In April of 1865 most northerners had little trouble discerning who was behind the assassination; they were convinced the Confederate government was involved. Andrew Johnson confirmed this view when he issued a proclamation naming Jefferson Davis and other Confederate leaders as co-equal conspirators with the actual assassins. Given this climate, violence came swiftly to those suspected of celebrating the president's death. One of the most dramatic examples was a scene witnessed by Associated Press General Manager Melville Stone. While passing the Matteson House in Washington, D.C., he heard a shot and stepping inside saw a man lying dead on the floor. When asked why he had fired, the gunman responded, "He said it served Lincoln right." Holstering his weapon, the gunman walked out the door a hero. (Historians Tom and Deborah Goodrich discovered over two hundred such violent episodes!)
In "The Conspirator," the military judges are portrayed as army general intent on retribution, but it is doubtful if a civil jury (composed of people who were caught up in the chaotic aftermath of the assassination) would have been any more discriminating in rendering a verdict. In fact, had the tribunal been vindictive, they could have ordered executions of everyone on trial; instead, they executed only those they believed were involved in the murder itself and gave prison sentences to those who they believed had participated in the kidnapping plan. The fact that a civil jury in 1867 could not agree on John Surratt's guilt had a lot more to do with the cooling of passions over a two year period than it did with the type of trial. Since John Surratt was clearly not in Washington on April 14, his role in the assassination appeared less apparent when the evidence against him was examined in a calmer atmosphere two years later.
By 1867, the country had moved on to other issues, one of which was the effort to impeach and remove Andrew Johnson from office. The president who initially talked about "hanging rebels and making treason odious," had fallen out with his former allies. Since Booth had left a card in Johnson's hotel mailbox reading, "Don't wish to disturb you. Are you at home?" some began to suspect that Johnson might have been involved. Overtures were made to some of the imprisoned conspirators who were held in the Dry Tortugas as to whether they would reveal the extent of the president's involvement. But no evidence of his involvement ever turned up. Johnson was eventually impeached, not because of his supposed implication in the assassination, but because he opposed and tried to subvert Congress's Reconstruction policies. He was saved from conviction by one vote in the Senate.
Ultimately, as reconstruction ended many Americans fell back on the belief that Booth, increasingly portrayed as a crazy actor surrounded by a small rag-tag group of followers, was behind Lincoln's death and not the Confederate authorities. Simultaneously, the Radical Republicans were characterized as evil men who in David DeWitt's words had unleashed a "reign of terror" against the defeated South. DeWitt also called the execution of Mary Surratt "Judicial Murder."
One long-running interpretation of the assassination portrayed it as a conspiracy by Roman Catholic priests and Jesuits, presumably to weaken the government so the Pope could take control of America. One writer went so far as to state that all eight conspirators (plus John Surratt) were Catholics, including Booth, a supposedly secret convert to the faith. In fact, only the Surratts and Dr. Samuel Mudd were Catholics, and despite this theory's ongoing popularity in anti-Catholic circles, it is entirely without merit.
In the 1930s and 1940s Otto Eisenschiml raised a series of provocative questions, suggesting that the Republican Radicals and particularly Stanton, had actually engineered Lincoln's murder. Eisenschiml prepared the groundwork for other authors to fill in the blanks. One of the most sensational conspiracy books (also made into a movie) was "The Lincoln Conspiracy." Supposedly based on missing pages from Booth's diary, the authors argued that Booth was such a bungler at kidnapping Lincoln that the Radicals replaced him with a Confederate prisoner named James Ward Boyd. Booth was not deterred however, and just as Boyd was about to kidnap Lincoln, Booth shot him. In this scenario, through a series of mistaken identities, Boyd died in Garrett's Barn and Booth escaped. The Radicals "covered up" this error to conceal their own involvement.
In 1977, the wheel came full circle with the publication of William Tidwell's "Come Retribution: The Confederate Secret Service and the Death of Lincoln," the book argues that the public in 1865 was correct; the Confederate government and Secret Service were involved in the kidnapping plans and murder after all. The book explains that when Jefferson Davis was approached about kidnapping Lincoln he vetoed all plans, fearing that the president would resist and be injured or even killed. After the 1864 raid on Richmond led by Ulric Dahlgren, orders were found on Dahlgren's body to release Union prisoners, burn Richmond, and kill or capture Davis and his cabinet, the gloves supposedly came off. In retaliation, the Confederates sanctioned a number of plans including Booth's, none of which succeeded. Desperate as defeat loomed in the spring of 1865, the Confederates dispatched Thomas Harney of the Torpedo Bureau to infiltrate Washington and blow up Lincoln and his cabinet. When Harney was captured, Booth, knowledgeable about these plans, tried to duplicate them on his own as best he could by targeting the president, vice-president, and Secretary William Seward.
It is striking how the historiography of the assassination resembles the turning of a wheel, starting with Confederate guilt, and in Tidwell's thesis, ending with Confederate guilt. However, wheels have a way of continuing to turn and the debate between two leading assassination historians demonstrates that the wheel may be moving once again. Historian Edward Steers, Jr. supports author Tidwell ("Come Retribution"), although he believes the plot can only be clearly traced back to Confederate agents in Canada. Michael Kauffman ("American Brutus") plays down the Dahlgren raid, arguing for a much simpler conspiracy where Booth and his band are once again the primary focus.
One encouraging note about assassination scholarship is that since 1982 when the first academic book on the subject appeared, a number of excellent studies have been written which attempt to seize the initiative from the sensationalists. On the negative side, however, the flow of conspiracy works has not abated. Given the lack of any consensus, it will be interesting to see where the wheel may turn in the future; in fact, "The Conspirator" may just move that wheel some too.
Thomas R. Turner is a historian and professor at Bridgewater State College in Massachusetts. He is also the editor-in-chief of the quarterly journal Lincoln Herald, the oldest continuously published journal devoted to the study of Abraham Lincoln which includes articles examining all facets of... More
Professor James McPherson is the George Henry Davis '86 Professor of History Ameritus at Princeton University. He is also a member of the editorial board of Encyclopaedia Britannica. He won the Pulitzer Prize for "Battle Cry of Freedom" and his most recent book "Tried by War: Abraham Lincoln as... More