- TERRE HAUTE, Ind. -- Twelve
days after killing President Abraham Lincoln, assassin John Wilkes Booth
was gunned down inside a Virginia barn.
- Or was he?
- Inspired by a coded message written in the late 1860s,
a retired Indiana State University professor has spent decades searching
for information about Lincoln's assassination. For Ray Neff, that odyssey
culminated in the publication last year of his book, "Dark Union."
- Neff's most sensational claim: that Booth escaped his
pursuers and lived almost 20 more years after killing Lincoln. The dead
man purported by authorities to be Booth was someone else, the book claims.
- Booth, Neff maintains, fled overseas to India and assumed
the identity of John Byron Wilkes, a man who lived in Terre Haute and whose
personal information Booth supposedly purchased. Among the evidence cited
by the book is a copy of Wilkes' will that names friends and relatives
of Booth as beneficiaries.
- "Dark Union," written with co-author Leonard
Guttridge, suggests that conspirators -- who originally plotted to kidnap
Lincoln -- extended beyond Confederates embittered by the Civil War. It
also included northerners enriching themselves through a food-for-cotton
trade scheme, the authors claim. And, they add, it included radicals from
Lincoln's Republican Party opposed to the president's hints of a lenient
reconstruction of the South.
- "We don't have all the answers," said Neff,
80. "But we do have a lot of answers to a lot of things."
- Lincoln was killed on April 14, 1865, while attending
a performance at Ford's Theatre in Washington D.C. He is remembered today
on Presidents Day.
- Neff's findings are generating interest -- if also skepticism
-- among Lincoln scholars.
- "This book turns the Lincoln assassination upside
down," said Ed Steers Jr., a Lincoln assassination expert and author
who resides in West Virginia. "It would (indicate) probably the most
startling cover-up in United States history."
- Steers rejects Neff and Guttridge's conclusions. "Historians
can disagree on things," Steers said. "I believe that some of
the documents (from which Neff draws his conclusions) are not genuine.
. . . It is not at all clear where some of them came from, where they originated."
- At least one expert on rare books and manuscripts, however,
believes Neff's sources are in good order.
- If the historical documents cited in "Dark Union"
were all concocted, "it would be one of the greatest scams in the
history of American scholarship," said David Vancil, who heads the
Rare Books and Special Collections Division at Indiana State University's
Cunningham Memorial Library.
- "There are too many hands in this. There are doctors,
lawyers, judges, notaries public, people who have sworn by affidavit or
in a letter that this material is legitimate."
- Neff has donated the thousands of historical documents
and photographs he collected during his research to ISU's library.
- That research began more than 50 years ago. It started
in college, when he wrote a paper about one of his ancestors who was a
Confederate officer. It continued into adulthood. In 1957, Neff was browsing
a specialty book shop in Philadelphia. He found an 1864 volume of "Colburn's
United Service Magazine and Military Journal" and bought it.
- Neff discovered notations apparently written in cipher
along the inner margins of some pages. He also discovered a date -- "2-5-68."
One of the pages also contained the faint signature of Lafayette C. Baker.
Baker was head of the National Detective Police -- a precursor to the FBI.
- Neff took the book to a cryptography expert, who decoded
the message. It read, in part: "In new Rome there walked three men,
a Judas, a Brutus and a spy. Each planned that he should be the king when
Abraham should die." Other parts of the message implicated high-level
U.S. officials as having foreknowledge of the plot against Lincoln. Discovering
the coded message reignited a fascination with Lincoln's assassination.
Neff's academic discipline is chemistry, teaching students about such things
as toxicology, but researching Lincoln's death has become a lifelong passion.
- "You go to (Neff's) house, and you see pictures
of Lincoln on the walls," said Charlotte Swenson, 86, who along with
her husband, Bob, has known the Neffs for years. The Neffs and the Swensons
get together about once a week to have supper and play cards
- "It's just a lifelong process with him, investigating
all these things," Swenson said. "He's quite thestudent."
- Neff's wife has watched her husband spend thousands of
hours pursuing information.
- "We've spent family vacations driving hundreds of
miles to some cemetery somewhere trying to find someone's tombstone,"
said Augusta Neff, who has been married to Ray for 55 years.
- Critics have a preconceived notion that no one could
find much new material on the Lincoln assassination 140 years after the
fact, Neff said.
- "This is what's burning some of the people up,"
he said. "We're coming up with evidence they should have had years
- Guttridge, 85, has won acclaim for previous books related
to naval history. He ranks "Dark Union" among his best work.
- "I have full faith in the book that Ray and I have
done," Guttridge said. "This is the most important book yet on
the Lincoln assassination. . . . It reveals so much material that hasn't
been revealed before."
- Augusta Neff said her husband's voluminous research almost
worked against him.
- "I don't know how many manuscripts (for the book)
were written -- five or six," she said. "But they were so heavy
that publishers said it wouldn't be practical to publish them."
- Neff estimated he cut the book to one-fifth of its original
size to suit the publisher, John Wiley and Sons, which wanted to make the
book marketable to a general audience.
- Wiley was founded in 1807 and specializes in scientific
and textbooks and other educational material, but its titles also include
more general interest publications. Dark Union lists for $24.95 on the
publisher's Web site -- www.wiley.com.