Posts Tagged With: Assassination

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.

Categories: History | Tags: , , , | 6 Comments

The Ford’s Theatre Orchestra

“More is probably known about the people who were at work in Ford’s Theatre on the night of April 14, 1865, and about the topography of the theatre itself than of any other house in the world. We know the names, habits, and duties of every actor, stagehand, ticket-taker, box-office man, and usher*, and we know who many of the audience were.”

This quote comes from the doctoral dissertation of John Ford Sollers, the grandson of Ford’s Theatre owner, John T. Ford. While Sollers’ claim wasn’t quite true when he wrote it in 1962, thanks to modern scholarship, we now really do know a lot about the actors and stagehands of Ford’s Theatre on the night of Lincoln’s assassination. However, despite the wealth of information historians have discovered, we still have one blind spot in our knowledge of the inner workings of the theater that night. This blind spot was even acknowledged by Sollers in his day, forcing him to add a footnote after the word “usher” in the quote above. The footnote attached to it admitted that:

“Unless further information has been found, we do not know the names or even the number of the orchestra”

Music was a crucial part of the theater experience in the Civil War era. Even during non-musical performances (like the comedic play Our American Cousin) an overture and entr’acte music were expected by audiences. Theaters were houses of entertainment and an orchestra was part of what you paid for when you bought your ticket. We know that Ford’s Theatre had an orchestra. We know that President’s Lincoln’s party, arriving late to the theater, was greeted by that orchestra. But how much do we really know about the musicians who played that fateful night?

The big challenge when it comes to determining the identities of the orchestra members at Ford’s Theatre, is that we lack any sort of list from the period. When John Ford Sollers was writing his dissertation about his grandfather, he had access to documents that had belonged to John T. Ford and even he could not come up with the names of any members of the orchestra aside from its director. Over the past week, with the assistance of fellow researcher Rich Smyth, I have assembled a partial list of those who were said to have been in the orchestra the night Lincoln was killed. The evidence supporting their attendance is, overall, extremely weak and varies greatly from man to man. Every name must be taken with a grain of salt and, aside from William Withers, we cannot guarantee that any of these men were actually present. With that being said, what follows is the list of the possible Ford’s Theatre orchestra members on April 14, 1865:

William Withers – orchestra director
George M. Arth – double bass
Scipione Grillo – baritone horn
Louis Weber – bass
William Musgrif – cello
Christopher Arth, Sr. – violin
Henry Donch – clarinet
Reuben Withers – drums
Henry Steckelberg – cello
Isaac S. Bradley – violin
Salvadore Petrola – cornet
Joseph A. Arth – drums
Paul S. Schnieder – possibly violin or trumpet
Samuel Crossley – violin
Luke Hubbard – triangle and bells

Below you will find little biographies of each man and the evidence we have about their presence at Ford’s Theatre. I’ve placed them in an order that arranges them from more likely to have been at Ford’s to less likely to have been at Ford’s. Judge the evidence for yourself as we explore the boys in the band.


William “Billy” Withers, Jr. – orchestra director

In 1862, when John T. Ford first remodeled the Tenth Street Baptist Church and opened it up as Ford’s Atheneum, he hired a musician named Eugene Fenelon to be his orchestra director. As director, Fenelon not only conducted the orchestra on a nightly basis, but was also tasked with the duty of recruiting and hiring musicians to ensure that Ford would have an ample sized band each night. In this capacity, Fenelon recruited local D.C. musicians. Fenelon remained as Ford’s orchestra director until a fire struck Ford’s Atheneum in December of 1862. The loss was a hefty one for John Ford at about $20,000. Consumed in the fire was a bulk of the orchestra’s instruments and music. While Fenelon stayed in D.C. during the process of rebuilding that followed, when the new theatrical season opened in the fall of 1863, Fenelon took a job as the orchestra leader of the recently opened New York Theatre in NYC. Ford was then tasked with finding a new orchestra leader for his new theater. He chose to put his faith in a 27 year-old violinst and Union veteran, William “Billy” Withers, Jr.

Withers was from a musical family and, at the beginning of the war, he and his father and brothers had joined the Union army and served as members of a regimental band. The bands provided music during marching and aided with the morale of the men. In the late summer of 1862, however, Congress passed a law abolishing regimental bands, feeling that the service had been abused by non-musical men trying to avoid regular duty and that the bands were not worth the cost during war time. Though Withers stayed on for some time after the dissolution of his band and acted as a medic, he was eventually discharged. Withers excitedly took up John T. Ford’s offer to be his new band leader. When the new Ford’s Theatre opened in August of 1863, Withers’ orchestra, and his experience playing patriotic music was complimented.

“The music under the leadership of Prof. Wm. Withers was highly pleasing, and the execution of the national airs gave a spice to the entertainment, which was fully appreciated.”

Ford’s Theatre had always had a healthy competition with their Washington rival, Leonard Grover’s National Theatre. As the two leading theaters in the city, the press abounded in making comparisons between the two houses. One way the theaters rivaled each other was with their orchestras. While a normal theater orchestra at the time would contain about ten musicians on a nightly basis, both Ford’s and Grover’s began advertising that their orchestras had been “augmented” to include more musicians. It appears that Withers continued to augment the orchestra during his tenure and found his growing of the band to be a point of pride. “Our orchestra under the Brilliant Leader Prof. William Withers, Jr. is considered second to no theatre South of New York,” proclaimed one Ford’s Theatre advertisement. Another highlighted the fact that the orchestra, “has lately been increased and numbers now nearly a Quarter of a Hundred first class Instruments,” and that it had been, “lately largely augmented and is now unsurpassed in numerical and artistic strength.” Billy Withers was a great asset to Ford during his first theatrical season. In addition to his duties as conductor of the orchestra, Withers would occasionally volunteer his services as a solo violinist for special occasions.

Theatrical seasons ended during the hot months, which left many musicians without jobs during the summer. Without the steady (albeit small) income from the theaters, musicians had to make their own arrangements. During this time, many teamed up with other musicians to play small concerts in music halls. With his connections, Withers was able to rent out bigger venues. During the summer of 1864, Withers and his orchestra played concerts at both Grover’s and Ford’s theaters. On July 10, 1864, Withers presented a “Concert of Sacred Music” at Ford’s during for which he brought in two vocalists and, “forty musicians of the best talent in the city, forming an array of talent such has never before appeared jointly in Washington.” The concert was well received and the proceeds helped the D.C. music scene make it through the lean summer.

When the 1864-65 theatrical season opened in the fall, Withers was rehired by Ford to be his orchestra director. The season started without a hitch but, in January of 1865, Withers experienced some unaccustomed criticism of his orchestra in the press. In comparing the two main D.C. theaters, a reviewer from the National Intelligencer stated that, “In some respects, Mr. Ford has done better. His theater has been uniformly dignified, and he has succeeded in procuring a different class of stars from those played by his competitor…but his stock company has not by any means been all that it should be, and his orchestra needs improvement.” It appears that, perhaps due to this critique, Withers began the process of augmenting the Ford’s Theatre orchestra again. His attention on the theater orchestra was a bit distracted however, as Withers was chosen to provide some of the music for President Abraham Lincoln’s second inauguration ball. He entered into a contract in which he would be paid $1,000 for forty pieces of music. Withers not only used the local talent at his disposal but also brought in musicians from New York. After the inauguration was over, it’s likely that a few of these musicians from New York were hired by Withers to augment the Ford’s Theatre band.

As much as John T. Ford liked being the best, he and Leonard Grover had realized the costly arms race that dueling orchestras would cause them. It appears that some time over the last two years, the two theater owners had come to an mutual understanding regarding the size of their orchestras. Rather than continuing in attempting to one-up each other, they had put an unknown limit on each other in order to keep the houses equal. When Withers began increasing the size of the orchestra in early 1865, Ford objected, fearing it would break the truce with Grover. On April 2, 1865, Ford wrote a letter to his stage manager, John B. Wright:

“Respecting the orchestra I have promised and wish to keep my word to make my orchestra the same number that Grover has in his – will you notify Withers that for the rest of the season, I wish it reduced. The necessity of this I will explain and stisfy you – If Grover wants Withers – he can go – O can easily supply his place. Let us have the same Instruments that Grover has – my honor is pledged to this.”

Rather than run off to Grover’s National Theatre, as Ford thought might occur, William Withers stayed at Ford’s Theatre and likely reduced his orchestra as ordered.

In addition to being a band leader and talented violinist, Withers also composed music. He wrote several polkas and instrumental pieces which were sold by local music shops. Another piece that he composed that he had not published was a song called “Honor to Our Soldiers”.

With the Civil War coming to an end in April of 1865, Withers was looking for a chance to perform his own patriotic air, which featured vocalists. He had arranged for a quartet of vocalists to perform the song on the evening of April 15th. However, during the morning rehearsal for Our American Cousin on April 14th, Withers heard the news that the Lincolns, possibly joined by the Grants, were coming to the show that night. Performing his song in front of the President and General Grant would make for a much better debut and so he decided to perform the piece that night instead. Not having time to arrange for formal vocalists for that night, Withers was forced to rely on the talent around him. Withers tapped three of his coworkers to sing solos in the song: May Hart, Henry B. Phillips, and George M. Arth. May Hart was a new member of the Ford’s Theatre stock company having been recently transferred from the Holliday Street Theatre in Baltimore. She was performing the minor role of Georgina that night. H. B. Phillips was the acting manager at Ford’s and it was his job to improve the quality of the stock actors. Phillips is credited as having written the lyrics for “Honor to Our Soldiers”. George Arth was actually a member of the Ford’s Theatre orchestra who is discussed later. In addition to these soloists, lead actress Laura Keene said she and other members of her company would be happy to sing along as back up.

As we know, the Lincoln party did not arrive at the theater on time. Knowing they were on their way, Withers was given instructions to play a longer than average overture in hopes they would appear. After 15 minutes elapsed without the Presidential party, the play began without them. When the Lincolns, Major Rathbone, and Clara Harris did make their appearance, the play was halted and Withers and his orchestra began playing “Hail to the Chief”. This was followed by a rendition of “See, the Conquering Hero Comes” as the Lincolns and their guests took their seats in the Presidential box. With that, the play went on.

Withers was initially promised that the performance of his song would occur during the intermission between the first and second acts. However, when the intermission came, he was told by stage manger John Wright that Laura Keene was not prepared to perform during this break and that the orchestra should play his normal intermission music instead. Though slightly annoyed, Withers was assured the song would be performed during the next act break. When the second act break came, however, Withers was once again informed that Laura Keene was not ready. When the third act began, Withers made his way out of the orchestra pit by means of the passageway that led under the stage. He was miffed that his song had been delayed twice. He made his way up one of the two trapdoors on either side of the stage and went to converse with John Wright backstage. Wright said that Withers should plan to perform the song at the conclusion of the play and that Laura Keene had already sent word to the Presidential party to please remain after the curtain fell. Angry at Wright, Withers spied Ford’s stock actress Jeannie Gourlay also backstage and went over to talk with her. It while was Withers was conversing quietly with Jeannie Gourlay about his troubles that the shot rang out.

What occurred next has been well documented. After shooting the President and slashing away Major Rathbone with his knife, John Wilkes Booth jumped from the Presidential box onto the stage. The only actor on stage at the time, Harry Hawk, turned and ran out of Booth’s path. Upon reaching the backstage, it was William Withers and Jeannie Gourlay who stood in the way of Booth’s exit.

“Let me pass!” Booth yelled as he slashed at Withers with his knife, cutting his coat in two places. Booth pushed past Withers and Gourlay, made his exit out the back door, and escaped on horseback into the Washington streets. Withers’ backstage encounter with Booth became a well known part of the assassination story and up until his death in 1916, the orchestra leader never passed up an opportunity to tell his tale. As far as evidence goes, William Withers’ attendance at Ford’s Theatre that night is airtight and even his slashed coat is on display in the Ford’s Theatre museum.

To read more on William Withers, pick up Tom Bogar’s book, Backstage at the Lincoln Assassination, or check out the following articles by Richard Sloan and Norman Gasbarro.


George M. Arth – double bass

Like William Withers, George Arth came from a musical family. At least two of his brothers and his cousin were active in the D.C. music scene. In August of 1861, George Arth joined the U.S. Marine Band, known as The President’s Own band. Arth could play many instruments, but his role in the Marine Band was that of a bass drummer. With the Marine Band, Arth would perform at important events around Washington, often for the President or other dignitaries. The job wasn’t full time, however, and many members of the Marine Band had other jobs in the city as music teachers or as theater orchestra members. In 1864, while Laura Keene was renting out and appearing at the Washington Theatre in D.C., she hired George Arth to be her orchestra director for the engagement. The job was temporary, however, and when she left the city, George Arth went back to being just an ordinary orchestra member at Ford’s Theatre.

Arth must have had a good singing voice since, as pointed out earlier, he was one of the Ford’s employees that Withers pegged to help him in the singing of his song, “Honor to Our Soldiers”. While we do not have any record of Arth’s whereabouts during the assassination, we can safely assume he was somewhere on the premises preparing for the song when the shot rang out.

An additional piece of evidence we have that places George Arth at Ford’s that night is a letter he wrote in the days following the assassination. After Lincoln was shot, the theater was shut down and subsequently guarded. Members of the Ford’s Theatre staff were brought in for questions and some were arrested. On a normal night, it was typical for the musicians to leave their instruments in the theater, especially when they were engaged to play the next day. While Arth likely assumed that the next night’s performance at Ford’s Theatre wasn’t going to occur, in the chaos that ensued after Lincoln was shot he was apparently unable to retrieve his own instrument. Unlike some of the other musicians who may have carried their instruments out of Ford’s with them, Arth played the largest bowed instrument in the orchestra, a double bass. After the government locked down Ford’s and started guarding it, no one was able to take anything out of the premises.

On April 21st, Arth wrote a letter to the general in charge of the guard detail asking for permission to retrieve his trapped instrument.

“Respected Sir,

I beg of you to grant me a permit to enter Fords Theatre & bring from it mu double bass viol & bow belonging to me & used by me as one of the orchestra at said theatre – as it is very necessary to me in my profession & I am suffering for its use.

I am humbly your servant

George M. Arth”

Arth’s request was approved and he was allowed to retrieve his double bass. Arth remained in D.C. after the war and continued working as musician. He died in 1886 at the age of 48 from consumption and was buried in Congressional Cemetery.


Scipione Grillo – baritone horn

A native from Italy, Scipione Grillo became a naturalized citizen in 1860. He originally made his home in Brooklyn, New York where he offered his services as a music teacher. By 1861, however, he had relocated his wife and kids to Washington and in July he joined the Marine Band. In addition to being a musician Grillo was a bit of a businessman. When John T. Ford rebuilt his theater after the 1862 fire, he devoted space on the first floor just south of the theater lobby to the creation of a tavern. As part of his property, Ford could lease it out for a profit and provide an easily accessible place for patrons to get drinks between acts. The tavern space was eventually leased by two Marine Band members, Peter Taltavul and Scipione Grillo, who co-owned the venture. They called their establishment the Star Saloon after the theatrical stars who would patronize it. On the night of Lincoln’s assassination, it was Taltavul’s time on duty and he acted as barkeep to the thirsty theater-goers. Taltavul has become famous for pouring John Wilkes Booth his last drink before the actor assassinated Lincoln.

Scipione Grillo’s partnership in the Star Saloon is often overlooked because he was spending that night in the orchestra instead of serving Booth. While Grillo was required to attend the trial of the conspirators during the entire month of May in 1865, he was never called to testify about his acquaintanceship with John Wilkes Booth and David Herold. It wasn’t until two years later, at the trial of John Surratt, that Grillo took the stand to state what he knew. During his routine questioning, Grillo was asked about whether he saw anyone out on the pavement of Ford’s during the show. He replied:

“No, sir. I was not out of the place myself. I was in the orchestra between the first and second acts; but in the third act we had nothing to do, (being always dismissed after the curtain is down,) and so I went out and went inside of my place.”

Grillo also stated that he was still inside of the Star Saloon when the assassination occurred. So, while he did not witness the assassination firsthand, he was among the members of the orchestra that night. Since it was part of the Ford’s Theatre building, the Star Saloon was also closed by the government, which ended Taltavul and Grillo’s business together.

Scipione Grillo appears to fall off of the map after his 1867 testimony. I have not been able to find any trace of him after that, but it is possible he, his wife, and children traveled back to Italy to live.


Louis Weber – bass

Louis Weber had been born in Baltimore in 1834 but his family moved to D.C. when he was four years old. He became a member of the U.S. Marine Band and played at the inauguration ceremonies for Presidents Buchanan and Lincoln. He was an active member of the Marine Band for 25 years.

In the same manner as George Arth, the evidence pointing to Weber being a part of the Ford’s Theatre orchestra was the return of his instrument by the government. While Weber’s original request does not seem to have survived, on April 28th, Col Henry Burnett (later one of the prosecutors at the trial of the conspirators) sent a telegram off to the general in charge of the Ford’s Theatre guards ordering him to, “send to this office, one bass violin the property of Louis Weber”. This order was fulfilled and later that same day, Louis Weber signed a receipt for his bass.

Weber lived out the remainder of his life in Washington. He died in 1910 from a stroke and was buried in Congressional Cemetery.


William Musgrif – cello

William Musgrif was born in England in 1812. After immigrating to America he settled in New York. As a musician, Musgrif was skilled in both the violin and the cello, but seems to have preferred the cello best. In 1842, Musgrif and his cello became founding members of the newly established New York Philharmonic. As part of the Philharmonic, Musgrif mentored younger players in the cello. By 1860, he, along with his wife and son, had moved to D.C. where he offered his skills as a music teacher. Musgrif was also the conductor for his own group in D.C. called the Mozart Society.

The evidence that William Musgrif also moonlighted as a member of the Ford’s Theatre orchestra comes from yet another letter written in the days after Lincoln assassination. William Withers had already written once and received a portion of his instruments that had been left at Ford’s that night, but he had not received all of them In May of 1865, Withers penned another letter asking for permission to get the “balance of my things” which included “sleigh bells, triangle, harmonica”. He also requested, “one instument, violocella, for Mr. Musgrive [sic]”

These items were inspected and then delivered to Withers. On May 7th, Withers signed a form stating her had received, “a lot of sleigh bells, a triangle, harmonica, and violincella being properties left at Fords Theatre on the night of the Assassination of President Lincoln.” Withers signed for both himself “and Mr. Musgive [sic]”.

William Musgrif continued to live in D.C. in the few years following the assassination. In 1868, an unfortunate incident caused Musgrif to make the acquaintance of another person who had been at Ford’s on April 14th. On February 19th, Musgrif was in the billiard room of the National Hotel observing a man named William Rogers, who was drunk. When Musgrif attempted to take the billiard balls away from the drunkard, Rogers “hit him over one of the eyes.” A police officer was summoned, arrested Rogers and proceeded to take down the 56 year old musician’s sworn statement. That responding police officer was none other that Officer John F. Parker, the man history has condemned for allegedly leaving Abraham Lincoln unguarded on the night of his assassination.

By the mid 1870s, William Musgrif had moved out to Colorado with his son. It is likely he died and was buried there.


Christopher Arth, Sr. – violin

Chris Arth was the cousin of George M. Arth, the would be soloist for “Honor to Our Soldiers”. His 1901 obituary, which is also one of the pieces of evidence for his presence at Ford’s Theatre, gives a good description of his life.

In addition to this obituary’s claim that Chris Arth was a member of the Ford’s Theatre orchestra, there is also a 1925 article from a D.C. correspondent known as the Rambler which supports the idea. I’ve briefly touched on the Rambler before. His real name was John Harry Shannon and he wrote for the Evening Star newspaper from 1912 to 1927. His stories involved local interest pieces and often involved him travelling around Washington talking to old timers. In an article he wrote about the history of D.C.’s music scene, the Rambler included a letter that was written to him by John Birdsell, the secretary of the Musicians’ Protective Union. You’ll notice that in the obituary above it states that Chris Arth was a member of the same union during his lifetime. Birdsell compliments the Rambler’s work and then poses a challenge to him:

“In this connection it may be possible that, during the course of your researches for the preparation of these writings, you may acquire a complete roster of the orchestra which played at Ford’s Theater the night President Lincoln was shot. I have had inquiry for this from several sources. The first came from somewhere in California. I communicated with the Oldroyd Museum, and while they did not possess this information, they expressed a desire to acquire it.”

After this, Birdsell proceeds to give the list of names he has been able to determine.

“To date the partial roster, which I have is as follows: Leader, William Withers; violin, Chris Arth, sr.; bass, George Arth; clarinet, Henry Donch; cornet, Salvatore Petrola.”

After this list Birdsell makes the final statement that since the average orchestras at the time consisted of 10 instruments he believes he is only half complete. Birdsell was likely unaware of Ford’s and Grover’s mutually agreed upon augmented orchestras which were no doubt larger than ten musicians.

If we trust his obituary and Birdsell’s list, then Chris Arth, cousin of George Arth, was in the orchestra at Lincoln’s assassination.


Henry Donch – clarinet

Henry Donch was a native of Germany who moved to the United States in 1854. He lived in Baltimore and was also a member of the Annapolis Naval Academy Band before he moved to Washington. Donch joined the U.S. Marine Band in August of 1864.

The evidence for Donch’s presence at Ford’s Theatre the night Lincoln was shot is the same as Chris Arth’s: the Birdsell list and his obituary:

An second obituary for Donch provided an additional detail regarding his alleged presence at Ford’s:

“Mr. Donch was a member of the orchestra at Ford’s Theater on the night Lincoln was shot. Mr. Donch, who was facing the assassin as he leaped from the box, always declared that Booth never uttered the phrase, ‘Sic Semper Tyrannis,’ which is attributed to him.”

While the general consensus is that Booth did, in fact, utter the phrase “Sic Semper Tyrannis” after shooting the President, Donch’s contrary claim does not, by itself, prove him to be a liar. The eyewitness accounts from Ford’s vary widely and it’s possible that, in the confusion, Donch truly did not hear or remember Booth stating these words.

Coincidentally, Henry Donch would observe another Presidential assassin, though this time during the period after his crime. After Charles Guiteau shot President James Garfield, Henry Donch was selected at one of the grand jury members in his trial.


Reuben Withers – drums

Reuben Withers was the younger brother of Ford’s Theatre orchestra director, William Withers. Reuben had joined the same regimental band as his brothers and father at the start of the Civil War, but similarly was sent back home when such bands were disbanded. He joined the ranks of his brother’s brass band and, it appears, the Ford’s Theatre orchestra.

In his older years, William Withers suffered from paralysis and was cared for by Reuben. The two elderly men shared a home and business together in the Bronx. Even in his paralysis, reporters came to hear the story of William Withers being stabbed by Booth on the night of Lincoln’s assassination. In at least interview, Reuben recounted his own remembrances of the night of April 14th:

“The President was a little late coming in. We had played the overture and the curtain was just going up when we saw him enter the stage box. Brother William immediately started us playing ‘Hail to the Cheif,’ then ‘Star-Spangled Banner,’ and there was a lot of cheering. Everybody was feeling good and happy…

After we had played the overture I left the theatre to catch the 9.20 train for Zanesville, O., and so I missed the actual scene of the great tragedy. I had been offered a better position to play in the band of Bailey’s circus, and I had fixed that night of April 14, 1865, as the time of my leaving Washington…”

Was Reuben Withers truly in the orchestra that night? After years of hearing his brother tell his tale, perhaps he just wanted to include himself in the narrative. Or perhaps he did tell the truth and left the theater before the crime occurred. We may never really know. Reuben Withers preceded his brother in death, dying in 1913. The house and business the Withers brothers owned still stands, albeit a bit modified, at 4433 White Plains Road in the Bronx.


Henry Steckelberg – cello

Henry Steckelberg was born in 1834 in Germany. He immigrated to the United States in 1858 residing at first in New York. When the Civil War broke out he, like the Witherses, joined a regimental band in New York. After returning to civilian life, Steckelberg made his way to Washington and can be found in the 1864 D.C. directory listed as “musician”.

When Steckelberg died in 1917, his obituary stated that, “On the night of Abraham Lincoln’s assassination he was playing at Ford’s Theater. The orchestra was having an intermission when the tragedy occurred.”

An additional piece of evidence comes from the Steckelberg family. The genesis for this entire post was an email from Steckelberg’s great granddaughter asking if a list of the orchestra members existed. She told me about her family’s belief that her great grandfather played that night and that the family still owns Steckelberg’s treasured cello that he, assumingly, used. In addition, she was kind enough to send along a letter, written by Henry Steckelberg’s sister-in-law which supplemented his obituary. The relevant part of the letter states:

“On the night of Lincoln’s assassination, he [Steckelberg] was playing in the regular orchestra in Ford’s Theater. The assassin was a regular hanger on around the theater and he (Booth) often played cards with the orchestra members in the rehearsal room below the orchestra pit. His presence in the theater caused no notice. Booth was unemployed at the time, very jealous of his successful brother. He had no personal animosity toward Lincoln but wished to do something to draw attention to himself.”

It’s hard to tell if the writer of this letter was using knowledge she had obtained from Steckelberg or merely adding her own embellishments and beliefs about the Lincoln assassination story to the basic Steckelberg obituary. The latter part of the paragraph is entirely opinion and the former contains one factual error: there was no rehearsal room “below the orchestra pit” at Ford’s Theatre as the pit was the lowest you could get.

While there isn’t much to go on regarding Henry Steckelberg, his obituary does recount that the orchestra was on break during (and therefore didn’t witness) Lincoln’s assassination which is in line with what Scipione Grillo testified to in 1867. It’s possible that Henry Steckelberg was there after all.


Isaac S. Bradley – violin

Isaac S. Bradley was born in 1840 in New York. During the Civil War, Bradley joined the Union army where he served as a bugler in the 10th New York Cavalry. Bradley was discharged from the service on November 20, 1865. By 1868 he had moved to Dayton, Ohio where he married and started a family. He lived in Dayton for the remainder of his days, becoming a photographer. Bradley died on July 10, 1904.

While I have yet to find any period documentation of Bradley’s presence at Ford’s Theatre during his lifetime, in 1960, his elderly daughter Clara Forster was interviewed by a newspaper in her home of Anderson, Indiana. She stated that during her father’s military service he, “fell victim to a rheumatic ailment that hospitalized him for some time in Washington,” and that he, “was ready to accept the offer to play in the orchestra at Ford’s Theater in Washington because he had with him his own Amati violin…”

With her father’s antique violin in her hand, Mrs. Forster then recounted the story her father had told her of that night:

“We were playing very softly when suddenly a messenger came and told us to play louder. We had heard a shot and someone running across the stage above, but we thought nothing of it.

So we played louder, not knowing of the tragedy that had occurred overhead; not knowing that our beloved Abe Lincoln had been shot.”

The article went on to state that “the order to play more loudly was given in an effort to offset commotion caused by the shooting and to avert panic in the audience.” It’s important to note that Mrs. Forster’s account is in contradiction to the testimony of Scipione Grillo who made it clear that the orchestra was not on duty during the assassination.

Mrs. Forster was very proud of her father’s heirloom violin and described it in detail:

“Mr. Bradley was second violinist in the orchestra, playing with four other young soldiers who had served in the Civil War…

[The violin] had been given to him when he was about 10 or 11 years old. It had been acquired by his grandfather from the Cremonesis family in Italy, reported to have taught the famed Antonius Stradivarius the art of producing priceless violins.

Mr. Bradley was told that the instrument purchased by his grandfather, who served in the Revolutionary War, was made in 1637. A certificate inside the violin bears that date and the name of the maker.

Mrs. Forster reports that her brother, the late Frank Bradley, had the violin in his possession for some time and about 1914 refused an offer of $20,000 for it. During the past few years, Mrs. Forster made her home in Milwaukee, where a concert violinist and teacher became interested in the Amati violin and wrote an article about it for a national music publication. One of the amazing facts was that its owner had carried it with him through much of the Civil War and that it had not been damaged.”

Mrs. Forster appears to be the only source that her father was in Washington and a member of the Ford’s Theatre orchestra that night. She was apparently quite convincing though, especially with her father’s violin as a witness. In the 1960s, when the National Park Service was preparing a historic structures report about Ford’s Theatre, Mrs. Forster wrote a letter to George Olszewski, the National Capital Region’s chief historian. Olszewski was convinced enough by Mrs. Forster’s letter that he included Isaac S. Bradley’s name in his partial list of orchestra members.


Salvadore Petrola – cornet

Salvadore Petrola, a native of Italy, came to the United States in 1855 when he was 20 years old. A talented cornet player, Petrola joined the U.S. Marine Band in September of 1861 and remained a member for the maximum time allowed, 30 years. As a band member in the 1880s, Petrola was the assistant conductor of the band, second only to its leader, John Philip Sousa. Petrola assisted Sousa in arranging music for the band and served as its primary cornet soloist for many years.

Despite a lengthy search, the only concrete evidence that I have been able to find to support the idea that Petrola was in the orchestra at Ford’s is the list of names John Birdsell, the secretary of the Musicians’ Protective Union, provided to the Rambler in 1925.

One additional fact could be taken as, perhaps, circumstantial evidence in favor of Petrola’s presence, however. The only instrumental solos contained on William Withers’ handwritten copy of his song, “Honor to Our Soldiers”, is for a cornet. In fact, the cornet gets three solos over the course of the song.

Is it possible that William Withers wrote so many solos for his cornet player because he was working with very talented, Salvadore Petrola? We’ll never know.


Joseph A. Arth – drums

Joseph Arth was the younger brother of Ford’s double bass player, George M. Arth. Like his brother and cousin, Chris Arth, Joseph was a member of the U.S. Marine Band. Like Salvadore Petrola, Joseph stayed in the Marine Band for 30 years.

Our only evidence for Joseph Arth’s presence at Ford’s Theatre comes from his wife’s obituary from 1940. Joseph married Henrietta Scala, the daughter of one time Marine Band leader, Francis Scala. Upon Henrietta’s death at 90 years of age, the newspapers highlighted that she was both the daughter and wife of noted Marine Band musicians. In referencing her husband, the obituary stated:

“She was the widow of Joseph A. Arth, drummer with the band during the same period. Files of The [Evening] Star report that Joseph Arth was the drummer in the pit at Ford’s Theater the night President Lincoln was assassinated.”

It’s not much to go on, but perhaps Joseph was playing alongside his older brother George in the Ford’s Theatre orchestra that fateful night.

A pair of drumsticks in the Ford’s Theatre collection. These are said to have been present on the night of Lincoln’s assassination. Could they have been used by Reuben Withers or Joseph Arth?


Paul S. Schneider – possibly violin or trumpet

Paul Schneider was born in Germany in 1844 and immigrated to the United States in 1861. During the Civil War he joined the Union army under the alias Ernst Gravenhorst. He served as a bugler for the 5th U.S. Artillery from January of 1863 until December of 1865. In the 1870s, Schneider moved to Memphis, Tennessee, initially working as a musician in the New Memphis Theatre before becoming a music teacher. In 1882/3, Schneider became the second director of the Christian Brothers Band, the oldest high school band still in existence. As director of the band, Schneider and his students performed at important events including playing for President Grover Cleveland in 1887 when he visited Tennessee. In 1892, Schneider was succeeded as director by one of his former students, but remained in Memphis and involved in the musical life of the city. He died in 1912.

I have been unable to determine the source of the claim that Paul Schneider was a part of the Ford’s Theatre orchestra on the night of Lincoln’s assassination. It appears to have come after his lifetime but is not well documented. In 2011, Patrick Bolton, the current leader of the Christian Brothers Band, published his doctoral thesis about the history of the band. The dissertation contains a large amount of information about each band leader and the growth of the band over time. While it gives a great biography of Paul Schneider, the information about his connection to Ford’s Theatre is limited:

“Schneider was also known for his skills as a violinist and performed in touring orchestras around the country, including one that performed in Ford’s Theatre in Washington, D.C. On the evening of April 14, 1865 he has been placed in this historic theatre performing Hail to the Chief for President Abraham Lincoln before the fateful performance of the play, ‘Our American Cousin.'”

Bolton was a good researcher, but it appears that even he had difficulty in finding evidence for this claim. His phrasing of “he has been placed” demonstrates a degree of uncertainty. Likewise, the best reference Bolton could find to support this idea was from a 1993 newspaper article about the Christian Brothers Band which merely mentioned that Schneider had been a member of the Ford’s Theatre orchestra without any supporting evidence.

Without additional, period evidence, I have some serious doubts that Paul Schneider was present at Ford’s. However, the idea that one of their band leaders was a part of such a historic event is a point of pride to the Christian Brothers Band. When the band traveled to Washington, D.C. in 2014, they even presented a picture of Professor Schneider to Ford’s Theatre.


Samuel Crossley – violin

Unfortunately, despite best efforts, I have been unable to find any verifiable information about Samuel Crossley aside from the story I am going to recount. In 1991, the National Park Service received a donation to the Ford’s Theatre collection in the form of this violin.

The violin was said to have been played at Ford’s Theatre on the night of Lincoln’s assassination. A label inside the violin identified its previous owner, a Union soldier by the name of Samuel Crossley.

On February 11, 2009, at the grand re-opening ceremony for the newly remodeled Ford’s Theatre museum, noted violinist Joshua Bell played the song, “My Lord, What a Morning” on the Crossley violin. In the audience were President Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama. Though I haven’t been able to find a recording of that performance, in videos of the President’s remarks, Bell can be seen in the background holding the Crossley violin.

More information about Samuel Crossley (and the provenance behind his violin) is needed.


Luke Hubbard – triangle and bells

Luke Hubbard was born in 1848 in Onondaga County, New York. In 1863, Hubbard attemptted to join the Union army but was rejected on account of being under the age limited (he was only 15 at the time). Not one to be deterred, Hubbard waited a year and then enlisted again, this time claiming he was 18 years old. Records verify that Hubbard served as a private in Company B of the 22nd New York Cavalry from July 1864 until he was discharged from service on October 18, 1865. Years later, Luke Hubbard claimed that an unexpected series of events during his tour of service caused him to not only be present at Ford’s Theatre on the night of Lincoln’s assassination, but an acting member of the orchestra.

The following comes from two sources, an account that Hubbard gave during his lifetime and his subsequent obituary.

“That fall [1864] I was taken ill with fever and removed to Carver hospital in Washington. After I recovered, instead of being returned to my regiment and probably largely because of my youth as well as being in a weakened state, I was given a position in the Carver hospital band. In the army I had been a bugler. This hospital band furnished the music at Ford’s theater on the memorable night. I was playing the triangles and sat at the end of the orchestra under the box occupied by the presidential party…”

“The actor, John Wilkes Booth, was well known by the president, and when he was not in the piece being presented or when Booth was off the stage for a time, or between acts, he would often call on President Lincoln in his box, when both would witness the performance together, or sit and chat in the most friendly manner, so that he had no trouble gaining access to the box on the night of the conspiracy.”

“Many people have claimed that Booth said this or that when he jumped to the stage from the box, but with thirteen pieces playing at the time. I don’t think he could have been heard had he uttered any remark…

In a moment Mrs. Lincoln appeared at the edge of the box, waved her handkerchief to the leader of the orchestra, who raised his bow, a signal for the music to cease. Mrs. Lincoln was then heard to say, ‘The president has been shot.’

The members of the orchestra meanwhile not understanding the scene before them, saw Booth drag himself across the stage holding in one hand the revolver which had done its fatal work, and in the other grasped a knife for use in case the other weapon failed. As the door at the rear of the stage opened, the orchestra members who sprang to the stage saw two pair of arms sieze [sic] the injured man, the last that was seen of him. When the door was reached it was found to be locked on the outside, and by the time they reached the street through another exit the theater was surrounded by a cordon of soldier, and they were obliged to give their names and business at the theater that night.”

“Mr. Hubbard was the third man to climb over the footlights and rush to the back of the stage, but the door was locked on the outside.”

Ironically, one of the most detailed accounts we have from a person who claimed to have been in the orchestra at Ford’s Theatre is also the least factual and least reliable. Very little of what Hubbard recounted is accurate. The orchestra was not playing when the shot rang out. Booth dropped the derringer pistol he used on Lincoln in the box and therefore did not have it on the stage with him. No one grabbed the injured Booth and pulled him out the rear door of Ford’s. The back door of Ford’s was not found to be locked from the outside after Booth passed through it. And perhaps the most egregious (and somewhat laughable) error of them all: John Wilkes Booth was not a friend of Lincoln’s nor did he often join the President in his theater box to “chat”.

As entertaining as it is, it’s probably safe to dismiss Hubbard’s account entirely. Still, it’s interesting that the instruments Hubbard claimed to have played that night, the triangle and bells, were two of the instruments William Withers asked permission to retrieve after the assassination.


The stage of Ford’s Theatre taken in the days after Lincoln’s assassination. The orchestra pit with music stands and sheet music still in place can be seen at the bottom of the image.

Compared with the stars who graced the stages of Victorian era theaters, the lives of theater orchestra members were without glamour or fame. While equally talented in their own specific roles, many of the men who provided crucial musical accompaniment led quiet and largely uncelebrated lives.

The names listed above are only possible members of the Ford’s Theatre orchestra, with some having much better evidence than others. We only know them because either they chose during their lifetime or their friends and family chose after death, to connect their names with one of the most notable events in our history. This desire to be remembered and connected to such important events leads some people to exaggerate or outright lie. On the reverse, however, it is possible that there were members who did not wish to have their whole musical careers boiled down to a single, traumatic night. How many orchestra members witnessed Lincoln’s assassination, but never talked about it publicly?

As time goes on, additional people who are claimed to have been in the Ford’s Theatre orchestra will no doubt be found. When that happens, we must judge the reliability of their evidence just like the names above. If you stumble across a new name, I encourage you to add a comment to this post so that others may evaluate the evidence.

The exact identities of those playing at Ford’s Theatre on April 14, 1865, will never be known for certainty. Just like in 1925 and 1962, we still do not have a reliable count of how many musicians were even there, and we likely never will.

Known and unknown, the orchestra members of Ford’s Theatre, under the direction of William Withers, have the distinction of having played the last music President Abraham Lincoln ever heard.

References:
The Theatrical Career of John T. Ford by John Ford Sollers (1962)
Backstage at the Lincoln Assassination by Tom Bogar
The Lincoln Financial Foundation Collection
The Lincoln Assassination: The Evidence edited by William Edwards and Edward Steers
The Trial of John H. Surratt, Vol 1
Catherine Adams – great granddaughter of Henry Steckelberg
Restoration of Ford’s Theatre – Historic Structures Report by George J. Olszewski
“The Oldest High School Band in America”: The Christian Brothers Band of Memphis, 1872-1947 by Patrick Joseph Bolton
Rich Smyth
The Art Loux Archive
Newspaper articles discovered via GenealogyBank
Most of the biographical information was compiled through the resources available on Ancestry and Fold3
Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division

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