Born and raised in Ohio (like so many others in this saga), Thomas Thompson Eckert was a huge and powerful man who once broke a handful of iron pokers across one arm with judo-like dexterity, greatly impressing President Lincoln, a man also known for superhuman strength.
Eckert began his military career as captain, aide-de-camp and telegraph expert on General George B. McClellan’s staff. It’s difficult today to realize how crucial the telegraph became once wires began crisscrossing the nation. Suddenly information moved with lightning speed and the spook world re-centered itself around the ciphering of telegraphed messages.
Edwin M. Stanton secured a post as Secretary of War by feigning support for President Lincoln, while torpedoing the sitting Secretary. Stanton not-so-secretly detested Lincoln as the record shows he typically referred to Lincoln as either ape or gorilla. Stanton was a diminutive man himself, and may have suffered from Napoleonic complex. Because he was so brilliant at crafting myths about himself, the official record may not be the most accurate source of information about him, and since he had power to throw anyone in jail without charges while he reigned, few spoke against him while he was alive.
According to the official story, however, Stanton caught Eckert telegraphing a message from General McClellan direct to Lincoln, a violation of protocol that immensely angered Stanton. Eckert was called to Washington to face rebuke, a dressing-down conducted in front of Lincoln, who naturally jumped to Eckert’s defense. Suddenly, Stanton changed his attitude completely, promoting Eckert to major and reassigning him (and the telegraph lines) to his office, capturing complete control of all information from the front. Was this dressing-down part of an act to gain control? If so, it would have been vintage Stanton, as he was famous for conspiratorial plots.
Evidence of Eckert being a highly trusted member of Stanton’s conspiracy against Lincoln is three-fold.
1) Lincoln specifically requested Eckert accompany him to Ford’s Theater the night he was assassinated, a request Eckert bizarrely rejected twice. For a major to rebuff his commander-in-chief twice is certainly a great insult and some hidden motivation must be considered.
2) When Lewis Powell was taken on board the ironclad U.S.S. Saugus, he was shackled, chained to a ball, and photographed. Soon he would be permanently hooded with a claustrophobic and suffocatingly hot canvas bag in an iron cage in the middle of summer, and no one was allowed to speak with him, not even the guards. Powell would not get an attorney assigned to his case until the tribunal was well under way, and until then, only one person was allowed to visit Powell, and that person was Eckert.
Eckert interviewed Powell at least twice, at least once before the hood was applied and once after. The excuse given for the hood was Powell banged his head against the iron wall in a supposed suicide attempt. But when they placed that awful hood over his head, in rare display of weakness, Powell shed a few tears.
The next time Major Eckert came around, he slipped a piece of chewing tobacco into the tiny mouth hole cut in the bag.
“Thank you,” Powell reportedly said. “That’s the first kind thing anyone’s done.”
Whether Powell knew the plot reached into Lincoln’s own administration—or whether he thought he was acting on orders from Richmond—we’ll never know as there are no notes from the interrogations, and within a few weeks of wearing that padded canvas hood, Powell was showing severe mental decline, making future interrogations unnecessary. By the time a lawyer was assigned to him, Powell could not answer softball questions involving his age or his mother’s maiden name.
3) Thomas Eckert rose to become head of Western Union, a post given him by the ruthless robber baron, Jay Gould, a scoundrel who made his fortune speculating on Civil War battles. It doesn’t take much imagination to guess this supreme post might have been a reward for services rendered.
Coda: Powell’s good looks and cool indifference marveled observers who attended his trial. His photo taken by Alexander Gardner (above) is considered the first modern portrait because it appears so contemporary. Powell refused to strike a pose like most others in the early days of photography, instead just oozed rock-star-level charisma. As the noose was slipped around his neck, seconds before his life was extinguished, Powell calmly spoke his final words: “They ain’t caught the half of us yet.”