Most of what we know about La Fayette Curry Baker is taken from his autobiography, and undoubtedly lies mixed with gross exaggerations, as Baker didn’t even write the book, but had it ghostwritten. When grilled about it on the stand, he wasn’t completely sure of its contents. Baker was undoubtedly one of the most corrupt officials in Washington so why would the truth cross his lips with any frequency? The fact he never read his autobiography is an indication he was not a learned fellow, although street-smart and schooled in the arts of spookdom.
Secretary of War Edwin Stanton hand-picked Baker to run the goon squad, the National Detective Police (NDP), which had been under control of the Secretary of State until Stanton snatched it away. Stanton also snatched the telegraph lines around the same time.
Stanton soon became a law unto himself, and Baker, chief enforcer. Admittedly, Baker wasn’t good at administration, although he did like dressing in disguise and doing his own gumshoe work. Interrogating suspected spies (especially pretty female ones), and manifesting fake evidence were among his admitted specialties, talents that made him quite useful to Stanton.
Right before the assassination, this duo got into a tiff, reportedly because Stanton discovered Baker had put a tap on his private telegraph line, which could have been deployed to communicate with an entity in Manhattan (likely Jay Gould, soon to be the richest man in America). Stanton and his allies running Congress (Wade, Stevens) had control of the flow of information concerning the outcome of battles. After Lincoln won his second term, he wanted to forgive the South and let their old representatives return to Congress, which would have taken control away from the Radicals.
Strangely, when Stanton discovered Baker’s tap, instead of firing him, Baker was moved to Manhattan. No doubt the head of the NDP office in New York, where Baker was moved to, was also involved in the conspiracy. Baker, however, was the odd man left out in the cold.
The Radical Republican cabal that had taken power in Washington viewed Lincoln as a novice and hick, and referred to him as “the ape” behind his back. Nothing like the saintly image we have today.
Precisely as the assassination plot went into action, Baker was demoted and moved to New York. Yet, a few weeks later, two days after the assassination, Stanton recalled Baker and reinstated him as NDP chief. Baker was considered the best detective on the force. No doubt Stanton was worried about the impression created by keeping him on the sidelines for the crime of the century. Using information gleaned from the army patrol that had visited Dr. Mudd’s home, Baker correctly pinpointed Booth’s location and sent a patrol led by a relative to retrieve him. At the last second, however, Stanton attached a civilian to the patrol, and he is the one who actually shot Booth in the barn.
When Baker got the news of Booth’s capture and death, he was elated since the equivalent of around $2.25 million in reward money was at stake and he expected to get the lion’s share. Baker bolted to Stanton’s home to give him the news. Stanton was an emotional man given to outbursts of rage and happiness, and Baker was curious what his reaction might be. At first, Baker did not tell Stanton Booth was dead, only captured, as he wished to judge the reaction. Surprisingly, upon hearing Booth was captured, Stanton registered nothing, but silently put one hand over his eyes while laying on his living room couch, remaining still as a statue until Baker told him Booth had not survived capture. Instead of becoming angry they could not move up the chain-of-command through torturing Booth, Stanton calmly rose and put on his coat for the trip to the office.
The story is revealing, and takes me back a few days to that initial meeting the duo had when Baker was recalled from New York and reinstated. Stanton spun his chair around and put his back to Baker. Baker assumed this was because Stanton was shedding tears over Lincoln’s death and did not wish to be seen in a moment of weakness. But knowing Stanton, it’s far more likely he turned around and feigned that moment, simply so Baker couldn’t look deeply into his eyes and read the guilt. Even though Baker was chief of the secret police, and involved in all sorts of nasty business, he remained on the outside of the assassination conspiracy as Stanton did not fully trust him.
After President Johnson went to war with Stanton and Thaddeus Stevens, and they mounted an impeachment campaign against him, word around Washington was the cabal had already decided Johnson had to go, and with manufactured evidence if necessary.
Just as they had invented the testimony that hanged Mary Surratt, they were already busy inventing evidence against Johnson. Under oath General Baker (he was promoted after Booth’s death) claimed to have seen letters between Johnson and Jefferson Davis, letters he promised to produce, but never did. Odd because forgery was not an issue for Baker.
To give an idea of the sort of shenanigans Baker fomented, he had a detective hire a prostitute to carry a pardon request to the White House. But when she arrived, Baker was waiting and nabbed her, claiming she was not of sufficient character to be in the White House. During the impeachment trial, this incident would be twisted to paint Johnson as a drunk who engaged prostitutes in the White House.
But it all backfired because Johnson survived his impeachment trial by one vote, meaning Stanton and Baker were both soon fired. Which is why Baker was forced to sign that publishing deal. He did put some clues in his book, however, and the most important had been to reveal the existence of Booth’s diary that had been captured at Garrett’s farm. Until then, the diary had never been revealed. This was an obvious case of obstruction, and Congress eventually forced Stanton to produce the diary so they could examine this curiosity, although when it finally arrived, many pages had been snipped out with a pair of scissors.
Baker received a pittance of the reward and became quite bitter later in life. Stanton and Stevens were both soon dead of natural causes and the head of Stanton’s telegraph operation would become the first CEO of Western Union, appointed by the owner, Jay Gould, who had profited immensely off uncanny Wall Street maneuvers involving Civil War battles. Almost as if he had advance knowledge.