Sunday, July 3, 2016

John Wilkes Booth, Abraham Lincoln, and a Few of Those Conspiracy Theories

Currier and Ives lithograph of Booth Assassinating Lincoln
John Wilkes Booth’s world was crumbling all around him. The Confederate government abandoned the city of Richmond, Virginia on April 3rd, 1865. Six days later General Robert E. Lee surrendered the Army of Northern Virginia to General Ulysses S. Grant at Appomattox Courthouse.

To the twenty-six-year-old Booth it appeared as if everything was lost. In his mind, the only hope left for the South was for someone to make a strike so bold, so daring, and so outrageous, it could turn the tide of defeat into victory.

What made it worse was the impromptu speech Lincoln gave at the White House on the night of April 11th, 1865. It confirmed Booth’s greatest fear—Lincoln was a crazed “nigger” lover. Why else would he advocate giving former slaves the vote?

After listening to the President’s talk, Booth edged closer to David Herold, and snarled, “That means nigger citizenship. Now, by God, I’ll run him through.”

It was unacceptable. It ran against every belief Booth held. Someone had to stop Lincoln before he made a total mockery of the country.

The only questions left to decide were—when, and where?

There has been a lot of misinformation published about John Wilkes Booth, and about the assassination of Abraham Lincoln. Fifty years after the fact, there was a rush of “so-called” eye-witness survivors, putting pen to paper to tell their stories of what they remembered of that night. Many of their accounts, no matter how stilted, have come to be accepted as gospel.

For example, Oliver C. Gatch, asserted he and his brother, rushed into Lincoln’s box shortly after the shot often. He said they laid the President on the floor so Dr. Leale could cut open his shirt, and then they helped carry the dying Lincoln across the street to Petersen House. He also claimed it was his brother who discovered the bullet wound on Lincoln’s head, not Dr. Leale. The only problem is, the original testimony documents only three surgeons on the scene that night, and Gatch was not one of them.

A 1940 book by Stanley Kimmel talks about those Mad Booths of Maryland, but John Wilkes Booth was far from crazy. By all accounts, he was your normal often guy. He wrestled on the ground with his nephews and nieces, he was a friend to the minor actors and stagehands at all the theaters he visited, and he was well-liked by just about everyone he encountered. There is no question he was one of the most successful actors of his day. At age twenty-six, John Wilkes Booth was pulling down upwards of $25,000 per year (nearly half a million dollars in 2015 money). Women mobbed him in between performances, they gathered outside of theaters and hotel rooms hoping to catch a glimpse of Booth—the man oftentimes referred to as the “handsomest” man in America.

John T. Ford, the proprietor of Ford’s Theater, told the News and Herald on June 27th, 1878, Booth
“was so popular in Boston that during an engagement at the museum, hundreds of ladies have waited to see him leave the stage, to his hotel.”

Many witnesses testified they had a personal relationship with Booth, or that they had a run in with Lincoln earlier on the day of the assassination. A drummer boy said Booth bought him a cigar; James Hazleton, an eleven-year-old stagehand at Ford’s Theatre, said Booth tussled his hair and gave him a piece of “ten cent” paper money so he could purchase a piece of candy; nineteen-year-old callboy, Will Ferguson, enjoyed a sarsaparilla at the nearby Star Saloon courtesy of Booth, while Booth and James Maddox slugged down a tumbler of whiskey. Still others talk about Booth being drunk, or in and out of saloons near Ford’s Theatre all day.

In his 1865 biography of John Wilkes Booth, journalist George Alfred Townsend relates a story from Booth’s childhood. He accuses the youthful Booth of killing all the stray cats in his neighborhood—implying it was proof positive he had the killer instinct—even then.

1865 Print depicting the temptation of
John Wilkes Booth. Maybe, the Devil
made him do it.
The Wikipedia entry on John Wilkes Booth includes a juicy tidbit about his father, the noted thespian, Junius Booth. Supposedly he wrote a letter to President Andrew Jackson threatening to kill him unless he freed two pirates. Stories abound about John Wilkes Booth, and those mad Booths. But, that’s all they are—stories.

As with most historical events, the truth is oftentimes buried somewhere between the stories. And, as time went by, witnesses tended to embellish their stories or build upon details other witnesses had already given. Some witnesses tossed in new details, no matter how unlikely they were to have occurred. When, and if, I include these spurious claims, I present them for what they are: one person’s claims or imaginings. Make of them what you will.

And, then there is the Confederate connection. Was John Wilkes Booth a pawn of the Confederacy? Was Booth a part of a larger Southern conspiracy to kidnap, or assassinate Abraham Lincoln? Secretary of War, Edwin Stanton, and the Conspiracy Trial judges, assumed he was. 

Michael W. Kauffmann in his book, American Brutus, has analyzed the data, and he says—“no.” But, many other authors, and assassination aficionados insist there must have been a Southern connection. They say, because Booth visited the haunts of Confederate spies in Canada, he must have been part of a larger conspiracy. It’s similar to the second shooter theory in the Kennedy assassination. Conspiracy theorists insist Oswald couldn’t have assassinated Kennedy by himself. They say, there must have been a second shooter, positioned on the “grassy knoll.” The only problem is, there is no solid evidence to corroborate it.

John Gray, the man who hanged the Lincoln conspirators, accompanied Burton Harrison, Jefferson Davis’ private secretary, to Fort Delaware Prison after his capture. He shared this story in 1911.

“I just finished hanging the others,” Gray threatened, “we are going to hang you next.”

“What for Captain?”

“For the murder of Lincoln. We know that [Jefferson] Davis was behind it and that you were a party to it too.”

“If that is all you are holding me for,” Burton laughed, “I’ll never hang. Jeff Davis is too high minded a man, and admired Lincoln too much, to stoop to such a trick as that; and, besides, Davis wouldn’t harm anyone.”

The Confederate Plot to kill Lincoln was an outgrowth of a March 1864 plot, supposedly hatched, and approved by Abraham Lincoln to kill Jefferson Davis and his cabinet. Papers found on the body of a Union cavalry officer, Ulric Dahlgren, suggested the Union raiders were on a mission to do exactly that. The documents were widely published in the Southern papers, and many editorials called for retribution.

One outgrowth of the Dahlgren raid was a series of Confederate plots to kidnap Abraham Lincoln. When those plots failed, and the war was nearing its end, a desperate last minute raid was launched on Washington. The attack was spearheaded by Thomas F. Harney, of the Confederate War Department’s Torpedo Bureau. The expedition was escorted to Washington by a group of 150 cavalrymen detached from Mosby’s Raiders. As fate would have it, Harney, and a group of his explosives experts were surprised and captured by a unit of the Illinois cavalry just outside of Washington on April 10th, 1865.

Further evidence that supports the plot to blow up the White House was discovered in 1977 when researchers uncovered a lost part of George Atzerodt’s confession. It confirmed Booth met with a party from New York who said they were going to mine the White House and kill Lincoln. 

Conspiracy theorists have taken Atzerodt’s confession to imply John Wilkes Booth was a Confederate agent, and if not a part of the Confederate plot to kill Lincoln, at least privy to confidential information that “Jefferson Davis and Company,” had sanctioned his killing.

Effectively, that made Booth a part of the Confederate conspiracy to kill Abraham Lincoln.
Case Closed.

Maybe. Maybe not. There is still no definite proof that Booth’s actions were sanctioned by Jefferson Davis, or the Confederacy. The best available evidence suggests Booth acted entirely on his own, and had no official ties to the Confederacy.
Funeral of Abraham Lincoln
(Hand colored print from Harper's Weekly Magazine)
Probably no President in American history was the victim of as many assassination attempts as Abraham Lincoln. People either loved him, or hated him, and during his first four years in office, the balance tilted towards the latter.

And, all of that hate wasn’t just because Lincoln was perceived to be the “great devil.” It was a product of the times he lived in. Slavery was a divisive issue—North and South, alike. To Northerners, slavery was an abomination, no longer necessary to modern life; to Southerners, slavery was the glue that bound their economy together. The Southern economy was agriculture based. 

Without slaves to work their plantations Southern life could not continue as it then existed. Planters could not afford to pay laborers to replace the work done by slaves, but even if they could—there weren’t near enough laborers available to take the place of the slaves, or willing to work as hard as the slaves did.

Freeing their slaves would have been the modern day equivalent of McDonald’s or Walmart being forced to double their base pay rate, or the government forcing everyone to surrender their automobile or cell phone. It would have been a game changer—forcing a major shift in lifestyles.
Think about it for a moment.

Southern life revolved around the plantation system. Motorized farm implements were still fifty years in the future. The South had virtually no factories or manufacturing facilities. They depended entirely upon imports from the Northern states, Canada, and Europe for the manufactured goods they needed; in return, they exported cotton, tobacco, and other agricultural products.

Without slaves, the Southern way of life would have ground to a dead stop. Given the alternatives offered—it was fight, or die.

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