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.