Lafayette Curry Baker deserves a larger place in the history books because he played a key role in the Great Lincoln Conspiracy. Baker was considered one of the most corrupt and ruthless officials in Washington D.C., and owed all his power and prestige to Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton.
Baker bounced around the country from New York to California before becoming a mercenary and bounty-hunting-hired-gun. At the outbreak of the Civil War, he volunteered to spy on the Richmond defenses for General Winfield Scott by posing as a photographer, and soon came to the attention of Stanton, an Ohio lawyer who’d suddenly been placed into the Cabinet position of Secretary of War at the war’s outbreak, an extremely fortuitous appointment since Stanton had no military experience and had just switched political parties because he sensed the winds of change were blowing and the Republicans were about to take control of the executive branch.
Quoting Nathaniel Weyl’s The Battle Against Disloyalty: “During the war years, General La Fayette Curry Baker was chief of the military Secret Service…Promoted to the rank of Brigadier General, Baker was clothed with almost limitless powers as special provost marshal of the War Department. In Washington, he used the methods that had proved so successful in his vigilante days, disregarding the process of law, habeas corpus, or any of the other constitutional frills…” Of Stanton, Weyl concluded: “The ultimate plans of Stanton cannot be fathomed, but the trend was totalitarian.”
Baker routinely made false arrests, planted fake evidence and solicited bribes. He was placed in charge of insuring the War Department got its full share of the war profiteering, and when he caught merchants cheating, demanded a slice of the action to allow them to stay in business. A Treasury Department official accused Baker of orchestrating “a reign of terror.”
Suddenly, however, Baker was accused of tapping Stanton’s military telegraph lines, was demoted and moved to New York City, and posted under an Assistant Secretary of War there. This all seems weird because Baker was accused of “spying” on Stanton, yet there was no hearing nor trial, just this sudden demotion.
But then just as suddenly, immediately after Lincoln was assassinated, Stanton ordered Baker to return to Washington to take charge of the investigation. Stanton himself was a suspect since he was in charge of the President’s protection and had personally placed a drunk on guard duty that night. Almost instantly suspects were rounded up and thrown into solitary with canvas hoods placed permanently over their heads to prevent any communication. At least one of them lost his mind after a week of wearing the hood. This runs against normal investigative technique, which is to isolate suspects and place double agents near them to draw information while posing as confidants.
After 11 days of the biggest manhunt in history, Baker suddenly dispatched a unit of the 16th Calvary to Virginia. The War Department was flooded with hundreds of reports of sightings in every state on the Eastern Coast, yet Baker somehow selected one particular lead to follow.
Booth’s diary never appeared at the trial, but much later when Baker wrote his book to cash in on his fame after being dismissed by Stanton, he mentioned the diary and was called before a Congressional committee, at which point Stanton was ordered to bring the diary to Congress. Baker examined the diary and claimed 18 leaves had been removed (at least 36 pages, if not 72). The diary had been shredded. Stanton claims to have removed nothing. But then much of the essential evidence of this case disappeared over time.
All this goes to show how deep the coverup runs because you won’t find many of these facts on the History Channel. In the 1930s, a chemistry professor tried to expose Stanton, but was dismissed although the serious questions he raised have never been adequately answered. A book was recently published about the case, American Brutus by Michael Kauffman, and it’s considered the “definitive last word” but strangely glosses over the conspiracy and refuses to peer deeply into the climate of corruption running through the War Department.
There was one fact on the History channel’s recent expose I found particularly intriguing. Kauffman admits Booth made several mysterious trips to New York City prior to the assassination, and no one has discovered any evidence of what those trips were about. (Sort of like Oswald’s bus ride into Mexico.)
Mary Surratt was painted as the only living mastermind of the plot during the trial, even though she was only guilty of having a son who served as a Confederate courier. The only evidence against her was given by a clerk who worked for Stanton, and after the trial, this clerk was exposed as a Union double agent posing as a Confederate spy.
Other important facts never mentioned by the History Channel is that Booth was a Captain in the Confederate Secret Service, and that Edwin Stanton’s mentor, the man who funded his rise in politics, was the leader of the Knights of the Golden Circle.