Abraham Lincoln's Assassination
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LINCOLN ASSASSINATION THEORIES: A SIMPLE CONSPIRACY OR A GRAND CONSPIRACY?

John Wilkes Booth shot Abraham Lincoln on April 14, 1865, and questions arose almost immediately. Was Booth solely responsible for the assassination? Or was Booth simply a tool in a much larger conspiracy? Just who may or may not have been involved with Booth has been the subject of profound speculation among writers, historians, researchers, and others for the past 147 years. With the publication of new books and articles in the 1980's, 1990's, and beyond, the quest to find what really happened has continued. This page will attempt to outline the major conspiracy theories (in no particular order) that have been put forth since 1865.

THEORY #1

ANDREW JOHNSON WAS INVOLVED WITH BOOTH

Approximately seven hours before shooting the president, Booth dropped by the Washington hotel which was Vice-President Andrew Johnson's residence. Upon learning from the desk clerk that neither Johnson nor his private secretary, William A. Browning, was in the hotel, Booth wrote the following note: "Don't wish to disturb you Are you at home? J. Wilkes Booth." Browning testified before the military court that he found the note in his box later that afternoon.

Did Johnson and Booth know each other? In the 1997 publication "Right or Wrong, God Judge Me" The Writings of John Wilkes Booth edited by John Rhodehamel and Louise Taper it is stated on p. 146 that Booth had previously met Johnson in Nashville in February, 1864. At the time Booth was appearing in the newly opened Wood's Theatre. Also, author Hamilton Howard in Civil War Echoes (1907) made the claim that while Johnson was military governor of Tennessee, he and Booth kept a couple of sisters as mistresses and oftentimes were seen in each other's company.

Lincoln had essentially ignored Johnson after Johnson's embarrassing behavior on Inauguration Day. Mary Todd Lincoln felt Johnson was involved. On March 15, 1866, she wrote to her friend, Sally Orne:

Mary Todd Lincoln
"...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

Some members of Congress also thought Johnson was involved and a special Assassination Committee was established to investigate any evidence linking Johnson to Lincoln's death. Nothing suspicious was ever found by the committee; yet a belief by some Americans that Johnson was somehow involved with Booth continued for many years.

In the book A Threat to the Republic: The Secret of the Lincoln Assassination that Preserved the Union author Jerry Madonna argues that Johnson unwittingly assisted with Booth's escape from Washington.

THEORY #2

LINCOLN DIED BY WAY OF A SIMPLE CONSPIRACY ORGANIZED BY JOHN WILKES BOOTH

This theory has John Wilkes Booth as the originator of the plot and that all remaining conspirators, with the one exception of John Surratt, were either hanged or sent to prison at Ft. Jefferson. Among the books that have supported this theory are Clara Laughlin's The Death of Lincoln: The Story of Booth's Plot, His Deed, and the Penalty, David M. DeWitt's The Assassination of Abraham Lincoln and Its Expiation, and George S. Bryan's The Great American Myth. The simple conspiracy theory paints Booth as a Southern patriot and racist who originally planned to kidnap the president, take him to Richmond, and hold him in exchange for Southern prisoners of war. When the kidnapping plans fell through, Booth turned to assassination as his means for revenge. The entire plot consisted simply of John Wilkes Booth as the leader of a small band of co-conspirators. In 2004 Michael W. Kauffman's encyclopedic American Brutus: John Wilkes Booth and the Lincoln Conspiracies was published. Kauffman paints Booth as a master at manipulating people, not as a stooge for others.

THEORY #3

LINCOLN'S ASSASSINATION WAS THE RESULT OF A CONFEDERATE PLOT

The idea that Lincoln was killed as part of a grand conspiracy of Confederates arose almost immediately after the assassination. Coded letters found in Booth's trunk back at the National Hotel tied him to the Confederacy. This theory has undergone a marked revival in the past 20+ years. In 1977 a statement conspirator George Atzerodt made before the trial in 1865 was uncovered. In it Atzerodt told of Booth's knowledge of a Confederate plot to blow up the White House. The hypothesis of a Confederate grand conspiracy was detailed in 1988 by William A. Tidwell, James O. Hall, and David Winfred Gaddy in Come Retribution: The Confederate Secret Service and the Assassination of Lincoln. Tidwell supplied further evidence in 1995 with the publication of April '65: Confederate Covert Action in the American Civil War. (Another work which stresses Confederate involvement, but lacks the detail of the aforementioned books, is Larry Starkey's Wilkes Booth Came to Washington.)

Proponents of the Confederate grand conspiracy point out that as the Confederacy's situation deteriorated, more daring and reckless planning was needed. Lincoln was viewed as a legitimate wartime target. This was especially true after the Union's failed Dahlgren raid on Richmond that had been approved by Lincoln himself and was evidence of Lincoln's increasing determination to take whatever steps were necessary to end the war. Colonel Ulrich Dahlgren was killed in the raid, and on his person several documents were found, one of which said, "The men must be kept together, and well in hand, and once in the city, it must be destroyed and Jeff Davis and his cabinet killed." Lincoln had hand-picked Dahlgren for the raid, and the Confederate government now believed the Union president had ordered Davis's death.

Confederate grand conspiracy theorists feel Judah Benjamin, the Confederate Secretary of State, was deeply involved in the plot to kidnap/kill Abraham Lincoln. He burned all of his records before Richmond was evacuated. Benjamin escaped to England, and he was the only member of the Confederate government never to return to the United States. He practiced law in England until 1883 and died in Paris on May 6, 1884.

The theory of a Confederate grand conspiracy portrays Booth as a rebel agent working to organize a band of men to kidnap Lincoln. When Richmond fell, the plans turned to assassination. First, there was the failed effort to blow up the White House followed by the successful effort to kill Lincoln at the theater. Just as Lincoln may have ordered the killing of Jefferson Davis and his Cabinet by Ulrich Dahlgren and his men, Judah Benjamin and Jefferson Davis were involved in the plans to kidnap and later assassinate Abraham Lincoln. The theory of Confederate complicity in the assassination of Abraham Lincoln is accepted by several of the current Lincoln assassination historians, scholars, researchers, and writers. The actual trigger for Booth's actions was the April 10th capture of explosives expert Thomas F. Harney who was on his way to Washington to bomb the White House. Booth, knowing Harney's mission had failed, tried to make up for Harney's disaster by taking matters into his own hands and killing the president at Ford's Theatre.

For details on this theory see the articles entitled "Who Ordered Lincoln's Death?" by James E.T. Lange and Katherine DeWitt in the June 1998 edition of North & South magazine and "The Lincoln Assassination Revisited" by William Hanchett and "Risking the Wrath of God" by Edward Steers, Jr. in the September 2000 issue of North & South. H. Donald Winkler's 2003 publication entitled Lincoln and Booth: More Light on the Conspiracy stresses Confederate involvement in the plot. In 2003 the Surratt Society published a pamphlet written by Lincoln assassination experts James O. Hall and Michael Maione. The article attempts to show that Booth was not a wealthy man and was offered a large amount of money by the Confederates to capture Lincoln and deliver him to Richmond. The article is titled TO MAKE A FORTUNE John Wilkes Booth: Following the Money Trail.

Confederate plans to blow up the White House seem to be confirmed by George Atzerodt's Lost Confession.

THEORY #4

LINCOLN'S ASSASSINATION WAS THE RESULT OF A CONSPIRACY OF POWERFUL INTERNATIONAL BANKERS

This theory is that Abraham Lincoln was killed as a result of his monetary policies. John Wilkes Booth would be seen as a hired gun. In its simplest terms, the theory is that Lincoln needed money to finance the Civil War. Bankers in Europe led by the Rothschilds offered him loans at high interest rates. Rather than accept the loans, Lincoln found other means to fund the war effort. More importantly, the British bankers opposed Lincoln's protectionist policies. Some Englishmen in the 1860's believed that "British free trade, industrial monopoly and human slavery travel together." Lincoln's policies after the Civil War would have destroyed the Rothschilds' commodity speculations. After the war, Lincoln planned a mild Reconstruction policy which would have enabled a resumption of agriculture production. The Rothschilds were betting the other way on high prices caused by a tough Reconstruction policy toward the South. Lincoln was viewed as a threat to the established order of things, and he was assassinated as a result. The goal was to weaken the United States so the Rothschilds could takeover its economy. An article titled "The Rothschilds' International Plot to Kill Lincoln" was published October 29, 1976, in New Solidarity.

THEORY #5

THE ROMAN CATHOLIC CHURCH WAS BEHIND LINCOLN'S ASSASSINATION

In 1886 an ex-priest by the name of Charles Chiniquy (pictured to the left) wrote a book titled Fifty Years in the Church of Rome which portrayed the assassination of Lincoln as a Catholic grand conspiracy. Chiniquy maintained that Jefferson Davis had offered $1,000,000 if someone would "kill the author of the bloodshed." Chiniquy wrote that the money could be offered, but that "...the Jesuits alone could select the assassins, train them, and show them a crown of glory in heaven..." Booth was the tool of the Jesuits. He was corrupted and directed by the Vatican. In 1906 Chiniquy said, "The President, Abraham Lincoln, was assassinated by the priests and the Jesuits of Rome." In 1856 Lincoln had defended Chiniquy in court. Chiniquy had quarreled with his bishop and then was sued for slander by one of the bishop's friends (the bishop himself having nothing to do with the complaint). A morals charge was also involved. The case was heard May 20-22, 1856, in Urbana, Illinois. Lincoln arranged for a compromise settlement, but Chiniquy interpreted the settlement as a victory over the church. He felt some Jesuits held Lincoln responsible for the settlement.

In 1897 Thomas M. Harris, a member of the 1865 military commission, wrote a book entitled Rome's Responsibility for the Assassination of Abraham Lincoln. Other books that involve the Roman Catholic Church in Lincoln's assassination include DEMOCRACY UNDER SIEGE The Jesuits' Attempt to Destroy the Popular Government of the United States: The True Story of Abraham Lincoln's Death by C.T. Wilcox and The Suppressed Truth about the Assassination of Abraham Lincoln by Burke McCarty (1924). McCarty's opening sentence was, "In all the bloody history of the Papacy, perhaps in no one man, as in Abraham Lincoln, was there concentrated such a multitude of reasons for his annihilation by that system." An Inquiry into the Assassination of Abraham Lincoln by Emmett McLoughlin was published in 1963. Among other points, McLoughlin maintained that the majority of American Catholics were in favor of slavery and opposed to Lincoln. The author said the totalitarian Papacy considered Lincoln a major enemy, and that the Church for centuries had "been involved in numerous instances of the forcible removal of heads of state whom it condemned."
THEORY #6

SECRETARY OF WAR EDWIN STANTON WAS THE MASTERMIND BEHIND LINCOLN'S ASSASSINATION
In 1937 Otto Eisenschiml's Why Was Lincoln Murdered was published. The book espoused the hypothesis that Secretary of War Edwin Stanton was directly involved in Lincoln's death.  It alleged that Stanton was against Lincoln's mild Reconstruction policies and wanted him out of office so a more radical Reconstructionist policy could be employed. On the day of the assassination Ulysses S. Grant was expected to attend Our American Cousin with the Lincolns. Eisenschiml argued that had Grant attended, the military guards who protected him would never have allowed Booth to enter the State Box at Ford's Theatre. Eisenschiml further argued that Grant's refusal of the Lincolns' theater invitation was due to an order by Stanton to change his plans for the evening. Eisenschiml's theory was that Grant's absence left Lincoln vulnerable. Stanton was also alleged to have known that conspirators were meeting at the Surratt boardinghouse, and that he refused to release from duty the powerful Major Thomas T. Eckert after Lincoln asked for him as a bodyguard (falsely stating that Eckert had vital work to do at the War Department's Telegraph Office). Eisenschiml continued from there to make a case against Stanton by examining an entire series of events following Booth's shot. Nearly every move Stanton made is seen as suspicious and containing an ulterior motive. Among these behaviors and events were not alerting the security at the Navy Yard Bridge (over which Booth escaped), the mysterious interruption of telegraph communications, secretly arranging to have Booth killed before being brought to trial, and the suppression of evidence by removing pages from Booth's diary.

Between the publication of Why Was Lincoln Murdered and the late 1970's, other books were published which supported and amplified Eisenschiml's hypothesis. For example, Theodore Roscoe's The Web of Conspiracy (1959) found Stanton's behavior very suspect. Other high government officials were also implicated.
Further evidence against Stanton was discovered by chemist Ray Neff who found cipher messages allegedly written in 1868 by Lafayette Baker, head of the National Detective Police, which implicated himself, the Secretary of War, and many others including Congressmen. David Balsiger and Charles E. Sellier's 1977 publication, The Lincoln Conspiracy, was made into a major motion picture. However, during the past 20 years, research has clearly tended to vindicate Edwin Stanton. In hindsight, behavior by Stanton that appears to be linked to a conspiracy has been shown to be innocent and in some cases, fabricated. Current scholarship indicates plausible explanations for the actions Eisenschiml and other authors of the 1937-1977 era found suspicious. One good source for those wishing to read about the vindication of Edwin Stanton is Section 3 of Part Five (pp. 170-177) of Stephen B. Oates' Abraham Lincoln: The Man Behind the Myths. A book which revives the Stanton suspicions is Robert Lockwood Mills' 1994 publication of It Didn't Happen The Way You Think. The Lincoln Assassination: What The Experts Missed.

Dr. William Hanchett's closing sentences in The Lincoln Murder Conspiracies are as follows: "Lincoln would not have enjoyed the extravagant and pseudoreligious praise being offered in his name by so many Americans. Possibly he would have been reminded of some anecdote by which to deflate the absurdities of such exaggerations. But one suspects that if he could learn of the slush written about the suggested involvement of his secretary of war in his own death he would simply become angry."

THEORY #7

DISAFFECTED NORTHERNERS WERE BEHIND LINCOLN'S ASSASSINATION
Several groups in the North opposed Abraham Lincoln and his policies. Radical Republicans feared the president's purported mild plans for Reconstruction. They wanted greater control over what would happen to the South after the war. Also, because of the Union blockade, the price of cotton had risen dramatically, and cotton speculators were reaping the profits. Lincoln himself, seeing the Union need for Southern cotton, had allowed the purchase of cotton in exchange for greenbacks and meat. Despite opposition from Ulysses S. Grant and other generals, Lincoln approved cotton trading permits for many individuals including some of his closest friends. Some devoted Southerners burned their own cotton to keep it out of enemy hands. Others, however, discovered that Union agents were willing to pay the highest prices for cotton in over half a century.

Bankers, financiers, businessmen, cotton speculators, and profiteers all benefited from the cotton trade, but they feared the good times would end as the war was drawing down. The center for the illicit activity was the Demill & Co. at 178 1/2 Water Street in New York. Even Lafayette Baker and some Confederates may have had ties to this address. Anti-Lincoln sentiment grew in 1864, and covert plotting to rid the nation of Abraham Lincoln increased. In the ciphers found by Ray Neff, Baker wrote:
"There were at least eleven members of Congress involved in the plot, no less than twelve Army officers, three Naval officers and at least twenty-four civilians, of which one was a governor of a loyal state. Five were bankers of great repute, there were nationally known newspapermen and eleven were industrialists of great repute and wealth."
Regarding the Northern opposition to Lincoln, on September 20, 1864, Thurlow Weed wrote to William Seward that opposition against Lincoln "was equally formidable and vicious, embracing a larger number of leading men than I supposed possible." At the conspiracy trial following Lincoln's assassination, Samuel Chester, a friend of Booth's, testified Booth told him "there were from fifty to one hundred persons engaged in the conspiracy." In his Lost Confession George Atzerodt stated, "Booth said if he did not get him quick the N. York crowd would. Booth knew the New York party apparently by a sign. He saw Booth give some kind of sign to two parties on the Avenue who he said were from New York."

At the 1864 Democratic National Convention Benjamin Allen, of New York, said, "The people will soon rise, and if they cannot put Lincoln out of power by the ballott they will by the bullet" (loud cheers).

A lenient peace was abhorrent to the Radicals, and the cotton speculators feared an end to their big profits. Cotton traders saw the price of $1.41 per pound in November 1864 fall to $.85 by February and below $.40 by early April. Disaffection grew; Lincoln had to go, and John Wilkes Booth was their man in the field to take action.

One book which ties Lincoln's assassination to moneyed interests motivated by their own trading activities is Charles Higham's Murdering Mr. Lincoln: A New Detection of the 19th Century's Most Famous Crime (Beverly Hills, New Millennium Press, 2004). Another book which emphasizes Northern clandestine business deals with the South is Dark Union: The Secret Web of Profiteers, Politicians, and Booth Conspirators That Led to Lincoln's Death by Leonard F. Guttridge and Ray A. Neff (Hoboken, New Jersey, John Wiley & Sons, Inc., 2003).
Other groups and individuals that have at times been implicated in Lincoln's assassination include Freemasons, an alliance of disaffected Northerners and Confederates, the B'nai B'rith, and the Knights of the Golden Circle. Major Henry R. Rathbone, John F. Parker, Thomas T. Eckert, and Mary Todd Lincoln have not totally escaped suspicion.

Speculation that Booth's motivation was to avenge the hanging of Confederate John Yates Beall is not proven. (For details please see the November 2000 edition of the Surratt Courier.)

Although it's been over 145 years since the assassination, any kind of closure on all of the circumstances surrounding the event still seems a long way in the distance.

Judging simply by e-mail messages to me over the past 16 years, the general public favors theories 2 and 6 mentioned above. The preponderance of recent published material by scholars and writers supports numbers 2 and 3. Some experts would combine the two saying that, although Booth had strong ties to the Confederacy, the actual events of April 14, 1865, were planned by Booth, not Richmond. Most everyone admits there is circumstantial evidence that ties Confederate agents to Booth; the difference comes in the interpretation of this evidence.

It seems certain that the controversy will continue well into the current century. Future studies and interpretations are sure to be published. Perhaps all the answers will never be known. In his 1999 publication entitled The Assassination of Abraham Lincoln, Professor Thomas Reed Turner (author of Beware the People Weeping: Public Opinion and the Assassination of Abraham Lincoln) notes the recent trend of professional historians who have been researching and writing about the assassination. On p. 78, Turner says:

Although this trend is a very positive one, those who continue to hope that the assassination may be "solved," in the same manner as a murder mystery may be solved, are destined to be disappointed. The century which has passed, makes any new and definitive solution to the crime doubtful. It is unlikely that a smoking gun will surface even though there may still be new sources which will be discovered.
For the full text of Mary Todd Lincoln's letter to Sally Orne, see p. 345 of Mary Todd Lincoln: Her Life and Letters by Justin G. Turner and Linda Levitt Turner. For a detailed examination of many of the theories surrounding Lincoln's assassination, see Dr. William Hanchett's The Lincoln Murder Conspiracies. Also, Dr. Hanchett's article titled "Persistent Myths of the Lincoln Assassination" in the Winter 1997 edition of the Lincoln Herald (published by the Lincoln Memorial University Press) is an excellent source. Thomas Reed Turner's Beware the People Weeping: Public Opinion and the Assassination of Abraham Lincoln is very good. For more on the life of Judah Philip Benjamin, see the August 2000 issue of Frederick Hatch's Journal of the Lincoln Assassination.

The sketch at the top of the page is a Currier and Ives print (Library of Congress). The sketch shows Henry Rathbone reacting earlier than he actually did when Booth entered the State Box. Rathbone was still watching the play when Booth fired the fatal shot.

LINCOLN ASSASSINATION BOOK

Dr. Edward Steers, Jr., a renowned authority on the Lincoln assassination, has written a book entitled Blood on the Moon: The Assassination of Abraham Lincoln. For information please CLICK HERE.

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