Abraham Lincoln, Assassination of

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A Currier & Ives illustration of the assassination of President Abraham Lincoln by actor John Wilkes Booth.

Abraham Lincoln, Assassination of

Even today, the assassination of Abraham Lincoln remains one of America’s greatest unsolved mysteries.

According to one quaint bit of folklore, when John Wilkes Booth was a student at the Quaker School at Cockeysville, Maryland, a gypsy fortune teller warned him that he had a “bad hand” and that he would come to a bad end and die young. When he told his mother, Mary Ann Booth, of the prophecy, she remembered the vision that she had received of her infant son’s evil hand. On an eerie night in 1838, she had dozed beside the cradle of little Johnny. Suddenly she was attracted to one of his hands. As she watched the infant hand, it seemed to grow to gigantic size and became transformed into the grotesque paw of a monster. She had often referred to her “weird dream,” and she worried that her son would meet a violent death. Her teenaged daughter, Asia, was so impressed by the incident that she wrote a poem entitled “A Mother’s Vision,” which opens with the lines: “Tiny, innocent baby hand, what force, what power is at your command for good or evil?” Sadly, Mary Ann Booth, the mother of nine children, lived to see her Johnny employ his “bad hand” to assassinate President Abraham Lincoln, thus fulfilling the gypsy’s prophecy and the horror of her maternal vision.

John Wilkes Booth came from a family of famous actors. His father, Junius Brutus Booth, was a noted Shakespearean actor, as was John’s brother, Edwin, who became known as the “Prince of Players.” John had also performed on the stage throughout the country, but his wild and erratic behavior and his outspoken political prejudices prevented him from achieving a solid career in the theater. He was an outspoken advocate of the Confederate cause during the Civil War, and he launched into hateful tirades against President Lincoln at the slightest opportunity.

In the late summer of 1864 Booth developed plans to kidnap Lincoln to Richmond, Virginia, the capital of the Confederacy, and hold the president in return for southern prisoners of war. By January 1865 he had gathered a small band of conspirators, including Samuel Arnold, Michael O’Laughlen, John Surratt, Lewis Powell (a.k.a. Paine or Payne), George Atzerodt, and David Herold. The group began using Mary Surratt’s boardinghouse, and they set the date for the president’s kidnapping for March 17, when he would be attending a function at a hospital on the outskirts of Washington. Their elaborate planning was for naught when Lincoln suddenly altered his itinerary and decided to remain in the capital.

On April 9, 1865, General Robert E. Lee surrendered to General Ulysses S. Grant at Appomattox Court House, Virginia. There was no longer any point in Booth’s prisoner exchange plan. The South had capitulated.

On April 11, Booth was in the crowd that heard Lincoln speaking outside the White House and was infuriated when he heard the president suggest that certain freed slaves should be given the right to vote. In Booth’s opinion, it was bad enough that Lincoln planned to free the slaves; it was against God’s will that blacks should be able to read and to vote. He summoned his co-conspirators and angrily told them that he now planned to assassinate Lincoln.

Booth found that his companions’ hatred for the president matched his own, and they all agreed to be a part of the plan to kill Lincoln and key members of his administration. When they learned that Lincoln and General Grant would be attending Ford’s Theater on April 14, Good Friday, they unanimously decided that would be the night to carry out their plot.

As the hour drew near, they met one last time. Although he had learned that General Grant would not be attending the play after all, Booth still planned to assassinate Lincoln at the theater. Atzerodt was assigned to kill Vice President Andrew Johnson in his quarters at the Kirkwood House; Powell and Herold would murder Secretary of State William Seward. All the murders were to take place at 10:15 that night.

After he had fortified himself with a drink at a nearby saloon, Booth entered the front of Ford’s Theater around 10:07 and began to make his way toward the box where the Lincolns were sitting with Clara Harris and Henry Rathbone. Audience laughter at the comedy Our American Cousin helped to conceal the sound of Booth’s opening the door to the box. Lincoln’s bodyguard, John Parker of the Metropolitan Police Force, had left his post, so Booth faced no resistance as he withdrew his single-shot derringer and fired point-blank at the back of the president’s head. When Rathbone rose to struggle with him, Booth stabbed him in the arm with a hunting knife.

Whether he sensed he would be trapped if he attempted to retreat by way of the stairs or out of some misguided sense of the dramatic, Booth jumped the approximately eleven feet to the stage and snapped the fibula in his left leg just above the ankle. Brandishing his knife and shouting, “Sic semper tyrannis” (Thus always to tyrants), Booth limped across the stage in front of over a thousand shocked audience members and made his way to the horse awaiting him out the back door.

President Lincoln never regained consciousness and died at 7:22 on the morning of April 15. Powell managed to stab Secretary of State Seward but did not kill him. Atzerodt didn’t attempt to assassinate Vice President Johnson. Herold decided to leave the capital as quickly as possible. Booth had his broken leg set and splinted by Dr. Samuel Mudd, then, in the company of Herold, headed for refuge in the South.

Early in the morning of April 26, federal authorities caught up with them at Garrett’s farm near Port Royal, Virginia. Herold surrendered, but Booth took cover in a barn and refused to come out. The barn was torched, and Sergeant Boston Corbett shot the assassin as the flames surrounded him.

Federal agents had already rounded up all but one of the other conspirators. Mrs. Surratt, Powell, Atzerodt, and Herold were all hanged on July 7, 1865. Mudd, O’Laughlen, and Arnold were given life terms. Ned Spangler, a stagehand at the theater, was sentenced to six years for helping Booth escape. John Surratt fled to Canada, then Europe, and was finally apprehended in Egypt. Brought back to face trial in 1867, he was set free after the jury deadlocked. O’Laughlen died in prison that same year. In 1869 President Andrew Johnson pardoned Mudd, Arnold, and Spangler.

Although the remains recovered from the ashes of the barn at Garrett’s farm were taken back to Washington and identified as those of John Wilkes Booth, some historians insist that the body was never positively identified as that of the assassin of President Abraham Lincoln.

The foregoing account of the assassination of Lincoln is the way most of us have heard the story. We do not have the dilemma that one faces with the assassination of President John F. Kennedy. We know who the assassin was; we know his co-conspirators; we know everything there is to know about who killed President Lincoln. Or do we?

Among the many theories about who really assassinated Abraham Lincoln are the following:

Vice President Andrew Johnson Arranged for the Assassination

Several members of Congress and Mary Todd Lincoln herself were certain that Johnson knew of the conspiracy and did nothing to stop it. It is known that seven hours before he assassinated the president, John Wilkes Booth stopped by the Kirkwood House to see Johnson. When he was informed that neither Johnson nor his private secretary was presently in the hotel, Booth left a note that read, “Don’t wish to disturb you. Are you at home?”

Some might conclude that Booth did not trust George Atzerodt to kill Johnson, so he decided to do it himself. But what about the plan to carry out all the murders at approximately 10:15? If Booth had killed the vice president at three o’clock that afternoon, the security around the president would have been tripled—and Lincoln would most assuredly not have attended the play that night.

In Right or Wrong, God Judge Me: The Writings of John Wilkes Booth, edited by John Rhodehamel and Louise Taper, it is revealed that Booth met Johnson in Nashville in February 1864, when the actor was appearing at the recently opened Wood’s Theater. Even more damning, in Civil War Echoes (1907) Hamilton Howard claims that in 1862, while Johnson was the military governor of Tennessee, he and Booth had kept two sisters as their shared mistresses and were frequently seen in each other’s company.

Johnson, born in Raleigh, North Carolina, in 1808, had been elected governor of Tennessee in 1853 and to the U.S. Senate in 1856, and was the only southern senator who had refused to join the Confederacy. However, Johnson made it clear that he was supporting the Union and not the abolition of slavery. No one who had heard one of his rants questioned his belief that slaves should be kept in subjugation. When Lincoln issued his Emancipation Proclamation on September 22, 1862, Johnson managed to wring a promise from the president that while the proclamation would apply to all the slaves held by those states in rebellion, Tennessee would be exempt.

Lincoln’s first choice for his running mate in the 1864 election had been radical Republican Hannibal Hamlin, then he asked war hero General Benjamin Butler to join him on the slate. However, the consensus in the Republican Party held that the radical views of both Hamlin and Butler would be unpopular with those voters who had previously supported the Democratic Party in the North and that Johnson would be a better choice to demonstrate that the southern states were still part of the Union.

Lincoln had had little to do with his vice president after Johnson disgraced himself on Inauguration Day by being drunk when he made his speech to Congress. Slurring his words and making numerous inappropriate comments, Johnson had to be helped to his seat by Hamlin. With the memory of this embarrassment clearly in mind, Mary Todd Lincoln felt certain that the “miserable inebriate Johnson” had something to do with her husband’s death.

Johnson was cleared of any involvement in Lincoln’s death by a special Congressional Assassination Committee formed specifically to investigate him. Regardless of the Committee’s declaration of Johnson’s innocence, many Americans regarded him with suspicion for decades to come.

Lincoln Was Assassinated as the Result of a Confederate Plot

It seemed logical in 1865 to assume that John Wilkes Booth was acting within a much larger circle of Confederate conspirators who would consider Lincoln a legitimate wartime target for assassination.

A plan to blow up the White House with Lincoln and his cabinet along with it gained some impetus after the South was shaken by the letters found in the pocket of the youngest colonel in the Union army. In the winter of 1864, Union brigadier general Hugh Judson Kilpatrick conceived a plan to raid Richmond and free more than 1,500 Union officers and 10,000 enlisted men held prisoner there. President Lincoln personally endorsed the raid because of the pressure he received daily from people protesting the Confederate treatment of the Union soldiers in the swampy prison camp. On February 28, 1864, Kilpatrick led 3,600 cavalry troopers across the Rapidan River, riding south toward Richmond. The following day, twenty-one-year-old Colonel Ulric Dahlgren, who had lost his right leg at Gettysburg, took 460 men to the west to cross the James River, intending to circle undetected to Richmond’s lightly defended southern portals. Kilpatrick would engage the main force of Confederates while Dahlgren freed the prisoners.

Unfortunately for the Union prisoners, the James River was too high to cross at the appointed place, so Dahlgren continued toward Richmond on the wrong side of the river and was confronted by southern militiamen. When Kilpatrick, a leader so devoid of skill that his men had nicknamed him “Kill-Cavalry,” met resistance at Richmond’s outer defenses, he ordered a hasty retreat. Left to flounder on their own without the main body of cavalry, Dahlgren’s men headed back toward Union lines in a freezing rain. On March 2, Dahlgren was killed in a Confederate ambush.

The story of the ill-fated campaign wouldn’t rate more than a footnote in the annals of the Civil War if what has come to be known as the Dahlgren Papers had not been retrieved from the young colonel’s inside coat pocket. Captain Edward Halbach skimmed over the orders outlining the details of the failed raid—then he became appalled and could hardly believe his senses when he read that the actual objective of the raid was to burn Richmond to the ground and to kill President Jefferson Davis and his entire cabinet.

Halbach immediately brought the incendiary papers to General Robert E. Lee, who had them photocopied and sent to Maj. Gen. George Meade, the Union commander. Although the Civil War was bloody and ghastly in its scope, there had always been some gallantry and honor employed. To plan a raid to murder the president of the Confederacy and every member of his cabinet was beyond outrageous.

Kilpatrick told Meade that he had read Dahlgren’s address to his men and the photocopy was accurate up to the point where the orders were issued to burn Richmond and assassinate Davis and his cabinet. Although the Union commanders protested that the Confederacy had doctored the documents and Dahlgren’s father, Rear Adm. John Dahlgren, a personal friend of Lincoln’s, pronounced them “a bare-faced atrocious forgery,” it didn’t take long for Confederate intelligence operatives to learn that Lincoln himself had endorsed the raid and had approved Colonel Dahlgren as one of its leaders.

In this conspiracy theory of Lincoln’s assassination, Booth becomes a rebel agent working under orders of Judah Benjamin, the Confederate secretary of state, in plots first to bomb the White House (which failed when Thomas F. Harney, the scheme’s explosives expert, was captured on April 10), then to assassinate Lincoln, which succeeded on April 14, 1865. The Confederate Plot hypothesis has been given more credence in recent decades. A grand Confederate conspiracy is detailed by William A. Tidwell, James O. Hall, and David Winfred Gaddy in their book Come Retribution: The Confederate Secret Service and the Assassination of Lincoln (1988). Tidwell expands the evidence in his 1995 work April ‘65: Confederate Covert Action in the American Civil War.

The Rothschilds and International Bankers Arranged Lincoln’s Death

In this conspiracy scenario, John Wilkes Booth was the hit man, the hired gun, for the powerful British bankers, the Rothschilds. According to those who believe this assassination theory, the Rothschilds had offered loans to the Lincoln administration at very high interest, assuming that the Union had no choice other than to accept their outrageous terms. The frugal and resourceful frontiersman spirit in Lincoln caused him to refuse the Rothschilds’ offer and to acquire the necessary funds elsewhere. Although his refusal only stung their sense of pride and greed, the true reason for their planning his assassination was their knowledge that Lincoln’s policies indicated a mild reconstruction of the South after the war, one that would encourage a resumption of agriculture rather than industry. Additional postwar policies likely under Lincoln would have destroyed the Rothschilds’ commodity speculations. With Lincoln out of the way, the Rothschilds planned to exploit the weaknesses of the United States and take over its economy.

Lincoln Was Assassinated by the Jesuits

In 1856 in Urbana, Illinois, Lincoln defended Charles Chiniquy, a rebellious priest, against charges of slander brought by the friends of Bishop O’Regan of Chicago, with whom Chiniquy had a strong disagreement. Lincoln brought about a compromise settlement that the priest interpreted as a major victory over the Roman Catholic Church. As time passed, Chiniquy feared that the Jesuits, the soldiers of Jesus, resented Lincoln for this triumph over the church and might one day attempt to even the score. In 1886 Chiniquy wrote Fifty Years in the Church of Rome in which he revealed that Jefferson Davis had offered a million dollars to anyone who would kill Lincoln. According to Chiniquy, he visited Lincoln in the White House on numerous occasions and tried to warn of the Catholic Church’s antagonism toward him. Later, Chiniquy learned that the Jesuits trained John Wilkes Booth to become their tool of assassination. In 1906 Chiniquy swore that Lincoln had been assassinated by the Jesuits of Rome.

In 1897 Thomas M. Harris, a member of the 1865 military commission, wrote Rome’s Responsibility for the Assassination of Abraham Lincoln. The accusations against the Catholic Church for the murder of our most beloved president have not dissipated with time. In 1963 Emmett McLoughlin’s An Inquiry into the Assassination of Abraham Lincoln claimed that Pope Pius IX may have been the instigator of the plot to kill Lincoln. McLoughlin writes, “On one side were dictatorship, slavery, secession, monarchy, European imperialism, Jesuit chicanery, and a Church-dominated assault on the Monroe Doctrine, all of which found spiritual leadership in the one person: Pope Pius IX. On the other side were freedom, emancipation, Freemasonry, democracy, Latin American struggle against foreign domination, all embodied in the one person: Abraham Lincoln.”

As an interesting footnote or two to the enigma of the Lincoln assassination:

Mary Todd Lincoln went mad after that terrible Good Friday night in Ford’s Theater and was confined in an asylum for some time. Although eventually released, she never fully recovered from the shock.

Major Henry Rathbone, wounded by Booth’s knife as he attempted to halt the assassin, married Clara Harris, the other occupant of the fatal theater box. A few years later, he went mad, attempted to kill Clara and their children, and spent the rest of his life restrained as a violent maniac. Boston Corbett, who received praise as the man who shot John Wilkes Booth, went mad and was confined to an asylum.

Secretary of War Edwin Stanton was also under suspicion as a member of the conspiracy to assassinate Lincoln. He immediately began a movement to impeach Andrew Johnson, now the president, because of his suspected role in the assassination. Johnson informed Stanton that his resignation as secretary of war was accepted and had him removed from office by force of arms. Not long after he left office, Stanton was found dead—according to rumors, by his own hand.

It would appear that the mystery of the Lincoln assassination, like that of the murder of JFK, will never die.

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