April 15, 2013

A decapitation plot? The Lincoln briefing


Today is the 148th anniversary of the death of Abraham Lincoln. As all the world knows by now, he was assassinated by the actor John Wilkes Booth, who was then killed in a gun battle with troops. Since then Booth has, in the popular mind, become the template for the crazed lone assassin. In fact, Booth was not the only assassin at work that night.

Only a few minutes after Lincoln was shot at Ford’s Theater, Lewis Powell and David Herold arrived at the home of Secretary of State William Seward, who was next in line, after Vice President Andrew Johnson, to succeed Lincoln. Powell stabbed Seward (although he survived the assassination attempt). Meanwhile, another would-be assassin, George Atzerodt, stalked the Vice President with a loaded pistol, but failed to carry out the attack. There was a connection between these men: they had all been co-conspirators with Booth in a previous plot to waylay and abduct President Lincoln.

When Johnson succeeded Lincoln on April 15th as president, he had information that these assassins were part of a plot to decapitate the U.S. government, saying that there was “evidence in the Bureau of Military Justice that the atrocious murder of the late President, and the attempted assassination of the Hon. William H. Seward, Secretary of State, were incited, concerted and procured,” by Confederate leaders. To investigate the extent of the alleged conspiracy, he set up a Military Commission (similar to the commissions President Obama plans to use to try the 9/11 conspirators.)

The Military Commission found that there was a conspiracy involving Booth, Powell, Herold, Atzerodt, and the latter three were executed, and warrants were issued for top officials of the Confederacy who had fled the country.

So Booth, though a lone gunman, was not a lone conspirator. The issue was how high up the decapitation conspiracy went. In 1864, the Confederate Congress allocated five million dollars to finance covert actions by its secret service based in Canada. These operations included a plan to blow up the White House and one, which involved Booth, Powell, Herold, and Atzerodt, to kidnap Lincoln. Further, the Military Commission found a ciphered letter sent to Booth on October 13, 1864, asking whether Booth’s “friends would be set to work as directed,” though it did not identify the task. So we do not know if Booth was authorized to upgrade the kidnap plot to an assassination plot, or if he recast it on his own volition.

Historic research over the decades, including the tracing of cash withdrawals from a Montreal bank account, has provided further but not conclusive evidence of Booth’s involvement with Confederate intelligence officers. Was the Lincoln assassination part of a state-sponsored decapitation plot or the work of a lone fanatic? Tune into my video chat via the Shindig platform at 5 PM EST on Tuesday, April 16.

Edward Jay Epstein's book The Annals of Unsolved Crime is available now from Melville House.