Abraham Lincoln Assassination Conspiracies

Assassination Facts

Vintage American Civil War painting of President Abraham Lincoln seated in a chair.
John Parrot/Stocktrek Images/ Stocktrek Images/ Getty Images

Abraham Lincoln (1809-1865) is one of the most famous Presidents of the United States. Volumes are devoted to his life and death. However, historians have yet to unravel the mysteries surrounding his assassination. Here are the known facts:

  • Abraham Lincoln and his wife, Mary Todd Lincoln attended the play, Our American Cousin at Ford's Theatre on April 14, 1865. They were to be accompanied by General Ulysses S. Grant and his wife Julia Dent Grant. However, Grant and his wife changed their plans and did not attend the play. The Lincoln's attended the play with Clara Harris and Henry Rathbone.
  • During the play, actor John Wilkes Booth entered Lincoln's State Box undetected and shot him in the back of the head. He also stabbed Henry Rathbone in the arm.
  • After shooting the President, Booth jumped out of the box onto the stage, broke his left leg and yelled something that some eyewitnesses reported as, "Sic Semper Tyrannus" (As always to tyrants).
  • Co-conspirator Lewis Powell (or Paine/Payne) attempted to assassinate Secretary of State William Seward, but only managed to injure him. David Herold accompanied Powell. However, Herold fled before the deed was finished. At the same time, George Atzerodt was supposed to have killed Vice-President Andrew Johnson. Atzerodt did not go through with the assassination.
  • Booth and Herold escaped the Capital and traveled to Mary Surratt's Tavern in Maryland where they picked up supplies. They then traveled to Dr. Samuel Mudd's house where Booth's leg was set.
  • Lincoln was taken to the Petersen House across the street from Ford's Theater where he eventually died at 7:22 A.M. April 15, 1865.
  • Secretary of War Edwin Stanton stayed with the Lincolns at the Petersen House and coordinated the efforts to capture the conspirators.
  • On April 26, Herold and Booth were found hiding in a barn near Port Royal, Virginia. Herold surrendered but Booth refused to come out of the barn so it was set on fire. In the ensuing chaos, a soldier shot and killed Booth.
  • Eight Lincoln conspirators were caught over the next few days and tried by a military court. They were found guilty on June 30 and given various sentences depending upon their involvement. Lewis Powell (Paine), David Herold, George Atzerodt and Mary Surratt were charged with conspiring with Booth along with various other crimes and hanged on July 7, 1865. Dr. Samuel Mudd was charged with conspiring with Booth and sentenced to life in prison. Andrew Johnson eventually pardoned him early in 1869. Samuel Arnold and Michael O'Laughlen had conspired with Booth to kidnap President Lincoln and were found guilty and sentenced to life. O'Laughlen died in prison but Arnold was pardoned by Johnson in 1869. Edman Spangler was found guilty of helping Booth escape from Ford's Theater. He was also pardoned by Johnson in 1869.

As stated before, these are the known facts. However, who was really involved in the death of Abraham Lincoln? Over the years, numerous theories have arisen to try and shed light on how this terrible tragedy could have occurred. On the following pages, a few of these theories will be explained in depth.

Pre-Assassination: Abduction

Was assassination the first goal? The general consensus today is that the first goal of the conspirators had been to kidnap the President. A few attempts to kidnap Lincoln fell through, and then the Confederacy surrendered to the North. Booth's thoughts turned to killing the President. Up until recent times, however, there was a great deal of speculation as to the existence of an abduction plot.

Some people felt it might be used to exonerate the hanged conspirators. Even the judge advocates feared talk of an abduction plot might lead to an innocent verdict for some if not all of the conspirators. They are believed to have suppressed important evidence such as John Wilkes Booth's diary. (Hanchett, The Lincoln Murder Conspiracies, 107) On the other side, some people argued for the existence of a kidnapping plot because it bolstered their desire to connect Booth with a larger conspiracy masterminded by the Confederacy. With the abduction plot established, the question remains: Who was actually behind and involved in the assassination of the President?

The Simple Conspiracy Theory

The simple conspiracy in its most basic form states that Booth and a small group of friends at first planned to kidnap the president. This eventually resulted in assassination. In fact, the conspirators were to also assassinate Vice-President Johnson and Secretary of State Seward at the same time dealing a major blow to the government of the United States.

Their goal was to give the South a chance to rise again. Booth saw himself as a hero. In his diary, John Wilkes Booth claimed that Abraham Lincoln was a tyrant and that Booth should be praised just as Brutus was for killing Julius Caesar. (Hanchett, 246) When Abraham Lincoln Secretaries Nicolay and Hay wrote their ten-volume biography of Lincoln in 1890 they "presented the assassination as a simple conspiracy." (Hanchett, 102)

The Grand Conspiracy Theory

Even though personal Secretaries of Lincoln presented the simple conspiracy as the most likely scenario, they acknowledged that Booth and his co-conspirators had 'suspicious contacts' with Confederate leaders. (Hanchett, 102). The Grand Conspiracy theory focuses on these connections between Booth and Confederate leaders in the south. Many variations exist of this theory. For example, it has been said that Booth had contact with Confederate leaders in Canada. It is worth noting that in April 1865 President Andrew Johnson issued a proclamation offering a reward for the arrest of Jefferson Davis in connection with the Lincoln assassination.

He was arrested because of the evidence by an individual named Conover who was later found to have given false testimony. The Republican Party also allowed the idea of the Grand Conspiracy to fall by the wayside because Lincoln had to be a martyr, and they did not want his reputation sullied with the idea that anyone would want him killed but a madman.

Eisenschmil's Grand Conspiracy Theory

This conspiracy theory was a fresh look at the Lincoln assassination as investigated by Otto Eisenschiml and reported in his book Why Was Lincoln Murdered?

It implicated the divisive figure Secretary of War Edwin Stanton. Eisenschiml purported that the traditional explanation of Lincoln's assassination was unsatisfactory. (Hanchett, 157). This shaky theory is based on the supposition that General Grant would not have changed his plans to accompany the President to the theater on April 14th without an order. Eisenschiml reasoned that Stanton must have been involved in Grant's decision because he is the only person other than Lincoln from whom Grant would have taken orders. Eisenschiml goes on to offer ulterior motives for many of the actions Stanton took immediately after the assassination. He supposedly left one escape route out of Washington, the one Booth just happened to take. The presidential guard, John F. Parker, was never punished for leaving his post.

Eisenschiml also states that the conspirators were hooded, killed and/or shipped off to a remote prison so they could never implicate anyone else. However, this is exactly the point where Eisenschiml's theory collapses as do most other grand conspiracy theories. Several of the conspirators had ample time and opportunity to speak and implicate Stanton and numerous others if a grand conspiracy truly existed. (Hanchett, 180) They were questioned many times during captivity and in fact were not hooded through the entire trial. In addition, after being pardoned and released from prison, Spangler, Mudd and Arnold never implicated anyone. One would think that men reported to hate the Union would relish the thought of toppling the leadership of the United States by implicating Stanton, one of the men instrumental in the South's destruction.

Lesser Conspiracies

Numerous other Lincoln assassination conspiracy theories exist. Two of the most interesting, albeit incredible, involve Andrew Johnson and the papacy. Members of Congress tried to implicate Andrew Johnson in the assassination. They even called a special committee to investigate in 1867. The committee could not find any links between Johnson and the killing. It is interesting to note that Congress impeached Johnson that same year.

The second theory as proposed by Emmett McLoughlin and others is that the Roman Catholic Church had reason to hate Abraham Lincoln. This is based on Lincoln's legal defense of a former Priest against the Bishop of Chicago. This theory is further enhanced by the fact that the Catholic John H. Surratt, the son of Mary Surratt, fled America and ended up in the Vatican. However, the evidence connecting Pope Pius IX with the assassination is dubious at best.

Conclusion

The assassination of Abraham Lincoln has gone through many revisions during the past 136 years. Immediately following the tragedy, the Grand Conspiracy involving the Confederate leaders was the most widely accepted. Around the turn of the century, the Simple Conspiracy theory had gained a position of prominence. In the 1930's, Eisenschiml's Grand Conspiracy theory arose with the publication of Why Was Lincoln Murdered? In addition, the years have been sprinkled with other outlandish conspiracies to explain the assassination.

As time has passed, one thing is true, Lincoln has become and will remain an American icon lauded with an impressive strength of will and given credit for saving our nation from division and moral oblivion.

Citation: Hanchett, William. The Lincoln Murder Conspiracies. Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 1983.

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Kelly, Martin. "Abraham Lincoln Assassination Conspiracies." ThoughtCo, Mar. 14, 2017, thoughtco.com/abraham-lincoln-assassination-conspiracies-104800. Kelly, Martin. (2017, March 14). Abraham Lincoln Assassination Conspiracies. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/abraham-lincoln-assassination-conspiracies-104800 Kelly, Martin. "Abraham Lincoln Assassination Conspiracies." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/abraham-lincoln-assassination-conspiracies-104800 (accessed October 23, 2017).