Lincoln’s assassination: Terrorist plot or crackpot conspiracy?

Historian Harold Holzer examines the evidence in his upcoming true-crime book on America’s most infamous murder

By Philip Eil

Published February 16, 2015 1:30PM (EST)

John Wilkes Booth, surrounded by accomplices (clockwise, from left) Lewis Payne, David Herold, George Atzerodt.      (Library Of Congress)
John Wilkes Booth, surrounded by accomplices (clockwise, from left) Lewis Payne, David Herold, George Atzerodt. (Library Of Congress)

In an 1876 speech at the dedication of an Abraham Lincoln statue in Washington, D.C., Frederick Douglass told the crowd, “Fellow citizens, the fourteenth day of April, 1865, of which this is the eleventh anniversary, is now and will ever remain a memorable day in the annals of this Republic.”

But how much do we really remember of that day, as its 150th anniversary nears? Do we remember that Lincoln’s assassination was part of a larger plan to kill Secretary of State William Seward (who was injured in a concurrent attack at his home) and Vice President Andrew Johnson (whose assigned attacker bailed and got drunk instead)?

Do we remember that when Lincoln was rushed to a house across the street from Ford’s Theatre, his gangly frame was so long he had to be laid diagonally in his impromptu deathbed? Do we remember that Mary Surratt, whose home was a haven for assassination conspirators, was the first woman executed by the U.S. government, when she and three others were hanged on July 7, 1865?

If we don’t, we learn it all in the astoundingly evocative new anthology, "President Lincoln Assassinated!! The Firsthand Story of the Murder, Manhunt, Trial and Mourning," from the award-winning historian Harold Holzer. The first half of the book is a true crime story told through primary-source documents. We read Dr. Charles Leale’s account of rushing to the president’s aid after the shooting, examining his head, and “pass[ing] the little finger of my left hand through the perfectly smooth opening made by the ball.” The “$100,000 REWARD!” poster — perhaps the first wanted poster ever to include photographs, Holzer says — announces, “Let the stain of innocent blood be removed from the land by the arrest and punishment of the murderers.” A diary entry from John Wilkes Booth reads, “After being hunted like a dog through swamps, woods…with every man’s hand against me, I am here in despair.”

The second half of the book plunges readers into the sea of speeches, editorials, poems, sermons and other tributes that poured forth after Lincoln’s death, including that 1876 Douglass speech, a condolence letter from Queen Victoria to Mary Lincoln, and Walt Whitman’s immortal poem, “O Captain! My Captain!”

Taken together, these literary artifacts offer unrestricted access to what Holzer calls “the most infamous crime in American history.” We are sitting in the theater box when Lincoln is shot, standing by his side when he expires, and sharing the company of cultural luminaries (Ralph Waldo Emerson, Herman Melville, former President Franklin Pierce) and average citizens, alike, as they express their anguish over the country’s first presidential assassination.

Salon recently spoke with Holzer, who has published – count ‘em – 47 books on Lincoln and his times, and who is the recipient of the 2015 Gilder Lehrman Lincoln Prize. The conversation has been edited and condensed.

“The most infamous crime in U.S. history.”

I think so. There’s a lot of competition, I know.

I’m open to being convinced.

OK. With all the gruesome things, as you’re acquainted with, from the Lindbergh baby [kidnapping] on down to serial killers, regicide – or the American equivalent – is an act of terrorism and assault against the entire American people. Never before had an American president been killed, although an attempt or two had unsuccessfully been made. And the culture didn’t anticipate or fear – astonishingly enough, during such a bitter time – that it could happen in this country. King Charles had lost his head, but that was not going to happen in America.

So that’s why I rate it the most infamous, because it was a crime against all of America. And it was also, in a way, the most heartbreaking and the most gut-wrenching crime in American history. Because it came at a moment of huge triumph for Abraham Lincoln, personally and politically, and also at a moment when there was a collective sigh of relief among people, North and South, black and white, that this bloodshed had ended and that the other great crime in American history – slavery – was on its way to being erased and eradicated.

Do you consider Lincoln a casualty of the Civil War?

Yes. And I think that that was what justified the trial and execution of the remaining assassination conspirators by military tribunal. Washington was still an armed city. Confederate Gen. Joseph Johnston’s army was still in the field. It had not yet surrendered to Gen. Sherman; that would come in May. Although Gen. Lee had surrendered [five days earlier, on April 9], Lincoln was still the commander in chief of a standing army that was fighting a rebellion. So, I absolutely think he was one of the last casualties of the war. And he certainly deserves to be one of the 750,000.

I came to this book with what I’d call an average amount of knowledge about Lincoln. And I was amazed to read about the other people who were meant to be killed on this same day. It seems that part of the story has been stripped away over time. Today we would call this coordinated attack “terrorism.”

I operate in a world of people who know this stuff backwards and forwards. So I don’t often think of it the way you’re presenting it. But I would certainly say that the emphasis is on the one murder that succeeded, and that’s Lincoln’s. There was a horrific, brutal, bloody attack on the secretary of state by this gigantic maniac named Lewis Powell. Seward was saved from death by the fact that he was wearing a brace around his neck and part of his face, to help him recover from a broken collarbone, I think, that he had suffered in a carriage accident. He also had a broken arm. So he was saved by his injuries. And of course there was supposed to be a coordinated attack on the vice president. The idea was just to destroy the government, to create chaos so that the South could rise again after the capitulation that Booth regarded as an act of cowardice on the part of Lee.

You more or less just boiled down the motive of the crime. Right?

That’s certainly what keeps the story alive and stirred up is that no one is sure. Recent scholarship is very back and forth. Some experts believe that Booth was a well-financed agent of the Confederate government, that he was in fact assigned to kidnap Lincoln and bring him to Richmond to exchange him for Confederate prisoners and that therefore the war could be prolonged with new bodies, although it’s ridiculous to think that prisoners could get into the fighting again, because they were usually famished. [Then] there’s a new book about to come out by someone I admire named Terry Alford who is going back to the old 1940s and ‘50s theory that Booth was simply nuts and that he found a group of losers who, as often happens, were sort of hypnotized by him into doing things they wouldn’t dream of doing on their own.

There’s no evidence – there’s no smoking gun, if you’ll pardon the pun, or trail of money – that we’ve ever seen that suggests that Booth was sanctioned. It’s a little bit like asking Brad Pitt to do something. Booth was a well-known actor and it’s a little crazy to think that, of all the dangerous agents that were operating for the Confederacy in Washington, in Canada, in New York, that they chose this hard-drinking person who was so recognizable and a little bit unstable. So my guess has always been that, as much as we’d like to embroil the whole world in this plot, and although it is true, as other new books have shown, that there were plenty of people who were not grief-stricken when Lincoln died, who sort of applauded as best they could without being arrested, that he acted pretty much alone.

[But] that is the great unknown. Was it the case of an actor who was beginning to believe his own parts? Was he “Brutus” and was Lincoln “Caesar” and was this the big scene of the assassination of the tyrant? Or was Booth in fact the last chance the Confederacy had and therefore they thought maybe only a famous actor could get close to him? It remains an open question, as most presidential assassinations do. This is the 19th century equivalent of Kennedy and Oswald. We’ll never know, 100 percent, and it intrigues people.

The word “martyr” comes up again and again in the book. Certainly people have died in high-profile ways in U.S. history – JFK, of course. But is Lincoln our sole “martyr”?

With Kennedy, it was different. I lived through that. I was a kid; I was 14 years old. And of course it was the singular, most unforgettable, time-stopping experience that you can imagine. I think the shock with Kennedy was a little different. And that was that such promise [had been] cut so short. Such a great-looking, promising leader denied his chance to do all the great things that everybody had thought he could do, or that 49 percent of the people thought he could do.

With Lincoln, it was the apex of achievement. And that’s why he was a martyr more than Kennedy. He had kept the country together. He had ended slavery, albeit with help – everything, with help. But it was a different circumstance. And Lincoln was shot on Good Friday, which invited the comparisons to the great martyr of religious history who had died for his nation’s, or his people’s, sins. And people said that. And it was also Passover, and so Jews were in synagogue on the very day he died, before Christians could do their so-called Black Easter services. So, Jews got to pray for him as a Moses who had taken his people from slavery and almost reached the promised land and not quite, meaning the 13th Amendment. And although there were very few Jews at the time, both of those images were very strong in popular culture: Lincoln the Christ figure, Lincoln the Moses.

What do you make of those superhuman comparisons: Lincoln as Moses, Lincoln as Jesus, Lincoln as messiah? And what are readers now to make of them?

Being a historian who also lived through a lot of the post-Watergate cynicism, I don’t know whether that’s an advantage or a disadvantage. But I think it’s sort of tragic that we are afraid to elevate people to heroic status today. We are so quick to destroy people for frailties. I’m not defending Brian Williams, but there’s the latest example of someone who’s been destroyed through errors. And Lincoln made a lot of mistakes in his time. But his humanity shone through.

I think he was the greatest politician of his age. I think he was the greatest writer of his age. And I think he is still the quintessential symbol of American opportunity. I worked [as a press secretary] for another one, Mario Cuomo, who was born in the urban equivalent of a log cabin, in the back of his parents’ grocery store. The fact [is] that only in America can people rise [like that]. Obama did a pretty good job of demonstrating that, too – from obscurity through skill and hard work and study.

[Lincoln] is a reflection of the best us. I think it was embraced then, and I think it would be calamitous and sad if Americans didn’t embrace it now.

In the book, you describe Lincoln’s funeral procession as “a journey of twelve days and more than 1,600 miles that had seen the funeral train stop for ceremonies in Baltimore, Harrisburg, Philadelphia, New York, Albany, Buffalo, Cleveland, Columbus, Indianapolis, Michigan City, and Chicago.” Was this the biggest funeral in American history?

If you consider it one long funeral, I think it qualifies. Certainly more people looked at his face during the period when he lay in state, in city after city, than had ever seen an American president, dead or alive. And that’s pretty extraordinary that there was that tangible connection, albeit to a corpse, but to a face that had already become very familiar in the photographs that people collected for their albums or in lithographs or engravings that people hung up on their walls, like they did religious icons, or in cartoons that made fun of him or treated him disrespectfully. He was a very familiar and unique face and form. And here people got to see what they had been looking only at pictures of.

A few of the pieces in the book mention that people were beaten or even killed for saying the wrong thing after hearing about Lincoln’s assassination. Is there truth to any of that?

Oh yeah. I don’t know if they were killed, but they were beaten and they were certainly court-marshaled out of the service, which had zero tolerance for criticism of the president after the assassination. He had just come through a civil war where even newspaper dissent qualified people for arrest. I know that new books are disagreeing with me on this, [saying] there was plenty of dissent, but I don’t think there was a huge amount of dissent in the North. And, in fact, even Democratic newspapers that had assailed Lincoln for five years obviously reacted to this as a great tragedy and great crime.

Do you think there are traces of this crime in American life today? After 9/11, so many things changed about the way we fly and about the way we live, in general. And you never saw a president riding in the back of a convertible, after JFK.

Yeah, but I think that’s more a Kennedy response. And of course, after Reagan, you never saw a president getting in and out of a car. So those things change incrementally over time. I think what changed after Lincoln is the understanding that what we have can be taken away in the blink of an eye. And that had never been contemplated before in American history.

It’s interesting to see the pride with which a lot of people wrote about how an assassination didn’t send the American government into chaos. They kind of said, “Look at this new government of ours. There’s going to be an orderly change of power after this, despite everything.”

Well, there was the expectation of chaos and there had been when John Tyler took over for William Henry Harrison, also, in 1841. It was a tragic time; a remorseful time; a time of great anger and vengeful feeling; a time of fear in the South; a time of hopelessness for African-Americans, because a dependable leader had been taken away. [But] despite all of that, the fact that the government worked and succession worked – the president is dead and the government still lives – was, in a weird sense, even if people were afraid to express or even appreciate it at the time, reassuring. Because it showed that the institutions that had been created by the founders, and preserved by Lincoln and his generation, really would be greater and more enduring than any individual.

Frederick Douglass says in the book, “No man can say anything that is new of Abraham Lincoln.” And that was in 1876…

Yeah, what did he know! [Laughs.]

Uncharacteristically, he was wrong. Because I think he wanted to put a period to the era and move on to something bigger and more enriching. I don’t mean that monetarily, but possibilities broader for people of color.

But, boy, each generation has a new slew of books and, happily for guys like me, there are always new ideas to explore. So I don’t think Douglass was right on that one.

Have you read Bill O’Reilly’s book, "Killing Lincoln"?

I’ve read into it. He’s got some pretty far-out things in there without any citation, justification or explanation. But my hat is off to him, because he’s sold more copies of that book than I’ve sold in 50 of my books, times 20. But he has the advantage, because every author wants to be on the Bill O’Reilly show; he’s on the Bill O’Reilly show every night. I don’t agree with the people who attempted at one point to ban his book from sale in National Park Service sites, because it has errors. I think that’s sort of un-Lincoln-esque and un-American and unnecessary. I think people, if they want to be entertained by a breezy book and take it the way they want to take it, it’s their right.

One of the things people so admired about Lincoln was his tolerance for lies that were spoken and written about him.

I know. We admire it, but when push comes to shove, we still have a problem. But that’s why we need to keep reading Lincoln. Because there are a lot of good life lessons that can guide us, throughout.

Philip Eil

Philip Eil is a freelance journalist based in Providence, Rhode Island. Follow him on Twitter at @phileil

MORE FROM Philip EilFOLLOW phileil

Related Topics ------------------------------------------

Abraham Lincoln Assassination Books Confederacy Harold Holzer Lincoln President