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A Journey Back in Time

One man’s obsession with the assassination of Honest Abe


By: Michael W. Kauffman

Over the years I’ve taken a lot of questions from tourists, reporters and ordinary folks who wanted to know more about my “obsession” with the assassination of Abraham Lincoln. The O-word seems to come naturally to mind in any discussion about my book American Brutus: John Wilkes Booth and the Lincoln Conspiracies. I’ve been following Booth’s life and crime in fairly obsessive ways for almost four decades. By car, on foot and in the air, I’ve traced the route he took from Washington hundreds of times. When I wanted to know what it was like to make that dramatic leap to the stage at Ford’s Theatre, I brought in a 12-foot ladder and tried it myself. When I wondered what Booth might have felt as he rowed across the Potomac, I did that too. I even staged a re-enactment of Booth’s death, complete with soldiers, horses and a real Shakespearean actor in the lead role. Our setting was an authentic Civil War-era tobacco barn similar to the one in which Booth had been cornered. Like the men of the 16th New York Cavalry, we burned the place down, though in this case we let the actor get out alive.

It was all very dramatic. But the point in doing these things is that I wanted to do more than read about history; I wanted to experience it, and to see for myself what kind of memories these events would have left behind. To the same end, I once lived in Tudor Hall, the assassin’s boyhood home near Bel Air, Maryland. (No, I never saw any ghosts.)

It has never been hard to explain what makes me take such a deep interest in the subject. Put simply, I love to discover new things, and this case has more than its share of unexplored territory.

Most people are surprised to hear there could be anything left unsaid about an event that occurred in 1865. It is not just a popular topic, but the obligatory final chapter in the life story of America’s most iconic figure. According to one writer, 3,400 books have been written on the subject.

In fact, very few well-researched nonfiction books have been published on the assassination, and almost all have met a frosty reception among professional historians. In a 1978 journal article, Professor Harold M. Hyman gave his own take on the “scholarship – or something less” – inspired by the death of Lincoln. Hyman pulled no punches, comparing assassination literature to “pornography,” and endorsed a statement that all books on the subject were “the d[amn]dest trash and fiction.” His strongest objection to these works was their tendency to include fabrications and information that could not be double-checked.

Professor Hyman was right. Today, even the most thorough and honest writers find it difficult to tell a good source from a flawed one, and few, if any, even make the attempt. As a result, the story has been overwhelmed by folklore and carried far beyond the gray area that sometimes exists between fact and fiction. This is not confined to assassination writers, but seems to be spreading through the ranks of popular and academic historians, as well as writers of nonfiction in general. It has even spawned the new genre – or should I say, the new euphemism – of “creative nonfiction,” in which it’s okay to insert unrecorded thoughts and embroidered details into an otherwise factual work.

Not all sources are created equal, and the same story can be told in remarkably different ways, depending on which source one believes. The art of vetting is no longer given the emphasis it once had, in spite of developments in other disciplines that should have made it easier to judge the accuracy of information. That is something I realized quite by accident.

Being in the television news business, I’ve seen sudden disasters and stunning acts of violence. On one such occasion, I witnessed the killing of a man who, I thought, had been trying to surrender to authorities. But after breathlessly recounting what I had just seen, I played back my videotape which, to my amazement, showed a very different story. My memory was clear and vivid, but it was completely wrong.

I already knew that eyewitnesses are often confused and mistaken, but I had always thought of myself as a “trained observer” who wouldn’t make all the usual errors in recalling a scene. But after that shooting incident, I looked again at the subject of eyewitness testimony, and learned that a revolution had just taken place in the related fields of memory and perception. Modern science has exposed massive flaws in human memory, especially over the course of time.

Historical writing is typically based on what people remember about an event that occurred long ago. Knowing that, I couldn’t help wondering, “Why not apply these lessons to my own sources?” I had spent years searching through scrapbooks, vertical files and old newspapers, and had collected an enormous database of people who claimed to have witnessed the Lincoln assassination. Their accounts had dribbled out over the course of 90 years. Surely some of the more recent ones would show the effects of time. Would I have to discard them?

Before I could make any meaningful progress, I first had to weed out the many false accounts that had appeared in the popular press. This was a discouraging lesson in human nature, as one “eyewitness” after another had to be eliminated because their claims did not stand up to scrutiny. Matilda Todd, for example, had appeared in a number of media outlets in the late 1920s, and recounted the shooting in chilling detail. She claimed she and her husband were sitting near the stage in Ford’s Theatre when they heard a loud shot from the president’s box above. Looking up, they saw the assassin, John Wilkes Booth, drop clumsily to the stage, snapping the bone in his leg and spraying the first three rows of the audience with blood from his gruesome injury. With an expression of agony, Booth held up a bloody dagger and cried “Sic semper tyrannis!” (Latin for “Thus always to tyrants!” the motto of Virginia). A fellow actor, standing in the wings, saw that the assassin couldn’t possibly make it to the back door, so she threw Booth a rope and dragged him across the stage and out of harm’s way. 

The story made Mrs. Todd an instant celebrity. Speaking engagements, interviews on national radio and an invitation to the White House must certainly have brightened her twilight years with an appreciation she could not have imagined a few years earlier. Unfortunately, the more she talked, the more apparent it became that the story was a complete fabrication. Asked why she had not told the story sooner, she explained that her late husband did not want their friends to know that they had been in a theater on Good Friday. Asked why even her family never knew about this, she said that she and her husband had taken the first train back to New Jersey that night, and pretended to be sound asleep in bed when everyone else woke up the next morning. One by one, the excuses sounded less believable, and it soon became obvious that in putting herself in the spotlight, she made fools of the national media. She was certainly not the only person to do so.

“Among the accounts published years after the assassination, Fabrications were more the rule than the exception.”

I couldn’t help noticing that, among the accounts published years after the assassination, fabrications were more the rule than the exception. Like moths to a flame, phonies were attracted to this story in large numbers, but very few were ever exposed as frauds. It was no easy task to find them out after the passage of so many years. I might have matched their stories against the undisputed facts, but in truth, I couldn’t find much that was really beyond dispute. Even the story of Booth’s broken leg — one of history’s most familiar tales — had been doctored up, so to speak, by the assassin himself a week after the shooting. Sitting down to write his own version of the killing, Booth deliberately left the impression that he had been injured in the act. The truth was far more mundane, and even a little embarrassing: His horse had tripped and rolled over his leg somewhere outside the city that night. Fellow conspirators, witnesses, and physical evidence confirm this, and most contemporaries actually accepted it. But gradually the better story gained a foothold in the literature, and it survives to this day.

I had never doubted the standard explanation for Booth’s injury until after I had committed myself to working with only the earliest sources on record. By that time, the instability of eyewitness accounts, especially after the passage of time, had been put far beyond dispute. Books such as Witness for the Defense by Elizabeth Loftus had pointed out that people do not store pictures of their experiences in some sort of memory bank, to be called up with precision whenever the need arises. Instead, they construct new mental pictures based on what they know (or think they know) about what had occurred. As additional information becomes available to them, new details appear in the picture as if they had been there all along. In this way, opinions, assumptions, and even false information implanted by the mistaken reports of others can find their way into the memory of an honest eyewitness. Their memories can be clear and vivid, but still wrong.

That information raised the bar considerably on the way I did research. I could no longer take a delayed account of the assassination at face value, but had to rely on accounts recorded before the witness had a chance to be affected by outside sources. Even days after the event, a participant could spew out implanted memories in place of an authentic account.

In fact, this happened on many occasions. On a research trip to Canada, I discovered an account of Lincoln’s death written only moments after the fact by one of the attending physicians. Dr. Charles S. Taft had been in the audience at Ford’s Theatre and was one of the first doctors to reach the president’s box. He stayed with Lincoln throughout the night. When death came the following morning, Taft rushed home to write down his impressions of what had just occurred. He published this account many times over the years, but never in its original form. As new details appeared, Taft folded them into his own account. Eventually he even reported hearing Secretary of War Edwin Stanton give his famous benediction at Lincoln’s deathbed: “Now he belongs to the ages.” In fact, neither Taft nor anyone else in the room had reported hearing this at the time. It first appeared in print 25 years after the assassination and was written by people who were not even there.

But even contemporary sources had to be viewed with caution. Newspaper reports were erratic, and had often carried hysterical rumors. Many, for example, had reported the deaths of other government officials, such as Secretary of State William Seward and his son, who had also been attacked by one of Booth’s conspirators on the night of Lincoln’s killing. Others reported Booth’s capture in Pennsylvania, and many quoted an anonymous boyhood friend of the assassin who said Booth had wanted to do such a thing since childhood — just to make himself famous. I discarded the stories I couldn’t verify, but what remained was a valuable picture of the panic and uncertainty that gripped Washington in the wake of the tragedy. That was no small contribution.

Worse than falsehoods, by far, were half-truths. These were factual tidbits that had been plucked from the records years later and placed neatly into a story line that the people of Lincoln’s time would have found absolutely bizarre. It is true, for example, that policemen were assigned to work at the White House in Lincoln’s time. But that hardly lends credence to the story that those men had failed in their job on the night of the assassination. As the records show, they were assigned to protect the building, not the president. Tourists had been cutting up the drapes and carpets, running off with silverware and generally leaving the executive mansion in a shambles. By sending over some of its meanest and most intimidating men (all with abysmal records as officers) the Metropolitan Police had hoped to curry favor with the Commissioner of Public Buildings, who could not afford to maintain order on his own meager budget. Those “guards” had never gone anywhere with Lincoln, in spite of their later claims to the contrary.

As for those pests who crashed Cabinet meetings in search of autographs or woke the president up in his bed – they would not be dealt with officially until years after the Civil War. Nor would bodyguards, as we now think of them, have anything to do with the Chief Executive until the 1900s. In fact, assassinating the president was not even a federal crime until more than a century after  Lincoln’s death.

The world was a different place in 1865, and our modern notions of common sense have no place in it. Not only did people think differently about the necessity of keeping public buildings open to the public; they thought almost nothing at all about things we now take for granted, such as time of day. With standardization of time zones still in the future, local time in 1865 was linked exclusively to the position of the sun in any given locality. Thus, 1 p.m. in Baltimore did not occur at the same time as 1 p.m. in Washington. On paper, a telegraph message might actually be received 10 minutes before it was even sent. This went almost unnoticed during the Civil War, but it can be maddening for anyone who wants to piece together a record of events as they actually unfolded.

But in order to understand what happened and why, I had to do just that. I had eliminated sources that were not recorded until years later, and this had seriously reduced the number of sources I could draw upon. Fortunately, the National Archives and the Library of Congress had more than enough to supply my needs. The Archives kept all the basic records of the case: The 11,000-page Record Group 153 (known as the Lincoln Assassination Suspects file) contained the notes of War Department prosecutors who had conducted the military trial of Booth’s cohorts after the assassin himself had been killed. Record Group 94, also from the War Department, was just as useful. It included detailed accounts of the investigation and pursuit — all filed in support of claims for the $100,000 reward offered for the conspirators’ capture. These papers were known to a few researchers, but none had made much use of them. I considered them a gold mine.

One of the most obvious sources had been largely overlooked. This was Record Group 393, the papers of the Army’s Continental Commands. Unlike the files in RG 153 and RG 94, these had never been microfilmed, and had to be examined carefully in their original (fragile) state. They were filed in small batches, neatly folded in thirds and bound by a red cloth ribbon. Untying those ribbons always gave me a sense of excitement, as if I were about to discover some great national treasure that had been tucked away (or better yet, misfiled) for more than a century. Such finds occasionally did turn up.

Though RG 393 never yielded anything startling, it did include the files of army units and search parties throughout the country. Every official action was documented in these records, and they were a tremendous help in pinning down the movements of some of the major characters in this story.

Eventually I realized that almost every department in the government had kept records that might be useful in some way. The Treasury Department had tabulated the cost of Lincoln’s funeral. The Pardon Attorney, then under the State Department, had gathered hundreds of sworn depositions on the cases of those convicted in Booth’s plot. Even Congress got involved, when unsuccessful claimants for reward money had appealed to the Committee on War Claims in the 1870s. Almost all of these documents were sworn statements from 1865, and I found them by searching the Congressional Globe, typing all the familiar names into an online database (www.loc.gov) and getting a surprisingly high number of hits.

Manuscript collections – in the Library of Congress and elsewhere – were full of great sources. When looking through them, my favorite research trick was to thumb through card catalogs for entries such as “Booth,” “Lincoln,” “Surratt,” and so on. It was tedious work, but back in the 1980s, it was the only way to find the papers of John T. Ford, owner of Ford’s Theatre and a close friend of the Booths; the letters of Elizabeth Rogers, a neighbor of the Booths in Maryland; and the only wartime photograph of the alleged conspirator, Mary Surratt.

Starting with War Department records, I created a computer database to lay out the events the way detectives found them — in  order of their discovery, beginning at the moment of the shooting. I had to hone my project by trial and error. In time, I compiled a list of each event mentioned in the Lincoln Assassination Suspects file taken directly from the records with separate fields for the date, time, place, and source of the information.

With a few keystrokes I could sort this data in countless ways, giving a timeline for each detective, suspect or combination of people. The results were stunning.

To get the full impact, we must first run through the story as it usually appeared in the popular press. In these accounts, Lincoln went to see a performance of “Our American Cousin” at Ford’s Theatre in spite of warnings about the danger of appearing in public. That night a failed actor, John Wilkes Booth, crept into the Lincolns’ private box and shot the president. Leaping to the stage, Booth caught his spur in one of the flags that draped the box railing, and broke his leg when he landed on the stage. He limped across the stage to the wings, and stumbling out the alley door, mounted his waiting horse and fled into the darkness.

By a strange oversight, Secretary of War Stanton had ordered all bridges closed that night, but one remained open, and that’s the one Booth took out of the city. Helped by a mysterious failure of the telegraph system, he was long gone before a credible pursuit could be mounted. Authorities did not find him until April 26, when a cavalry detachment trapped Booth in a tobacco barn. An eccentric sergeant, acting against orders, silenced him with a fatal shot through the neck.

By my standards of proof, almost none of that story was true. Before the shooting, Booth was one of America’s most successful actors. Nobody had seen him limp across the stage that night. The telegraph lines did not stop working. Officially, all the bridges were closed, but guards were given “field discretion” to pass anyone they deemed harmless. Nobody had shown an eerie prescience before the shooting, and nobody tried to warn the president away from his planned visit to Ford’s. These tales were indeed a part of the historical record. But they all emerged weeks and even years after the murder, when the original records were tucked away in the War Department, and people seemed convinced that their stories could not be verified, disproved, or put back in their proper context. 

The key word is “context.” Almost all of the fantastic tales were based on a grain of truth, and even on sworn testimony. But these half-truths can be just as misleading as an outright lie. With a large reward at stake, people tended to shore up their claims by bending the facts. Perjury at the conspiracy trial was rampant, and false testimony was much more tantalizing than the truth. But in almost every case, government files would have set the record straight. Treasury records showed large secret payments to prosecution witnesses.

Local court records showed that some of these people had a long history of lying under oath. War Department records left a paper trail that put the lie to some of the testimony. Take, for instance, the army lieutenant who swore he had never heard of anyone but Booth identified as the assassin. In the hours following the shooting, this same man had actually tried to convince his superiors that someone else had killed the president. It’s one of many  vital points scattered throughout the records, waiting to be found. But research is time consuming, and most assassination writers haven’t gone to the bother.

Fortunately, I’ve always enjoyed the work. I got caught up in it, digging through official records, telegrams and family papers. The full-immersion technique was paying off. I began to notice that quaint expressions of the day could become clues to the authenticity of a source. I was especially impressed with the importance of chronology – not necessarily the order in which events occurred, but in which they were discovered and published for the first time. That provided me with another test of sources. Did the writer claim to know more than he could possibly have known at the time? Did he claim to be driven by a desire to eliminate slavery — a dead-letter issue long before 1865? I tried to synchronize my thinking with the culture of those times in order to find the right perspective and a “hook” for my account of the assassination.

My work answers some mysteries and settles some controversies. But the story that remains is anything but a dull list of historical data. My approach attempted to transform obscure names into personalities. Their thoughts, wishes and fears drove the story. Their interactions became the story. Now it’s no great mystery why conspirator David Herold chose to remain with the assassin to the end; Herold was a lowly clown, and nobody but Booth had ever put so much faith in him. It was not hard to figure out why John Surratt had joined the plot; the Confederate government considered Surratt a braggart, and refused to give him the kind of daring assignment that Booth had offered. In short, John Wilkes Booth, the successful actor, had brought his professional skills into play, convincing a gang of losers that they could rise above their reputations and make themselves heroes for all time.

I have often heard that history is all about people. But only when I got to know the people in this story did the lesson really take hold.

American Brutus did not spark a revolution in historical methods and reasoning. But in a discipline that always looks back, it takes time to absorb and incorporate new ways of examining the world. Maybe someday online research will make the “obsessive” approach obsolete. But until it does, there is no substitute for taking the time and effort needed to be sure that the job is done right. 

 

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One man’s obsession with the assassination of Honest Abe
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