It’s tragic no photo exists of Sandford Conover, whose career as a counter-intelligence operative holds a place all its own in the parade of greatest spooks to dance through raindrops and come out dry. Conover was dark and handsome with a facile tongue, a Zelig appearing in the strangest places, always under a different identity, which explains why he had such aversion to cameras.
Fifteen thousand books on Lincoln, yet only five historians devoted any effort to unmasking Conover: Joseph Missemer, David Barbee, James Hall, and Joseph George, and most especially, Carman Cumming who wrote Devil’s Game, the only book devoted to his colorful exploits, which have yet to be exploited by the entertainment industry, likely because the story provides a window on the Great Lincoln Conspiracy.
By testifying he’d witnessed John Wilkes Booth and Jacob Tompson plot Lincoln’s assassination in Montreal, Conover became the state’s primary witness in the Lincoln assassination tribunal. Forgotten today is the primary thesis crafted by Stanton’s kangaroo court was pinning the blame on Jefferson Davis. Other key witnesses called included Conover’s wife, sister-in-law, and brother-in-law, all of whom were well-paid for the testimony.
Conover had traveled to Montreal immediately after testifying under the name James William Wallace, an identify he had previously used to plant fake evidence into the Canadian investigation of the St. Albans raid.
Meanwhile, a reporter present at the secret tribunal prematurely published his tribunal testimony, which alerted Canadian authorities to Conover’s other identity. Audaciously, Conover attempted to keep his cover story intact by insisting he was Wallace and the dastardly Conover had stolen his identity, while offering a $500 reward to anyone who could track the real Conover down. He claimed if allowed to travel to Washington, he could easily prove he was not the man who’d testified at the tribunal.
Canada didn’t swallow the performance and put Conover in jail, where he was interviewed by a local newspaper, which reported, “he now confesses he is Sanford Conover, and wishes to disclose how and by what means he was induced to go to Washington at the instance of Federal pimps for perjury, but that Southerners here scorn to go near him to receive his disclosures.”
The Union War Department managed to pry Conover out of jail to attend a Congressional investigation into the tribunal. He requested to be allowed to travel to New York City so he could gather evidence to support his latest narrative, and the committee agreed, but sent an armed guard to accompany him. But upon arrival in the city, Conover eluded the guard and vaporized. It would take decades before his real name emerged: Charles Dunham.
Dunham was a New York lawyer and possibly private intelligence operative. When the war broke out, he emerged as someone collecting 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.
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. He seldom signed his journalism and the one time his byline did appear, the typesetter left off the “d” and since then, he became mostly 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 could have easily created a document indicating Lincoln was planning to capture and execute Jefferson Davis. Had someone like Booth been shown a document like that, he might would have felt justified in serving Lincoln his own medicine. In fact, Stanton had launched such a plot, but had kept Lincoln out-of-the-loop. On March 2, 1864, Stanton had dispatched Colonel Ulric Dahlgren to Richmond with orders to kill Jefferson Davis and burn the city. But Dahlgren had been killed by a teenage home guardsman on the outskirts of the city, and his orders discovered in his saddlebag. Stanton responded by claiming these orders were counterfeit and no such mission had been authorized by the War Department. And Lincoln believed him.
Booth wrote a long letter 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 the local newspaper. Big mistake. What happened next we’ll never know, but years later, after Stanton’s death, that actor came forward claiming he burned the letter without showing it to anyone.
In his diary shortly before his death (many pages of which disappeared), Booth considered returning to Washington to clear his name, something he felt he could do. He’d been stunned to discover he was universally despised by all newspapers after the assassination and had not achieved hero status from the Copperhead press. The weight of this disdain had crushed his spirit.
In November 1866, John Surratt was captured and renditioned back to Washington to stand trial. And who should suddenly re-emerge as a visitor to the jail? According to Surratt, Conover wanted him to implicate President Johnson in Lincoln’s assassination, for which he’d receive immunity and other rewards. The only person who could have possibly brokered that offer was Secretary of War Stanton, who was engaged in a battle to impeach Johnson to save his position.
The only reason to offer bribes and fabricate phony evidence in matters of state security is if the real story is being concealed. It doesn’t matter who Conover was ultimately working for, although Stanton seems the logical choice for puppet master. I could also make a case for Jay Gould. Lincoln’s murder was an inside job, and those two were at the top of the conspiracy. They had cleverly played a Confederate secret agent to carry out the mission to insure all blame would fall on Confederates. But the false narrative was so salted with fabrications that it instantly fell apart upon public examination.
And yet, the implications still haven’t reached the American consciousness and the official narrative remains riddled with falsehoods, the biggest of which is Lincoln was killed by a lone nutter.