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 Paranormal Presidency of Abraham Lincoln

 

Fayette Hall Lincoln on Dancing Piano fac 34a

In my recent book, The Paranormal Presidency of Abraham Lincoln, (Schiffer Press) I document in depth Abraham Lincoln’s beliefs and practices regarding the supernatural.  Although Lincoln’s fascination with the paranormal has been talked about by historians such as Carl Sandburg and others for generations, before this present book, no one had taken a serious or objective look at the evidence.

On a number of occasions Lincoln attended séances, both at the White House and elsewhere, with famed psychic Nettie Colburn Maynard.
On a number of occasions Lincoln attended séances, both at the White House and elsewhere, with famed psychic Nettie Colburn Maynard.

The Paranormal Presidency  changes all that. In heavily footnoted chapter after chapter, we analyze various claims relating to Lincoln’s belief in the paranormal and certain practices which he actually participated in.

However, one issue which I did not tackle directly was the question of whether Lincoln actually was psychic or not. While I document what Lincoln and his contemporaries believed in, practiced and experienced, whether such phenomena really were supernatural or not–whether there is even really such a thing as the paranormal–all that is beyond the scope of historical enquiry.

Rather, I left it to the reader to weigh the evidence and decide for themselves.

Suffice it to say, however, that from early youth Lincoln had a firm belief in things we would call supernatural. Prophetic dreams, visions, omens and signs, and other uncanny events: all were part and parcel of Lincoln’s life, career and the world he lived in.

In future articles in this blog I will go into more specifics, providing details of Lincoln and his associates’ uncanny encounters and the nature of the evidence I evaluated in reaching my conclusions which I did not go into in the book. In many cases what they believed to be true directly affected their decision-making during the Civil War.

Lincoln's Assassination on Good Friday of 1865 was not the end of paranormal incidents regarding the president.  Many claim to have seen him in various locations in both Washington and in Springfield, Illinois
Lincoln’s Assassination on Good Friday of 1865 was not the end of paranormal incidents regarding the president. Many claim to have seen him in various locations in both Washington and in Springfield, Illinois

For more details about Lincoln’s relationship to paranormal, supernatural and unexplainable events, see The Paranormal Presidency of Abraham Lincoln.

Paranormal Presidency cover suitable for online use 96dpi
For the first time this book 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, 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.

The Lincoln Assassination Plots, Part 1

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.

THE BALTIMORE PLOT

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.

The Baltimore Riots
Baltimore was a hotbed of disloyalty and Secessionist sentiment in early 1861, as demonstrated by the Baltimore Riots, when a mob, partly composed of local militia, attacked Federal volunteers passing through town.

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.

LINCOLN IN DISGUISE FLEEING ASSASSINS harpers l
Lincoln was ridiculed by the northern press for passing through Baltimore in disguise (Harpers)

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.

Julia Dent Grant
Julia Grant also had presentiments of danger, as did her husband Ulysses.

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.

General Grant

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.

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 accounts of uncanny events and unsolved mysteries of the Civil War, Ghosts and Haunts of the Civil War is available at better book stores everywhere.
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.