The Booth Conspiracy: How Wide Was It?

John Wilkes Booth
Booth the great Thespian and chief Conspirator; how high up in the Lincoln Administration did his connections go?

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.

Lincoln's Assassination on Good Friday of 1865.  Where was his bodyguard when Booth entered the box?
Lincoln’s Assassination on Good Friday of 1865. Where was his bodyguard when Booth entered the box?

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.

General and Mrs. Grant were also being stalked by assassins on April 14; yet those conspirators were never caught.
General and Mrs. Grant were also being stalked by assassins on April 14; yet those conspirators were never caught.

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.

Since I have delved deeply into several different 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 a greatly.

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 is based on primary sources relating those events.

Andrew Johnson succeeded Lincoln as President, yet knew Booth from his days as Military Governor of Tennessee.  Was he involved in the plot?
Andrew Johnson succeeded Lincoln as President, yet knew Booth from his days as Military Governor of Tennessee. Was he involved in the plot?

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.

Andrew Johnson "kicking out" the Freedman's Bureau.  Although a Unionist Southerner during the war, as President he took land away from blacks and gave it back to the planters.
Andrew Johnson “kicking out” the Freedman’s Bureau. Although a Unionist Southerner during the war, as President he took land away from blacks and gave it back to the planters.

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

John Wilkes Booth's death as presented to the American public.  Does this version of Booth tell the truth?
John Wilkes Booth’s death as presented to the American public. Does this version of Booth tell the truth?

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.

Abraham Lincoln guided the nation through four years of war only to die as it neared its end.  We still don't know the whole truth.
Abraham Lincoln guided the nation through four years of war only to die as it neared its end. We still don’t know the whole truth.

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.

For more on the Lincoln assassins and the mysterious life and death of Abraham Lincoln, see Ghosts and Haunts of the Civil War and The Paranormal Presidency of Abraham Lincoln.

Paranormal Presidency cover suitable for online use 96dpi
For the first time documents Abraham Lincoln’s beliefs and experiences dealing with the paranormal. The Paranormal Presidency chronicles his prophetic dreams, premonitions and beliefs, as well as his participation in séances and Spiritualism.

 

GHOSTS AND HAUNTS OF THE CIVIL WAR 3x5
True of uncanny events and unexplained encounters relating to the Civil War, Ghosts and Haunts of the Civil War is the most comprehensive compilation of real paranormal experiences of the Late Unpleasantness.

 

ambrose-bierce-and-the-period-of-honorable-strife-cover
Ambrose Bierce, famed American author, is best known for his macabre fiction and cynical humor, served as a soldier in the front lines throughout the Civil War. Bierce’s wartime experiences were the transformative events of the young author’s life. Ambrose Bierce and the Period of Honorable Strife for the first time chronicles this pivotal period of Bierce’s life.

 

 

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The Day Lincoln Was Assassinated: The Final Premonition

PP Lincoln and his Prophetic Dreams Ridiculed
Lincoln’s belief in prophetic dreams were well known during his lifetime and were ridiculed by his political enemies.

“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.

pp Lincoln and Cabinet Emancipation Proc.
Lincoln and his Cabinet earlier in the war. Their last meeting was on the day he died, when he told them of his “usual dream.”

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.

Ward Hill Lamon was Lincoln's close friend and sometime bodyguard and also wrote about Lincoln's final premonition.
Ward Hill Lamon was Lincoln’s close friend and sometime bodyguard and also wrote about Lincoln’s final premonition.

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.

PP  Walt Whitman wrote a poem based on Lincoln's  final prophetic dream
Walt Whitman wrote his famous poem “O Captain! My Captain!” based on Lincoln’s last prophetic dream.

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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

For more on this last, best documented, of Lincoln’s many presentiments, prophetic dreams and premonitions, as well as the full text of Walt Whitman’s “O Captain! My Captain!” read The Paranormal Presidency of Abraham Lincoln.

Oh yes, and be sure to memorize the poem for class next Monday!  Class dismissed.

Paranormal Presidency cover suitable for online use 96dpi
For the first time documents Abraham Lincoln’s beliefs and experiences dealing with the paranormal. The Paranormal Presidency chronicles his prophetic dreams, premonitions and beliefs, as well as his participation in séances and Spiritualism.

 

ambrose-bierce-and-the-period-of-honorable-strife-cover
Ambrose Bierce, famed American author, is best known for his macabre fiction and cynical humor.  But Bierce also served as a soldier in the front lines throughout the Civil War. Bierce’s wartime experiences were the transformative events of the young author’s life. Ambrose Bierce and the Period of Honorable Strife for the first time chronicles this pivotal period of this famous authors life.