“The assassination of President Abraham Lincoln, only days after the end of the war, was a terrible tragedy. Much has been speculated about the events leading up to the murder and immediately afterward, but few people know what really happened.” So says Bill O’Reilly on page 1 of his tome on the Lincoln assassination. What he doesn’t tell readers is that after reading his novelized account, they will still have no clue what really happened.
One thing that O’Reilly opts to leave out of his book entirely is the mockery of a trial held for the alleged conspirators. After spending the first 276 pages of his book covering the period from April 1, 1865 to April 26, 1865 (the day Booth was allegedly gunned down at Garrett’s barn), O’Reilly then abruptly jumps ahead to July 7, 1865, the day four of the alleged conspirators were hanged. Apparently nothing of significance happened in May or June of 1865. Or maybe it is best not to shine too bright a light on one of the most sordid chapters of US history.
US Navy Secretary Gideon Welles is on record as stating that Secretary of War Edwin Stanton wanted the alleged conspirators to be “tried and executed before President Lincoln was buried.” Convictions were obviously a given. Lincoln was laid to rest on May 4, 1865, nineteen days after he died and just before the trial of the conspirators began, thwarting Stanton’s wishes, but ‘justice’ was dispensed very quickly nonetheless.
Stanton favored a military trial, a course of action opposed by various other members of the Lincoln cabinet, including both Welles and former Attorney General Edward Bates, who noted that “if the offenders are done to death by that tribunal, however truly guilty, they will pass for martyrs with half the world.” Many believed that a military trial would be unconstitutional given that all of the defendants were civilians. Stanton nevertheless prevailed.
It would in fact be later determined that the proceedings had been unconstitutional, both because the suspects were subjected to military ‘justice,’ and because they were denied their right to individual trials. That ruling would not, however, resurrect the five alleged conspirators who paid with their lives.
While awaiting what passed for a trial, the prisoners were held in appalling conditions aboard two ironclad vessels, the Montauk and the Saugus (except for Mudd and Surratt, who were reportedly held elsewhere and spared the tortuous hoods). Very special attention appears to have been paid to Lewis Powell. Throughout his confinement, Powell was personally guarded by Thomas T. Eckert, which is undoubtedly the only time in the nation’s history that a sitting Assistant Secretary of War served as a lowly prison guard. Even more curiously, despite the fact that Powell was kept shackled, hooded, isolated, and otherwise deprived, he was nevertheless allowed to keep a knife while imprisoned. And false reports were circulated indicating that he was suicidal.
Thomas T. Eckert
It is perfectly clear, in retrospect, that the government had contingency plans to have Powell ‘suicided’ if necessary.
On May 1, 1865, newly-installed President Andrew Johnson ordered that the eight alleged conspirators face a nine-man military tribunal. The members of that tribunal – seven generals and two colonels – were all handpicked by Stanton. All but a couple were unknown to the public and none of them knew anything about the so-called ‘rule of law’ or about evidentiary or procedural rules. That didn’t prove to be a problem though – they just made up the tribunal rules as they went along.
As Vaughan Shelton wrote back in 1965, “All but one or two were nearly as unknown then as they are now. There was not a noteworthy war record in the whole group. In fact the two whose names might be recognized by the average reader – Major General David Hunter, presiding officer, and Major General Lew Wallace (later author of Ben Hur) – had attained rank by political connections, and their names had been associated with military defeats throughout the four-year contest. All appeared to be qualified largely by their prejudices, total ignorance of the law, and subservience to the will of the prosecutors. It was common talk in Washington that the military commission was assembled for the purpose of convicting the accused persons – not to weigh the merits of their cases.”
Besides being completely unqualified to sit in judgment of the accused, the panel had something else in common, as various photographs reveal: many of them, maybe all of them, were Freemasons. As were the prosecutors. And at least some of the defense attorneys. And Edwin Stanton. And Lafayette Baker. And John Wilkes Booth. And seemingly just about everyone else who played a prominent role in the assassination conspiracy and cover-up. And many of the generals who directed the action on the battlefields of the Civil War. On both sides.
Confederate General Albert Pike
Seated on the panel were Major General David “Black Dave” Hunter, Brigadier General Albion Parris Howe, Lieutenant Colonel David Ramsey Clendenin, Brigadier General Thomas Maley Harris, Brevet Brigadier General James Adams Ekin, Major General Lew Wallace, Brevet Colonel Charles Henry Tompkins, Brigadier General Robert Sanford Foster, and Brevet Major General August Valentine Kautz. The lead prosecutor was Brigadier General Joseph Holt, then the Judge Advocate General of the United States Army and a former Secretary of War. Joining him as Special Judge Advocates were John Armor Bingham, a US Representative from Ohio and a future US Ambassador to Japan, and Brevet Brigadier General Henry Lawrence Burnett. Both Bingham and Burnett were appointed, of course, by Edwin Stanton.
Pretty Masons all in a row: the nine tribunal members and three prosecutors
Shockingly enough, the assembled panel of ‘judges’ showed extreme bias throughout the seven-week proceedings. That bias was revealed, for example, by the jurists’ handling of objections. The defense attorneys, most of whom appear to have actually been working for the state, lodged only twelve objections, all of which were overruled. Prosecutors, on the other hand, voiced fifty-four objections, fifty-one of which were sustained.
The prisoners were arraigned on May 10, 1865, just one day after the charges against them had been read (Holt wanted those charges withheld from the press and public). Two days later, on May 12, testimony began. The defendants had been given just three days to obtain legal counsel, which they had to do while being quite literally muzzled. Ultimately assembled for the defense were Captain William Doster, Frederick Stone, Thomas Ewing, Jr., Walter Smith Cox, and Colonel Frederick Aiken.
Three members of that group appear to have been richly rewarded for their ‘service’ to country. Just two years after the ‘trial,’ Stone became a US Representative from Maryland. Ewing also joined the US Congress, representing a district in Ohio. Cox became a federal judge and, perhaps quite tellingly, presided at the trial of alleged presidential assassin Charles Guiteau just a couple years after being seated.
Defense attorney Frederick Stone
Aiken, who represented Mary Surratt after the curious withdrawal of her first attorney, Reverdy Johnson – who was a sitting US Senator, a former US Attorney General, and a future Minister to the UK – may have actually been legitimately working on behalf of his client. Notably, he faced a much different fate after the trial concluded than did Stone, Ewing and Cox. Within a year, Aiken’s law practice had imploded and he had been arrested for bouncing a check. He died in 1878 at the relatively young age of forty-six and was buried in an unmarked grave.
Very little else is known about the young defense attorney. As his Wikipedia page notes, “Information on Aiken’s early life is largely unknown; his date of birth, city of birth, and even his full name varies depending on source.” And “like his birth records, his war service also remains largely unknown.” Even less appears to be known about the ethereal William Doster, who was tasked with defending both Atzerodt and Powell, and who also may not have been thoroughly co-opted.
The reality though is that no defense attorney, no matter how devoted or how skilled, could have saved any of the defendants from their fates. All that was required for conviction was a simple majority of five votes – five votes from a nine-man panel predisposed to convict before the trial even began. Only one additional vote was required to impose the death penalty. And the tribunal’s pronouncements would be final; there would be no appeals allowed. All of that, of course, was brazenly unconstitutional.
Union General George McClellan
Stanton’s War Department did not just put the eight defendants on trial; the entire Confederacy was put on trial in a shameless attempt to inflame public opinion and inspire bloodlust. As Shelton noted, witnesses told tales of “Plots to burn northern cities, start epidemics, instigate riots” and other nefarious deeds, including poisoning public water supplies, destroying historical buildings, and starving Union POWs. Most of these alleged plots were never actually carried out. And even if they had been, none of that had any relevance at all as to the guilt or innocence of the defendants and would not have been allowed into evidence in any legitimate court proceedings.
Another problem with the introduction of such testimony is that most of the ‘witnesses’ who delivered it didn’t actually exist. One such witness who testified as “Sanford Conover,” for example, was actually Charles Dunham, who also used the alias “James Watson Wallace.” It was later revealed that Dunham had run what was dubbed a “school for perjured witnesses” at the National Hotel, where he had coached others on how to properly deliver their perjured testimony. Dunham soon found himself in prison after being convicted for both perjury and suborning perjury.
One of those receiving schooling was “Richard Montgomery,” who was actually James Thompson, a burglar from New York with a long criminal record. Appearing as “Henry Van Steinacker” was Hans Von Winklestein, a prison inmate who gained his release shortly after testifying. A Canadian presented to the court as “Dr.” James Merritt was denounced by his own government as a fraud and a quack. And so on.
Left to right: Thomas Harris, David Hunter, August Kautz, Albion Howe, Lew Wallace, and John Bingham
Defense attorney Doster, whose vehement objection to the introduction of the irrelevant, inflammatory testimony was overruled, would later claim that some of the other prosecution witnesses were actually NDP detectives paid by the government for their testimony. And it would later be revealed that NDP chief Lafayette Baker’s order to his underlings instructed them to “extort confessions and procure testimony to establish the conspiracy … by promises, rewards, threats, deceit, force, or any other effectual means.”
Many of the state’s witnesses were in fact paid handsomely for their testimony. Merritt, for example, collected a $6,000 paycheck, the equivalent of more than $150,000 today. Not bad for a day’s work.
There were numerous other irregularities in 1865’s version of The Trial of the Century. Major Henry Rathbone, as we have already seen, delivered a bizarrely verbatim recital of his deposition testimony. For those who have forgotten, here’s another little taste of Rathbone’s version of events, first from his deposition on April 17, 1865, and then from his testimony before the tribunal one month later, on May 15, 1865.
“Deponent then turned to the President; his position was not changed; his head was slightly bent forward, and his eyes were closed. Deponent saw that he was unconscious, and supposing him mortally wounded, rushed to the door for the purpose of calling medical aid. On reaching the outer door of the passageway, as above described, deponent found it barred by a heavy piece of plank, one end of which was secured in the wall … This wedge, or bar, was about four feet from the floor. Persons upon the outside were beating against the door for the purpose of entering. Deponent removed the bar, and the door was opened …”
“I then turned to the President. His position was not changed: his head was slightly bent forward, and his eyes were closed. I saw that he was unconscious, and, supposing him mortally wounded, rushed to the door for the purpose of calling medical aid. On reaching the outer door of the passageway, I found it barred by a heavy piece of plank, one end of which was secured in the wall … This wedge or bar, was about four feet from the floor. Persons upon the outside were beating against the door for the purpose of entering. I removed the bar, and the door was opened …”
Union General William Tecumseh Sherman
Rathbone was clearly ‘reading’ his testimony from a memorized script, which raises the obvious question of: why? Why was Rathbone so thoroughly rehearsed that he was able to recite his deposition testimony virtually verbatim, without even minor variations in the wording?
Historians, needless to say, have never addressed that question. Another question that has never been addressed is why the photo of John Wilkes Booth that was used throughout the trial wasn’t actually of John Wilkes Booth; it was instead an image of his brother, Edwin Booth. What that means, of course, is that every witness who identified Booth as the man they had seen or heard discussing, carrying out, or fleeing from the assassination, was actually identifying Edwin Booth as the culprit. And again, the obvious question that is raised, but that has never been asked or answered, is: why?
In a bold move, defense counsel Doster subpoenaed sitting President Andrew Johnson to appear as a witness, but Johnson cavalierly ignored the summons, with no legal repercussions. Numerous other witnesses who should have been called were strangely absent from the proceedings, like Mary Todd Lincoln and Clara Harris, both of whom were eyewitnesses to the assassination of Lincoln. And William Seward, Frederick Seward, Fanny Seward, Frances Seward, and Emerick Hansell, all of whom were allegedly eyewitnesses to the supposed bloodbath at the Seward home.
The three witnesses who did testify about the alleged attack at the Seward residence – William Bell, George Robinson and Augustus Seward – presented wildly contradictory and problematic accounts, made all the more problematic by the fact that, according to all the early reports, Augustus Seward wasn’t actually at the home at the time of the alleged attack.
Confederate General Robert E. Lee with various other Confederate generals in 1869
It will probably come as a shock to no one that in 1865 America, the testimony of a black man carried considerably less weight than the testimony of a white man, especially when the white men in question were the Secretary of State, an Assistant Secretary of State, and a US State Department courier. Why then did the state leave William Seward, Frederick Seward and Emerick Hansell (along with three of the Seward women) on the sidelines while calling to the stand two black servants – two men who were, if we’re being honest here, just a step above slaves in the social hierarchy of the time?
According to reports, there were as many as eight eyewitnesses to the carnage at the Seward mansion – six of them white and five of them members of the Seward family. But the only two of the eight called were a black ‘houseboy’ who was unable to give his age when asked in court, and a black nurse. The only member of the Seward family who was called was the one who wasn’t actually home and therefore didn’t witness anything.
Defense attorney Thomas Ewing, Jr.
As previously stated, the first arrivals to the house after the alleged attack were Secretary of War Edwin Stanton, Secretary of the Navy Gideon Welles, and Surgeon General Joseph Barnes. Arriving shortly after them was Assistant Secretary of War Thomas Eckert, who would soon be serving as Lewis Powell’s prison guard. Unanswered, of course, is the question of why these four prominent individuals converged on the Seward house before anyone else arrived. And why they didn’t instead head immediately to Ford’s Theater, where the president lay near death.
No mention was made by any of them of encountering Major Augustus Seward that evening. And testimony at the tribunal also indicated that Augustus was not at home the evening of April 14. And yet, nevertheless, he was presented to the courtroom and to the public as the principal eyewitness to the alleged carnage.