Author Archives: Dave Taylor

Vanished: John Wilkes Booth

Last year I was contacted by a couple of podcasters named Jen Taylor and Chris Williamson who asked me if I would like to appear on their show, Vanished. The podcast originated as a deep dive into the mystery behind Amelia Earhart’s disappearance in 1937 and the many different theories about what happened to her and Fred Noonan. The entire season on Earhart was widely praised and the pair were specifically complemented on their unique format. Not only do Jen and Chris present the evidence on the different theories proposed by their guests, but they then take it to court, with each host advocating for a specific side. Jen is an actual defense attorney and this allows the pair to put these theories to the test and try them in a court of their own making. While looking for different cases to pursue for their second season, Chris stumbled across the John Wilkes Booth escape theory which posits that another man was killed at the Garrett farm on April 26, 1865. The pair then went about looking for guests who would like to talk in favor of and against this theory in order to put it to the test.

At first, I was reluctant to agree to be on a podcast about the “Booth” mummy. Those of you who keep up with the different TV documentaries that have aired in recent years about the Lincoln assassination know that the escape theory has been played to death. Practically every show covers this topic, with many being based solely around it. As a person who studies this history, this is very frustrating for me because pretty much all of those TV shows portray the escape theory as credible when all the evidence I know says the complete opposite.

I mean…seriously…don’t get me started

Despite my hesitation to take part in this podcast however, in the end I found myself swayed by the format Jen and Chris use. Unlike a 45 minute docudrama on the “History” channel, Jen and Chris really wanted to get into the nitty gritty and explore the reliability of the evidence. I found this very refreshing and really the best way to present a theory such as this one. So, I signed on to discuss the true history (as close as we can ascertain it) with Jen, the talented lawyer, on my side.

I have to say that I had so much fun being on Vanished. I recorded multiple hours with Jen as we first explored the story of Booth’s escape and death and then addressed the problems with the escape theorists’ evidence. Vanished is a long form podcast and several of the Booth episodes are multiple hours long. I would definitely encourage you to start at the beginning and hear the evidence from all of the guests, but I also understand that it is a time commitment, especially if you are new to podcasts. However, if you are interested and willing to sit through at least one 4-hour episode (and remember you can absolutely start and stop it to digest it in parts), I wanted to really highlight the “trial episode” of the series which just dropped. In it you will hear Chris interview Nate Orlowek, who has been championing the Finis Bates / John St. Helen / David E. George theory for almost 50 years. Then you will hear Jen cross examine Nate and his evidence. Then I make my second appearance on the show where I discuss the problems with the escape theorists’ evidence. This episode also includes an interview with Mark Zaid, the attorney who represented Nate Orlowek during the Booth exhumation hearing that occurred in the 1990s. It’s a jam packed episode and includes both Chris and Jen’s closing arguments. In my mind, if you can only listen to one episode, this is the one to tune in for:

Click this image to listen to Vanished: John Wilkes Booth episode 4 “Trial by Jury”

That being said, the prior episodes are also very good with one of them featuring my original appearance where I discuss the escape of Booth and his death at the Garrett farm. Kate Clifford Larson, author of The Assassin’s Accomplice is featured on another of the episodes and, in my opinion, really steals the show with her knowledge on Mary Surratt. I really recommend you give the whole series a listen. I think, taken together, it really demonstrates the different ways people think about and conduct historical research. Even when I listened to the folks I vehemently disagreed with, it helped me understand why they believe what they believe.

If you like this series of Vanished, definitely check out the other cases they have done and subscribe so you can follow along with the next one. They are planning episodes in the near future on hijacker D. B. Cooper and dreaded pirate Henry Every. You can access the show online or through any normal podcast provider like Apple Podcasts, Spotify, etc.

Also if you want to hear more from Jen doing her defense attorney thing, I highly recommend her standalone podcast, In Defense of Liberty. Jen takes historic court cases and explains how they contributed to criminal law in America. She is really good at taking complex legal ideas and presenting them to everyday folks in a compelling way. I’ve learned a lot from Jen through our discussions and have been fascinated by each episode of In Defense of Liberty I have listened to. Definitely give her a follow.

I’d like to thank Jen and Chris for having me on their show. While I’ve done other podcasts before, I really appreciated how deep they were willing to go in this case. It really wasn’t something I’d ever seen done before.

So, now it’s your turn to go tune in and listen to the evidence being presented. Did John Wilkes Booth really escape justice in 1865 and live out his life in Texas and Oklahoma before ending it all and being turned into a mummy? What is the evidence that the escape theorists have for their beliefs? And how do people like myself evaluate and assess what they bring to the table? Check out Vanished it get the fullest accounting that has ever been told about one of the strangest tales in the Lincoln assassination story.

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“Could I But Hear Thy Voice”: Edwin Booth’s Poems to Mary Devlin

From the death of his father due to his missing guardianship, the murder of the President at the hand of his younger brother, and the financial loss of his opulent theater in New York City, Edwin Booth lived a life of unimaginable tragedy. Though incredibly successful and praised for his histrionic talents on the stage, the unlucky circumstances of Edwin’s life plagued him with constant melancholy and sorrow. Aside from his darling daughter, Edwina, it appears that the only source of true comfort and happiness that Edwin Booth ever felt was his treasured wife, Mary Devlin.

Mary Devlin and Edwin Booth first met on the stage in 1856. While it seems that both became interested in each other, young Mary was hesitant to engage with an actor of Edwin’s reputation. He was six years her senior and recently returned from several years on the rowdy west coast. When Edwin traveled on from their shared engagement as Romeo and Juliet in 1856, nothing developed further. When they reunited for a couple of engagements in 1858, however, it appears that a relationship began to form. In the end, Edwin proposed to Mary in 1859 and the two were married on July 7, 1860.

Mary Devlin Booth, possibly in her wedding gown

At some point during their 1858-1859 courtship, Edwin Booth composed two poems for Mary Devlin. He recorded them in an autograph album that Mary owned. The album is currently in the collection of the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library as part of the noted Taper collection. The state of Illinois has done a wonderful job digitizing many of the documents, letters, and images associated with the Taper collection, the album being among them.

In the available images of the autograph album, we can see that there are a total of four poems, two of which are written by others. Of the two Edwin poems, only one of them bears Edwin’s name at the end. While the second one is anonymous, it is clearly written in Edwin’s handwriting (whose chicken scratch is incredibly difficult to transcribe at times). As far as I can tell, these poems have never been in print before and I’m not sure if they have even been transcribed before now.

Here is Edwin’s first poem to Mary Devlin:

Amid the many gloomy scenes
The tragic Muse doth revel in
To cheer my path, she found the means
To place a merry (Mary) Dev’lin

The name’s too harsh for her dear self,
Where dwells us thought of evil in –
A merry, laughing, loving elf
I found but good this Dev’lin.

And she will prove in after age
A star – at least of spotless truth,
T’illume the darkness of our stage,
Or I’m a dutchman, Edwin Booth

This poem strikes a silly tone, playing off of Mary’s last name. And yet it also compliments Mary’s talents on the stage which Edwin is also known to have done in letters to his peers. He truly felt that Mary Devlin was a talented actress. Unfortunately however, since the reputations of actresses were so low in Booth’s day, the noted actor could not even bring himself to marry one. Edwin essentially made Mary Devlin retire from acting before he agreed to marry her. She spent much of 1859 into 1860, in semi-seclusion studying and learning how to be a high society woman.

Edwin’s second poem is a far more romantic composition. In it, Booth demonstrates his growing affection for Mary.

Could I my life begin anew
And o’er my fate might have the choice,
I’d be some object dear to you
Content – could I but hear thy voice.

I would not be a throne’d king
If from thy blessed sight removed,
But rather the most abject thing
With but the sense to know you loved.*

Free from glory’s empty strife
Your little caged bird I’d be,
A happy pris’ner all my life
If loved and petted, sweet, by thee.

This touching poem demonstrates the true feelings Edwin Booth had for his beloved. In the cruelest of fates, however, Edwin would suffer his greatest loss of all less than three years into their marriage. On February 21, 1863, Mary Devlin Booth died at the age of 22. She had been ill with abdominal pains for some time since the birth of their daughter Edwina a year before. To help with her recuperation, Edwin had rented a house in Dorchester, Massachusetts. Under the impression that Mary was recovering from her more recent bout, Edwin was performing in New York when she took a bad turn. He made it back to their home several hours too late and locked himself in the room with Mary’s body for hours. From these poems in particular, one can easily imagine the deep and heavy grief he bore with her unexpected passing at so young an age. While Edwin Booth would later remarry, he never got over the loss of “Mollie” – his one true love.


*Now, if you’re like me, the middle stanza bothers you. While the words “removed” and “loved” have the same endings, the words themselves do not rhyme. Since Edwin Booth was a very eloquent man, I kept second guessing myself as to this transcription. I even wanted to change the word “loved” to “true” so at least the line would partially rhyme with “removed”. However, after doing a little research I discovered that, in Shakespeare’s time, the words “removed” and “loved” DID rhyme. Our pronunciation of words like “remove” has changed over time into the oo sound (as in food) rather than the original short u sound as it makes in love. In Shakespeare’s day words like “remove” and “prove” both rhymed with “love” even though they do not match our modern pronunciations. It’s likely that Edwin wrote his poem using a bit of Original Pronunciation. Here’s a short video demonstrating the original pronunciation of Shakespeare ‘s Sonnet 116 which ends with a now nonexistent “love” rhyme.

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“Treason Chokers” and “Wooden Overcoats”: An Eyewitness Account of the Conspirators’ Execution

On July 7, 1865, four of the convicted conspirators in the assassination of Abraham Lincoln were put to death on the grounds of the Old Arsenal Penitentiary in Washington, D.C. The condemned prisoners consisted of Lewis Powell who had attacked and nearly fatally wounded Secretary of State William Seward, David Herold who had assisted and joined John Wilkes Booth on his ill fated escape after the shooting of the President, George Atzerodt who had been commissioned to kill Vice President Andrew Johnson but failed to make the attempt, and Mary Surratt the owner of a D.C. boardinghouse who assisted Booth by transporting field glasses to her Maryland tavern on the afternoon of the assassination.

The execution of these three men and one woman marked an ending in the country’s quest for vengeance after the death of the Chief Executive. Coming after a military trial which lasted for 8 weeks and heard from 347 witnesses, the end of the conspirators was well documented in the press of the day. Vivid descriptions of the hanging on that hot July afternoon were published in newspapers nationwide from Associated Press reporters and others on the scene.

But perhaps one of the most compelling accounts of that day’s events comes from one of the soldiers who was present at the Old Arsenal when the drops fell. This soldier’s name was William D. F. Landon. Originally a private with the 14th Indiana Infantry, he was wounded at the Battle of the Wilderness and then transferred to the 1st U.S. Veteran Volunteers. In this way he was a member of General Winfield Scott Hancock’s corps with duty in and around Virginia and Washington. One thing that was unique about Sgt. Landon was his role as an unofficial field reporter for his local newspaper back in Indiana, The Weekly Vincennes Western Sun. Over the course of the war, Landon wrote many letters to the editor of the Western Sun documenting the life of a soldier along with the events and battles he took part in. He wrote all of these letters under the pen name of Prock, affording him a degree of anonymity to speak honestly about what he was witnessing.

From July through November of 1865 alone, Prock wrote a series of nine letters to the Sun about his experiences. Most notably is the letter he wrote on July 11, 1865 documenting his recent duty at the execution of the conspirators. This letter was published in the July 22, 1865 edition of The Weekly Vincennes Western Sun. If you would like to read Prock’s account in its original form, click here, otherwise what follows is a transcription made from the article.

This account provides us with a unique perspective on the execution of the conspirators written in a tone that is not to be found in any other descriptions of the event. There is a surprising amount of humor in what Prock writes. But it’s also an honest accounting, adding a degree of human realism to the otherwise stark proceedings.

“Camp First Regiment U.S. Veteran Vol.
Hancock’s Corps.
Near Washington, D.C., July 11, 1865

Dear Greene:

At 4 o’clock on the morning of the 7th inst. we marched with one day’s rations and “forty rounds” to the Arsenal, or Old penitentiary building, to take part in the “drop game.” As we filed into the enclosure and formed two sides of a square (the prison wall and the high brick parapet forming the other two) I observed first four graves and four “wooden overcoats;” then the scaffold, with two drops, and the four “treason chokers” swaying to and fro in the wind. I had not anticipated all this so soon, presuming the XEQtion would of course be a public one, and that having already marched five miles in a broiling July sun and through dense clouds of stifling dust, fancied our troubles but begun, and that we were to escort the wretches to some of the high and barren hilltops surrounding the city; we were all most agreeably disappointed and stood at ease, leaning on our well burnished arms and gazing with mere curiosity at the workmen putting the finishing touches to the “assassins’ derrick.” Guards being posted everywhere, we stacked arms and broke ranks. Some of the carpenters in the regiment lent a hand in adjusting beams and traces, occasionally tossing the boys a block that was sawn off, or a strip of scantling for a walking stick. A grand rush was always made for these by the “relic hunters of the Wilderness,” occasioning much amusement amongst the soldiery. In removing some caisson boxes, &c., from one part of the yard, a fatigue party captured a huge rat. He was immediately court-martialed, sentenced and (a miniature gallows being erected and a piece of fish line procured) hung – his carcass chucked into one of the pits near the coffins.

A piece of the conspirators’ gallows. From the collection of the Smithsonian Museum of American History.

The prison wall is at least eighteen feet high and shut out not only the view from the Potomac, but the “ten knot” breeze that was filling more than one white sail on the broad stream. Occasionally a circling puff whirling over the enclosure would stir up everything that was laying around loose, dust included, and cause the “human hawsers” to writhe as I have seen wounded snakes before now.

Some hundred citizens were admitted – not twenty-five of them but what were attached to either the “press gang” or detective’s force of Washington City. All these “roosters” carried umbrellas, and soon had them spread skywards. The sentinels took revenge by quietly punching their sharp glittering bayonets through the “silk Sibleys;” so, had it rained, many a chap would have wondered why his “round-house” leaked so badly.

Finally, everything was in readiness and “Time!” called. The soldiers stood to their arms and the four culprits appeared on the scene. The usual formula was gone through with, lasting perhaps twenty minutes, when the ropes were adjusted, the white caps pulled over their heads, and they were literally jerked into Eternity. I have an idea that from the time a fellow feels the rope coiling round his neck till he is “hood-winked” and actually “rubbed out” of existence, ye past presents the finest – aye, perhaps the most terrible – panorama he ever witnessed. I have no desire to see it (when my turn comes for “going under”) “roped in,” with a frame of bayonets and bronzed, unsympathising faces.

Life having been pronounced extinct by the U.S. surgeons present, the yard was cleared of all but members of our regiment or division by order of Major Gen. Hancock; a “detail” was then made to take down the bodies and bury them. The soldiers performing this task whacked off as much rope from each dangling quirl as they could reach, and, cutting it into small pieces, threw it among their comrades below. The scramble for the twine far exceeded that for the blocks and scraps of wood an hour or two before.

Pieces of the ropes used to hang the conspirators. From the collection of the Ford’s Theatre Museum.

Two men scuffling good humoredly for a “rope-relic,” rolled into one of the freshly dug graves, and before they could extricate themselves half a dozen shovel fulls of earth had been thrown upon them by laughing comrades.

The bodies were placed in the “wooden overcoats” just as they fell, with the exception that the fatal nooses were taken off – the white “death-hoods” were not removed. I noticed the rope in every instance had cut to the bone.

Mrs. Surratt died without a struggle, merely a clenching of the left hand. Payne or Powell was on the “drop” next in order. He took great pains to place his toes right on the edge – stood straight as an arrow – said nothing to the lookers-on – gave a slight shrug of the shoulders when the coil fell about his bare neck, but not a tremor of a nerve or winking of an eye could be noticed. He died, to use the slang term, “game to the last.” Harrold and Atzerott were both half dead with terror and the consciousness of their awful situation. Their knees knocked together as they bade each other “good bye.” There was but a single disturbance that I saw during the day. One of the 6th regiment, U.S. Veteran Volunteers, Hancock’s corps, attempting to pass the guard at the outer gate with an empty canteen for water, was halted, and some words passed, when the sergeant of the guard coming up drew his sabre and stabbed the unarmed soldier in the face, putting out his right eye and giving him a dangerous if not fatal wound. The sergeant and the guard on at this post are from the “Veteran Reserve or Invalid corps” (our boys call them the Diarrhea Corps,”) and no troops “in the field” are on good terms with these d—-d overbearing “Invalids and hospital bummers” – that’s what’s the matter. Well my item is not finished yet: a brother of the wounded man, hearing of the uncalled for and cowardly act, came up and put an ounce and a half of cold lead into the brain-pan of the “reserve sergeant,” killing him instantly, and then walked cooly on to see after his brother’s wounds. That’s the right kind of vengeance, for you! – he had heard that his brother was mortally wounded and was determined on revenge first – that is as it should be!

Truly Yours,
Prock”

In an odd twist of fate, it seems that Prock unknowingly predicted his own death when he wrote, “when my turn comes for ‘going under’” in this letter. One year after the conspirators’ execution, then Lt. William D. F. Landon completely disappeared while stationed at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas. While the army originally thought Lt. Landon may have just gone AWOL, he was never heard from again, not even among his friends and relations in Indiana. After an investigation by the army in 1867, it was concluded that Landon had met with an accident and died around July 8, 1866. According to a letter written by the Assistant Adjutant General to an inquiring Indiana congressman, “it is supposed that he was drowned while bathing in the Missouri river.” Seems like ol’ Prock went under the waves himself, almost a year to the day that he witnessed the conspirators bade their own final good byes.

Sources:
“Letter from ‘Prock’,” The Weekly Vincennes Western Sun (Vincennes, IN), July 22, 1865, 1.
“Prock’s Last Letters to the Vincennes Western Sun,” Indiana Magazine of History 35, no. 1 (1939): 76-94.
My thanks to Monique Howell at the Indiana State Library for directing me to the digitized copy of Prock’s letter in the Vincennes Western Sun.

Categories: History | Tags: , , , , | 8 Comments

Lincoln Assassination Ephemera

When you first start researching and “doing history”, there are several new vocabulary words that you have to learn. In the same way that doctors have a long list of subject-specific jargon, so too, do historians. When dealing with artifacts, it’s key to know the items provenance, or personal history. How do we know this thing is what it claims to be? What evidence do we have of its journey from there to here? Historiography is the study of how history has been written. How has the study of a specific event or period changed over subsequent years or decades? How have the ideals and beliefs of historians during different time periods influenced their presentation and understanding of history? What does it mean to study history? One must be careful not to include anachronisms in their writing of history. These are items, places, phrases or customs that would not exist in the time period being discussed. One would not speak of President Lincoln in the Oval Office since the Oval Office did not exist in Lincoln’s day. The list goes on and on.

One of my favorite history jargon words is ephemera. It relates to items that were made to exist for a short period of time and not expected to be preserved or retained. An advertisement for a sale at a grocery store is an example of ephemera. Within a matter of days, the advertisement is no longer accurate and thus disposed. Ephemeral things are meant to be temporary and fleeting. This idea has evolved into digital platforms as well with apps like SnapChat being based around the idea that the pictures and videos sent over the app only exist for a short time before they cease to exist. Today marks the beginning of a brand new year and many of us may be eagerly disposing of our old 2020 calendars, they having served their purposes. While the vast majority of ephemeral things are disposed or destroyed in this way, examples of ephemera that have survived through the years can give us a unique look into the past.

Here are some examples of ephemera related to the Lincoln assassination story.


Newspaper classifieds for the Surratt boardinghouse

In 1853, John H. Surratt Sr. acquired a ten-room house located at 541 H Street in Washington, D.C. The elder Surratt never lived in this house and the family spent the next 11 years renting it out. By 1864, Mary Surratt struggled to keep up the family’s tavern in Prince George’s County, Maryland. The widowed Mary made the decision to move her family to this D.C. home and operate it as a boardinghouse. In addition to her often absent son John Jr. and her daughter Anna, several other boarders came to take up residence in the H street boardinghouse. On October 6, an 18 year old named Honora Fitzpatrick moved in and shared a room with Anna. On November 1, Louis J. Weichmann, a friend of John Jr.’s, moved in. Weichmann would come to be one of the key witnesses against Mary Surratt at the trial of the Lincoln conspirators. Anxious for more boarders to help pay off some of her deceased husband’s many debts, Mary Surratt decided to advertise in the Evening Star newspaper. The excerpts above show some of the advertisements she ran in November and December of 1864 looking for additional gentlemen tenants. While John Wilkes Booth was never a lodger at the Surratt boardinghouse, his introduction to John Surratt in December of 1864 through the assistance of Dr. Mudd, made Booth a regularly visitor to the house on H street. For a short period, Mary did house conspirator Lewis Powell, though he was not living there at the time of the assassination. Like the many countless classifieds that appear and then disappear from newspapers each day, these ads would have been completely forgotten if not for their connection to the story of Lincoln’s assassination.


John Wilkes Booth’s check to himself

Talk about ephemeral! With online banking and online money transfer services, writing checks are a thing of the past. But even those of us who still write checks every once and awhile, have to admit that they are not things we generally hold on to once we cash or deposit it. But perhaps if you were a bank and had a check signed by a Presidential assassin just a few months before he committed his deed, you might hold onto it. John Wilkes Booth opened his account with Jay Cooke & Company on November 16, 1864 with an initial deposit of $1,500. This deposit occurred just a few days after Booth had returned from visiting Southern Maryland (and Dr. Mudd) for the first time. Over the next few months, he made different withdrawals on the account withdrawing the final balance of $25 on March 16, 1865, just a day after his meeting at Gautier’s Restaurant in which he laid out his abduction plot to all of his conspirators. The check above was a withdrawal of $150 made out to Booth himself on January 7, 1865. Two days later, Booth would make another deposit of $750. Part of this larger sum would be used to pay for part of the boat that was intended to be used to ferry the kidnapped Lincoln across the Potomac. In short, John Wilkes Booth’s account with Jay Cooke & Co. was where he kept the money he was using to finance his plot against Lincoln. This ephemeral check that Booth wrote to himself likely paid out some very real blood money. This check come from the collection of the Allen County Public Library in Fort Wayne, Indiana.


Telegram from the Ford brothers

There are many telegrams that are a part of the story of Lincoln’s death. As the main method of rapid communication across distances in the 1860s, John Wilkes Booth and his conspirators often communicated with each other via telegram. However, the telegram above does not come from Booth or any of his conspirators. Rather it was a note sent by two of the Ford brothers from Ford’s Theatre. Harry Clay Ford had been present at his theatre when Booth shot Lincoln. His brother, James Reed “Dick” Ford, had been present earlier in the day and evening, but was away at the moment of the assassination. At some point on April 15, Harry and Dick sent off this telegram stating that, “The President of the U.S. was assassinated by John Wilks [sic] Booth at our theatre last evening – see daily papers for full particulars.” Interestingly, the recipient of this telegram was Joseph Simonds, a friend of John Wilkes Booth’s who acted as his agent in the Pennsylvania oil region. Booth had recruited Simonds, a former banker from Boston, to help him in the oil business in 1864 and even though most of Booth’s investments had ended Simonds had stayed in the oil business. Simonds often sent mail to Booth care of Ford’s Theatre and so the Ford brothers may have felt compelled to alert Simonds of what had occurred as soon as possible. At the trial of the Lincoln conspirators all three men, Dick Ford, Harry Ford, and Joseph Simonds, would be called to testify about their relationship with Booth. This telegram is in the collection of the Library of Congress.


Pressed flowers from Dr. Mudd’s island prison

Ephemeral objects go far beyond humanmade creations. Nature is the largest producer of ephemera as everything living must inevitably die. We treasure the sweet blossoms that appear in springtime because we know that their existence is short lived. So much of the beauty behind a flower is because it is fragile and temporary. As the saying goes, “To every thing there is a season.” Dr. Mudd spent some time during his many seasons at Fort Jefferson attempting to preserve some of the naturally fleeting floral specimens in his tropical island prison. He collected several examples of mosses, ferns, and flowers from around the Dry Tortugas and pressed them into an album that generally housed photographs. The album can be found at the Dr. Samuel A. Mudd House Museum alongside some of Dr. Mudd’s other creations from his imprisonment.


Broadside advertising John Surratt’s lecture

Rather than today’s practice of putting on the same play or musical for a prolonged engagement lasting several weeks, in the Victorian era theater specific shows generally changed each night. The main draw of the stage was the celebrated touring actor or actress who was gracing the boards at that time. The audience came out to see a certain performer who chose which shows they wanted to perform in as the lead role. Each theater’s playbills were. therefore, extremely ephemeral items, meant to capture a single performance only. Instead of using a copy of one of the most sought after playbills in the world, an authentic copy of Ford’s Theatre’s Our American Cousin playbill from April 14, 1865, I decided to show off another rarity. This playbill of sorts advertises a lecture by John Surratt, the sole Lincoln conspirator to avoid conviction for his role in the President’s death. At the time of Lincoln’s assassination, John Surratt was in Elmira, New York. When he heard the news of what Booth had done and that he was wanted in connection with the crime, Surratt flew to Canada. He hid out in Montreal for most of the trial of his mother and other conspirators and was eventually safely transported to Europe. He was eventually discovered hiding out in the Vatican as a Papal Guard. He fled the Papal States but was eventually cornered and arrested in Alexandria, Egypt and extradited to the U.S. in 1867. John Surratt was put on trial but was given a civilian trial rater than a military commission like the one that adjudicated his mother and co-conspirators. The civilian jury of majority Southerners could not come to a decision and resulted in a hung jury. Surratt was then released from custody and returned to civilian life. In 1870, hoping to parlay his notable story into a lucrative speaking career, Surratt embarked on the lecture circuit. He told the story of how he had conspired with John Wilkes Booth to abduct President Lincoln, but denied having any knowledge of Booth’s plan to kill the President. He gave his compelling lecture in Rockville and Baltimore, Maryland, and even at the Cooper Union in New York City where Lincoln had given his 1860 speech that had propelled him to national prominence. The above broadside was for speech John Surratt planned to give on December 30, 1870 in Washington, D.C. This specific lecture never happened, however. A group of locals were outraged that Surratt would be allowed to give a speech detailing his involvement in the plot against Lincoln in the same town were the President was martyred. It is believed that someone in authority contacted Surratt before the speech could start and warned him that though he had been released by the government, he had not been formally acquitted. If he continued to make waves, the government would be happy to use his words against him and re-charge him for complicity in Lincoln’s death. As a result, John Surratt never made another lecture. This broadside for the lecture that never happened is from the collection of the University of Iowa.


Paperwork of Edwin Booth’s 1886 – 1887 tour

Not every financial record need be as doom and gloom as an assassin’s check. For example, here is a look at the inner workings of a far more celebrated touring star. This is the statement showing all of Edwin Booth’s expenses and income during the week of April 25, 1887. During this period of time, Booth was taking part in what is known as the Booth-Barrett Tours. From 1886 – 1890, Edwin and fellow actor Lawrence Barrett traveled around the country. The pair traveled over 14,000 miles and gave 233 performances. It’s fun to see the details of what the accounting for tours like this looked like. For this week of the tour, we can see what shows were produced and where, the total box office gross, and the amount Booth and Barrett received from their efforts. On the other side we see their expenses which included railroad tickets, the printing of playbills and advertisements, the purchase of calcium lights, telegrams, the expenses of their prop and wardrobe keepers, and even miscellaneous expenses like the repairing of a picture frame for $2. These bookkeeping records rarely survived long past their authors but demonstrate the importance of proper records in order to be successful as a traveling actor. This financial record comes from the Harry Ransom Center in Austin, Texas.


Advertisement for the “Booth” mummy

The post-mortem career of drifter David E. George has been the subject of many programs on the so called History Channel and others, but is hardly a new piece of pseudo history. As obliquely referred to on this broadside from the 1930s, it has been claimed that John Wilkes Booth escaped justice in 1865 only to take his own life 38 years later in Enid, Oklahoma. This ad portrays itself as a traveling exhibit of immense educational value that hopes to “correct American history” by showing that Booth had lived. With a name like the American Historical Research Society, I’m sure several people were convinced that they had been presented with the actual mummified remains of the assassin of President Lincoln. However, this advertisement is little more than an ad for snake oil. Despite its claim that one should not, “confuse this Exhibit with similar attractions that have been in carnivals and circuses,” that is exactly was this was. The “Booth” mummy had been traveling with carnivals since the the early 1920s and while it was now a solo attraction that visited towns and cities off the main thoroughfares, it was still little more than a sideshow hustle. The American Historical Research Society was nothing but an imaginary name incorporated by two hucksters of the mummy. They hoped the title would provide some legitimacy to their little sideshow attraction. But a pig is a pig, no matter how much lipstick you put on it! This advertisement for the “Booth” mummy exhibit comes from the collection of the Allen County Public Library in Fort Wayne, Indiana.


Shipping Invoice for Lewis Powell’s head

Most of us can’t wait to toss the shipping invoices that accompany our delivered online purchases. Like all receipts, shipping invoices are largely ephemeral, designed to survive the trip to their destinations. But in some cases, especially when it comes to historical artifacts, receipts can be used as a form of provenance to help prove where a specific item came from. In these cases, shipping invoices may become part of a formal record of an item. It’s perhaps not so surprising then that this shipping invoice from the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C. was retained when it accompanied a very unique relic in 1994. As stated on the paperwork, this invoice accompanied the transfer of the, “Human Cranium and Mandible of Lewis Powell/Payne” from the Smithsonian to a descendant of the Powell family living in Geneva, Florida. Noted as a matter of “repatriation”, this document represents the final trip that Secretary of State William Seward’s would-be assassin, Lewis Powell, took after his skull had been rediscovered among the Smithsonian’s anthropology collection in the 1990s. Through the help of historians Michael Kauffman and Betty Ownsbey, descendants of the Powell family took ownership of their ancestor’s remains and laid his skull to rest next to his mother in Geneva Cemetery. For more about Lewis Powell’s post-mortem travels click here. For a video I shot at Geneva Cemetery in 2020, check out this post. This shipping invoice comes from the collection of the Geneva History Museum in Geneva, Florida.

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Malcolm X and Abraham Lincoln

As I have noted before, I am in the process of getting my Master’s degree in American History. Slowly but surely, I’m getting closer to being an actual historian rather than just an elementary school teacher who knows a bit about Lincoln’s assassination. My most recent class was titled The Revolutionary Lives of Malcolm X and Martin Luther King, Jr. and it was taught by Dr. Peniel Joseph who is pictured above. Dr. Joseph is the author of a new dual biography of X and King titled, The Sword and the Shield: The Revolutionary Lives of Malcolm X and Martin Luther King, Jr. This was one of the main texts we used in the course and I highly recommend this book for anyone looking to learn more about these two hugely influential figures in the Civil Rights movement.

As the course progressed, I found myself fascinated by the life story of Malcolm X, a man that I sadly knew very little about. Due to this, I ended up writing most of my papers and discussion posts about this “sword” of a man who was active during the heroic period of the Civil Rights movement in the 1960s. Early on, I decided that my final paper for the class would somehow revolve around Malcolm X. I’m always trying to connect my different classes to aspects of Lincoln’s assassination and while I could have written a comparative piece about Malcolm X’s own assassination, the details of that killing are too unclear and still too recent to be fully understood. In the end, I decided to explore how Malcolm X used the legacy of Abraham Lincoln in his own activism. Many pieces have been written comparing Martin Luther King’s use of Abraham Lincoln’s legacy and words, yet I was not able to find any detailed account of how Malcolm X related to Lincoln. What follows is my analysis of Malcolm X’s often controversial relationship with the legacy of the 16th President.

I do not claim to be an expert on Malcolm X (nor Abraham Lincoln for that matter), so please forgive any egregious errors you may come across. I have tried my best to accurately portray Malcolm X and his views, but I am well aware that I am incapable of truly understanding the lived experiences and struggles of a Black man in 1960s America (and today). At the very least, I hope that this paper may motivate some of you to learn more about Malcolm X and his massive impact on the ongoing fight for Civil Rights.


Malcolm X and Abraham Lincoln

By Dave Taylor

In 1964, author Robert Penn Warren was in the process of collecting material for an upcoming book entitled, Who Speaks for the Negro? The volume was Warren’s attempt to learn more about the ongoing Civil Rights movement and those on the ground working to promote equality and fairness for all Americans. During his research, Warren met with many activists and leaders of the movement. On June 2, Warren found himself interviewing the noted firebrand, Malcolm X, born Malcolm Little. Warren asked the 39-year-old his opinions of politicians, living and dead. Never one to mince his words, Malcolm X spoke honestly of the many ways in which politicians and his fellow Civil Rights leaders had failed the Black community time and time again. Warren then posed the question, “What do you think of Abraham Lincoln?” Malcolm X replied, “I think that he probably did more to trick Negroes than any other man in history.”[1] As one of the most celebrated presidents in American history, often referred to after his death as The Great Emancipator, this harsh generalization of Abraham Lincoln’s legacy in regard to race was a shocking statement. While other Civil Rights leaders like Martin Luther King, Jr. often sought out the words and legacy of Abraham Lincoln in their unifying messages, Malcolm X provided an almost startling contrast, actively calling out and challenging the legacy of Abraham Lincoln, a man considered by many white and Black Americans as an untouchable martyr for liberty. By analyzing the few other times that Malcolm X’s views on Abraham Lincoln were recorded and by doing an exploration into the source of Malcolm X’s education on the 16th President, it becomes clear that X’s criticisms of Lincoln were the product of valid historical inquiry. In addition, there is strong evidence to support the idea that Malcolm X embraced the idea of creating controversy over Lincoln’s legacy as a means of promoting his own views of Black self-determination and autonomy.

Just a few months prior to Warren’s interview with him, Malcolm X had been a high-ranking member of the Nation of Islam (NOI). However, X’s increased devotion to political matters and his internal conflicts with the NOI’s religious leader, Elijah Muhammad, had caused X’s ousting from the organization. Yet his dismissal from the Nation of Islam had done little to impede X’s involvement in the Civil Rights movement. Rather, it unshackled him in many ways to be more open with his views as he no longer had to worry about whether they conflicted in anyway with the NOI’s teachings. Warren’s interview with X, dealt mostly with the role and viewpoints of Black Muslims in regards to the greater Civil Rights movement. Though removed from the NOI, X was still a devote Muslim, having converted to the Sunni faith. Warren pressed Malcolm to talk more about the non-violence movement endorsed by other members of the Civil Rights movement like Dr. King. This interview came just a few months after Malcolm X delivered one of his most famous speeches, The Ballot or the Bullet, in which he supported the power of voting in order to enact change, but also warned that Black Americans were tired of having to “turn the other cheek” while their rights and lives were threatened. The Ballot or the Bullet was a clarion call to all Black Americans that appeasement towards white supremacy was to stop, one way or the other.

While many of X’s answers to Warren’s questions did not end up making it into Warren’s finished product, the line about Abraham Lincoln having “tricked the Black man” did. In 1985, over twenty years after this interview, Black historian John Hope Franklin took exception to X’s categorization of Lincoln writing in his essay, “The Use and Misuse of the Lincoln Legacy” that X was, “not at all clear on what the trick was.”[2] Yet, perhaps unknown to Franklin was the fact that X had expanded on his thoughts regarding Lincoln during his interview with Warren and it was Warren who failed to include this additional material in his book. In continuing his explanation of how Lincoln had tricked the Black Americans, X stated:

“He was interested in saving the Union. Well, more Negroes have been tricked into thinking that Lincoln was a Negro lover whose primary aim was to free them and he died because he freed them. I think Lincoln did more to deceive the Negroes and to make the race problem in this country worse than any man in history.”[3]

From this extended response it is clear that Malcolm X put forth some supporting evidence for his view that Lincoln had tricked Black people. For Malcolm, Abraham Lincoln had unjustly been given the role as a white savior to the Black race. Malcolm was engaging in a form of historical analysis by actively questioning whether the veneration Lincoln had received in the period since his death was based on the actions and views of the man, or the mythology that had formed around him. While this off the cuff remark to Warren helps lay the groundwork of his views, additional sources help to define Malcolm X’s analysis further.

Malcolm X’s interview with Robert Penn Warren was not the first (nor the last) recorded example of his views on Abraham Lincoln. A few months earlier, at the end of February, 1964, Malcolm X was in Miami acting as a spiritual advisor of sorts to one of the Nation of Islam’s most high profile converts, Cassius Clay, soon to rename himself Muhammad Ali.

Malcolm X was already in the process of being pushed out of the Nation of Islam at this point but still had hopes that his service in helping to convert Clay would put him back into good graces with Elijah Muhammad. In the hours leading up to Clay’s famous bout with Sonny Liston, where Clay would become one of the youngest heavyweight champions ever, Malcolm X sat at a lunch table with sports journalist George Plimpton who found himself fascinated by X. Plimpton asked many questions to X about Islam, Clay’s conversion, and the overall condition of Black Americans. Plimpton got onto the topic of X’s ongoing troubles with the Nation of Islam, which X claimed were due to remarks about the recently assassinated John F. Kennedy which the NOI deemed in poor taste. But Malcolm did not believe he was wrong in stating that Kennedy had not been a friend to Black Americans. He reminded Plimpton that Kennedy was, above all, “a cold-blooded politician,” and that, “there never had been a politician who was the Negro’s friend.”[4] In Plimpton’s recollections of the discussion, which were published in Harper’s Magazine in June of that year, X then started began talking about Abraham Lincoln stating, “Lincoln? A crooked, deceitful hypocrite, claiming championship to the cause of the Negro who, one hundred years later, finds himself singing, ‘We Shall Overcome.’”[5] Like his later comments to Warren, Malcolm X expresses his frustration at the disparity he feels exists between Lincoln the man and Lincoln the legacy. While, on the face of it, Malcolm’s words may seem like – to use the vernacular of boxing – a sucker punch to Abraham Lincoln, his harsh words stem from legitimate criticisms on Lincoln views and policies on race.

The best source we have for understanding Malcolm X’s thought process on Abraham Lincoln comes from a recorded interview he did with a yet undetermined interviewer around 1960. A short, 29 second clip of what appears to be a televised interview can be found online. Narration starts the clip noting that the, “news media had begun to take notice” of Malcolm X,  before we see the interviewer hold out his microphone to X. While we do not know the exact phrasing of the interviewer’s question, the response makes it clear that Malcolm X was asked directly about Abraham Lincoln. Malcolm X then gives the following response:

“Abraham Lincoln tricked the so-called Negro into thinking that he was free and when you read some of the books that were written by the so-called Negro historian J. A. Rogers, one of his books Africa’s Gift to America, he points out plainly how Abraham Lincoln did nothing but trick the Negro, fool the Negro, and use the Negro the same as every other politician who has been in the White House has been tricking and fooling and using the Negro as a political football ever since America has been America.”[6]

This interview very much echoes Malcolm X’s words to George Plimpton in 1964 as the Civil Rights leader equates Lincoln to generations of politicians who have used and misused Black Americans for their own benefit. However, the key to this interview is that X provides the source of his material. He essentially advertises for the Black historian Joel A. Rogers, specifically mentioning his book, Africa’s Gift to America.

Joel Augustus Rogers was a groundbreaking Black historian who, “dedicated over fifty years of his life to writing about and debunking the fallacies of racist European and American scholarship that denied people of African descent had a history worth writing about.”[7] Among Roger’s numerous works were books and articles titled, “What are We, Negroes or Americans?”, “The Negro in European History”, World’s Greatest Men and Women of African Descent, “The Suppression of Negro History”, and the aforementioned Africa’s Gift to America: The Afro-American in the Making and Saving of the United States. This last volume was one of Roger’s final books, having been published originally in 1959 with an updated version coming out two years later in 1961. Joel Rogers was also a regular contributor to the Pittsburgh Courier, a leading Black newspaper of the day, in which he wrote a column entitled History Shows. Malcolm X had a long familiarity with Rogers. On January 1, 1959, Malcolm X invited Rogers to speak to over 1,600 Nation of Islam members at New York’s Temple No. 7, where he was the leader. While not a Muslim himself, Rogers spoke glowingly of the NOI and how its followers were educating themselves about their history. “Not only do they, themselves, want to learn, but they want to spread this knowledge to the rest of our people,” Rogers stated to Malcolm X’s audience.[8] Joel Rogers was one of the pioneers of what we would now refer to as African American Studies.

In many ways, Joel Rogers was a kindred spirit to Malcolm X. When asked about his writing on the topic of Black history, Rogers stated that his motivation stemmed from his, “early childhood when it was firmly impressed on me by the ruling class that black people were inherently inferior and that their sole purpose for being was to be servants to white people and the lighter-colored mulattoes.”[9] Rogers rejected the white supremacist doctrine of his youth that Blacks were inherently inferior to whites. Similarly, Malcolm X vividly recalled his own childhood memories of being called by racial epithets and being treated poorly by whites of all classes. Yet, like Rogers, Malcolm witnessed the inherent strength and promise of the Black race, even while a white supremacist society tried to keep him down. Malcolm had the benefit of having been born to activist parents and in his autobiography, Malcolm recalled being transfixed by meetings his father organized: “I remember how the meetings always closed with my father saying, several times, and the people chanting after him, ‘Up, you mighty race, you can accomplish what you will!”[10] It is no surprise then that Malcolm X was a firm proponent of Joel Rogers’ work. Rogers helped to provide Malcolm with a historical basis for the strength and self-dignity that Malcolm X knew Black people possessed, despite the attempts of white supremacy to deny them this heritage.

Therefore, to understand Malcolm X’s views on Abraham Lincoln, it is important to analyze the historiographical work of Joel Rogers on the subject. In Africa’s Gift to America, Roger heads the corresponding chapter on the Civil War as, “The Negro In the Saving of America” and this perfectly encapsulates his overall thesis. Rogers recalls the process of the Civil War and the struggles the Union had in gaining the upper hand over the Confederate states. When describing the Emancipation Proclamation, Rogers quickly dismisses the oft held idea that the true purpose of the decree was to end slavery. Rogers writes, “Did it free the slaves? Definitely not. It was a gesture rather than a reality since it ‘freed’ only those slaves Lincoln had no power to free and kept in slavery those he had the power to free.”[11] While other historians made find exception with Rogers’ directness and candor on this, he is not incorrect with his assessment of the direct effect of the Emancipation Proclamation. The order only claimed to free the slaves in the states then in rebellion, and had no effect on the enslaved people still held in bondage in the Union border states. Granted, it did result in the freeing of those held in bondage in Union occupied areas of the South, but direct emancipation as a result of the proclamation was very minimal. Rogers opines the mythology of Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation as having singlehandedly freed the slaves, writing, “Perhaps no other important document in all history has been more misinterpreted.”[12] Yet, Rogers does acknowledge that the Emancipation Proclamation was incredibly vital for the survival of the United States, for, while it did little to free those still held in bondage, it created a pathway for Black men to become part of the Union army and fight for the freedom of their brothers and sisters. Rogers spends most of the remaining chapter demonstrating how the tireless devotion and bravery of the newly formed United States Colored Troops helped the Union emerge victorious after four long years of fighting. Rogers recounts moments of both regimental and individual acts of selflessness and sacrifice on the part of Black soldiers even in the face of incredible adversity and racism on the part of white Confederate and Union citizens alike. Malcolm X no doubt appreciated and valued Rogers’ work in showing how men who were once enslaved themselves, fought and freed those still held in bondage.

While Rogers’ accounts of glory personified Malcolm X’s views on Black power, his critical assessment of the legacy of Abraham Lincoln also spoke to X’s distaste of white savior myths which disregarded Black autonomy and self-determination. In his efforts to bring the mighty image of Father Abraham off of his pedestal, Rogers spends a considerable amount of space in his book quoting Lincoln’s distasteful racial views. Rogers recalls how, in his debates with Stephen Douglas in 1858, Lincoln stated, “there must be the position of superior and inferior, and I as much as any other man am in favor of having the superior position assigned to the white race.”[13] For Rogers, this was evidence that the image of Abraham Lincoln as a benevolent friend of all Black people was misguided. Rogers also criticized the delayed nature of Lincoln’s issuance of the Emancipation Proclamation after years of war. Since the beginning there had been the near constant call of abolitionists, both white and Black, asking for the chief executive to make it explicitly known that the cause of the war was to end slavery. From the abolitionists’ point of view, this was what the Confederate states had understood it to be when they seceded in the first place. Included in the Lincoln portion of Rogers’ book is a quote from Frederick Douglass. At the unveiling of the Emancipation Memorial in Washington, D.C. in 1876, the famous Black abolitionist and orator recalled that Lincoln, “was preeminently the white man’s President, entirely devoted to the welfare of white men. He was ready and willing at any time during the first years of his administration to deny, postpone, and sacrifice the rights of humanity in the colored people in order to promote the welfare of the white people.”[14] When Rogers presented these quotes and wrote about Lincoln in Africa’s Gift to America, he was not breaking new ground in Lincoln research. Lincoln’s record on race relations and devotion to the preservation to the Union were well documented in other Lincoln texts of the day. One of the sources Joel Rogers uses for his book was the groundbreaking series by Carl Sandburg’s called Abraham Lincoln: The War Years. The first volume in this series contains a letter Lincoln wrote to abolitionist newspaper editor Horace Greeley in 1862 in which the President stated:

“My paramount object in this struggle is to save the Union, and is not either to save or destroy slavery. If I could save the Union without freeing any slave, I would do it; if I could save it by freeing all the slaves, I would do it, and if I could save it by freeing some and leaving others alone, I would also do that. What I do about slavery and the colored race, I do because I believe it helps to save the Union.”[15]

This assertion that the preservation of the Union was the first and foremost goal in Lincoln’s mind during the Civil War is also combined with Lincoln’s support, even during his time as President, for colonization movements. Believing that the different races could not live together in harmony, Lincoln proposed for Black Americans to be sent to Africa and establish colonies there. When told of this plan in person, Frederick Douglass and many others balked at the idea of being sent from their homeland to a continent they knew nothing of. In recounting Lincoln’s words and opinions on race, Joel Rogers makes a compelling argument that humanizes Lincoln as a complicated man which disassociates him from the otherwise held myth of Father Abraham, patron saint of the Black race.

Yet, even as Joel Rogers uses Lincoln’s own words to criticize the 16th President, the historian is not unfeeling or ignorant of the circumstances Lincoln found himself in. Rogers writes, “There is much I admire about Lincoln and I sympathize greatly with him for the many trying problems he had to face but in all fairness it must be said that he owed vastly more to the Negro than the Negro to him.”[16] As Rogers posited, it was the Black troops that helped to turn the tide of war in the Union’s favor. The increased manpower brought about by the enlistment of Black soldiers and the devotion with which they fought for the cause of freedom, saved Lincoln from suffering the fate as vanquished Confederate President Jefferson Davis. But, more importantly, Rogers defends his criticisms of Lincoln’s words and personal views even if it seems contrary to the popularly accepted interpretation of the Great Emancipator. Rogers writes, “Lincoln became the bible of the great Negrophobes.”[17] According to Rogers, Black Americans put too much stock in Lincoln the politician who only directly freed a miniscule amount of enslaved people in order to win a war. This mythology caught on so much that the power of Black Civil War soldiers was diminished so as to essentially remove them from the narrative. Black Americans were expected to bow and pay reverence to Lincoln for their freedom rather than acknowledge their own success. Perhaps this idea is personified best by the nature of the statue Frederick Douglass helped to unveil in 1876 which shows a formerly enslaved man kneeling at the feet of Lincoln who is beckoning him to stand up.

Joel Rogers and Malcolm X could both see the way in which this legacy of Abraham Lincoln could be weaponized against Black people. In his autobiography, Malcolm spoke of the way in which he worked to change the narrative in order to include the stories of Black strength completely independent of white savior imagery. There was a considerable backlash to Malcolm’s refusal to pay heed or enough reverence to the man the white press thought should be an icon to the Civil Rights leader. Malcolm recalled:

“I can remember those hot telephone sessions with those reporters as if they were yesterday. The reporters were angry. I was angry. When I’d reach into history, they’d try to pull me back to the present…They would unearth Lincoln and his freeing of the slaves. I’d tell them things Lincoln said in speeches, against the blacks.”[18]

It was in this way that Malcolm sought to engage his interviewers in the process of historical analysis but was met with anger due to his perceived disrespect for an American icon.

In August of 1963, many Civil Rights leaders and activists were busy preparing for the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. The march would culminate at the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C. with Martin Luther King giving his now timeless, “I Have a Dream” speech. Malcolm X, the ever-reliable contrarian, took issue with the ways in which the planned march had been co-opted by the government. He stated that when the, “white man heard about this mass demonstration in the beginning which was to consist of sit-ins etc. on the White House lawn, airports and other public grounds, he decided to control it.”[19] A proponent of Black strength in the face of white supremacy, Malcolm regularly criticized the Civil Rights movement for failing to act in what he considered to be the proper, revolutionary way. He felt that King and other leaders spent too much time capitulating to white supremacists and their laws rather than actively fighting against them. At this point in his life, X did not see integration as a feasible or desired outcome. His lived experience as a Black man in America, his religious conversion to the Nation of Islam, and his readings from historians like Joel A. Rogers, had collectively taught him that white America would not accept true integration and social equality. Malcolm sought Black autonomy as a means of protection for his people. The hard lessons of life had trained him to be suspicious of most white people, especially those who claimed to be liberal minded and on the side of Civil Rights. Thus, King’s inclusion of white activists and leaders into the March on Washington was seen by X as a neutering element. X echoed this idea in the months after the March on Washington:

“It’s just like when you’ve got some coffee that’s too black, which means it’s too strong. What you do? You integrate it with cream; you make it weak. If you pour too much cream in, you won’t even know you ever had coffee. It used to be hot, it becomes cool. It used to be strong, it becomes weak. It used to wake you up, now it’ll put you to sleep. This is what they did with the march on Washington.”[20]

Malcolm X’s compelling criticisms of the non-violence and non-confrontational nature of the march in response to acts of violence and discrimination against Black Americans was perfectly aligned to his overall opposition to Dr. King’s vision for the Civil Rights movement in general. Malcolm was tired of acquiescing any ground to white supremacists and those who supporting their agenda, whether knowingly or otherwise. He was tired of the strength and ability of Black people being ignored or diminished. For X, Civil Rights would only be gained when Black people actively rejected all forms of white supremacist indoctrination, including the internalized kind. By understanding this, it is easier to address why Malcolm X vehemently rejected what he believed to be a mythicized interpretation of Abraham Lincoln and his legacy.

In an Associated Press article that was published in newspapers around the country just two days before the March on Washington, X repeated his message charging that King was allowing the government to co-opt what should otherwise be a revolutionary act. He lamented that the march was now being, “controlled by the government and is being used for political expediency.”[21] However, this larger message was overshadowed in the press due to X’s decision to make mention of Abraham Lincoln and the fact that the march was to end at the Lincoln Memorial. Instead of headlines for the article highlighting the Civil Rights leader’s critique of outside influence on the march, many of the nation’s leading newspapers carried the article under headlines like, “Black Muslim Leader Knocks Lincoln’s Image”, “Lincoln No Hero, Malcolm X Insists”, and “Lincoln Didn’t Free Slaves – Malcolm X”. In Abraham Lincoln’s former hometown of Springfield, Illinois, the Illinois State Journal titled the story with “Abe Failed Negroes: Malcolm X”. The change of focus away from the march and onto Abraham Lincoln was due to X, once again, engaging in a form of historical analysis on Lincoln’s legacy. In the article Malcolm X stated:

“For all these Negro leaders to bring Negroes from all over the country and go down to a dead man’s statue, a dead president’s monument who was supposed to have issued an Emancipation Proclamation 100 years ago, and if what he had issued had any authenticity or sincerity and had gotten the job done this whole problem wouldn’t exist now.”[22]

By reading this quote closely, it appears that X was actually using Lincoln as a metaphor for the generational failures that prevented those freed from slavery from achieving any sort of equality in the century of so-called progress that followed. This criticism was as much a condemnation of X’s time as it was a shot across Lincoln’s bow. Malcolm X seemed to be challenging everyone to look at the world around them and decide whether the condition of Black Americans in his time could easily be rectified if Lincoln’s mythicized legacy of the white savior was to be believed. In this way, X was engaging in his common pattern of trying to get his audience to question long held and internalized views of white supremacy in order to help them find their own power.

When further pressed about his personal opinion of Lincoln, Malcolm stated, “I don’t think anyone who reads the true history of Lincoln, his motives, regards him as any hero.”[23] Malcolm is once again showing his acceptance of Joel Rogers’ thesis that Abraham Lincoln’s actions on behalf of African Americans was a result of political necessity rather than higher moral conviction. However, as noted above, even Rogers tended to give Lincoln a bit more sympathy and understanding than Malcolm X did in his public comments. Malcolm X, would not dispense any such sympathy with Lincoln, at least not publicly, because it wasn’t really Lincoln that Malcolm X was sparring against, but the way in which the legacy of Lincoln had been used to the benefit of white supremacy. By putting the end of slavery solely on the shoulders of Abraham Lincoln, the contributions of others, namely the sacrifice of thousands of African American troops and the enslaved themselves, were dismissed and buried. Lincoln’s legacy as the Great Emancipator had been used against Malcolm X and his call for Black autonomy. Even though Lincoln had done well in helping to bring about the end of slavery, Malcolm X saw how the adulation of Lincoln could have a negative effect when it stripped Black Americans of knowledge of their own contributions and reinforced the idea that a white savior was needed for any significant change to their circumstances to happen.

Lincoln historians have long taken issue with Malcolm X’s criticisms of the 16th President. They acknowledge the truth contained in Rogers’ book in so far as Lincoln did express racial views that would not be acceptable today. They also acknowledge that Lincoln was, at one time, a proponent of the colonization movement which aimed to send Black Americans to Africa. However, most Lincoln historians will also be quick to point out that Lincoln was capable of great change and growth. Part of the reason Lincoln is admired in the way that he is, is due to the way he continually adapted to changing circumstances and evolved in his views. This was also true when it came to his views on race. This is evident in the last speech he gave from the balcony of the White House on April 11, 1865. In that speech, Lincoln discussed how the former Confederate states were to be allowed back into the Union. He discussed the new state Constitution of Louisiana, taking a moment to touch on the concept of Black suffrage. Lincoln stated, “It is also unsatisfactory to some that the elective franchise is not given to the colored man. I would myself prefer that it were now conferred on the very intelligent, and on those who serve our cause as soldiers.”[24] While the enfranchisement solely of Black soldiers and those arbitrarily deemed “very intelligent” would not have satisfied Malcolm X, the gesture helps to demonstrate the evolution that X often denied Lincoln in his comments. It can be argued that Lincoln’s racial evolution contributed to his death as John Wilkes Booth was in the audience of that last speech and allegedly took such umbrage at the idea of Black citizenship that he then vowed to murder Lincoln. Still, while historians are quick to come to Abraham Lincoln’s defense with examples of Lincoln’s complexity and growth, it appears that few are willing to accord the same level of detail to understanding the context behind Malcolm X’s criticisms.

In a 2000 article by Eric Foner entitled, “Was Abraham Lincoln a Racist”, the noted historian lamented the “full scale assault on Lincoln’s reputation” by Black author Lerone Bennett who presented an updated version of Joel Rogers’ thesis. Foner provided the context for many of Lincoln’s more egregious racial comments and laid the groundwork to show Lincoln’s growth on racial issues. In this way, Foner falls in around Lincoln, helping to defend the 16th President’s legacy from what he believes are misguided misinterpretations of a far more complex individual. The Lincoln field is full of both professional and amateur historians, always ready to defend Lincoln’s legacy from any perceived slights. However, Foner should be noted for his likewise ability to analyze and engage with Malcolm X’s criticisms rather than tossing them aside. Foner becomes one of the few historians to provide Malcolm X with the same degree of understanding as scholars generally give Abraham Lincoln. Foner noted that, “In the early 1960s, Malcolm X urged blacks to ‘take down the picture’ of Lincoln – that is, to place their trust in their own efforts to secure racial justice rather than waiting for a new white emancipator.”[25] Unlike the press and white public in Malcolm X’s time, Foner acknowledged that Malcolm X’s criticisms of Lincoln were a product of his own lived experiences and activism.

From Malcolm X’s study of history, the widely held view that Abraham Lincoln was a true abolitionist with a lifelong devotion to the freedom and elevation of African Americans was at odds with the evidence shown in the historical record. While Lincoln’s actions did help bring about the end of slavery and such a step was crucial in the advancement of civil rights in the United States, Malcolm X took exception to the elevation of Abraham Lincoln above all others in the cause of abolition. Malcolm X observed that the veneration for Lincoln could sometimes produce toxic results as it overshadowed the acknowledgment of Black Americans who fought for their own freedom and future. Lincoln was also sometimes used against those in the Civil Rights movement as even white supremacists invoked Lincoln as a way of demanding obedience, as if Black Americans still owed the white race for Lincoln’s magnanimous actions a hundred years earlier. It was for all these reasons that Malcolm X rejected and spoke out against the mythicized Abraham Lincoln. He knowingly created controversy through his criticisms of Lincoln in order to reframe the discussion away from the century dead, white marble martyr seated in his shrine and towards the conditions Black citizens faced in the U.S. in the 1960s.

While he gave interviews to white reporters and authors, Malcolm X’s audience was always his Black brothers and sisters. When Malcolm X referenced Lincoln’s racist views, he did so to start conversations among Black Americans about their own form of internalized white supremacy. During his short time on earth, X channeled the words he heard as a child, doing all that he could to motivate Black citizens to rise up and, “accomplish what you will.” Malcolm X rejected the internalization of Abraham Lincoln as a white savoir. He rejected this mythicized view of Lincoln and sought to replace it with stories of Black autonomy and strength. In the end, Malcolm X’s criticisms of Abraham Lincoln were based on legitimate historical evidence. This evidence was provided through the lens of historian Joel Rogers who shared in Malcolm X’s view that the accomplishments of Black Americans had been drastically overshadowed and rejected. Malcolm X had grown up with a legacy of Abraham Lincoln which, through his study, he came to see as a myth. As a result, Malcolm X fought against that mythology because he came to see Lincoln’s legacy as a form of white supremacy. By challenging Lincoln’s legacy through historical analysis, Malcolm X worked to counter the mythology that he felt detracted from the accomplishments of Black Americans in shaping and claiming their own destinies.


Notes

[1] Malcolm X, Interview by Robert Penn Warren, June 2, 1964, tape 2, transcript and recording, University of Kentucky, https://whospeaks.library.vanderbilt.edu/interview/malcolm-x.
[2] John H. Franklin, “The Use and Misuse of the Lincoln Legacy,” Journal of the Abraham Lincoln Association 7, no. 1 (1985): 35.
[3] Malcolm X, Interview by Robert Penn Warren, June 2, 1964, tape 2, transcript and recording, University of Kentucky, https://whospeaks.library.vanderbilt.edu/interview/malcolm-x.
[4] Malcolm X, The Portable Malcolm X Reader edited by Manning Marable and Garrett Felber, (New York: Penguin Books, 2013), 290.
[5] Ibid.
[6] Malcolm X in interview by unknown reporter, 1960, Budget Films, http://www.budgetfilms.com/clip/13991/.
[7] Thabiti Asulkile, “J. A. Rogers: The Scholarship of an Organic Intellectual” The Black Scholar 36, no. 2-3 (Summer/Fall 2006): 35.
[8] Pittsburgh Courier, Jan. 10, 1959, p6
[9] Thabiti Asulkile, “J. A. Rogers: The Scholarship of an Organic Intellectual”, 38
[10] Malcolm X, The Autobiography of Malcolm X, (New York: Ballantine Books, 1964), 9.
[11] Joel A. Rogers, Africa’s Gift to America: The Afro-American in the Making and Saving of the United States, (New York: Futuro Press, 1961), 157.
[12] Ibid.
[13] Joel A. Rogers, Africa’s Gift to America, 202.
[14] Joel A. Rogers, Africa’s Gift to America, 198.
[15] Carl Sandburg, Abraham Lincoln: The War Years Vol. One, (Philadelphia: C. Scribner’s Sons, 1926), 567.
[16] Joel A. Rogers, Africa’s Gift to America, 203.
[17] Joel A. Rogers, Africa’s Gift to America, 203 – 205.
[18] Malcolm X, The Autobiography of Malcolm X, 264.
[19] Malcolm X, The Portable Malcolm X Reader, 243.
[20] Malcolm X, The Portable Malcolm X Reader, 272.
[21] Malcolm X, “Abe Failed Negroes: Malcolm X” Daily Illinois State Journal (Springfield, IL), Aug. 26, 1963.
[22] Ibid.
[23] Ibid.
[24] Isaac Arnold, The Life of Abraham Lincoln, (Chicago: Jansen, McClurg, & Company, 1885), 415.
[25] Eric Foner, “Was Abraham Lincoln a Racist?” Los Angeles Times (CA), Apr. 9, 2000.

Categories: History | Tags: , | 6 Comments

The Assassin’s Doctor is Free Today!

I am a big fan of the work of author Robert Summers. Bob is a great-grandchild of Dr. Samuel Mudd and has done an extraordinary amount of research on his ancestor. He takes an honest approach relating Dr. Mudd’s connections to John Wilkes Booth’s plot to kidnap Lincoln and his subsequent assistance to the assassin on the run. Bob has released several books on specific aspects of Dr. Mudd’s life, but his magnum opus is his book, The Assassin’s Doctor: The Life and Letters of Dr. Samuel A. Mudd. The book is not only a biography of Dr. Mudd, but also a valuable collection of primary sources about Dr. Mudd. I have a paperback copy of The Assassin’s Doctor and it weighs in at over 700 pages! It’s a priceless part of my library and I am constantly referring to it when I research and write about Dr. Mudd.

While I, of course, encourage you all to purchase Bob Summers’ wonderful physical book, for today only (12/5) you can get the ebook version of this book for FREE! Amazon is selling its Kindle ebook version of The Assassin’s Doctor for a whopping $0. It’s the same content of Bob’s 700+ page book, sent directly to your phone, tablet, or computer…for free! Please take advantage of this amazing offer by clicking here or on the picture below.

Even if you don’t have an Amazon Kindle (I don’t), you can still get this book. All you will have to do is install the free Kindle app on your smartphone or tablet. After that you can download the free ebook version of The Assassin’s Doctor from Amazon and read it right in the app. The ebook version has the added benefit of being completely searchable. It’s better than a traditional index!

As stated, this deal is only good for today, Saturday, December 5, 2020. If you are reading this after 12/5, I encourage you to still pick up Robert Summers book. It’s a great resource and worth far more than the regular list price.

Happy reading!

Dave

Categories: History, News | Tags: | 10 Comments

The Confessions of George Atzerodt

Of all the Lincoln assassination conspirators, George Atzerodt was perhaps the most prolific stool pigeon. After being arrested by the authorities, Atzerodt was quick to turn on his fellow conspirators and do his best to diminish the role he played in Lincoln’s death. The rule of law in 1865 prevented defendants from testifying and so Atzerodt hoped that by spilling his guts to investigators early he might become a primary trial witness instead of a defendant. Unfortunately for Atzerodt, this did not occur. He sung like a canary, named names, lied, and exaggerated only to find himself still put on trial and subsequently executed for having conspired with John Wilkes Booth.

Several days ago, reader Dennis Urban posted a comment on the trial testimony page for George Atzerodt. Due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, Dennis was having difficulty gaining access to three confessions associated to George Atzerodt. Namely, Dennis wanted to see Atzerodt’s April 25, 1865 confession given by him aboard the U.S.S. Saugus, a confession published by the Daily National Intelligencer newspaper on July 9, 1865, and a third confession published by the Baltimore American and Commercial Advertiser on January 18, 1869. Having assembled Dennis’ request, I was just going to reply to him with links to the documents he requested when I realized an assembly of the different Atzerodt Confessions with their transcriptions would make for a useful post. What follows are the known confession documents connected to George Atzerodt.


  1. Affidavit of Frank Munroe, April 23, 1865

After George Atzerodt was arrested in Montgomery County, Maryland on April 19 and brought to Washington, he was placed alongside many of the other arrested conspirators aboard an ironclad warship that lay at anchor in the Anacostia River. George Atzerodt was kept on the U.S.S. Saugus and the guard detail on the Saugus was commanded by Capt. Frank Munroe. According to Capt. Munroe, on the evening of April 22, Atzerodt asked to speak to him in order to give him a confession of sorts. The following is Capt. Munroe’s affidavit of the conversation he had with Atzerodt, made the next day:

“As well as I can recollect, last night one of my sentries on post over Atzerodt and Richter informed me that the former desired to see me. Atzerodt told me he had sent for me for the purpose of letting me know that he was innocent of any crime and also that he was instrumental in saving the life of the Vice President. Further that he was visited about three weeks since by a man named John Surrat at Port Tobacco Md. Surrat informed him that Booth was to open a theatre in Richmond, and also that they (Booth & Surrat) had a vessel to run the blockade and in both enterprises he was wanted. Atzerodt came to Washington with Surrat and was told by Booth that he must assassinate Mr. Johnson. This he refused to do and Booth threatened to blow his brains out unless he complied. He still refused, and returned to Port Tobacco. A second time Surrat came for him and he came again to Washington and took a room at Kirkwood’s. He was again asked to murder Mr. Johnson, and again refused. The day on which the President was killed a man named David Harrold (or Harrol) brought to Atzerodt’s room a knife and revolver and then left the Hotel. Atzerodt becoming frightened locked his door and walked down the street. He knew that the President’s assassination was spoken of, but did not believe it would be carried into effect. When he heard the deed had been accomplished, he took a room at the Kimmel House and the next morning went to Montgomery County to the house of his cousin (Richter) at which place he was arrested.

Frank Munroe”

During the trial of the conspirators, an attempt was made by George Atzerodt’s defense attorney, William Doster, to have Capt. Munroe testify about the confession he was given. It was Doster’s hope to show that Atzerodt had denied Booth’s demand that he murder Andrew Johnson. However, the prosecution objected to the words of the accused being testified to in such a way, and so Capt. Munroe did not get to say much on the witness stand. This affidavit is part of the National Archives’ Lincoln assassination files and can be viewed on the website Fold3, by clicking here.


  1. Atzerodt confession given to Col. Henry H. Wells, April 25, 1865

A few days after his confession to Capt. Munroe, Atzerodt talked to Col. Henry H. Wells. Wells was undoubtedly accompanied by an aide who took down Atzerodt’s confession either in shorthand which was later transcribed, or in longhand. The final document contains superfluous periods and a lack of capitalization. The confession is also non-linear, jumping back and forth between before and during April 14th. The substance and nature of the confession come undoubtedly from Atzerodt even though it is not signed. I have retained the spelling as presented in the original document, but remember that this was not written by Atzerodt and so it should not be used as a judge of his literacy.

“April 25, 1865

George A. Atzerodt says

I live at Port Tobacco. John H. Surratt came after me in the winter. I was at work & could not leave. it was after Christmas. he said he was going to get a great prize and he wanted me because I was acquainted with the Potomac. to go with him said he was going to run the Blockade. came again three weeks after, we came to Washington together he took me to his Mother’s and I staid one week. told me the other parties were over in New York and others in Baltimore. gave me no names there. I returned home again. went home and stayed one week and he wrote for me to come on. I came up in the Stage. Stopped at Kimmel House and Pa House 357 C. St. John Surratt came to the Hotel to take me to his Mother’s House. here I was introduced to Booth in Com. Genl’s ^of Prisoners^ office. nothing of importance was there said. we were to meet again at an early day. the day was not fixed. We met again but Booth went to New York before I saw him again. as I understood after he came back he came to Penna House and asked me how I would like to go into the oil business. I said I would like it if I had the Capital. he said dont mind the Capital I have that. I said I would as soon as not go into the business. I was drinking hard and he asked me not to drink so hard. He then went to New York again. J. Surratt came and borrowed some money of me. He was going to New York with a Lady. Surratt had two Horses at Howard’s Stable. one or both of the Horses came from down near Bryantown. he claimed to own them. one of them had a blind eye. it was a large bay Horse. the other was a smaller bay Horse. Surratt wrote to me from New York to sell the Horses this was I think in March. I sold the small Horse about a week after I got the order. Booth then returned from New York and he took me to a Lady’s House near the Patent Office. it is on the Corner of 9th & F st. it is a Hotel or Boarding House (Probably the Herndon House) he took me into the room and introduced me to a young man he called James Wood. this was after the fall of Richmond and two or three days before the President was killed and proposed to go to Richmond to open a Theatre if we could get passes. after that was over we took a walk on the Avanue. he told me to meet him that night at the same place: David L. Harrold came there that night. I came in at half past 7 oclock and told them I wanted to meet a young man on the Street who wanted one to go to the Theatre. I took him to the Street by the House left there and went in alone they saw they were going. Booth told me I ought not to bring any person near the House. we did not have much to say. we went out parted and went to the Theatre. Booth and Harrold said they were going out. dont know whether they did go or not. before we parted we agreed to meet the next day at the National where I could call or he would meet me at this House again. I went to the National at ½ past 10 oclock a.m. I think it was Thursday. he took me to his room. he then Spoke to me again about drinking so much I asked what he ment by it. he laughfed and said never mind. he then told me to go to the Kirkwood and get a Pass from V. President Johnston. he said he would be there with a man to recommend me. I went there registered my name and got a room and paid for one days board. that was on Thursday. about 3 oclock Harrold came there after me He said Booth and Wood wanted to see me. Wood is a tall man with black hair straight. He is a strong stout made man. no hair on his face. rather poor. he is rather a good looking man. I cant remember faces or features well enough to describe them. he had a wild look in his eyes. Saw him clean his teeth. he carried a toothbrush with him. think he had long legs. saw a Bottle of hairoil on his stand. think his arms was long. he was a large well built man. He wore Boots. wore a soft Hat. leed Color I think not black I am sure: we walked down the St. we were to have met in a Restaurant but Booth was not there and we met down at the National. he was not there. Harold went off & said he would find him. we were to wait. I got tired of waiting and left afterwards into Seventh St. and Stopped and drank at deferent Restruants. about half past five or near six oclock I went to the Kirkwood House and they told me a young man had called there for me. I took a chair and Harold came in and said Booth and Wood wanted to see me immediately. He then asked me if I had my Key. he wanted to go to my room and show me something. we went to the room and drawed a large Knife and a large Pistol out of his Boot and said let us go and see Booth and Wood. we went to their House on 9th St (Henderson House) and they then proposed the murder to me. Booth proposed that we should Kill the President. said it would be the greatest thing in the world. this was about half past Six or Seven Oclock on Friday. that Wood would go up to Seward’s House and Kill him – That he and Harrold had been and seen Andrew Johnston and found out where he was. he then asked me if I was willing myself to assist them. I said that I did not Come for that and was not willing to murder a person. They said they did not want me to do any act but only to show them the road into the lower part of Maryland and if I did not I would suffer for it. I said I would do all I could on the road. they said will you and I promised that I would. Booth then told me to get a Horse and stop near the Eastern Branch Bridge. we then came out: Herrold wanted me to go to the Kirkwood House and asked me if I had the Key of the room. I told him no. I did not go to the Hotel and we parted there & I have never seen them since. Some time in the morning Harrold came and wanted I should go down to Surrattsville. he said he Booth has some things there and wanted me to see after them. they were in Ms. Surratts old House Kept by Lloyd and I agreed to go. I went and hired a Horse at 1 Oclock. I got a small Bay Horse at a stable on 8th St. above Franklin St. about one Oclock and rode him till about three Oclock and then put him in Nailor’s stable and left him there till between six & seven Oclock. then I took him and rode out to the Navy Yard then back again to the Avanue where I got some Oysters and rode down to the Kimmel House. he took the Horse away rom the stable about ½ past 7 or 8 Oclock and did not take him back. I did not go to Sairattsville becase I could not see Booth that evening

They wanted I should show them the road to Indiantown on Maryland Point. they were to go to Sairattsville around Piscotoway and to strike the Potomac. they were to go through Bumpy Oak. To go to Bumpy Oak you have the road leading from Washington to Bryantown at Terbe [T.B.] which is about six miles from Sariattsville. you turn off to the right. It is about 25 or 30 miles from Turbe to Maryland Point the road leading from Turbe is not much traveled. I dont know any one at Maryland Point that would aid them to cross. I suppose after they got to Virginia they would go to the Confederate lines. Nanjemoy Creek runs down by Maryland Point.

Harrold was well acquainted with the Shores of the Potomac and I think if he got over to Piny Church or to the Bridges on the Port Tobo road near Bryantown. I would go to Maryland Point for it is the most direct and there are many Cross Roads.

I understood that Woods came from Virginia but dont know the County. I heard him Speak of Warrenton and Fauquier Co Wood was to Kill Seward, Booth the President and Harold V. P. Johnston. I last saw Sarrott about a week before the murder. dont know where he is but think he had gone to New York. I went up to Woods to the Navy Yard. about 12 Oclock after the assasfination went in a street Carr got in near the National & went up to the end of the road and then road back to the Depot and then walked up 4 ½ St. and there met a Stranger who asked me where he could find a Hotel to stop at and I told him to come to the Pa House and he did so. he was a stranger to me and I never seen him before and have not since. do not know his name. I dont know whether Ms Sarrott was in this businesf or not. I stopped in Mrs. Sarrott House for three or four days I think. they called me Port Tobacco. Booth and Harold sometimes spoke of Mosby and asked where he was. they also spoke of going to Canada after the assasfination. when Booth went to New York last he said he was going to Canada.”

A digitized copy of the original confession procured by Col. Wells can be seen by clicking here. Please note that on Fold3, the website that hosts the National Archives’ Lincoln assassination papers, this former microfilm reel is transcribed backwards so you will have to click to the left in order to view the next page of the confession.


  1. Atzerodt confession given to James McPhail and John L. Smith, May 1, 1865

Shortly after being transferred from the U.S.S. Saugus to the Old Arsenal Penitentiary, George Atzerodt was interviewed by his brother-in-law, John L. Smith who worked as a detective for James McPhail, the Baltimore Provost Marshal, who was also present. Over the course of two hours, Atzerodt gave a lengthy confession to the men. This statement was “lost” for over 100 years until 1977, when it was discovered by Lincoln assassination researcher Joan Chaconas with the family of Atzerodt’s lawyer, William Doster.

“James Wood sometimes called Mosby boarded with Mrs. Murray an Irish woman on the corner of 9 & F St. in a three story house, front on the upper end of the P.O. and South End of Patent Office – with basement entrance on the left side going up 9th St. from Avenue. He was a little over six feet, black hair, smooth round face, gray coat black pants, & spring coat mixed with white & gray. Saw him last time on Friday evening about 5 o’clock with Booth. He sent letters to the post office with James Hall. He was brought from New York. Surratt told me so. He said he had been a prisoner in Balte. near the depot. He was arrested for whipping a negro woman. Mosby was Wood’s nick name – did not know him by any other name than mentioned. Gust. Powell now arrested in Old Capitol was one of the party. He went also by the name of Gustavus Spencer, Surratt and Spencer came from Richmond, together just after it had fallen.

James Donaldson, a low chunky man about 23 or 24 years of age, small-potted, dark complexion (not very) deep plain black suit; only saw him one time & this was Wednesday previous to the murder, he was having an interview with Booth and told him to meet him on Friday eve & he replied he would and left and went up Penn. Avenue towards the Treasury building. I was under the impression he came on with Booth.

Arnold, O’Laughlin, Surratt, Harold, Booth and myself met once at a saloon or restaurant on the Aven. bet 13 & 14 St.

The Saml. Thomas registered on the morning of the 15th April at Penn Hotel, I met on my to hotel, he was an entire Stranger to me. I left the Hotel alone on the morning of 15th of April. A Lieut. In room No. 51 will prove this. Surratt bought a boat from Dick Smoot & James Brawner living about Port Tobacco, for which they paid $300.00 and was to give one hundred Dolls. extra for taking care of it till wanted. Booth told me that Mrs. Surratt went to Surrattsville to get out the guns (Two Carbines) which had been taken to that place by Herold, This was Friday. The carriage was hired at Howards.

I saw a man named Weightman who boarded at Surratt’s at Post Office. he told me he had to go down the Country with Mrs. Surratt. This was on Friday, Also.

I am certain Dr. Mudd knew all about it, as Booth sent (as he told me) liquors & provisions for the trip with the President to Richmond, about two weeks before the murder to Dr. Mudd’s.

Booth never said until the last night (Friday) that he intended to kill the President.

Herold came to the Kirkwood House, same evening for me to go to see Booth. I went with Herold & saw Booth. He then said he was going to kill the President and Wood, the Secy. of State. I did not believe him. This occurred in the evening about 7 ½ o’clock. It was dark. I took a room at Kirkwood’s. Both Herold & I went to the room left Herold’s coat, knife, & pistol in the room and never again returned to it. Booth said during the day that the thing had failed and proposed to go to Richmond & open the theatre. I am not certain but I think I stayed one night at Kirkwood’s (Thursday) we were to try and get papers to Richmond from Mr. Johnson.

Booth spoke of getting the papers. He would get them out of the Theatre. Wood & Booth were apparently confidential with each other. Plenty of parties in Charles County knew of the kidnapping affair.

One of the men named Charles Yates, knew all about it, he went to Richmond during the winter he was to row the Presdt & party over.

Thos. Holborn [Harbin] was to meet us on the road and help in the kidnaping. Bailey & Barnes knew nothing of the affair unless Booth told Bailey & he told Barnes. Booth had met Bailey on “C” St. with me. I did not meet Booth or any of the party in Baltimore on or about the 31 of March.

Boyle also killed Capt. Watkins near Annapolis last month, was one of the party, in the conspiracy.

I repeat I never knew anything about the murder.

I was intended to give assistance to the kidnapping. They come to Port Tobacco (Surratt & Booth) several times and brought me to Washington. The pistol given me I sold or received a loan on it Saturday morng after the murder from John Caldwick at Matthews & wells, Store, High St. Georgetown. The knife I threw away just above Mrs. Canby’s boarding house the night of the murder about 11 o’clock when I took my horse to stable. I had the horse out to help to take the President. I did not believe he was going to be killed, although Booth had said so. After I heard of the murder I run about the city like a crazy man.

I have not seen Arnold for some time, but saw O’Laughlin on Thursday evening, on the Avenue at Saloon near near U.S. Hotel. He told me he was going to see Booth.

Wood did not go on the street in day time for fear of arrest. When he first came to Washington he boarded at Surratt’s. This was in Feby. He (Wood) went with Booth last of February to N. York.

Booth we understood paid the way. I know nothing about Canada. Wood told me he had horses in Virginia. Saml. Arnold & Mike O’Laughlin ought to know where the horses and pistols were bought.

Sam & Mike have a buggy and horse kept at stable in rear of Theatre. Booth had several horses at same place. I think the horses property was in Surratt’s name. I sold one of the horses & paid part of the money to Booth and part to Herold, who said he would see Booth about it. The saddle and bridle belonging to Booth is at Penn House, where I left it. I overhead Booth when in conversation with Wood say, That he visited a chambermaid at Seward’s House & that she was pretty. He said he had a great mind to give her his diamond pin. Herold talked about powders & medicines on Friday night at Mrs. Condby’s. Wood, Herold, Booth & myself were present. This was a meeting place because Wood could not go out for fear of arrest.

Kate Thompson or Kate Brown, as she was known by both names, put up at National & was well known at Penn House. She knew all about the affair. Surratt went to Richd with her last March & Gust. Howell made a trip with her to same place. This woman is about twenty yrs of age, good looking and well dressed. Black hair and eyes, round face from South Carolina & a widow.

I did not see Surratt for seven or eight days before the murder nor have I seen him since.

Miss Thompson or Brown had two large light trunks, one much larger than the other. Young Weightman at Surratt’s ought to know about this woman. This remark made by me in Baltimore on the 31 of March alluded to blockade running & privateering altogether & Booth said he had money to buy a steamer & wanted me to go in it.

I was to be one of them. In this way I was going to make a pile of money.

Booth said he had met a party in N. York who would get the Prest. certain. They were going to mine the end of Kirk House, next to War Dept. They knew an entrance to accomplish it through. Spoke about getting friends of the Presdt. to get up an entertainment & they would mix in it, have a serenade &c & thus get at the Presdt. & party.

These were understood to be projects.

Booth said if he did not get him quick the N. York crowd would. Booth knew the New York party apparently by a sign. He saw Booth give some kind of sign to two parties on the Avenue who he said were from New York. My Uncle Mr. Richter and family in Monty. Co. Md. knew nothing about the affair either before or after the occurrence & never suspected me of any thing wrong as I was in the habit of staying with him. My father formerly owned part of the property now owned by Richter. Finis.”

The original of this confession was sold at auction shortly after being discovered. Copies of the original can be found in the James O. Hall Research Center in Clinton, Maryland. I based this transcription of the lost confession from an appendix in Edward Steers’ book, His Name is Still Mudd.


  1. Memorandum by Col. John Foster regarding George Atzerodt, Undated

Col. John Foster aided the War Department in sifting through all of the evidence collected during the investigation and manhunt for John Wilkes Booth. In an undated 40 page document, Col. Foster, summarized the statements of over a dozen witnesses and associates of John Wilkes Booth, essentially tracing back his conspiracy and execution thereof. Included in the document is a summary of Atzerodt’s previous confession (or confessions). The following is Col. Foster’s interpretation of Atzerodt’s words.

“The Prisoner, George A. Atzerodt

In his confession stated substantially that between one and two months ago he was called on by John H. Surratt who informed him that he wanted him to go into a scheme by which a large sum of money was to be obtained, giving him to understand that it was a very extreme plan of blockade running without giving any further details. He stated that John H. Surratt induced him to come to this city to engage in this blockade running scheme. He came here, boarded at the house of Mrs. Surratt for a few days, during which time he was introduced to a man by the name of Wood, and also to Booth, and met David Herold, whom he had previously known & that they all of them had several interviews in his presence. In all of which references was made to this scheme of blockade running; but on none of the occasions were there any details given, nor did he have any idea how the scheme was to be completed until later in the afternoon of the evening of the assassination, when he was called to the room of Wood at that time boarding at the Herndon House, corner of 9th and F; that he found there Booth, Wood, alias Payne, and Harold; and then Booth told him that he was going to “kill Lincoln,” and Wood said that he was to kill Mr. Seward; and they proposed to him that he should kill Mr. Johnson. Atzerodt said that he refused to do so, but agreed to pilot them, which they requested him to do, as he was familiar with the county toward Port Tobacco.”

A digitized copy of Col. Foster’s summary can be seen by clicking here.


  1. Statement of George Atzerodt included in William Doster’s closing arguments of June 21, 1865

Having been unsuccessful in getting a confession of sorts included in the official testimony of the trial of the conspirators, William Doster used the time allotted for his closing arguments on June 21, 1865 to make sure Atzerodt’s story was told. Doster began his closing arguments by reading aloud this statement from his client. Doster no doubt assisted Atzerodt in composing this version of his confession, with the lawyer likely writing the whole thing after several interviews with his client. In this confession, Atzerodt openly admits that he was involved in a kidnapping scheme against Lincoln, but that he abandoned the plot once it became one of assassination.

“I am one of a party who agreed to capture the President of the United States, but I am not one of a party to kill the President of the United States, or any member of the Cabinet, or General Grant, or Vice-President Johnson. The first plot to capture failed; the second – to kill – I broke away from the moment I heard of it.

This is the way it came about: On the evening of the 14th of April I met Booth and Payne at the Herndon House, in this city, at eight o’clock. He (Booth) said he himself should murder Mr. Lincoln and General Grant, Payne should take Mr. Seward, and I should take Mr. Johnson. I told him I would not do it; that I had gone into the thing to capture, but I was not going to kill. He told me I was a fool; that I would be hung any how, and that it was death for every man that backed out; and so we parted. I wandered about the streets until about two o’clock in the morning, and then went to the Kimmell House, and from there pawned my pistol at Georgetown, and went to my cousin’s house, in Montgomery county, where I was arrested the 19th following. After I was arrested, I told Provost Marshal Wells and Provost Marshal McPhail the whole story; also told it to Capt. Monroe, and Col. Wells told me if I pointed out the way Booth had gone I would be reprieved, and so I told him I thought he had gone done Charles county in order to cross the Potomac. The arms which were found in my room at the Kirkwood House, and a black coat, do not belong to me; neither were they left to be used by me. On the afternoon of the 14th of April, Herold called to see me and left the coat there. It is his coat, and all in it belongs to him, as you can see by the handkerchiefs, marked with his initial, and with the name of his sister, Mrs. Naylor. Now I will state how I passed the whole of the evening of the 14th of April. In the afternoon, at about two o’clock, I went to Keleher’s stable, on Eighth street, near D, and hired a dark bay mare and rode into the country for pleasure, and on my return put her up at Naylor’s stable. The dark bay horse which I had kept at Naylor’s before, on about the 3d of April, belonged to Booth; also the saddle and bridle. I do not know what became of him. At about six in the evening, I went to Naylor’s again and took out the mare, rode out for an hour, and returned her to Naylor’s. It was then nearly eight, and I told him to keep the mare ready at ten o’clock, in order to return her to the man I hired her from. From there I went to the Herndon House. Booth sent a messenger to the “Oyster Bay,” and I went. Booth wanted me to murder Mr. Johnson. I refused. I then went to the “Oyster Bay,” on the Avenue, above Twelfth street, and whiled away the time until nearly ten. At ten I got the mare, and having taken a drink with the hostler, galloped about town, and went to the Kimmell House. From there I rode down to the depot, and returned my horse, riding up Pennsylvania Avenue to Keleher’s. From Keleher’s, I went down to the Navy Yard to get a room with Wash. Briscoe. He had none, and by the time I got back to the Kimmell House it was nearly two. The man Thomas was a stranger I met on the street. Next morning, as stated, I went to my cousin Richter’s, in Montgomery county.

George A. Atzerodt”

This statement is included in the Benn Pitman transcript of the trial of the conspirators along with the rest of Doster’s closing arguments.


  1. “Dying Statement of Atzerodt”, Baltimore American and Commercial Advertiser, July 8, 1865

On the day after the execution of George Atzerodt and the three other condemned conspirators, the newspapers were filled with stories about their last hours. The following is an excerpt from a larger article about all of the conspirators. The article fails to give the identity of the person or persons to whom Atzerodt was supposed to have given this final confession, but implies that it was made to his spiritual advisors, Rev. Butler and Rev. Winchester. While it should be taken with a grain of salt, there is nothing out of the ordinary with this account.

“Dying Statement of Atzerodt

During the morning a female friend or sister of Atzerodt, from Port Tobacco, had an interview with him, she leaving him about eleven o’clock. He, during the morning, freely conversing with Dr. Butler and Mr. Winchester on religious topics, and before going to the gallows he made the following statement:

He took a room at the Kirkwood House on Thursday, in order to get a pass from Vice-President Johnson to go to Richmond. Booth was to lease the Richmond Theatre and the President was to be invited to attend it when visiting Richmond and captured there. Herold brought the pistol and knife to the room about 2 ½ o’clock on Friday. He (Atzerodt) said he would not have anything to do with the murder of Johnson, when Booth said that Herold had more courage than Atzerodt, and he wanted Atzerodt to be with Herold to urge him to do it. There was a meeting at a restaurant about the middle of March, at which John Surratt, O’Laughlin, Booth, Arnold, Payne, Herold and himself were present, when a plan to capture the President was discussed. – They had heard the President was to visit a camp, and they proposed to capture him, coach and all; drive through Long Old Fields to “T.B.,” where the coach was to be left and fresh horses were to be got, and the party would proceed to the river to take a boat. Herold took a buggy to “T.B.,” in anticipation that Mr. Lincoln would be captured, and he was to go with the party to the river. Slavery had put him on the side of the South; he had heard it preached in church that the curse of God was upon the slaves, for they were turned black. He always hated the n—-r, and felt that they (the negroes) should be kept in ignorance. He had not received any money from Booth, although he had been promised that if they were successful they should never want; that they would be honored throughout the South, and that they could secure an exchange of prisoners and the recognition of the Confederacy.

As soon as Atzerodt was informed of his sentence he betook himself to prepare to meet his God, and at once sent for a Lutheran minister, and Dr. Butler was called. He expressed surprise that more time was not allowed him, and just previous to his being led out to the scaffold expressed himself as not quite sure of having made peace with God.”

Click here to view the original Baltimore American article through Google Newspapers.


  1. “Confession of Atzerodt”, Baltimore American and Commercial Advertiser, July 10, 1865

Just two days after publishing their first, slightly truncated “deathbed” confession of George Atzerodt before he stepped onto the gallows, the Baltimore American newspaper supplied another one. This unique piece is a mixture between biography and confession that was said to have been “prepared by one who has known him since his arrest,” and that the details, “were given the writer by Atzerodt himself but a short time before his death.” The newspaper fails to give the identity of who wrote the piece. However, this biographical confession bears a striking resemblance to the next confession that follows later that was supposedly written by Atzerodt himself while in his jail cell. It’s possible that the Baltimore American got a hold of Atzerodt’s final confession (perhaps from William Doster) and published it in an edited form, supplementing it with information about Atzerodt’s life. The third person format of the confession should give us pause, however, as we don’t know how much of the confession truly came from Atzerodt and how much was substituted by the unknown writer. Lastly, this “confession” was widely printed in other newspapers including the Daily National Intelligencer.

“Several statements have been published by Washington correspondents of the New York Press purporting to be confessions of Atzerodt, containing some little truth and a great deal of falsehood. The following sketch of his life was prepared by one who has known him since his arrest, and the details of the plots to abduct and murder the President which are set forth below, were given the writer by Atzerodt himself but a short time before his death.

George Andrew Atzerodt was born in the Kingdom of Prussia in 1835; came to this country with his parents in 1844, and arrived in Baltimore, where he resided with his family for about one year, when, with his parents, he moved to Westmoreland county, Va. His father farmed and carried on his business, that of a blacksmith, at the Court House. Atzerodt was placed as an apprentice to the coach-making business at the Court House, where he learned the painting branch; remained at the Court House until 1856; went to Washington and worked for Mr. Young, and also for Mr. McDermott, well known coach makers. In 1857 he joined his brother in the coach making business at Port Tobacco. This continued for four years, when the firm was dissolved. After this he carried on painting in Port Tobacco until last fall, when he met with John H. Surratt and a man named Harlow. Surratt induced him to join in the conspiracy of abducting the President. Surratt, knowing the weak character of Atzerodt’s mind, was not long in gaining ascendancy over it. Atzerodt’s knowledge of men and the country in the vicinity of Port Tobacco, and, in fact, of all the counties bounding on the Potomac, gave to the conspirators a valuable assistant. He was well acquainted with Herold, whom he was not long in finding out, and who was also engaged in the conspiracy. Surratt went several times to Port Tobacco, and often sent for Atzerodt to come to Washington, where he was known to many as “Port Tobacco,” and leered upon as a very weak-minded man – in fact, was regarded as a very harmless and silly fellow. Surratt introduced him to Booth, who feasted him and furnished him with money and horses – the horses being held in the name of Surratt, who appeared to be the principal in the absence of Booth.

The first meeting where all the conspirators actively engaged was at a saloon on Pennsylvania avenue, called Getteer’s [Gautier’s]. At this meeting O’Laughlin, Arnold, Booth, Surratt, Herold and Atzerodt were present. The first attempt to abduct the President was to be on the Seventh street road. This was about the middle of March. They expected the President to visit a camp. O’Laughlin, Arnold, Payne, Surratt, Booth and Atzerodt were present. Herold left with a buggy with the carbines for T.B. The plan was to seize the coach of the President; Surratt to jump on the box, as he was considered the best driver, and make for T.B. by way of Long Old Fields, to the Potomac River, in the vicinity of Nanjemoy creek, where they had a boat waiting with men to carry over the party. The boat was capable of carrying fifteen men; a large flat bottom bateaux, painted lead color, which had been bought for the purpose by Booth, from two men named Brawner and Smoot. This plan failed, the President not coming as they desired. Herold went next morning to Washington. All things remained quiet for some time after this. Booth went North, Arnold and O’Laughlin to Baltimore, Payne (or Wood) left also for New York. A man named Howell was about this time arrested. This alarmed Surratt, as he left with a Mrs. Slater for the North. This was about the first of April. The next plan was to visit the theatre on the night the President was expected to be there. It was arranged that Surratt and Booth were to go to the box; Arnold, O’Laughlin and Payne were to get some important part in getting him out. Herold and Atzerodt were to have charge of the horses and an actor was to be secured to put out the gas. Booth represented that the best assistant he had was an actor. In this plan buggies and horses were to be used. A rope was procured and kept at Lloyd’s tavern, to be stretched across the road to impede the cavalry in the pursuit. The route this time was the same as before, expect they were to cross Eastern Branch Bridge. This whole affair failed and Booth said it is all up and spoke of going to Richmond and opening a theater, and promised Atzerodt employment in it in some capacity, Atzerodt was waiting or Booth to arrange his going to Richmond when the affair was renewed again. Atzerodt took a room at the Kirkwood House, Herrold called on him and left his knife and pistol and coat in the room, and told him Booth wanted to see him at the Herndon House, to which place he repaired in company with Herold. This was in the evening about 6 o’clock. They there were met by Booth and Payne. Booth told Atzerodt “You must kill Johnson.” Atzerodt demurred, when Booth replied: “Herold has more courage, he will do it. Go get your horses; what will become of you anyhow?” Atzerodt and Herold went down Ninth street together. Atzerodt said to Herold: “We must not disturb Mr. Johnson;” Herold laughed, and wanted the key of the room; it was refused by Atzerodt, who expressed himself fearful that harm would be done Mr. Johnson. Herold left him to go see Booth, and Atzerodt went to the Oyster Bay; Herold came after him and said Booth wanted to see him; Atzerodt promised to get his horse and go to Booth. Atzerodt did not return to the Kirkwood House that night. Booth told Atzerodt that Surratt was in city and had just left. Atzerodt did not see Booth after leaving him at the Herndon House, and roamed about the streets nearly all night, and first heard of the murder about 10 ½ o’clock, while passing up the Avenue. The cavalry were rushing by at the time in pursuit. He threw away his knife that night, and parted with his pistol next morning to a friend in Georgetown. Atzerodt had nothing to say at any of the former meetings. He knew nothing about the rope found with Spangler. He believed Spangler innocent, as far as he knew. Booth, when applied for money, would remark he had money in New York and would get some.

At one time, in the spring or late in the winter, a Mrs. Slater, Mrs. Surratt, John Surratt, and a Major Barron, formerly of the Rebel army, left Washington together. They got horses from Howard’s. Mrs. Surratt stopped at Surrattsville. The balance went to the Potomac. Major Barron returned. Atzerodt did not think Barron had anything to do with the conspiracy, although he was formerly in the Rebel army. One of Booth’s plans to obtain an entrance to the Secretary of State’s house was an invention which, if successful, would have involved others in his foul acts. He had made the acquaintance of a woman of strong Southern feelings living not far from the Secretary’s house, who was to make the acquaintance of a servant, to be introduced to Booth, and by this means he would learn something of the location of the rooms, &c. As far as known, it failed.

Atzerodt has been by the just sentence of the law doomed to death, and his execution has taken place. In the last moments he had the consultation of religion. His brother-in-law, brother and an intimate lady friend of the family, of Washington City, visited him. The age of his mother and the very delicate health of his sister made it prudent they should not see him, consequently they were not present, as described by some of the journals.

Atzerodt said Booth was well acquainted with Mudd, and had letters of introduction to him. Booth told Atzerodt about two weeks before the murder that he had sent provisions and liquor to Dr. Mudd for supplying the party on their way to Richmond with the President.”

Click here to view the original Baltimore American article through Google Newspapers.


  1. “Confession of Atzerodt” Baltimore American and Commercial Advertiser, January 18, 1869

Even though it was nearly four years after the death of Abraham Lincoln, the early months of 1869 were a busy time in our story. In the final days of Andrew Johnson’s time as a lame duck president he not only pardoned the surviving conspirators imprisoned at Fort Jefferson but he also authorized the bodies of John Wilkes Booth and the executed conspirators to be released to their families. What is also overlooked is the fact that 1869 marks the end of the government’s attempt to try John Surratt for his involvement in the assassination. John Surratt was in New York when Lincoln was killed and quickly escaped up to Canada where he stayed while his mother and the other conspirators were on trial. After the trial was over, he made his way to Europe and the Vatican. He was finally captured in Alexandria, Egypt at the end of 1866 and transported back to the U.S. He stood trial in a civil court for his participation with Booth, but his case ended with a hung jury in August of 1867. Nevertheless, the government continued to keep Surratt imprisoned until June of 1868 while they attempted to bring a new trial against him. It wasn’t until January of 1869 that the government essentially gave up on their case against John Surratt. With the “Surratt affair” seemingly ended for good, the Baltimore American newspaper decided that it was not time to publish a confession of George Atzerodt’s that was written in his cell before his death. This is almost certainly the same confession used to compose the odd biographical piece that constitutes number 7 on this list. The Baltimore American claimed that this confession and a statement made by Samuel Arnold were withheld until now, “under the expectation that they would be used in the trial of John Surratt.” Even in the hours before his death, George Atzerodt was naming names and trying everything he could to convince the government that he was worth more alive than dead. How much truth is in this confession (or any of them for that matter) will always be a matter of debate.

“The confession of Atzerodt was made in his cell in Washington, on the night before his execution. He asked for paper and it is written with a lead pencil, the disconnected manner of it indicating the state of mind of the prisoner…

Confession of Atzerodt Relative to the Assassination of President Lincoln

I had not seen John Surratt for about eight days before the murder. Booth told me a few days before the murder that he was in Washington. Kate Thompson, alias Brown, came from Richmond with John Surratt about the time that Richmond fell. He had come previously with Gustavus Howell, now in the Old Capitol Prison. Kate Thompson stopped at Mrs. Surratt’s and also at the National and Rinnel Hotels. This woman was about 21 years of age, spruce and neat, medium size, black eyes and fair complexion. She had a sister in New York, who, it was said, was a widow. Surratt was made known to her in New York by a signal conveyed by a small switch with a waxed end and a piece of red ribbon on the butt, handled horizontally through the fingers. This sign was given on a hotel pavement on Broadway. He went with her South, and hired a horse at Howard’s stables for the purpose.

Harold came to the Kirkwood House and left the knife, pistol and coat, on the evening of the murder. About half-past six o’clock, as I was about leaving, I having told the clerk to tell whoever might call that I was gone out. This was before Harold came in. Harold and I then went to the Herndon House, Mrs. Murray’s, corner of Ninth and F streets. It was then about 8 o’clock, and saw Booth, Wood and Payne in Wood’s room. Here the proposed murder was first mentioned. I refused to take part in it, when Booth said, “Then we will do it, but what will become of you? You had better come along and get your horse.” I then left them and went to the Oyster Bay on the avenue and stayed some time; then to the stable and got my horse and went up D street. This was about 10 o’clock. I called at the Rinnel [Kimmel] House and got a drink. I saw none of the party after we separated about 9 o’clock that evening. I then went out C street toward the Baltimore depot; went between the old and new Capitol, came on the avenue again, and concluded to come back. I rode down the avenue and the cavalry were dashing by me. This was the first I heard of the murder. I then went up Eighth street, left the horse at the stables opposite the Franklin House, and then went to the Herndon House, and heard a little boy talking about the murder. I then took a car and went towards the Navy Yard. This was about 11 o’clock, and I met two young men named Briscoe and Spates, with whom I had some talk. After walking some distance I took a car to the corner of Sixth street and Pennsylvania avenue. Here I met a man inquiring for a place to sleep at. I took him around to the Rinnel House, and we retired to one room with six beds in it. I left early next morning and passed through Georgetown on my way to Montgomery county. No one left the hotel with me.

I saw Mike O’Laughlin about a week before the President was killed. I never wanted O’Laughlin and Arnold’s aid, met O’Laughlin once or twice at Suthard’s and a few times in the street.

When we were at Murray’s, on the night of the murder, Harold said he had a letter from a printer to Andy Johnson. He said he was going to give it to him, and wanted me to give him the key of my room, which I refused to do.

Previous to the arrangement for the murder Booth heard that the President was to visit a camp. The coach was to be taken out Seventh street. Surratt was to jump on the box as he was the best driver, and drive through Old Fields to T.B. This was about the middle of March. O’Laughlin, Samuel Arnold, Payne, Surratt, Booth, Atzerodt and Herold went to T.B. with two carbines, and were to wait for us. They did so until midnight and returned to Washington the next morning. This failed. All was quiet then for some time. Booth went to New York, Arnold to Baltimore, O’Laughlin also, and Payne left for New York. After this Howell brought a woman across the Potomac. Howell was made prisoner, and Surratt took her North. About a week before the murder Booth told me that Surratt was in the Herndon House; on the night of the murder, the 14th of April, we were not altogether at the Herndon House. Booth told me Surratt was to help at the box, that he expected others in the box. Booth went from the Herndon House, down Ninth street. The words of Booth were “I saw Surratt a few moments ago.” All the parties appeared to be engaged at something on that night, and were not together. Booth appointed me and Harold to kill Johnson, in going down the street I told Booth we could not do it. Booth said Harold had more courage and he would do it. Harold and I were on Pennsylvania avenue together. I told him I would not do it, and should not go to my room for fear he would disturb Mr. Johnson. He left me to go for Booth. This was after nine o’clock. I went to the Oyster Bay, and Harold came in and said that Booth wanted to see me. Harold left me here. I promised to get my horse and come. I was not at the Kirkwood House after two o’clock. I have no recollection of being there after that. I had nothing to say at any of the meetings – One of the attempts was at the theatre; the gas was to be put out, &c. No discussion was had about failure, and what to do in that case. The coil of rope at Lloyd’s was to stretch across the road to trip the cavalry. I know nothing about Spangler’s rope; I believe him innocent. Booth told me an actor was to be the best assistant in the theatre to turn off the gas. Arnold and O’Loughlin were to grab the President and take him off; and Booth said, when applied to for money, he would go to New York and get some, as he had it there. Mrs. Surratt, Mrs. Slater, Major Banon and John Surratt left Washington together; got horses at Howard’s. Mrs. S stopped at Surrattsville. John Surratt and Mrs. Slater crossed and Banon and Mrs. Surratt came back. Banon was in the Rebel army. I don’t think Banon knew anything about the conspiracy. I sold a horse for Booth and thought the affair was about over. The murder was broached first on the 14th at night when Harold came for me. I did hear Booth say Lincoln ought to be killed. A widow woman was living near Mr. Seward’s, and Booth said by her influence he could get entrance to Seward’s house; through her influence with the chambermaid and house-servant. The girl at the house was good looking and knew the widow. Harborn [Thomas Harbin] was into it first; he came to Port Tobacco for me with John Surratt during the winter. The boat was at the head of Goose Creek and moved to Nanjemoy Creek. It was a lead-colored flat bottom boat, and will carry fifteen men. This boat was bought of James Brawner, the old man. Mrs. Slater went with Booth a good deal. She stopped at the National Hotel.”

Click here to view the original Baltimore American article through Google Newspapers.


As we read all of these confessions, it’s important that we remain critical of them. Some of these confessions are merely the interpretation of others of what George Atzerodt said to them, while others have questionable origins that should give us pause. Even the confessions we can attribute to being from the Atzerodt’s mouth contain numerous examples of exaggeration and outright lies. Atzerodt was literally trying to save his neck and so we must interpret his statements accordingly. I think it’s safe to assume that John Wilkes Booth never considered George Atzerodt to be an equal member in his conspiracy plot. Booth kept Atzerodt in line with a combination of grandiose promises and lies. George Atzerodt regurgitated the same and added his own when talking to authorities.  Still, taking these confessions together, we can gain a better idea of what was going on with John Wilkes Booth and his conspirators just before the tragic night of April 14, 1865.

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Conspiracy in Presidential Assassinations

I am continuing to work on my Master’s in American History degree from Pace University and the Gilder-Lehrman Institute of American History. They have a great online program designed specifically for K – 12 teachers and I have been enjoying it immensely. My most recent class, which ended today, was titled The Kennedy Era and was taught by Kennedy historian Barbara Perry. For my final paper for the class, I chose to write about the history of conspiracy in presidential assassinations. In the same way that I previously posted my final paper for my American Indian class last year, I thought I would share this one as well. I do not claim to be a Kennedy expert and the purpose of my paper is not to rehash the evidence against Lee Harvey Oswald. Rather, I wanted to cover the history of conspiracy and explain why conspiracy theories are so common in the study of presidential assassinations.


Since the founding of the United States of America, four presidents have met violent deaths at the hands of their fellow citizens. Abraham Lincoln, James Garfield, William McKinley, and John F. Kennedy have all lost their lives through acts of public assassination. Their murders have occurred over a period of almost 100 years with the first assassination taking place in 1865 and the most recent having occurred in 1963. The men who became martyrs for the country they served came from distinctly different backgrounds and epochs in the American experiment and so, too, did their respective assassins. Despite these differences of time and character, there has been one overarching concept that can be found in the story and memory of each successful Presidential assassination – the involvement of conspiracy in their deaths. The nature of the first successful Presidential assassination in the United States set a historical precedent for conspiracy. That assassin, John Wilkes Booth, recruited literal conspirators to help him in his plan to not only assassinate President Lincoln, but other heads of the federal government. Since that time, the American public has returned to the idea of conspiracy when trying to make sense of subsequent reoccurrences of presidential assassinations. By looking at the history of real and perceived conspiracy in our country’s assassinations and the psychological effects of conspiracy theories on the general public, we can come to understand why, despite a preponderance of evidence implicating Lee Harvey Oswald and the sole murderer of President John F. Kennedy, conspiracy theories regarding the murder of JFK continue unabated in the minds and memory of the public.

The history of conspiracy as a real and concrete part of American assassinations stems from the death of President Abraham Lincoln on April 15, 1865. In the aftermath of Lincoln’s assassination and the subsequent killing of his assassin twelve days later, a trial of eight of John Wilkes Booth’s alleged conspirators occurred. While there is much debate regarding the effect vengeance had on the meting out of justice in Lincoln’s case, there is no debate that a legitimate conspiracy existed in the death of our first president. At the same time that Lincoln was being shot at his box at Ford’s Theatre, William Seward, the Secretary of State, was viciously stabbed in his bed by a would-be assassin. “Coordinated assaults could mean only one thing: a conspiracy, and a well-developed one.”[1] The Union government’s primary goal in the aftermath of Lincoln’s death was to find all of those who had a hand in its execution, thus resulting in the trial of the conspirators. Of the seven men and one woman who were put on trial in 1865 for their involvement in Booth’s conspiracy, the evidence overwhelmingly supported knowledge of a plot for five of them. These men had been persuaded by Booth to join a conspiracy to abduct Abraham Lincoln from Washington and ferry him into the open arms of the Confederacy in Richmond. As the assassin himself wrote while on the run, “For six months we had worked to capture. But our cause being almost lost, something decisive & great must be done.”[2] It was the surrender of Confederate General Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia to Union General Ulysses S. Grant’s Army of the Potomac on April 9, 1865 at Appomattox Courthouse and the impending end of the Civil War that caused Booth to change his plot from one of abduction to assassination. Some of those put on trial in 1865 joined him in the carrying out of Lincoln’s murder while some had left beforehand. Regardless of this distinction, in the eyes of the public, and the law, they were held vicariously liable for the death of Lincoln and the attempted assassination of William Seward. Their shared act of conspiracy first to kidnap and then to kill Lincoln bonded them together and showed to the public that the death of the Great Emancipator was not the act of a single man, but of a group. Occurred as it did, during the time of war in which a great many men had sealed themselves together in an act of rebellion against the United States, this conspiracy helped the public make sense of Lincoln’s death and put it into context. This established the precedential connection between presidential assassination and conspiracy in the minds of the American public.

However, it is important to point out that while there was a legitimate and established conspiracy involved in Abraham Lincoln’s death, the true precedent that was set in 1865 and became increasingly applicable to President Kennedy’s death in 1963 dealt with the assumption of a larger and more complex conspiracy. In his book, The Lincoln Murder Conspiracies, historian William Hanchett, devotes one whole chapter to the idea that the assassination of Lincoln was a “Grand Conspiracy” by the Confederacy. Even though the writing was on the wall regarding the collapse of the so called Confederate States, the open hostilities that had existed between the North and the South made the Confederates an extremely plausible, and even likely, scapegoat for the death of Lincoln. The investigation into Lincoln’s death led those at the highest heads of the government to vocally support the idea that Booth had acted not just of his own accord in support of the Confederacy, but as their approved agent. The final charges against the captured conspirators put on trial included the names of still at large officials of the Confederacy officially avowing that, “the assassination was the result of a grand conspiracy involving the Confederate leadership and the Copperhead Booth and his associates.”[3] Despite the government’s fully supported attempt to place the blame of Lincoln’s death at the feet of Jefferson Davis and other high ranking members of the Confederate government, their case was stymied by perjured witnesses and a lack of concrete evidence. Two future investigations including the 1867 impeachment investigation against President Andrew Johnson and the civilian trial of Booth conspirator John Surratt, once again failed to prove the existence of a grand Confederate plot. According to Hanchett, by 1869, “there was nothing left of [Judge Advocate General Joseph] Holt’s grand conspiracy except long-lingering bitterness.”[4]

So, too, was there the initial impression and belief that Lee Harvey Oswald’s crime was the result of a grand conspiracy with Communists being exchanged for Confederates as the puppet-master perpetrators. In the very first instance of Lyndon Johnson being addressed as “Mr. President” from a hallway inside Parkland Hospital in Dallas, Texas on November 22, 1963, Johnson was asked by assistant White House Press Secretary Mac Kilduff if he could announce President Kennedy’s death to the public. Johnson first nodded yes, before countermanding with, “No. Wait. We don’t know whether it’s a Communist conspiracy or not. I’d better get out of here and back on the plane.”[5] It is telling that Lyndon Johnson’s first reaction to Kennedy’s murder was the assumption of a Communist conspiracy. While the United States was not overtly at war with the Communists in 1963 in the same manner they were at war with the Confederates in 1865, Lyndon Johnson perfectly encapsulates the impression Kennedy’s murder had on those in power and the general populace due to the heightened level of fear during the Cold War era. As Max Holland, a Kennedy assassination researcher and Warren Commission chronicler, noted, “The overwhelming instant reaction among those [national security] officials was to suspect a grab for power, a foreign, Communist-limited conspiracy aimed at overthrowing the U.S. government.”[6] Immediate fear of the unknown in Kennedy’s death and the precedent of Lincoln’s death almost one hundred years earlier at the hands of an assumed grand conspiracy played into the public perception of what occurred in Dallas. The idea that Oswald was merely a cog in a Communist conspiracy was also influenced by another prior assassination – the death of William McKinley in 1901.

In 1901, almost forty years after the death of Lincoln, our country suffered its third assassination of a President. William McKinley was struck down while shaking hands with a queue of well-wishers at the Great Pan-American Exposition in Buffalo, New York. A young man wearing what appeared to be a bandage around his right hand slowly made his way to the front of the line to greet McKinley. When McKinley reached for the man’s unbandaged left hand to order to shake it, two bullets emerged from a concealed pistol behind the handkerchief. The assassin was a 28 year old self-proclaimed anarchist named Leon Czolgosz. Unlike his forbearer of John Wilkes Booth, Czolgosz made no effort to run or evade capture after his crime. Instead, he did little to prevent bystanders from subduing and even attacking him in their rage. When interviewed after his arrest about his crime, Czolgosz stated, “I killed President McKinley because I done my duty. I didn’t believe one man should have so much service and another man should have none…I am an anarchist, a disciple of Emma Goldman. Her words set me on fire.”[7] In the same way Communism had become the sinister enemy facing the United States in Kennedy’s day, by the end of the 19th century, the threat to the world was the concept of anarchism and its teachings. Anarchist violence had already deprived the world of many leaders during the era including the King Umberto I of Italy just the year before. Czolgosz had been inspired by the killing of Umberto, carrying an article about his assassination in his pocket and purchasing the same type of handgun used by Umberto’s assassin for use in his own murder of McKinley.[8] Czolgosz’s identification as an anarchist led to a crackdown on known anarchists including the arrest of many anarchist leaders. “Telegrams went out from Buffalo headquarters to Chicago police, who arrested [anarchist Abe] Isaak and his family that night, and [Emma] Goldman within the next couple of days, charging them with conspiracy in the President’s shooting.”[9] These actions were taken despite Czolgosz’s own insistence that he was acting under his own accord and that, even under possible torture, he did not, “implicate anyone else.”[10] In the end, the investigators could find no overt connection between other anarchists and the murder of McKinley. Leon Czolgosz was no doubt inspired by the anarchists’ movement and their portrayal of a utopian society where the suffering borne from class oppression would be replaced with a commune and leaderless existence where each person worked and provided for the well-being of the whole. He also took great motivation from the violent anarchists who were a distinct subset of the aforementioned intellectual breed who spoke mostly in hypothetical terms. The violent anarchists believed the only way to bring about the desired leaderless and utopian society was through the removal of all leaders through direct action. By killing McKinley, Czolgosz desired to prove his worth as an anarchist.

Due to Czolgosz’s status of a self-proclaimed anarchist and the subsequent arrest of anarchist leaders, it was easy for the press of the day to portray McKinley’s death as a conspiracy, even though such a view was not supported by the authorities. “There is reason to believe,” the New York Herald newspaper reported, “that other anarchists stand ready to complete the work of Czolgosz if the President recovers.”[11] Even after the mania stage of McKinley’s shooting and death subsided and the investigators officially dismissed any notion that others were directly involved in the president’s death, the idea of conspiracy remained present in explaining the assassin’s actions. At his trial, both the defense and the prosecution made note of how much Czolgosz had been effected by language and allure of the anarchist circles. While no other anarchist leaders were put on trial next to him (as had been the case in the death of Abraham Lincoln), anarchism, as a concept, was tried to the same degree in the court of public opinion.

In the same way John Wilkes Booth wrote sympathetically of the Confederacy and anarchist propaganda was loving collected by McKinley’s murderer, so, too, were Communist writings discovered in Lee Harvey Oswald’s home by investigators. Writing in his you are there style, lawyer turned author Vincent Bugliosi described the search of Oswald’s rooming house. “The detectives are particularly struck and alarmed by the stuff in Russian and the left wing literature. It’s not the kind of thing they find too often in Dallas. There’s a letter…in Russian from the Soviet embassy in Washington, and another from someone called Louis Weinstock of the Communist Party’s paper, the Worker.”[12] Throughout the investigation it became increasingly clear that, similar to the case of Leon Czolgosz sixty years earlier, Lee Harvey Oswald had been well educated in a system believed to be very much at odds with the Presidency of the United States. Yet, an education alone does not mean one was part of a conspiracy. Oswald may have been motivated by his Communist beliefs to murder Kennedy in the same way that Czolgosz was motivated by his anarchist beliefs, but legitimate investigations failed to uncover any overt connections between Oswald and a greater conspiracy.

In talking to reporters in the early hours of November 23rd, Dallas District Attorney Henry Wade (of later Roe v. Wade fame) was asked, “Are you willing to say whether you think this man [Oswald] was inspired as a Communist or whether he is simply a nut or middleman?” Wade replied, “I’ll put it this way, I don’t think he’s a nut.”[13] The reporter who phrased this question was channeling another precedent set by presidential assassins in American history. While conspiracy had been an overarching theme and one that could be traced to Lincoln’s death in 1865, the question of mental instability had always gone hand in hand with conspiracy. There was a societal expectation that those who engaged in such heinous acts, such as the murders of the heads of state, must have suffered from severe mental disorders. This expectation was likely reinforced due to the case of another prior presidential assassin.

On July 2, 1881, President James Garfield was shot at a Washington, D.C. train depot by assassin, Charles Guiteau. A barely qualified lawyer by profession, Guiteau was a unique combination of religious zealot, grifter, and delusional dreamer. From an early age, Guiteau had grandiose dreams about his own self-worth and prospects for the future. When he became a lawyer (an easier task in those days than today) he filled his business cards with the names of well-known businessmen he had barely met and bragged that his office building had an elevator.[14] Ever trying to improve his lot in life, Guiteau attempted to drift into politics, a realm where a man of his assumed talents could truly prosper. During the Presidential election of 1880, Guiteau put himself firmly behind the Republican ticket and its candidate, James Garfield, hoping to hitch his own wagon to that of the prospective president. Before Garfield became the Republican nominee, Guiteau was convinced that U. S. Grant would take to the White House again and wrote a speech extolling the virtues of the former President and the need for his leadership once again. When Garfield, not Grant, became the nominee, Guiteau adapted his speech by merely changing the names and little else. Through shameless tenacity, Guiteau managed to convince Chester A. Arthur, Garfield’s running mate, to allow him to give a short stump speech for the pair in New York. According to historian Candice Millard, this insignificant act – the recitation of a hurried and half heard speech by a complete stranger – convinced Guiteau that he, “had played a pivotal role in putting Garfield in the White House, and that it should certainly guarantee him a position of prominence in the administration.”[15] When Garfield was elected to the Presidency, Guiteau truly believed his reward for all of his hard work was soon at hand and that an ambassadorship was in his near future.

Charles Guiteau arrived in Washington, D.C. the day after Garfield’s inauguration eager to attain the position he felt himself rightfully owed. Lacking any sense of tact or shame, he repeatedly wrote and visited the White House ready to be given an ambassadorship to France. He even met with President Garfield in the White House regarding his request, giving the President a copy of his speech and relating his own qualifications for the job. To Garfield, however, Charles Guiteau was just one of the many unqualified office seekers who flooded the White House looking for a handout. Garfield treated the man kindly the first time they met, but had no inclination to give him any sort of position. Months went by, with Guiteau making repeated calls to the White House and State Department, addressing many notes and letters to the President, though he never met with him again. At first, the delusional Guiteau truly believed that his application was being considered and reviewed and that his ambassadorship was only a matter of time. But the normal protocol of ignoring office seekers and waiting them out did not work with Guiteau. His delusions were of such a degree that he would not give up on his goal. Guiteau truly felt he deserved a consul position and that he would get one. Eventually, Secretary of State James Blaine lost all patience with the man and told him that he had, “no prospect whatever of receiving,” an appointment with the government and that he should, “never speak to me about the Paris consulship again.”[16]

Stung by Sec. Blaine’s response, Guiteau began writing to Garfield informing him that he must fire Blaine at once and that the man would cause his downfall if allowed to remain in his administration. He continued to visit the White House hoping to speak with Garfield but as Millard put it, eventually, “Guiteau’s eccentricity and doggedness turned into belligerence,” and he was barred from the White House.[17] Over the next few weeks, Guiteau’s mind began to reflect on his own mistreatment and further embraced a religious zealotry that he had learned from his youth. By the end of May, 1881, Charles Guiteau had convinced himself that God wanted him to kill James Garfield. “The Lord inspired me to attempt to remove the President in preference to some one else, because I had brains and the nerve to do the work. The Lord always employs the best material to do His work,” Guiteau later explained.[18]

In the aftermath of Guiteau’s crime, which he finally enacted on July 2nd, the assassin was very vocal about how God had chosen him to remove Garfield. He was only an instrument of God’s will on earth and therefore he could not be tried or convicted by men. The conspiracy behind James Garfield’s death was quickly understood by the public to be the imagined conspiracy in Guiteau’s unstable mind between himself and God. Insanity was the conspiracy that satisfied the public in their quest to understand Garfield’s murder. Lincoln was killed by a group of conspirators, many men poised against one. Though Garfield was killed by a single man, that man was mad and completely outside the realm of normal society and expectation. There was no need to pin Garfield’s death on a more complex conspiracy in this case as the public more widely understood and accepted Guiteau as being crazy. Garfield’s death was still an event to be lamented and mourned, but there was no uncertainty behind it that required a specter of conspiracy for understanding.

Thus, when Dallas D.A. Henry Wade gave the press his opinion on November 23, 1963, that Lee Harvey Oswald wasn’t, “a nut”, he gave credence to the only other mode of understanding that the public had experience with – conspiracy. Interestingly, this opinion also helped put into motion the event that would help to solidify the idea of conspiracy in Kennedy’s death: the subsequent murder of Lee Harvey Oswald by Jack Ruby. The owner of popular night clubs in Dallas and deeply affected by the President’s death, Ruby had been drawn to the police headquarters much like Charles Guiteau had been drawn to the White House for his ambassadorship. Through confidence alone, Ruby managed to gain entrance into the police headquarters and ingratiated himself with the press reporting on the assassination. He was present when Oswald was first brought before the press. “I felt I was deputized as a reporter momentarily,” Ruby later said.[19] Ruby introduced a disc jockey from the local KLIF radio station named Russ Knight to Henry Wade, the D.A. Knight later mentioned that, “Ruby was insistent that I ask Wade if Oswald were insane,” which he did and was informed that, “Oswald was not insane and that the President’s murder was premeditated.”[20] This information regarding Oswald’s sanity was important to Jack Ruby who already felt that Oswald deserved to die for what he had done to the country and Mrs. Kennedy. However, had the belief been that Oswald was of unsound mind through the police’s initial rounds of questioning, this may have made an impact on Ruby. It’s impossible to know for certain, but Ruby, who was accused of being mentally unstable himself after his own arrest, may have altered his plans to kill Oswald if he had reason to believe Oswald was not responsible for his actions. Without any such extenuating circumstances however, Jack Ruby took justice into his own hands and shot Lee Harvey Oswald in front of live television crews as the assassin was being escorted through the Dallas police headquarters’ basement on November 24, 1963. Oswald was rushed to a hospital where he would be pronounced dead during emergency surgery about an hour and a half later and Jack Ruby was taken into police custody. As he was being taken up in the police headquarters’ elevator from the basement, Ruby stated to the policemen all around him, “Somebody had to do it, you guys couldn’t.”[21]

Lee Harvey Oswald died almost exactly 48 hours after his victim, President Kennedy. During his brief time in police custody, he denied having anything to do with JFK’s assassination and his few writings contain no reason for it. During his limited times in front of the press while being shuffled from different rooms at headquarters, Oswald feigned ignorance of the whole affair even going so far as to state the infamous, “I’m just a patsy!” line that conspiracy theorists continue to cling to today.[22] However, as many of those who interviewed Oswald before his death stated, it was obvious that Oswald was putting the police and FBI through the motions as a form of sick punishment or comeuppance for their former surveillance of him and his Communist activities. The police and press alike described Oswald’s attitude during his interrogations as “arrogant,” “defiant,” and “stoic.”[23] In the aftermath of his crime, Oswald was enjoying himself. He had brought a country to its knees and now had all the attention placed on himself. But the sense of power and control he maintained at the Dallas police station would not have lasted forever. Just before his ill-fated escort to the basement of the headquarters in order to be transferred to the county jail, Secret Service Agent Forrest Sorrels noted a change in Oswald’s demeanor. “I felt he was less arrogant,” Sorrells later said, “more ready to break.”[24] It seems likely that Oswald’s arrogant façade would have broken as the walls came closing in on him in county lock up and he was less available to the press to feed his desire for importance.

Oswald’s murder before he could express his reason for killing Kennedy and be put on trial for it created an uncomfortable hole in the minds and hearts of the American people. A similar hole had been created in 1865 when John Wilkes Booth was cornered and killed twelve days after shooting the President, but the trial and execution of his conspirators helped to satisfy the public in feeling that Lincoln had been properly avenged. Even though Charles Guiteau was deemed insane he likewise paid the ultimate price for murdering Garfield while Leon Czolgosz also suffered trial and execution for killing McKinley. After Oswald’s death on November 24, 1963 at the hands of a private citizen, Jack Ruby, the public lacked a person to punish properly for a President’s murder. Unlike Booth, Oswald did not have any conspirators to take his place. The government did its best to press on in making sense of Kennedy’s death, even as millions of private individuals struggled to do so. Less than a year after the assassination in Dallas, the President’s Commission on the Assassination of President Kennedy released their reports on the evidence in the case. Known as the Warren Commission, their report, “included an 888-page summary, twenty-six volumes of supporting documents, testimony or depositions of 552 witnesses, and more than 3,100 exhibits.”[25] The commission concluded, beyond a reasonable doubt, that Lee Harvey Oswald acted alone in shooting John F. Kennedy from the sixth floor of the Texas School Book Depository.

Why then, with such detailed and voluminous evidence pointing to Oswald as the lone gunman, is the story of President Kennedy’s death so fraught with outlandish conspiracy theories that place the blame on a multitude of others? As has already been discussed, Oswald’s denials, closely crafted words during his brief period in police custody, and the unexpected nature of his death created a lack of resolution in the mind of the public which often turned to suspicion and paranoia. Violent crime is something that a society is programmed to abhor. There is a natural tendency to attempt to dehumanize any perpetrator of an overtly violent act. This is one reason we often portray violent criminals as being “crazy” or “insane”. The label of insanity serves to help us feel separate from those who commit crimes. It reinforces the idea that there is something fundamentally wrong with them, and prevents us from having to face the possibility that we may be capable of the same violent act under different circumstances. Historian James W. Clarke, in his book American Assassins, took a psychological approach in writing about those who have tried to take the life of the chief executive. Clarke groups the different men and women into different categories based on their upbringings, life experiences, and character traits. In the case of Oswald, Clarke classified him as an, “anxious, emotional, and ultimately depressed person who is primarily concerned with his or her personal problems and frustrations and only secondarily with causes or ideals.”[26] While Oswald may have had political feelings about the United States’ treatment of Cuba and communism, he did not act out of a purely political ideal. He was not like Booth who was willing to sacrifice himself on behalf of the Confederacy, nor was he Czolgosz who sought to prove his worth to the anarchism community. Neither was Oswald a Charles Guiteau, so irrational that he was unable to grasp the response his crime would bring. Even after taking into account the many failed assassins that had preceded him, Clarke still determined Oswald to have been the first assassin of his type, making him an outlying point of data that could not be easily understood in his day.

In the end it has been Lee Harvey Oswald’s enigmatic nature that has helped conspiracy theories about Kennedy’s death spread and grow. The day before he gunned Oswald down in the police basement, Jack Ruby verbalized the same thoughts that millions of people had (and continue to have) regarding the man who shot the President: “It’s hard to realize that a complete nothing, a zero like that could kill a man like President Kennedy. It’s hard to understand how a complete nothing could have done this.”[27] This true and honest assessment of Lee Harvey Oswald as “a complete nothing” is at the heart of all of the conspiracy theories in Kennedy’s death. Those who portray Oswald as a framed bystander, a patsy, or a merely the trigger finger of a shadowy organization suffer from the same inability as Jack Ruby to make sense of the incongruity between Oswald and his victim. Kennedy historian William Manchester makes the most eloquent argument regarding why many believe, and will continue to believe, that John F. Kennedy’s death was the result of a conspiracy. Manchester invokes the image of a scale as a way in which we try to make sense of a great tragedy. Using the Holocaust as an example, he relates that, “if you put six million dead Jews on one side…and on the other side put the Nazi regime – the greatest gang of criminals ever to seize control of a modern state – you have a rough balance: greatest crime, greatest criminals.” But, when it comes to the death of President Kennedy, the scale between Kennedy and the “zero” Oswald does not balance: “You want to add something weightier to Oswald. It would invest the President’s death with meaning, endowing it with martyrdom. He would have died for something.”[28] We have a psychological desire to balance that scale. Balance brings comfort and understanding. It reaffirms to us that society is just and stable and that only huge events and huge people can be at the cause of such massive suffering such as the loss of a President. And so conspiracy theorists look for more to put on Oswald’s side. They use misconstrued “evidence” and faulty reasoning to place Oswald on top of a massive house of cards, hoping to balance him with the greatness that is President Kennedy. But the truth is that the scales rarely, if ever, truly balance. Booth and his legitimate band of his conspirators don’t balance out the greatness that was Abraham Lincoln. Charles Guiteau’s insanity doesn’t balance out the promise that was James Garfield. Leon Czolgosz and his anarchism didn’t balance the representational American government that William McKinley embodied. In the end, conspiracy theories are nothing more than misguided coping strategies – faulty tools we invent for ourselves to help us make sense of what is actually a chaotic and random world. As strange as it seems, there’s a comfort in the concept of conspiracy. It creates a group of unspecified “others” that can be blamed or railed against when things go wrong or tragedies happen. But, as nice as this may seem, conspiracy theories also prevent us from developing real strategies for addressing and dealing with problems both in our public and private lives. Conspiracy theories provide a scapegoat for our troubles, but deny us a path for healing and growth. American presidential assassins share this in common with the conspiracy theorists in that each group fail to develop healthy means to interact with the world around them and choose, instead, to lash out at those they blame for their lack of control.

The idea of conspiracy has played a role in the public’s understanding of every assassination of an American president, but it has not always manifested the same way. In the introduction to his book, James Clarke wrote that, “many of the thoughts and emotions of some of the [assassins] may be disturbingly familiar to a good number; the beast slumbers in us all.”[29] In the case of President John F. Kennedy, for example, the conspiracy Lee Harvey Oswald was engaged in that led him to shoot from his sixth floor window in Dallas was not a conspiracy of men, but a conspiracy of neuroses from within his own mind. Oswald could not rectify his life and failures, and the 35th President of the United States paid the price.


[1] Michael W. Kauffman, American Brutus: John Wilkes Booth and the Lincoln Conspiracies (New York: Random House, 2004), 24.
[2] Kauffman, American Brutus, 399.
[3] William Hanchett, The Lincoln Murder Conspiracies (Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 1986), 64 – 65.
[4] Hanchett, Lincoln Murder Conspiracies, 89.
[5] Vincent Bugliosi, Four Days in November: The Assassination of President John F. Kennedy (New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 2007), 119.
[6] Bugliosi, Four Days in November, 121.
[7] Jack C. Fisher, Stolen Glory: The McKinley Assassination (La Jolla (CA): Alamar Books, 2001), 93 – 94.
[8] Fisher, Stolen Glory, 9.
[9] Eric Rauchway, Murdering McKinley: The Making of Theodore Roosevelt’s America (New York: Hill and Wang, 2003), 19.
[10] Rauchway, Murdering McKinley, 31.
[11] Fisher, Stolen Glory, 91.
[12] Bugliosi, Four Days in November, 215.
[13] Ibid., 307.
[14] Candice Millard, Destiny of the Republic: A Tale of Madness, Medicine, and the Murder of a President (New York: Anchor Books, 2011), 59.
[15] Millard, Destiny of the Republic, 111.
[16] Ibid., 125.
[17] Ibid., 134.
[18] Ibid., 137
[19] Gerald Posner, Case Closed: Lee Harvey Oswald and the Assassination of JFK (New York: Anchor Books, 1993), 378.
[20] Posner, Case Closed, 379.
[21] Steven M. Gillon, Lee Harvey Oswald: 48 Hours to Live (New York: Sterling, 2013), 127.
[22] Bugliosi, Four Days in November, 256.
[23] Gillon, Lee Harvey Oswald, 78 – 79.
[24] Ibid., 119.
[25] Ibid., 137.
[26] James W. Clarke, American Assassins: The Darker Side of Politics (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1982), 15.
[27] Posner, Case Closed, 377 – 378.
[28] Ibid., 469.
[29] Clarke, American Assassins, 16 – 17.

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