Newspapers with inside stories concerning the assassination of President Abraham Lincoln sold out quick in the spring of 1865, both in America and Europe, although most articles were packed with outrageous fabrications designed to sell issues. Very quickly, manufacturing of fake evidence in this case became a cottage industry, as the gullible were easily led down a maze of rabbit holes, starting with Jefferson Davis, Andrew Johnson, Knights of the Golden Circle, The Vatican, and so it went through the decades, with inventive frauds appearing on a regular basis. Some of this muck may have been manufactured to obscure the real plot, but some was the work of con artists seeking fame, fortune and publicity. (The instant appearance of multiple rabbit holes would be repeated for JFK and 9/11.)
Not much is known about Dion Haco, the dime novelist who rushed out the first tabloid biography on Booth before the trial was over, a yellow-sheet published by Dawley’s New War Novels. The following year, Haco followed up with the even-more explosive The Private Journal and Diary of John H. Surratt. Strange a year later, when Surratt returned to face trial, he made no mention of this forgery, which claimed he was a made member of the Knights of the Golden Circle, an anti-Catholic organization. Although a military tribunal had hanged his mother, Surratt walked away a free man after the civil trial on the same charges. He gave two lectures afterwards, but left no diary nor journals. By this time, public opinion had shifted against accepting the tribunal that had found Surratt’s mom guilty because so many perjuries by government witnesses had come to light. Within a few decades, however, few would recall how corrupt that trial had really been.
The Lincoln assassination may be one of the most investigated murders in history, but it’s astonishing how much research is tainted by obvious forgeries. You can’t believe the amount of people who take Haco’s melodramatic novels as gospel truth.
William Henry Burr also wrote some early books on the assassination and they all pointed toward a Catholic conspiracy. Apparently, his key evidence was advance knowledge of the assassination in the tiny hamlet of St. Joseph, Minnesota, home to a college for the training of Jesuit priests. According to Burr, the news arrived two hours before the assassination! This rabbit hole would become one of the most well-traveled since John Surratt, his mother and childhood friend found guilty were all Catholics….forget the reality Booth was not, and Booth was the actual assassin, while the Catholics were just patsies.
On January 13, 1903, David E. George passed away in Enid, Oklahoma, allegedly confessing to his landlady he was John Wilkes Booth. Upon hearing this story, Finis L. Bates rushed to Enid from Texas because he’d known a man named John St. Helen, who also claimed to be Booth. Bates wanted to view the corpse while still at the undertakers, and once he did, he declared it was the same man he knew as John St. Helen. Meanwhile, the landlady recanted George’s death bed confession, but no matter, Bates paid to mummify the corpse so it could be put on public exhibition for an admission fee. The mummy was sold through the years to circus sideshows, and at various times held under bond, seized for debt, banned from exhibition, or kidnapped. And, of course, Bates wrote a crackpot book purporting to tell the real story of Booth’s escape.
There’s a strong current in history pulling scholars toward accepting official stories and staying within those parameters, and since that route usually yields the best book and film deals, not to mention professorships, serious historians often remain on this tack. But suddenly, in 1937, after gaining access to long-hidden War Department files, Otto Eisenschiml published the ground-breaking: Why Was Lincoln Murdered? The book painted a compelling portrait of Secretary of War Edwin Stanton as possibly the instigator of Lincoln’s murder and was written in an entertaining, novelistic style. To marshal his case, the author stretched the truth here and there, and some points were quickly refuted by mainstream historians, however, the bulk of his case emerged unscathed, and most second-generation Lincoln researchers were influenced in some way by Eisenschiml.
At this point, a circus tatoo man had gained possession of George’s mummy, and the success of Eisenschiml’s book ignited renewed interest in Lincoln conspiracies, so in 1937, the mummy suddenly earned over $100,000 in exhibition fees, five times what Booth made as an actor in his best year. Obviously, there was a lot of money to be made fabricating Booth stories, which is why we’ve had a steady parade of fakes and forgeries ever since.
Twenty years after Eisenschiml’s groundbreaking book, Theodore Roscoe followed up with the even more comprehensive The Web of Conspiracy, three times the length and packed with even more supporting documentation. In his foreword, Roscoe described the assassination’s legend as “a towering edifice of so-called history built on sand.” For two decades a parade of apologists defending the official record had nitpicked every exaggeration in Eisenschiml’s book, but when Roscoe came back with a mountain of additional evidence, the best they could do was ignore him and pretend the book was never published or just a meaningless rehash of Eisenschiml’s. When you crack a deep political conspiracy like Lincoln’s assassination, it’s like solving a jigsaw puzzle. Suddenly you can see where to fit the missing pieces. Conversely, when you bend over backwards inventing complex rationalizations (magic bullets, etc.), remaining pieces fail to fit and require additional complex rationalizations. When you arrive at the truth, however, it lights up like a Christmas tree and everything falls into place.
In 1977, David Balsiger and Charles E. Sellier, Jr. published The Lincoln Conspiracy, which used a lot of material from Roscoe’s book, but added dubious evidence taken from transcripts provided by an unknown source acting through a lawyer as his agent. This person claimed to be a bastard descendent of Edwin Stanton and was offering to sell Booth’s missing diary pages, which identified the cabal behind the assassination. This source also claimed to have the letter Booth wanted delivered to the newspapers. In hindsight, I’d guess this was a clever intelligence operation designed to taint the story forever, and I file this effort under: if you can’t beat ’em, join ’em—and throw in a ton of disinfo. And if that wasn’t enough, there was additional new material provided by a professor from Indiana State University named Ray Neff.
Neff claimed to have purchased a volume of Colburn’s United Service Magazine in 1957, a British military journal for professional soldiers. He soon discovered the book had notations in cipher in the margins, as well as the date: 2/5/68. In order to decipher the code, Neff claims to have taken the book to an unnamed cryptography expert. The first paragraph decoded went: “In new Rome, there walked three men, a Judas, a Brutus and a spy. Each planned he would be king when Abraham should die.” An invisible signature of Lafayette C. Baker was discovered on one page, and an analysis expert claimed it matched the real Baker’s signature.
Neff is obviously a fanatic researcher, and pursues documents from the era with enormous zeal, all of which are now archived at Indiana State University. Apparently, Neff sued the college for $90,000, but I found little information on that dispute. In fact, I find it odd I can’t locate a photo of Neff.
In a nutshell: the cipher messages stated Baker was being followed by professional spooks who wanted him dead. An enormous cabal had been working with Stanton, involving dozens of bankers, merchants, generals and government officials. However, only eight were supposedly intimately involved with the assassination, and those eight were not identified. Neff had a document from Baker’s archives proving he’d purchased a copy of Colburn’s. He had a hair analysis performed on Baker’s remains and announced he’d been poisoned with arsenic and did not die of meningitis as claimed. Eventually, Neff claimed to have discovered the arsenic had been laced in beer provided by Baker’s brother-in-law, a War Department employee.
Neff and an English co-writer eventually released their own book in 2003, Dark Union, which also claimed Booth escaped and died in India, that he’d been secretly married, and that James B. Boyd was the man shot in Garrett’s barn.
But that was 26 years after The Lincoln Conspiracy sold a million copies and became a major motion picture using the same information. But if you really peer deeply into this story, you’ll find fingers pointing in strange directions and dots lining up that don’t really connect, and while I’m sure Baker owned a copy of Colburn’s, I believe those ciphers were more likely added by someone else. In my opinion, all attempts to claim Booth wasn’t shot dead at Garrett’s farm are manufactured rabbit holes.
Today, few take Neff’s work seriously, but for a while, he did manage to grab the center of energy on Lincoln research, which was certainly unfortunate.