Meet Joseph Holt, a lawyer educated in Bardstown, Kentucky, who moved into the upper echelons of power under President James Buchanan, along with fellow Democrat, Edwin Stanton.
Holt was Secretary of War under Buchanan, a position Stanton would hold under Lincoln. War, it should be noted, is the greatest profit producer known to man, and Secretary of War is the key man deciding who profits most.
Recently, I watched Robert Redford’s The Conspirator, a film that reveals how Mary Surratt was railroaded onto the gallows by a kangaroo court after Lincoln’s assassination. The film encouraged me to peer deeper into the case, and I’ve been astounded by what I’ve uncovered in one week assembling primary documents available free online. Thanks to hundreds of citizen researchers, this case is probably the most heavily documented murder trial in history. In the late 1930s, a professor in Chicago published a book suggesting Stanton was involved in the assassination, and marshaled considerable evidence to support this claim, some of which has been disputed. But after watching Redford’s film, I became sympathetic to this theory, because it certainly was a kangaroo court.
Little known today is the fact public sentiment turned against Stanton and his tribunal after its key witness, Sandford Conover, was unveiled as a chronic perjurer. In fact, much of the eyewitness testimony at the trial appears manufactured and the chief investigator, Lafayette Baker, was notorious for manufacturing evidence and accepting bribes, while his boss Stanton had become quite expert at arranging convictions.
Conover was eventually unmasked as Charles Durham, a New York lawyer and double or possible triple agent who had been posted inside the Confederate War Department briefly and had posed as a journalist writing simultaneously for both sides. Historians are still trying to unravel all the various identities he created during the war.
Forgotten today is the fact Jefferson Davis and the heads of the Confederate Secret Service were proclaimed guilty of fomenting the assassination by President Andrew Johnson before the trial commenced. In response, they accused Johnson as being the instigator, as Johnson seems to have benefited most, and Booth had left his calling card at Johnson’s hotel before the assassination, a detail that convinced Mary Todd Lincoln of Johnson’s guilt. That theory conflicts with the allegation Johnson was slated for assassination along with Secretary of State Seward that night. Although the military tribunal sold that story to the nation, there remains zero evidence anyone ever intended to assassinate the Vice President.
Check out the trial transcript and I think you’ll be amazed at the obvious manipulations. The first third of the trial involved crimes fomented by Davis and the Confederate Secret Service located in Canada, and had nothing to do with the people on trial. Those poor saps were all fringe characters who had the misfortune of knowing John Wilkes Booth and being Southern sympathizers. Booth was dead, so there was little hope of moving up the chain to discover who financed the complex operation, and Booth was discovered with a large amount of cash. And Booth’s acquaintances were held in solitary confinement with hoods permanently placed over the heads so anything they might have known wasn’t going to leak out.
But once Conover was unmasked as a serial liar, the credibility of Holt’s military tribunal was put in doubt, and the fact neither Jefferson nor any Confederate officials were put on trial only supported the conclusion the trial had been rigged to hang patsies so real criminals could walk free.
Secret societies were very popular during the Civil War. Some, like the Knights of the Golden Circle, were masonic spin-offs possibly created by high-ranking masons who wanted to launch operations without casting shadows on their primary lodges. Albert Pike was the most powerful mason in America at the time, and although he was from Boston, Pike became a Confederate General and organized Indian raids on civilians during the war.
One powerful secret society was located in New York City, the Order of the Star Spangled Banner, created to protest the arrival of Irish, Italian and German immigrants into North America, especially Catholics. This movement become national and launched the powerful “Know Nothing” political party, so named because of the response members were instructed to give when questioned about the society. Thaddeus Stevens became an important member of that society.
Many conspiracy theories were floated right after the assassination, possibly by Stanton himself as he controlled the press in Washington. The official story was that Jefferson Davis had masterminded the plot in revenge for losing the war, but many were led to believe it was a Catholic conspiracy based on John Surratt and his mother being Catholic. Many intelligent Americans, however, probably suspected Stanton, since he was cited as the most unpopular man in the country by some newspapers. This theory would not re-emerge until the late 1930s.
After the hanging of Mary Surratt, the country was left with a sour taste since she was the first woman executed in American history and now it looked like she was set-up and innocent of all charges.
Holt became so dishonored by public sentiment he eventually published a pamphlet to clear his name in which he accused Jefferson Davis of fomenting a campaign to destroy his credibility by planting the spy Conover in his case. That document is available here:
Later on, Holt would write another book about the assassination, but this one accused the Vatican of fomenting the plot.