The Lincoln Assassination Conspiracies

tags: Abraham Lincoln, Lincoln, Lincoln assassination

Ray Cavanaugh is a freelance writer from Boston. He enjoys long walks, books, and colorful characters.

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Many are acquainted with at least one good JFK assassination conspiracy, but fewer are aware of the alleged plots involving the Lincoln assassination. His murder, which took place 150 years ago this Apr. 14, prompted a number of very different conspiracy theories.  

Any theory that gained more than a handful of credulous adherents had to agree with the overwhelming evidence that John Wilkes Booth, the famous actor and Confederate sympathizer, was the assassin. Beyond that point, however, things began to take different trajectories, and Booth’s alleged co-conspirators ranged from the somewhat plausible to the fascinatingly bizarre.

A Vice Presidential Conspiracy  

It’s only natural for a Vice President to want to become President, and there’s one quick and easy way to accomplish that objective. Andrew Johnson, who became President after Lincoln’s death, was an immediate target for conspiracy theorists, according to William Hanchett, author of The Lincoln Murder Conspiracies.

One titillating detail is that, on the afternoon before the assassination, Booth paid a visit to the hotel where Johnson resided. He didn’t meet Johnson, but left a card saying, “Don’t wish to disturb you; are you at home?”

Lincoln’s widow, Mary Todd Lincoln, wrote in a letter to a friend that her: “own intense misery, has been augmented by the same thought – that, that miserable inebriate Johnson, had cognizance of [her] husband’s death – why, was that card of Booth’s, found in his box?”

She added that she was “deeply impressed, with the harrowing thought, that [Johnson] had an understanding with the conspirators…Johnson, had some hand, in all this.”

Even before the assassination, it was no secret that Mary Todd Lincoln disliked ‘that miserable inebriate Johnson,’ who had been disgracefully drunk at Lincoln’s Second Inaugural on March 4, 1865. Her dislike, combined with the trauma of her husband’s murder and Johnson’s benefiting from it, easily could have distorted her viewpoint. 

However, some members of Congress did express suspicion that Johnson had been involved, and in 1867 a special committee was formed to investigate his possible role. This committee did not find enough to incriminate Johnson, and it’s very possible that the congressional “suspicion” was just an attempt to remove him from office.

It is commonly accepted that there was a plot to kill Vice President Johnson along with President Lincoln. However, Johnson’s would-be assassin, George Atzerodt, lost his courage and, instead of killing the Vice President, got drunk and wandered the streets of D.C.

Did Johnson arrange this abortive attempt on his life, just to make himself look like an intended victim instead of a conspirator? Some thought so.

The Cotton Investor Conspiracy

There is evidence that, during the Civil War, Lincoln violated the official Union trade blockade by allowing a select group of Northerners to invest in Southern cotton. The President did this to “head off national bankruptcy and finance the Union war effort,” according to Leonard Guttridge and Ray Neff, authors of the Lincoln conspiracy book, Dark Union.

When Lincoln began to waver in his unofficial position on allowing trade with the Confederates, there were investors who stood to lose a lot of money – perhaps enough to kill over.

The Eisenschiml Theory

Otto Eisenschiml, born in Austria in 1880, was a trained chemist and oil tycoon who developed a fixation on the Lincoln assassination. Following nine years of research, he published Why was Lincoln Murdered? – a book which argued that Lincoln’s murder was orchestrated by his own Secretary of War, Edwin Stanton. The book sold very well, whether or not its readers fully believed the contents.

Eisenschiml contended that Stanton covertly teamed up with a small group of people looking to profit by taking over Southern territory. He claimed that Stanton, who headed the manhunt after Lincoln’s killing, purposely left open an escape route for Booth, whom he then ordered killed before the assassin could go to trial (and possibly reveal Stanton’s involvement).

Though Stanton and Lincoln had their political disagreements, there also was a good deal of respect between these two men, and most historians contend that Eisenschiml’s theory is groundless.

Killed by Resentful Northerners

Shortly before his death, Lincoln was aggravating many Northern politicians with a Reconstruction policy which they regarded as being far too lenient and forgiving. Well over 300,000 Union lives had been sacrificed to defeat the Confederacy, and now Lincoln was allowing Confederate officials to return to positions of considerable power.

Ben Wade, a senator from Ohio, said about Lincoln before he was shot: “By God, the sooner he is assassinated the better.” Though such a remark does not make Wade a conspirator, it does reflect a sentiment that some politicians of the North had toward Lincoln and his Reconstruction policies.

A Catholic Conspiracy

When, some 19 months after the assassination, Booth co-conspirator John Surratt, Jr. was tracked down by American officials in Alexandria, Egypt, it was revealed that he had served in the Papal Zouaves, a now-defunct army that had fought on behalf of the pope.

His mother, Mary Surratt – in whose boardinghouse the Lincoln murder plot was engineered – was a Catholic, and there were rumors that Booth himself recently had converted to Catholicism. These details, combined with sensationalist, inaccurate reporting that all the arrested conspirators were Catholic, led many to proclaim that Lincoln’s murder was the work of a Catholic conspiracy, one possibly leading all the way to the Vatican.

Ensuing decades would see a succession of works, some authored by discontented ex-priests, arguing that the Catholic Church had Lincoln assassinated because they wanted to destabilize an American democracy which they felt was a threat to their power.

The grand Catholic conspiracy theory was enduring. As recently as 1963, Emmett McLoughlin, a former Franciscan priest, wrote An Inquiry in the Assassination of Abraham Lincoln, a book which implicated the Vatican for Lincoln’s murder. 

Of course, the same year McLoughlin’s book saw publication, JFK was assassinated, and a whole new world of intrigues and conspiracy theories came to the national forefront.

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