic events.
Within days of his death news of the incident had spread far and wide. When Lincoln’s body was being returned by train to Springfield, Illinois stopped in Philadelphia, on April 22, his body put on display for mourners to view. Among the many memorial wreaths beside the body was one which stood out. It had a banner emblazoned across it which read:
“Before every great national event I
have always had the same dream.
I had it the other night. It is of a
ship sailing rapidly….”
The crowd in Philadelphia that April 22, needed no explanation as to the meaning of that quote. Remarkably, word of Lincoln’s last prophetic dream had already become common knowledge throughout the Northern states. This is not prima facie evidence, it is true; but is proof that the story was no later invention by some fevered hack writer.
Lincoln’s last premonition is a historic fact. That is incontrovertible and true. One can choose to dismiss it as mere “coincidence” if one wishes. Many have, and that is always a convenient rationalization for an inconvenient truth one wishes not to believe. Folks are free to believe what they want. But it did happen.
Walt Whitman, who was in Washington during the war years, was so inspired by Lincoln’s prophetic dream that he turned it into one of his most famous poems, O Captain! My Captain!When I was a boy, in fact, we were required to memorize it, along with other famous pieces of American poetry. I doubt they do that any more; and I doubt that many folks who are familiar with the poem really know the true background behind it.
Clearly, Lincoln dreamed of his ship approaching that “indefinite shore,” and while soon after, “The ship is anchor’d safe and sound, its voyage closed and done,” Lincoln, its captain, did not live to see the ship of state safe in port.
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.