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It should be noted here that it has never made any sense at all why John Wilkes Booth would have chosen Ford’s Theatre as the ideal site to assassinate the president. As eyewitness Edwin Bates noted the day after the shooting, “the probability was that the man when found would be discovered to be some insane person, that the lowest depths of human depravity even in a rebel of the worst type would not permit to commit such a horrible deed in so bold a manner before thousands of people & where there could be so little chance of escape.” (Timothy S. Good We Saw Lincoln Shot, University Press of Mississippi, 1995)
As H. Donald Winkler has written, there were numerous opportunities to kill Lincoln that would not have put the assassin at such high risk of capture: “the president had made himself an easy target. He stole away for solitary walks, especially at night. He held public receptions where security was almost nonexistent. He conferred with generals in the field. He stood atop a parapet at Fort Stevens on the outskirts of Washington for a clear view of Jubal Early’s approaching Confederate forces as soldiers around him were shot dead. He attended the theater frequently. He had walked virtually unguarded through the streets of the fallen Confederate capital. When he and his family stayed at his summer retreat at the Soldiers Home on the outskirts of Washington, he often rode back and forth to the White House in an unguarded carriage. Nearly every night, before going to bed, he strolled without protection down a densely shaded path through the White House grounds to the War Department’s telegraph office to learn the latest news from the war front.” (H. Donald Winkler Lincoln and Booth, Cumberland House, 2003)
The only conceivable reason to carry out the mission at Ford’s was to make the assassination as much of a public spectacle as possible. Which was also true, of course, of the events that played out in Dealey Plaza on November 22, 1963, and the events that played out in New York on September 11, 2001. If there had been television in 1865, you can bet that the cameras would have been rolling in Ford’s Theatre on the night of April 14.
Beginning at about 10:30 PM or shortly thereafter on that particular evening, a curious series of events played out in Washington, DC. At about that time, according to the official narrative, a man riding hell-bent-for-leather to get out of town approached the Navy Yard Bridge. The bridge though was closed due to a curfew imposed by the War Department, and armed guards were under standing orders not to let anyone cross without official authorization.
The rider on the swift horse allegedly identified himself as John Wilkes Booth. He did not, of course, need to do that. It wasn’t as if the guard, Silas Cobb, was going to ask him for an ID to verify his identity. In those days, a man had to be taken at his word as to who he really was. Those engaged in activities that could earn you jail time, or worse, generally used an array of aliases. But the guy who had allegedly committed the ‘Crime of the Century’ just minutes earlier purportedly used his real name.
In that regard, Booth was a very accommodating kind of guy. Earlier in the day, when he had supposedly stopped by the Kirkwood House to visit Vice President Johnson – a guy supposedly slated to be assassinated just hours later – Booth had thoughtfully left a calling card. According to Capt. Theodore McGowan, he left another one at the entrance to the presidential box at Ford’s Theatre: “He took a small pack of visiting-cards from his pocket, selecting one and replacing the others, stood a second, perhaps, with it in his hand, and then showed it to the President’s messenger, who was sitting just below him.” Booth was a big believer, it seems, in dropping breadcrumbs along the evidence trail.
Silas Cobb, for reasons that historians have never been able to explain, and often have never attempted to explain, allowed the rider to pass over the closed bridge and into Maryland. Cobb was never reprimanded or punished in any way for allowing the president’s assassin to escape the city – which is okay, I suppose, since the same is true of everyone else who blatantly ‘dropped the ball’ that night.
Just minutes later, another rider looking to cross into Maryland approached the bridge. This rider, who would later be identified in the official narrative as David Herold, failed to properly identify himself. He was, nevertheless, also allowed to cross the officially closed bridge. Minutes after that, a third rider supposedly approached the bridge. This one, local stableman John Fletcher, was supposedly in hot pursuit of David Herold.
Fletcher would later claim that he had seen Herold riding through town on a horse that was supposed to have been returned, and, fearing that the horse was being stolen, he had run back to his stables, saddled and mounted another horse, and took off in pursuit of Herold. Cobb supposedly told Fletcher that he would let him pass, once again in violation of standing orders, but that he wouldn’t be able to return, so Fletcher abandoned his alleged pursuit and returned to his stables.
This alleged sequence of events raises any number of deeply troubling questions that historians have done their very best to avoid answering, or even addressing. First and most obviously, why were both Booth and Herold allegedly allowed to pass over a closed bridge despite standing orders to the contrary? Another obvious question is how would John Fletcher have possibly known, after going to fetch his own horse, which way David Herold was headed on the dark streets of Washington?
Yet another painfully obvious question is why would John Wilkes Booth have given his real name? True enough, this was 1865 and travel was by horseback and the world was not a connected sort of place, so Booth would have been confident that Cobb would have had no clue yet about the shooting of Lincoln. But pursuers would surely be on the way very soon, with Ford’s Theatre just three miles away, and tipping them off as to your flight path probably isn’t such a good idea.
The next obvious question is why didn’t pursuers arrive there shortly after this sequence of events? Indeed, why didn’t anyone arrive there throughout the entire night? Secretary of War Edwin Stanton, who quickly assumed control of the manhunt, had an impressive array of manpower at his disposal: federal troops, metro police, cavalry troops, provost marshals, and Lafayette Baker’s NDP detectives. Yet none of them ever made their way over to the Navy Yard Bridge, though it was well known as an underground Confederate route.
Manpower was deployed first to the north and northwest, the least likely escape routes. The only hole in the dragnet throughout the entire night was the underground route to the South across the Navy Yard Bridge, which was never mentioned that night in any War Department dispatches. Had anyone involved in the manhunt – anyone at all – bothered to stop by the Navy Yard Bridge, it would have been quickly discovered that Booth and a likely accomplice had crossed over into Maryland. But that didn’t happen and pursuers were instead sent on wild goose chases throughout the night.
Another less obvious question is why was Booth so woefully unprepared for his escape? He had to assume that he was going to have to hide out for a time and/or survive on the trail. Why then did he bring no provisions with him? No change of clothes, no bedroll or blanket, no weapons other than his dagger, no toiletries or razor, no food. Nothing that would be required for survival on the road. And the same was true of Herold.
Why would Booth, or any reasonably sane person, plot an assassination at a venue from which escape was highly unlikely? Why would the very first phase of that escape involve an incredibly risky leap onto a hard stage floor while wearing riding boots with spurs? Why would his escape route necessitate crossing a bridge that he had no reasonable expectation of being allowed to cross? And why would he have failed to bring along any provisions to survive during his time on the lam?
There is also the question of why there was a two to three-hour interruption in telegraph service in and out of Washington following the assassination. Stanton had been installed as Secretary of War in January 1862 on the recommendation of Secretary of State William Seward. On February 14, Lincoln had signed Executive Order #1, giving Stanton the power of arbitrary arrest. That too had been at Seward’s urging. By early March, Stanton had assumed control of all the nation’s telegraph lines and had the machinery comprising the hub of the system moved to the War Department offices. He would soon seize control of the country’s transportation system as well.
In addition to the civilian telegraph system, the War Department had its own system as well, to transmit secure news and updates on the war effort. Both systems were housed next to Stanton’s office at the War Department. On the night of April 14, the civilian telegraph service was out for up to three hours following the assassination, disrupting communications in and out of Washington. That curious fact was never publicly acknowledged. There was also an unexplained delay in getting the news out on the War Department’s telegraph service. The first dispatch concerning the shooting of Lincoln was not written until 1:30 AM, more than three hours after the events at Ford’s Theatre; it wasn’t sent until 2:15 AM, some four hours after the curtain fell at Ford’s.
Then there were the curious actions of LA Gobright, the Associated Press agent in the nation’s capitol. At around 11:00 PM, he sent out his first dispatch, which was oddly vague and lacking in details. Even odder, he quickly followed it with a second dispatch instructing recipients that the first message was “stopped.” Gobright, it should be noted, was very close to the scene and knew what had gone down. He supposedly rushed over to Ford’s immediately after the shooting and is credited with being the guy who allegedly found the derringer on the floor of the box, where it had conveniently been left behind but had apparently not been noticed by anyone else. I guess securing the crime scene wasn’t a big priority in those days, even when it was the scene of the Crime of the Century, so it was up to reporters to gather the physical evidence.
And some of you probably thought that having controlled assets in the media was some kind of mid-20th century innovation that began with Operation Mockingbird. Guess again.
Yet another problem with the official story is that this was supposed to be a very well planned, coordinated attack on multiple targets. The attacks on President Lincoln in Ford’s Theatre, Secretary of State William Seward in his family home, Vice President Andrew Johnson in his hotel room, and possibly Secretary of War Edwin Stanton in his family home, were supposed to occur simultaneously, which would have been an extremely difficult operation to pull off given the limitations in communications in those days.
A considerable amount of research and planning would have had to go into such an ambitious project. But the reality is that it wasn’t known that the Lincolns were going to be attending Ford’s Theatre until the very day that Lincoln was shot, which didn’t leave a lot of time to plan such an intricate series of attacks. Yet we are to believe the plan was thwarted only by such things as Lewis Powell’s ineptitude with a knife and George Adzerodt’s cowardice.
And if there was an extensive amount of planning done, then why was no thought apparently given to the aftermath and escape? Lewis Powell never made it out of the city and supposedly ended up hiding out in a tree for a few days. Booth chose an escape route that included a dangerous jump onto a stage floor in front of hundreds of potential pursuers, followed by heading directly to a closed bridge under armed guard. And then he was off into the wilderness for an extended stay, with a broken leg and no provisions.
One aspect of the events of that day that is frequently downplayed is the late cancellation by General Ulysses Grant and his wife, which was highly unusual. Declining a presidential invitation was all but unthinkable in those days; canceling at the eleventh hour was obviously an even worse affront. Especially when this was to be a major historical event – the first joint public appearance of the victorious president and his heroic general. And especially when the reason given for the cancellation – that the Grants had to catch an evening train to go see their kids in New Jersey – didn’t hold much water.
As Winkler has written, “the Grants could have taken a Saturday morning train with better connections than the six o’clock Friday evening train, which was much slower and necessitated a long wait in Philadelphia. The morning train would have reunited the Grants with their children just two hours later than the earlier train.” So the Grants could have spent the evening at the theater basking in the adulation of the crowd, then enjoyed a good night’s sleep in Washington, and still got to their children almost as quickly. Why then would they choose to both inconvenience themselves and snub the president?
And they were not the only ones to snub the president. After the cancellation by the Grants, Lincoln asked a few other notable figures in Washington, who all declined. One of them was Speaker of the House Schuyler Colfax, Jr., who would, four years later, take over the vice-president’s office. And so it was that the guys who would take over as president and vice-president when Lincoln’s term expired both opted to snub Lincoln on the evening of his assassination. Lucky break for them, I guess. And the guy who immediately took over at the White House, just as soon as he sobered up, caught a really lucky break when George Adzerodt supposedly opted not to assassinate him.
Schuyler Colfax, by the way, was a member of the extended van Cortland/Schuyler/Rensselaer clan that also includes Laurel Canyon’s own David van Cortland Crosby.
By various accounts, Lincoln walked over to the War Department on the afternoon/evening of April 14 to ask Stanton if Major Thomas Eckert might serve as his guest/bodyguard that evening. Eckert had run the War Department’s telegraph service since 1862. He was a large, powerfully built, physically imposing man who historians agree would have provided Lincoln with considerable protection. But Stanton refused, claiming that Eckert had important work to do that night. In truth, Eckert would be at home that evening, doing nothing of any importance.
Though Eckert was ostensibly recruited by the War Department based on his expertise with telegraph systems, he was a close confidant of Stanton who was known to receive assignments far removed from organizing and running communications systems. One of those assignments, as previously noted, was as Lewis Powell’s personal guard during his confinement and ‘trial.’ Not long after completing that assignment, Eckert was rewarded with a promotion to Assistant Secretary of War.
Yet another longstanding problem with the official story is the unexplained assignment of ne’er-do-well police officer John Parker as Lincoln’s personal bodyguard, an assignment he had landed just over a week earlier. That assignment had come, though no one really likes to talk much about it, at the instigation of Mary Todd Lincoln. Mary wrote a letter on April 3, 1865, handwritten on White Hose stationary, that read as follows: “This is to certify that John F. Parker, a member of the Metropolitan Police, has been detailed for duty at the Executive Mansion. By order of Mrs. Lincoln.” The next day, she wrote another requesting that Parker be exempted from the draft.
Due directly to Mary Lincoln’s actions, it was Parker who was assigned to guard the president at Ford’s Theatre. True to his nature, he arrived at least two hours late for that assignment. And then promptly abandoned his post, leaving the president unguarded. So that he could wander next door and get good and drunk, by some accounts. He next surfaced at 6:00 AM the next morning at the police precinct, in the company of a drunken hooker. Parker attempted to book her, but records indicate that he was unable to make a case against her and she was released. Parker had a habit of arresting prostitutes who refused to provide him with free services. In any event, the important point here is that Parker obviously had more important business to attend to than preventing the assassination of the president.
Metro police superintendent A.C. Richards – the same guy who the industrious AP agent supposedly turned the derringer over to – filed charges against Parker in May 1865. But those charges were dropped the next month without explanation and Parker continued on in his position. Numerous questions still surround this particular aspect of the assassination, as summarized by H. Donald Winkler:
“Inquiring minds should have raised the following questions regarding Mary Lincoln, Edwin M. Stanton, and John Parker: On what basis and on whose authority did the first lady authorize Parker’s assignment to the White House? On whose recommendation was Parker’s name submitted to her? Was she aware of Parker’s record? If she was, why did she want such a person to guard her husband? If she was not familiar with Parker, what prompted her to approve him without knowing more about him? Did she know him at all? Was she related to him, or did she think she was related to him? (Her mother’s family name was Parker.) Did she authorize Parker to leave his post to watch the play? Was Stanton aware of Parker’s assignment to the White House? If he was not, should he have been? If he was, why didn’t he object to it? Considering the secretary’s concern for the president’s safety, shouldn’t his department have investigated anyone proposed for assignment to protect the president? Considering the innocent people arrested after the assassination, why didn’t Stanton order Parker’s arrest or at least investigate his apparent misconduct? Was it not possible that Parker was part of Booth’s conspiracy? Didn’t that possibility deserve investigation? Regarding Parker’s superiors, did Stanton consider that one of them might have issued orders allowing Parker to leave his post? Was he aware of Mary Lincoln’s endorsement of Parker? Was that a factor in his decision not to arrest Parker? Did the secretary in any way try to influence any pending charges against Parker? If so, why? Was he trying to protect Mary Lincoln? Did Stanton know Parker or have any contact with him before April 14? Did any of his staff know Parker? Did Parker have any communication with Mary Lincoln, John Wilkes Booth, Stanton, or anyone from the War Department on or before April 14, 1865? Did he know Booth? Did Booth bribe him to leave his post? Who dictated Parker’s duties for that night? What specifically were his instructions? Why did he leave his post? Did it not occur to Parker that by doing so he was jeopardizing the president’s life?”
As Winkler added, “Such questions apparently were never asked, and the participants never commented on them. No one seemed to want to set the record straight.”
Keep in mind that that lengthy list of questions only covers one small aspect of the events of that day. There are literally hundreds of unanswered, and frequently unasked, questions still surrounding the Lincoln assassination. As one further example, there is the question of how it was that in at least a half-dozen isolated pockets of the country, news of Lincoln’s assassination was reported four to twelve hours before the Lincolns had arrived at Ford’s Theatre?
Folks in St. Joseph, Minnesota, which was 40 miles from the nearest railroad and 80 miles from the nearest telegraph service, learned of Lincoln’s death while he was still very much alive. So did the good people of Manchester, New Hampshire. And the people living in Middleton, New York. And in Newburgh, New York as well. Ace reporters at the Whig Press got the scoop before the shot was fired.
Shit happens, I guess. Maybe they had caught wind of the fact that, a couple weeks before the assassination, Mary Todd Lincoln, who was known to go on extravagant shopping sprees, had purchased some $25,000 (in today’s dollars) worth of mourning clothes. It’s always good to be prepared. Even when your husband isn’t even ill, let alone dying.