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Abraham Lincoln Assassination Conspiracies

Simple Plots or Grand Conspiracies?


Mrs. Surratt, Lewis Payne, David Herold, and George Atzerodt on scaffold for Lincoln's assassinaton.

Mrs. Surratt, Lewis Payne, David Herold, and George Atzerodt on the scaffold before being hanged for their part in the Abraham Lincoln's assassination.

Library of Congress
Pre-Assassination: Abduction

Was assassination the first goal? The general consensus today is that the first goal of the conspirators had been to kidnap the President. A few attempts to kidnap Lincoln fell through, and then the Confederacy surrendered to the North. Booth's thoughts turned to killing the President. Up until recent times, however, there was a great deal of speculation as to the existence of an abduction plot. Some people felt it might be used to exonerate the hanged conspirators. Even the judge advocates feared talk of an abduction plot might lead to an innocent verdict for some if not all of the conspirators. They are believed to have suppressed important evidence such as John Wilkes Booth's diary. (Hanchett, The Lincoln Murder Conspiracies, 107) On the other side, some people argued for the existence of a kidnapping plot because it bolstered their desire to connect Booth with a larger conspiracy masterminded by the Confederacy. With the abduction plot established, the question remains: Who was actually behind and involved in the assassination of the President?

The Simple Conspiracy Theory

The simple conspiracy in its most basic form states that Booth and a small group of friends at first planned to kidnap the president. This eventually resulted in assassination. In fact, the conspirators were to also assassinate Vice-President Johnson and Secretary of State Seward at the same time dealing a major blow to the government of the United States. Their goal was to give the South a chance to rise again. Booth saw himself as a hero. In his diary, John Wilkes Booth claimed that Abraham Lincoln was a tyrant and that Booth should be praised just as Brutus was for killing Julius Caesar. (Hanchett, 246) When Abraham Lincoln Secretaries Nicolay and Hay wrote their ten-volume biography of Lincoln in 1890 they "presented the assassination as a simple conspiracy." (Hanchett, 102)

The Grand Conspiracy Theory

Even though personal Secretaries of Lincoln presented the simple conspiracy as the most likely scenario, they acknowledged that Booth and his co-conspirators had 'suspicious contacts' with Confederate leaders. (Hanchett, 102). The Grand Conspiracy theory focuses on these connections between Booth and Confederate leaders in the south. Many variations exist of this theory. For example, it has been said that Booth had contact with Confederate leaders in Canada. It is worth noting that in April 1865 President Andrew Johnson issued a proclamation offering a reward for the arrest of Jefferson Davis in connection with the Lincoln assassination.

He was arrested because of the evidence by an individual named Conover who was later found to have given false testimony. The Republican Party also allowed the idea of the Grand Conspiracy to fall by the wayside because Lincoln had to be a martyr, and they did not want his reputation sullied with the idea that anyone would want him killed but a madman.

Eisenschmil's Grand Conspiracy Theory

This conspiracy theory was a fresh look at the Lincoln assassination as investigated by Otto Eisenschiml and reported in his book Why Was Lincoln Murdered? It implicated the divisive figure Secretary of War Edwin Stanton. Eisenschiml purported that the traditional explanation of Lincoln's assassination was unsatisfactory. (Hanchett, 157). This shaky theory is based on the supposition that General Grant would not have changed his plans to accompany the President to the theater on April 14th without an order. Eisenschiml reasoned that Stanton must have been involved in Grant's decision because he is the only person other than Lincoln from whom Grant would have taken orders. Eisenschiml goes on to offer ulterior motives for many of the actions Stanton took immediately after the assassination. He supposedly left one escape route out of Washington, the one Booth just happened to take. The presidential guard, John F. Parker, was never punished for leaving his post. Eisenschiml also states that the conspirators were hooded, killed and/or shipped off to a remote prison so they could never implicate anyone else. However, this is exactly the point where Eisenschiml's theory collapses as do most other grand conspiracy theories. Several of the conspirators had ample time and opportunity to speak and implicate Stanton and numerous others if a grand conspiracy truly existed. (Hanchett, 180) They were questioned many times during captivity and in fact were not hooded through the entire trial. In addition, after being pardoned and released from prison, Spangler, Mudd and Arnold never implicated anyone. One would think that men reported to hate the Union would relish the thought of toppling the leadership of the United States by implicating Stanton, one of the men instrumental in the South's destruction.

Part 1: Assassination Facts
Part 3: Lesser Conspiracies and Conclusions

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