Lincoln assassination Rabbit Holes

Secretary of War Edwin Stanton presided over a military tribunal investigating the assassination of President Abraham Lincoln and the first third of that trial documented horrific crimes fomented by the Confederate Secret Service, crimes of mass extermination involving arson, poisoning of public wells and distribution of smallpox-tainted blankets. The press covered the trial, but all coverage was subject to editing and censorship by Stanton. The North was easily whipped into a frenzy of paranoia. After five years of the worst violence in American history, the nation was already rocked by PTSD, but Lincoln’s murder and trial tweaked the public to new heights of distress.

One problem. It was all lies. A propaganda expert named Charles Dunham paid and coached the parade of witnesses, all in an effort to help convict Jefferson Davis of killing Lincoln (Rabbit Hole #1). Few today realize that tribunal found Davis guilty. Or that it took a hundred years to uncover Dunham’s real name and the extent of his Civil War propaganda ops. During the trial, he’d been known as Sanford Conover, just one of many aliases he employed.

President Andrew Johnson had been a victim of the propaganda, and placed in a paranoid frenzy that left him easily manipulated. But after Mary Surratt was hanged, and Johnson discovered most of the tribunal had wanted her spared, he got angry with Stanton and eventually fired him.

Stanton barricaded himself in his office and refused to step down, while his cohorts in Congress (Ben Wade and Thaddeus Stevens) launched an impeachment trial against Johnson, during which they presented evidence Johnson had been the mastermind behind Lincoln’s assassination (Rabbit Hole #2).

Had Johnson been impeached, Senator Ben Wade would have become president. But Johnson survived by one vote and a Congressional investigation was launched by the House Judiciary Committee to investigate the original trial. It had a predetermined outcome (think Warren Commission or the 9/11 Commission) and could have easily covered up all the perjuries of the initial tribunal if not for a lonely Democrat on the committee, an idealistic youngster named Andy Rogers (left), who amazingly broke down many of the witnesses in front of the press. The head judge on Stanton’s tribunal became so distressed he claimed Conover had been planted by the Confederates to discredit him, an absurd allegation that didn’t fly with the public, so he wrote a widely-distributed pamphlet blaming everything on the Pope, playing up widespread anti-Catholic sentiments in the North (Rabbit Hole #3).

Of course, when publishing their report, the Committee found no problem with the tribunal, and now that trial is considered gospel even though the official story is rife with fabrications. Historians base most research on newspaper articles, not realizing how manipulated the press was. It’s like relying on Pravda to tell you what was going on inside the Soviet Union before it fell. Most modern debate on Lincoln’s assassination has been centered on the relatively inconsequential level of involvement of Dr. Samuel Mudd and Mary Surratt, both of whom were certainly aware of the kidnapping plot, but neither of whom were involved in the murder. It wasn’t until 1938 that an outsider was allowed access to the War Department records and even though the records were purged many times over the decades to remove incriminating evidence, there’s still more than enough to crack the case. And over the years, new information continues to come to light thanks to the army of citizen researchers.

Yet new rabbit holes continue to appear with amazing frequency obviously designed to misdirect and confuse the researchers. And don’t you know, these rabbit holes often appear immediately after some new revelation? But if you avoid falling into the traps, and just deal with the primary documents of the period (most of which are available free online), it becomes clear Stanton, Wade and Stevens plotted Lincoln’s murder and then covered up their involvement.

Charles Dunham is a key to the Lincoln assassination

It’s tragic that no photo exists of Charles Dunham, aka San(d)ford Conover, whose career as a journalist, con-man, paid perjurer, and possible triple agent holds a place all its own in the parade of great spooks in history who dance through raindrops and come out dry as a bone. Apparently Dunham was dark and handsome and employed a facile tongue in all sorts of intricate intrigues. He was a Zelig of his time, appearing in the strangest places and always under a different identity. So you can understand why he seems to have had a strong aversion to cameras.

Only a few researchers would devote serious effort to peel this onion and unmask Dunham, most notably Joseph E. Missemer, David R. Barbee, James O. Hall, and Joseph George, Jr.

Carman Cumming wrote Devil’s Game, the only book devoted to Dunham, whose colorful exploits have yet to be fully exploited by the entertainment industry, something sure to happen eventually. I suspect this story is overlooked because it provides a window inside the Great Lincoln Conspiracy. The best I can do is a newspaper clipping that reports his presence in a Washington courtroom.

Dunham was a New York lawyer and possible dirty tricks operative for the Democratic party. When the war broke out, he was busy running a scam to collect money for a fictional Union regiment that never materialized. In April 1863, he obtained a Union military pass for traveling South, and soon found himself surrounded by a grinning contingent of Mosby’s Rangers on horseback, who turned him over to General John W. Winder, head of Confederate Counterintelligence. Dunham was immediately transferred to Castle Thunder, a former tobacco warehouse converted into a prison for suspected spies and traitors. But Dunham successfully charmed his jailers by telling them he wished to defect and raise a Confederate regiment through his connections in Baltimore, as he knew hundreds of Northerners like him ready to join the rebellion.

Unfortunately, after being released, he was soon re-captured in a heavily-guarded military zone, and his excuse for being there just before the summer assault was not believed, so Dunham was deported back to the North over his protests he would be hanged as a traitor upon arrival.

Funny how the first thing Dunham did on return was post a letter to Colonel Lafayette Baker, head of the Union Secret Services. Soon, he was back in New York and contributing regularly to three different newspapers, all under different bylines, although his primary identity had become that of Sandford Conover. But since he seldom signed his journalism, the one time his byline did appear, the typesetter left off the “d,” and since then, Dunham became known as Sanford Conover.

Dunham was a master of melodrama and wove some amazing tales. His favorite characters included the villainous Colonel George Margrave and Colonel Charles Dunham (yes, his alter-ego remained in Virginia and raised and led a Confederate regiment, although like most everything Dunham wrote, it was all a fabrication). Dunham would submit an explosive story for a Copperhead newspaper one day, and then attack that same article in a Union paper the next day, exposing his own lies. He pitted his fictional characters against each other in epic battles.

Dunham sent a letter to President Lincoln requesting permission to kidnap Jefferson Davis, and then wrote an editorial condemning an alleged plot to kidnap President Lincoln, a plan that didn’t exist yet, although it soon would take form under John Wilkes Booth and John Surratt. Dunham may have given Booth the idea, as Booth made several unexplained trips to New York before fomenting his plot, a plan that eventually turned to murder after the war was nearly over.

Dunham was a master at forging documents and signatures, and it doesn’t take much imagination to wonder if he might have invented a document indicating Lincoln was planning to capture and execute Jefferson Davis. Had someone like Booth been shown a document like that, he might have felt justified in serving Lincoln his own medicine. Booth did write a letter fully explaining his actions and motivations and had handed it to a fellow actor at Ford’s Theater the day of the assassination, requesting him to deliver it to a local newspaper. Big mistake. What happened next we’ll never know, but years later, that actor would finally come forward, now claiming he burned this crucial evidence in horror without showing it to anyone. More likely, he brought that letter to the War Department, where it was suppressed and maybe burned there, otherwise that letter should have come up for discussion during the trial of the conspirators. In his diary shortly before his death, Booth considered returning to Washington to clear his name, something he felt he could do. Booth was stunned to discover he was universally despised by all newspapers after the assassination. He had not achieved hero status from the Copperheads that he’d been expecting, and it crushed him.

Testifying as Sanford, Dunham made the case Davis was behind Lincoln’s assassination, a charge believed until he later appeared before the Judicial Committee in Congress, told similar stories and was convicted of perjury. Since those perjuries involved similar testimony he’d given earlier before the tribunal, one wonders why Dunham wasn’t charged in that more important case as well?

When John Surratt finally returned to stand trial, Dunham visited him and offered a deal: If Surratt agreed to implicate President Johnson in Lincoln’s assassination, he’d receive immunity and other rewards. The only person who could have possibly brokered that deal was Secretary of War Stanton.