In just a little over a year – in what will be an historic 150-year anniversary – the American people, and likely people all around the world, will come together in remembrance of the man who was once rather preposterously described by a biographer as “the most gentle, most magnanimous, most Christ-like ruler of all time.” That man, of course, was Abraham Lincoln, allegedly the 16th and most beloved President of these United States.
I say “allegedly” here because it is hard to see how someone could be the president of an entity that didn’t actually exist. And the reality is that during Lincoln’s tenure, there was no such thing as the “United” States. There were Northern states presided over by Washington, and there were Confederate states presided over by a parallel government in Richmond, but there certainly weren’t any “united” states. Wouldn’t it then be just as accurate to describe Jefferson Davis as the 16th president of the United States? Just checking.
I also say “allegedly” here because Lincoln was most certainly not, during his lifetime, a beloved man. He was thoroughly despised throughout half the country, and wasn’t even all that popular in the north. He received merely 40% of the popular vote in 1860 and could have, as more honest historians have noted, been very easily defeated had the Democratic Party bothered to field a viable candidate. But Lincoln was clearly the anointed one.
As we all know, Abraham Lincoln was assassinated by famed actor and Southern sympathizer John Wilkes Booth on the evening of April 14, 1865 (which happened to be Good Friday) while attending a play at Ford’s Theater in Washington, DC. Just five days earlier, General Robert E. Lee had surrendered to General Ulysses S. Grant at Appomattox, effectively signaling an end to the unfathomably bloody US Civil War. What is less widely known is that the assassination of Lincoln was allegedly part of a larger plot that was to have included the simultaneous assassinations of General Grant, Vice President Andrew Johnson, Secretary of State William Seward and Secretary of War Edwin Stanton.
John Wilkes Booth, in a Masonic pose
This alleged plot, which is part of the official history of the Lincoln assassination, obviously involved people other than John Wilkes Booth. Nine of those people faced trial as co-conspirators, eight by military tribunal (Mary Surrat, David Herold, George Atzerodt, Dr. Samuel Mudd, Samuel Arnold, Michael O’Laughlen, Edward Spangler, and Lewis Paine [or Lewis Payne, or Lewis Powell, depending upon who is telling the tale]), and one who later stood trial alone (John Surrat). Four were executed, three received life sentences, one was given a six-year prison term, and one was acquitted. As for Booth, he was captured and gunned down at Garrett’s barn on April 26, 1865 and so never made it to trial.
And that, in a nutshell, is the official narrative of the Lincoln assassination. It is an unusual narrative, to be sure, because it explicitly acknowledges a ‘conspiracy’ surrounding the death of a president. Of course, many of the details are usually left out when the story is told, leading many to think of John Wilkes Booth as just another ‘lone nut’ assassin. But Booth was hardly a lone nut and there was in fact a conspiracy at the heart of the Lincoln assassination, though the people targeted by the government weren’t the real conspirators; the real conspirators were the very people who orchestrated the witch hunt against the scapegoats.
But before we get to that, let’s first skip ahead and look at some of the forgotten aftermath of the assassination, because there is always much to be learned by examining the fates that befall those involved to varying degrees in political conspiracies, especially those unfortunate souls whose names are largely consigned to the dustbins of history.
Let’s begin with Sergeant Thomas “Boston” Corbett, the Jack Ruby of the Lincoln assassination. Corbett was a strange character if ever there was one. How strange, you ask? Strange enough to have reportedly castrated himself circa 1858, and to have then opted not to seek medical attention until he had tended to other, apparently more important, business. He was widely considered to be mentally unbalanced, shockingly enough, and he often spoke of hearing disembodied voices. He was mockingly referred to by his fellow soldiers as “the Glory to God man” due to his rather unorthodox religious beliefs, which he wasn’t shy about sharing.
Thomas “Boston” Corbett
Due to his bizarre behavior and his unwillingness, or inability, to follow orders, Corbett had been court-martialed and discharged from the service. For some unexplained reason though, he was allowed to re-enlist in 1863 and he quickly thereafter rose to the rank of sergeant. In April 1865, he was assigned to the elite team that captured Booth and, in defiance of direct orders, he personally shot and killed the man who was said to be Booth. Corbett was never reprimanded or disciplined for his actions and in fact profited handsomely by touring the country for years as “The Man Who Killed Booth.”
In 1887, Corbett was appointed as the clerk/doorman of the Kansas state legislature. Things didn’t go so well for him after that. According to some reports, one day he just decided to shoot the place up, though other accounts hold that he didn’t fire his weapon but merely brandished it and issued threats. Whatever the case, he quickly found himself committed to a mental asylum. He managed to escape soon enough though and may have briefly surfaced in Texas before never being seen or heard from again.
Let’s next turn our attention to Major Henry Rathbone and Clara Harris, the couple who were sharing the presidential box at Ford’s Theater with Abe and Mary Lincoln. At the time, Rathbone was dating Harris, who was both Rathbone’s stepsister and the daughter of US Senator Ira Harris. Rathbone was reportedly deeply cut when he attempted to disarm and detain Booth, who escaped by leaping over the railing and onto the stage.
Major Henry Rathbone
Rathbone later married Harris and the two started a family and moved to Germany, where Rathbone served as the US Consul to Hanover. Things didn’t work out so well though for the Rathbones; in December 1883, Henry tried to kill his children and, when thwarted in that effort, instead shot and brutally carved up wife Clara, before turning the knife on himself. Like Corbett, he was sent off to an asylum, but unlike Corbett, Henry Rathbone spent the rest of his life there.
Since I mentioned Mary Todd Lincoln just a couple paragraphs ago, I should probably mention that she also ended up in an insane asylum. Always a bit on the crazy side, Mary became considerably crazier after the assassination, exhibiting increasingly erratic behavior and suffering from vivid hallucinations. She was ultimately committed by her own son, Robert Todd Lincoln.
Mary Todd Lincoln
To say that Robert Lincoln had some rather unusual aspects to his life story would be quite an understatement. To begin with, we could note that he had the distinction of being the only man in history with direct links to three presidential assassinations. Just twenty-one when his father was gunned down, he subsequently was present at the assassinations of James Garfield in 1881 and William McKinley in 1901. He was also the only Lincoln son to survive his childhood; brother Eddie died at age 3 in 1850, brother Willie at age 11 in 1862, and brother Tad barely made it to age 18 before dying in 1871.
According to Robert Lincoln’s own account, he was involved in a truly bizarre incident in late 1864/early 1865, not long before the death of his father. The younger Lincoln was saved from serious injury and possible death when he was pulled to safety by a stranger during a mishap on a train platform. That stranger just happened to be Edwin Booth, an older brother of John Wilkes Booth. Lincoln later maintained a long-term friendship and possible romance with Lucy Hale, the daughter of US Senator John Hale and a former paramour and fiancé of John Wilkes Booth. Small world, I guess.
Robert Todd Lincoln
Speaking of Edwin Booth, on June 9, 1893, just as his casket was being carried for burial (he had died two days earlier), Ford’s Theater mysteriously collapsed, killing 22 people and injuring another 68. The building had been converted into a government record storage facility and some of the records of the assassination were lost in the wreckage. Shit happens.
Edwin and John’s sister, Rosalie Booth, died under mysterious circumstances in January 1880; rumors at the time spoke of a “mysterious assailant.” Edwin Booth Clark, a son of sister Asia Booth and therefore a nephew of John Wilkes Booth, attended Annapolis and became a US Naval officer, but he thereafter disappeared at sea. Officially, he committed suicide by jumping overboard. And Junius Brutus Booth, the patriarch of the Booth clan, is said to have gone insane.
The Booth siblings – John Wilkes, Edwin and Junius, Jr.
US Senator Preston King, credited with being one of the guys who supposedly prevented a mercy petition on behalf of Mary Surrat from reaching President Andrew Johnson, decided on November 12, 1865 to go swimming in New York with a bag of bullets tied around his neck. Officially, his death was a very innovative suicide. US Senator James Lane, the other guy credited with supposedly preventing the mercy petition on behalf of Surrat from reaching Johnson, shot himself in the head while jumping from a carriage in Leavenworth, Kansas on July 1, 1866. Or else he slit his own throat. Whichever sounds better to you.
Senator Preston King
Senator James Lane
US Senator John Conness, a likely conspirator and a pallbearer at Lincoln’s funeral, was committed to an insane asylum, where he later died. There was a lot of that sort of thing going around in those days. The body of William Peterson – the owner of the boardinghouse where Lincoln was taken immediately after being shot, and where he died the next morning – was found on the grounds of the Smithsonian loaded with the drug laudanum. His death, needless to say, was ruled a suicide.
Senator John Conness
Colonel William Browning, who was Vice President Andrew Johnson’s personal secretary as well as being a personal friend to John Wilkes Booth (Browning claimed that Johnson was close to Booth as well), is believed to have been murdered, though details are sketchy. Less sketchy were the murders of Frank Boyle and William Watson, both of whom had the misfortune of physically resembling John Wilkes Booth. Both of their bodies were turned over to the War Department by overzealous vigilantes for the reward that was being offered. Stanton’s department covered up the murders by unceremoniously disposing of the bodies, one of which was dumped into the Potomac River.
Frances Adeline Seward and Frances Adeline “Fanny” Seward had the misfortune of bearing witness to the staged attack on William Seward, sitting Secretary of State and the husband of Frances and the father of Fanny. Frances died of a reported heart attack on June 21, 1865, the summer solstice, just two months after the assassination of Lincoln and the alleged attempt on her husband’s life. Fanny died the next year, on October 29, 1866, just before Halloween. She was just twenty-one; the cause of her death remains unknown. A few years later, in 1870, William Seward legally ‘adopted’ his young ‘companion,’ Olive Risley, as his ‘daughter.’ Risley was 26 at the time and Seward was 69.
William Seward, in a Masonic pose, with daughter Fanny
Lafayette Baker was undoubtedly one of the central conspirators involved in the Lincoln assassination. As ‘Honest’ Abe’s spymaster and head of the NDP, forerunner of the US Secret Service, Baker had instituted a reign of terror, just as he had previously done as a member of San Francisco’s Vigilance Committee, running roughshod over the US Constitution. Under Baker’s (and Stanton’s) tyrannical watch, there were 260,000 dubious arrests made and some 38,000 people held without trial as political prisoners. Baker also introduced such innovations as midnight raids, forced entry without warrants, imprisonment without bail, and summary arrests.
Circa 1867, Baker published a book revealing the existence of what was said to be Booth’s suppressed diary. He subsequently barricaded himself in his home and told friends that a secret cabal was intent on killing him. Press reports from December 1867 through February 1868 tell of repeated attempts made on his life; he was shot at twice, stabbed on his own front porch, and beaten by three or four men who attempted to abduct him. Nevertheless, when he turned up dead on July 3, 1868, the cause of death was said to be meningitis, necessitating an immediate, sealed burial. A later exhumation though indicated that the cause of death was actually arsenic poisoning. Baker left behind cryptic notes alluding to a conspiracy behind the Lincolnassassination involving eleven members of Congress, twelve US Army officers, three US Navy officers, one governor, five bankers, three nationally known newspapermen, and eleven wealthy industrialists.
Police officer John F. Parker had the dubious distinction of being the guy who was supposed to be guarding Lincoln at the time of the assassination, except that he instead opted to wander over next door to get good and drunk. Parker had a seriously checkered history with the department, having been written up on multiple occasions for conduct unbecoming an officer, the use of insolent language, visiting a house of prostitution, inappropriately discharging his weapon, sleeping on duty, and being drunk on duty. He was nevertheless assigned the task of guarding the president, a development that historians have been unable to explain. And he was assigned that task just in time to be neglecting his duties when Lincoln was shot.
Parker was never reprimanded in any way for abandoning his post and leaving the president vulnerable. In fact, he was returned to duty at the White House, an honor usually reserved for senior officers with unblemished records. He was released from duty though in 1868, just after Stanton relinquished his post as Secretary of War. Parker was never seen or heard from again, and it is believed that he was either killed or went into hiding to avoid being killed.
Next up is Edwin Stanton, Lincoln’s Secretary of War and a seriously deranged individual. Prior to his emergence on the national scene, Stanton’s greatest claim-to-fame was securing an acquittal for US Representative Daniel Sickles on murder charges. On February 27, 1859, Sickles had gunned down the unarmed Philip Barton Key II, US Attorney for the District of Columbia and the son of famed composer Francis Scott Key. Stanton argued a temporary insanity defense for the first time in US history.
The media, apparently every bit as corrupt in those days as it is today, overwhelmingly supported Sickles while vilifying both Key and Sickles’ wife, who had reportedly been having an affair. Though standing trial for a capital offense, Sickles was allowed to stay in his jailer’s apartment, have unlimited visitors, and, most amazingly, retain his weapon. As already stated, Sickles was acquitted and was subsequently allowed to retain his seat in the House of Representatives. He later became a Civil War general and the US Minister to Spain.
Elsewhere in Stanton’s biography, we find that at various times in his life he personally ordered the exhumation of at least two bodies, one of them being his daughter Lucy, who was dug up circa 1842. According to reports, Stanton kept his daughter’s decomposing corpse in a special container in his home for at least a year. Nothing there that would cause anyone to question his fitness to serve as Secretary of War.
Stanton became a national figure when he was appointed by President Buchanan to serve as Attorney General on December 20, 1860, just weeks before Lincoln took office. He went on to wield considerable power in both the Lincoln and Johnson Administrations. Indeed, Johnson’s attempted dismissal of Stanton lead directly to the impeachment proceedings begun against him. Stanton’s reign came to an end though on December 24, 1869, when he turned up dead of unstated causes (though some reports allude to suicide, just as his brother had reportedly done in 1846). He had been nominated for a seat on the US Supreme Court by President Grant and confirmed by the US Senate, but he died before he could take that seat.
That is a whole lot of tragedy to befall a lot of people who were in a position to know more about the Lincoln assassination than they should have. There was though at least one guy who saw his fortunes rise. Major General Lew Wallace was a member of the hopelessly corrupt military tribunal that sat in judgment of Mary Surrat and others. In 1880, he became far better known as a writer of historical fiction when he wrote and published Ben Hur, the best-selling novel of the nineteenth century. Well over a hundred years later, it is still in print.
… to be continued