Over two years ago, I came up with an idea for a project. I wanted to expand my knowledge of the trial of the Lincoln assassination conspirators. While I was very familiar with the outcome of the trial and the big revelations that the different testimonies brought to light, my knowledge of the trial, as an event, had been lacking. The trial was such a large and inaccessible part of the assassination story to a person without any legal background. Even with my knowledge of the history of Lincoln’s assassination, attempting to read the trial transcript, and make sense of it all, was an intimidating prospect.
The original incarnation of this project still shied away from the transcript itself with my interest being drawn to learning more about the experiences of the individual conspirators while the trial was going on. While we have practically nothing from the 8 conspirators regarding their day to day thoughts on the proceedings, the daily newspapers of the time often contained descriptions of the conspirators’ appearances and little mentions of their actions on the prisoners’ dock. The first draft of this project was little more than a list of the witnesses who testified on each date, followed by these descriptions from the newspapers.
However, as I went on, I found that I needed to provide at least some summation, if only for myself, regarding what each witness was testifying about. Some of the witnesses, especially the important ones, were easy as I was already familiar with the relevance of their words. However the trial consisted of 347 unique witnesses and most of them gave testimony that is only comprehensible if you know the testimonies that preceded it.
With this in mind, the project expanded. I started reading the trial transcript, word for word. I am greatly indebted to the work of author William Edwards, who published the most detailed and accurate version of the trial transcript that exists. At over 1400 pages in length, I knew the task ahead of me was going to be long but I wanted to create a more interactive and, most importantly, accessible version of the trial. I took on the role of Benn Pitman, the court’s chief recorder who later published a one volume transcript of the trial using summarized testimonies. I wanted to do the same as Pitman but update it using the technology available to us. Over time, what started as a cheat sheet for myself, became an interactive resource for understanding and referencing the trial of the conspirators.
The end project, as you will soon see, consists of a day by day chronology of the trial of the Lincoln conspirators. For each day of the trial, I have documented the proceedings, summarized the testimony of each witness, and included the descriptions and recollections of the individuals who took part in or visited the trial on each day. I have painstakingly researched the 347 witnesses, rectifying misspelled names from the transcript and doing my best to find visuals that represent them and their lives. I have been assisted in this by many of my friends and colleagues whose names appear in the acknowledgement section at the bottom of the trial home page.
Each day of the trial exists as its own page here on LincolnConspirators.com and they will be released on their corresponding anniversary here in 2020. In this way you will be able to experience the trial, day by day, in the same way those in 1865 did. This post was published on May 1, 2020 and so the page for May 1, 1865 is now available to read. It contains the announcement that, 155 years ago today, President Andrew Johnson released the orders to create a military commission to try the Lincoln assassination conspirators. The decision to try the conspirators in a military court rather than a civilian trial was, and continues to be, a controversial decision with many arguments to be made about its constitutionality. However, my purpose in this project is not to debate the legality of the trial. I am more concerned about the testimony that was given at the trial and the ramifications it had on the conspirators.
Using my own limited computer abilities, I have worked to make this project as interactive as possible. Starting with May 9th, the day in which the proceedings of the trial actually began, each individual page contains a Table of Contents at the top. Using this you can click to jump down to a specific witness or conspirator. Clicking entries on the Table of Contents will also provide you with direct links to those places in the page, making it helpful if you want bookmark or share a specific testimony rather than the whole page. When reading my summarized version of a witness’s testimony, the full name of the witness is always hyperlinked. Clicking on their name will take you to their full testimony in the historical transcripts so that you can read them for yourself. In addition, when witnesses are recalled or make direct reference to the prior testimony of others, I have included hyperlinks to the corresponding testimony in question. In this way you can quickly review and/or cross reference the sometimes contrary statements being made.
At the beginning of the trial, the court was held in closed session. Public and private uproar over the secrecy of the court caused the doors to be opened up to outside press and visitors starting on May 13th. Starting on this date, the Table of Contents grows to include the newspaper descriptions of the conspirators and known visitors to the court room. As the trial goes on and interest in the individual conspirators’ appearances wanes, there are less descriptions available. Near the latter part of the trial an attempt has been made to supplement these areas with general descriptions of the conspirators from undated sources.
For each day of the trial, I will be publishing a corresponding post here on LincolnConspirators.com containing a teaser of what occurred on this date 155 years ago. The posts will also contain a link to newly released trial page. I apologize in advance for blowing up your inbox with nearly daily posts for the next two months. The home page for the trial project, which contains links to the individual days, will always be accessible and available, though the links will not work until that specific day has arrived. By the end of June 2020 every day of the trial project will be accessible and will remain so.
I’m very much looking forward to sharing with you this project that has occupied too much of my time over the past two years. My hope is that this project will be a helpful resource for all who seek to learn more about the trial of the conspirators.
So, while we are still about a week away before the trial of the Lincoln conspirators officially began, I invite you to visit the Home Page of the project and take a look at the Witness List for the days to come. If you’re so inclined you can even take a look at the project’s Bibliography and read through the Introduction (which is pretty much just this post again).
In the end, I hope you will come back as regularly as you can during May and June to see how the conspiracy trial plays out, day by day.