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Who Really Killed
Abraham Lincoln?

By Brad Steiger
When I was a boy in the 1940s, Abraham Lincoln was regarded with even greater reverence than he is today. His martyrdom at the hands of a demented assassin seemed to seal his sainthood for all time.
My grandmother had a marvelous library, which included hundreds of volumes, particularly on history. She even had the official Matthew Brady volume of Civil War photographs. Because I had access to such a treasure trove of information and because I became a history buff at a very early age, I read a much more complete version of the man who had assassinated Lincoln than was readily available in our schoolbooks.
I discovered that the assassin, John Wilkes Booth, had come 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, who began using Mary Surratt's boardinghouse as a meeting place.
On April 9, 1865, when 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 became 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.
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 kill both the President and his leading military officer.
Although the conspirators learned later that day that General Grant had changed his plans and would not be attending the play, Booth insisted that they would follow through with the plan 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 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 momentarily left his post, so Booth faced no resistance as he withdrew his single-shot derringer and fired point-blank at the back of Lincoln's head. When Rathbone rose to struggle with him, Booth stabbed him in the arm with a hunting knife.
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 that awaited 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 did not follow through on his assignment to assassinate Vice President Johnson. 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 the two fugitives 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.
Mrs. Surratt, Powell, Atzerodt, and Herold were all hanged on July 7, 1865. Dr. Mudd, O'Laughlen, and Arnold were given life terms. Ned Spangler, a stagehand at Ford's was sentenced to six years for helping Booth escape. John Surratt escaped to Canada and was finally apprehended in Egypt. Brought back to face trial in 1867, a deadlocked jury set him free. O'Laughlen died in prison that same year. In 1869, President Andrew Johnson pardoned Dr. Mudd, Arnold, and Spangler.
The account of the assassination of Lincoln summarized above is the way most of us have heard the story. We know who the assassin was; we know his co-conspirators; we know everything there is to know about who killed President Lincoln.
When I was in high school, I talked my father into subscribing to True, a popular men's magazine, that always contained fascinating articles on everything from UFOs, true crime, and little known aspects of historical events. When I saw the blurb on the cover of the February 1953 issue for "America's Greatest Unsolved Murder," I was astonished to see that Joseph Millard's article was about the assassination of Abraham Lincoln. I was puzzled. There was nothing "unsolved" about Lincoln's assassination.
Or was there? By the time that I had finished the article, I was hooked for life on conspiracies in general and fascinated enough by Millard's article to continue my own quest into the "unsolved murder" of Abraham Lincoln.
Early on, I uncovered some fascinating footnotes to the enigma of the Lincoln Assassination:
Although the remains taken from the ashes of the barn at Garrett's farm were identified as those of John Wilkes Booth, a number of historians insist that the body was never positively identified as that of the assassin of President Abraham Lincoln,
Mary Todd Lincoln suffered extreme mental deterioration after that terrible Good Friday night in Ford's Theatre. Although she was confined in asylum for some time and eventually released, she never fully recovered from the shock.
Major Rathbone, wounded by Booth's knife as he attempted to halt the assassin, married Clara Harris, the other occupant of the fatal theatre box. A few years later, he went insane, 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 shoot John Wilkes Booth, went mad and was confined to an asylum.
Later, my wife Sherry and I began a much deeper exploration into the many theories about who really assassinated Abraham Lincoln. Among the most popular conspiracies are the following:
Vice-President Andrew Johnson arranged for the assassination
Several members of Congress and Mary Todd Lincoln herself were certain that Vice-President 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 were 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 conspirators' agreed upon plan to carry out the murders of Johnson, Seward, and Lincoln at approximately 10:15 that evening? If Booth had killed the Vice-President at 3:00 that afternoon, the security around the President would have been tripled--and Lincoln would most assuredly not 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 Theatre. 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 one another's company.
Johnson, born in Raleigh, North Carolina, in 1808, had been elected governor of Tennessee in 1853, the U.S. Senate in 1856, 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 Johnson's rants questioned his belief that slaves should be kept in subordination. 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 Johnson would 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 been helped to his seat by Hannibal 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.
Secretary of War Edwin Stanton also came under suspicion as a member of the conspiracy to assassinate Lincoln, and some believe that he immediately began a movement to impeach Andrew Johnson, now the President, because of his own suspected role in the assassination. Johnson informed Stanton that his resignation s 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.
Johnson was cleared of any involvement in Lincoln's death by a special Congressional Assassination Committee had been formed specifically to investigate him. Regardless of the Committees' 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
In the winter of 1864, Union Army Brigadier General Hugh Judson Kilpatrick conceived a plan to raid Richmond, Virginia, the capital of the Confederacy, and free more than 1,500 Union officers and 10,000 enlisted men. Abraham Lincoln personally endorsed the raid because 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 Richmond. The following day, 21- year-old Colonel Ulric Dahlgren, who had lost his right leg at Gettysburg, took 460 men to the west to cross the James River, heading south 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, Colonel Ulric 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 Jeff Davis and his entire cabinet.
Halbach immediately brought the incendiary papers to General Robert E. Lee, who had them photocopied and sent to Major General 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 Admiral 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 President 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, explosive expert, was captured on April 10th], then to assassinate Lincoln, which succeeded on April 14, 1865.
The Confederate Plot hypothesis has been given more credence in recent years. A grand Confederate conspiracy is detailed in 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 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 after the war Lincoln's policies indicated a mild Reconstruction of the South that would encourage a resumption of agriculture rather than industry. Additional post-war policies 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 President Abraham 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 claims that Pope Pious 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."
In 1953, in his article in True magazine, Millard predicted that scholars and historians would still be debating the truth behind the assassination of Abraham Lincoln one hundred years in the future. Since fifty-five years have already passed, it would seem that his prediction will be accurate. It would appear that the mystery of the Lincoln assassination, like that of the murder of John F. Kennedy, will never be satisfactorily resolved.
[Some of the material for this article has been adapted from Conspiracies and Secret Societies: The Complete Dossier by Brad and Sherry Steiger, Visible Ink Press, 2006.]
Des Moines Register Notes Brad's Lincoln Article
A blog about famous Iowans
Comment: (optional)
Happy Presidents Day
Posted 2/16/2008 on Des Moines Register
A few thoughts on the Presidents Day holiday, which I think confuses everyone. I mean, how many people think of Herbert Hoover on Presidents Day? Or remember that Iowa played a very important role in Ronald Reagan's life?
Many of us think of Abraham Lincoln and George Washington on Presidents Day, and remember when they were honored more significantly on their own February birthdays.
Now we know that Abe is a true Illinoisan, but he had such strong ties to Iowa and Iowans that he becomes even more special to us for that reason. (I'm hoping to get to the State Historical Building to check out those two special Lincoln letters, written to Iowans, that are on display right now for a short time.)
Two noted Iowans who, like me, can't get enough of Lincoln are retired movie and stage producer Paul Gregory, who grew up in Des Moines and now lives in California, and prolific writer Brad Steiger, who still lives in our fair state with his wife, Sherry, turning out book after book.
Paul Gregory, you might recall, produced the 1956 television special "The Day Lincoln Was Shot," with Raymond Massey as Lincoln, Lillian Gish as Mary Todd Lincoln and Jack Lemmon as John Wilkes Booth. (Ah, for the good old Golden Years of TV!!! I would love to get a copy of this program if anyone knows where to find one.)
I recently ran across an old news item that said Lemmon had sprained his ankle just before the special was to be presented on live TV - but Paul Gregory assured me that it never happened. It was just a publicist's way to gain attention for the drama. (And it worked! It was inspired!)
Meanwhile, Brad Steiger e-mails me about an article he wrote that questions all we knew about Lincoln's assassination. Just who was plotting what? Here is a Web link, if you are interested.
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