John Wilkes Booth was only 27 years old when he assassinated President Abraham Lincoln. History has portrayed him as a lunatic, and not the talented artist and super spook he obviously was. I think of him more like Johnny Depp meets James Bond.
Booth had been a dedicated spook working for the Confederate Secret Service since the start of the war, and undoubtedly fomented many missions in the service of the South, most involving life-saving quinine. Because he was a famous actor and well-off financially, Booth moved easily through the upper levels of society, which made him an ideal undercover agent.
Booth’s biggest operation, the one that was going to make him famous as a spook, was his involvement in Major John S. Mosby’s plot to kidnap Lincoln so he could be ransomed. The North had ceased all prisoner swaps because former prisoners were immediately returning to the front to continue the fight. Kidnapping Lincoln had been seen as the best means of forcing those swaps to re-start.
But as “total war” on civilians was being waged by General Sherman, secret documents were discovered of a Union plot to assassinate Jefferson Davis. That and the recent hanging of Booth’s friend, super spook John Yates Beall, were all it took to move Booth to murder. That plus all the brandy he was drinking at the time.
Dozens of people knew about Mosby’s kidnap plot well in advance, although President Jefferson Davis was on record opposing it. Davis was not a vicious man and believed the chances of Lincoln resisting a kidnapping were too great, and Davis worried Lincoln might be killed during such an event, something he obviously was opposed to.
The kidnap plan failed not because the President of the Confederacy was opposed to it, however, but because the Union War Department got wind and changed Lincoln’s itinerary to avoid the trap. This was typical of Confederate operations as double agents were everywhere, which is why projects of this magnitude were nearly impossible to conceal. The informant who revealed the plot was Louis Weichmann.
However, around the time General Robert E. Lee surrendered, signaling the end of the war was at hand, Booth switched the kidnap plot to murder. Not only was Lincoln marked for death, but so was his closest Cabinet member, Secretary of State William H. Seward, one of his few true friends in the Cabinet. You might think Vice President Andrew Johnson, General Ulysses S. Grant, and even Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton were supposed to be assassinated that night, as that is the official cover story. However, a little research reveals those three supposed plots were invented during the trial, and the evidence produced manufactured by witnesses later exposed as perjurers. Booth had been trying to get a pass to travel to Richmond from Vice President Johnson. There was no attempt on the Vice President or anyone else other than Seward and Lincoln, the duo who were united on the idea of forgiveness for the South in hopes of binding the nation back together. And it’s somewhat suspicious neither Salmon Chase nor Thaddeus Stevens made any effort to visit Lincoln during his final hours.
At the same time Booth began contemplating the assassination, he began recording his inner thoughts in a leather-bound 1864 diary. It was an obsolete diary, leading me to believe Booth’s documentation of the events was not done casually, but was his attempt in his final days to hand down the truth of what had happened. Booth was not a murderer at heart and took no pleasure from the killing, although he did believe the South would honor him as a hero, a misjudgment on his part, at least for the majority, who were horrified by this pointless violence.
Consider Booth carried a one-shot derringer into Ford’s theater. Obviously, he was not expecting armed resistance. How did Booth know Lincoln would be left unguarded? After discharging his weapon, he jumped to the stage to make a getaway through back of the theater where his horse was waiting. But his spur snagged on the bunting of the Presidential box, causing Booth to fall and lose a spur in the process. According to his diary, he broke his leg, in a horse fall later during the escape. That broken leg is the only reason he got caught because he was awarded a massive head-start for unknown reasons. And the hunt for him was regularly impeded when it could have been accelerated.
All roads out of Washington were closed after the assassination except one, which just happened to be the route Booth took, and when he crossed the bridge out of Washington, he gave the guard his real name and was allowed to pass even though bridges were supposed to be closed to traffic at night as a security measure. Booth’s name and description would not go out for many hours, and the local telegraph line went strangely dead. But even the next day, the War Department acted like they didn’t know who the assassin was, when dozens of witnesses had already named him at police headquarters. When Booth’s picture was finally circulated, it may have been a photo of his brother Edwin because that misidentified photo later appeared in War Department files as Booth.
Despite the biggest manhunt in history, Booth evaded capture for over a week, yet one afternoon, Lafayette C. Baker, recently reinstated head of the National Detective Police (NDP), sent a detail of soldiers after drawing a 10-mile diameter circle on a map of Virginia. Baker explained Booth could be found inside the circle and sent his cousin to fetch him with a squad of 25 soldiers. How he knew Booth’s precise location remains a mystery, but since there was the equivalent of a $2.25 million dead-or-alive reward at stake, few wanted to share credit for anything. At the last second, Everett Conger was attached to the unit, and carried instructions to bring back Booth’s diary. Conger ended up taking charge at the scene.
I suspect Stanton gave Everton Conger instructions to kill Booth, but that will never be known conclusively. It is somewhat strange he was awarded the lion’s share of the reward.
Despite being a key piece of evidence, Booth’s diary never appeared during the trial, or was even mentioned at all, though it would have exonerated some of the suspects who were hanged.
But a year later, after Baker lost his cushy job at the War Department, he shopped an autobiography to some major publishers and found a ghost writer to pen the pot-boiler. This is when the country learned of Booth’s diary and pretty soon Congress was investigating. After Baker examined the diary in the presence of a Congressional committee, he claimed 18 leaves had been cut out, as if with a scissors.
Yet, even the pages left intact provided some interesting clues, the most important of which was probably:
“I am tempted to return to Washington to clear my name, which I am sure I can do.”
How was Booth intending to clear his name? Booth likely would not have committed murder for money, although he was carrying a large amount when he was captured, and it all disappeared naturally. However, he might have committed this deed if some powerful person(s) made him an offer he couldn’t refuse. Or if that offer came from someone within the Confederate Secret Services. According to George Atzerodt’s original confession, the murder plot emanated from New York City. Since Major Thomas Eckert was the only person allowed to interrogate Atzerodt, one can assume he was involved. After the war, Jay Gould became recognized as the richest man in America, while the financial center moved from Philadelphia to New York City. Gould would soon appoint Eckert head of Western Union and the two men remained close for life.