The saga of Lincoln’s assassination went on long after he died. Indeed, it continues to this day, as historians and amateur sleuths alike debate a never-ending list of conspiracy theories.
The full truth may never be known.
As for the other key figures in the dramatic events of April 1865, their fates are now part of the historical record.
The body of John Wilkes Booth was returned to Washington on the John S. Ide. Booth’s dentist and his personal physician were both brought on board and testified that the body was that of Booth. It was photographed, and then the surgeon general, Joseph Barnes, who had tended to Lincoln in the president’s final hours, performed an autopsy while the ship was sailing. The cause of death was determined to be a “gunshot wound in the neck,” with the added notation that paralysis was immediate after Booth was shot, “and all the horrors of consciousness of suffering and death must have been present to the assassin during the two hours he lingered.”
Dr. Barnes removed the third, fourth, and fifth cervical vertebrae from Booth’s neck. These clearly showed the path of the bullet as it entered, then exited the body. The vertebrae are now housed at Walter Reed Army Medical Center, in the National Museum of Health and Medicine—although they are not on public display. Dr. Barnes then turned his completed autopsy over to Secretary of War Edwin Stanton, who also took control of the photographs made of the corpse, and of Booth’s diary, which was handed to him by Lafayette C. Baker.
Curiously, the photographs soon disappeared. And when Baker was later called upon to verify that Booth’s diary actually belonged to the killer, he was astonished to see that “eighteen leaves,” or pages, had been cut from the journal—allegedly by Secretary Stanton. Neither the photographs nor the missing pages have ever been found, casting more suspicion on Stanton’s possible role in a conspiracy.
The secretary of war wished the Booth situation to be handled with as little public outcry as possible, and this meant forbidding a public funeral. On Stanton’s orders, Lafayette Baker staged a mock burial, wrapping the body in a horse blanket and publicly hurling it into the Potomac. However, this was just a ruse to conceal the body’s actual location. After the crowd on shore watched Baker dump a weighted object into the river, the ship traveled around a bend to the site of the old penitentiary, on the grounds of the Washington Arsenal. The assassin was buried in an anonymous grave beneath the prison’s dirt floor, his body concealed inside the gun box that served as his casket. When, two years later, the penitentiary was shuttered and leveled, Booth’s remains were moved to the family plot at Green Mount Cemetery in Baltimore, where they remain to this day.
Despite all evidence that Booth is actually dead and was buried in the grave bearing his name, various legends have maintained that he escaped into the South and lived a long life. In December 2010, Booth’s descendants agreed to exhume the remains of Edwin Booth to see if DNA from his body is a match for the DNA in the vertebrae housed at Walter Reed. As the chief historian for the Navy Medical Department noted, “If it compares favorably, then that’s the end of the controversy. If it doesn’t match, you change American history.” As of this writing, the outcome of that investigation is still pending.
Mary Lincoln never recovered from Abraham Lincoln’s assassination. She insisted on wearing only the color black for the rest of her life. Mary lingered in the White House for several weeks after the shooting, then returned home to Illinois, where she spent her time answering the many letters of condolence she had received from around the world, and also lobbying Congress for a pension. This was granted in 1870, for the sum of $3,000 per year. However, just when it appeared that Mary was recovering from her considerable grief, in 1871 her eighteen-year-old son, Tad, died of a mysterious heart condition. This brought on a downward spiral of mental instability, dramatized in spending sprees, paranoia, and delusions—once she almost jumped out of a building after wrongly believing she saw flames consuming the structure. Her only remaining son, Robert, had her committed to a mental institution in 1875. She spent a year there, during which she engaged in a letter-writing campaign to the Chicago Tribune that so embarrassed Robert he had her released. Mary moved to the south of France for four years, living in exile in the town of Pau before returning to Springfield. She died in 1882, at the age of sixty-three. She is buried alongside her husband.
Robert Todd Lincoln went on to a stellar career as an attorney and then public official. He served as secretary of war from 1881 to 1885, during the James Garfield and Chester Arthur administrations, and served as U.S. minister to Great Britain from 1889 to 1893, under Benjamin Harrison. Although he was not present at Ford’s Theatre when his father was assassinated, he was an eyewitness to Garfield’s assassination in 1881 and nearby when President William McKinley was assassinated, in 1901.
John Wilkes Booth would have been enraged to know that Robert Lincoln and Lucy Lambert Hale spent the afternoon of Lincoln’s assassination together, studying Spanish. It’s possible that Lucy could have mentioned this upcoming appointment to the assassin during their final moments together that morning, fueling his jealousy. In the end, it doesn’t matter, because Lucy Lambert Hale will forever be linked with John Wilkes Booth.
Secretary Stanton, out of respect for her father’s position, refused to let her be called upon to testify at the trial. However, there were rumors that she was smuggled aboard the Ides to view Booth’s body and wept openly at the sight. This has never been confirmed. Regardless, the intimacy of their relationship soon became widespread knowledge in Washington, D.C., and she was only too happy to escape to Spain for the next five years while her father served as ambassador. Lucy and Robert Todd Lincoln continued to maintain a friendly relationship, but she chose to marry William Chandler in 1874. She bore one child, a son, at the age of forty-four. William Chandler went on to serve as secretary of the navy. Their grandson Theodore Chandler would become a highly decorated World War II navy admiral who was killed when kamikazes attacked his ship in the Pacific. Lucy Lambert Hale died of natural causes in 1915, at the age of seventy-four.
Robert Todd Lincoln died at his home in Vermont at the age of eighty-two, though not before being present for the dedication of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C., in 1922. He is buried in Arlington National Cemetery.
Laura Keene would regret cradling Lincoln’s head in her lap that night in Ford’s Theatre. The assassination linked her troupe with the killing, and the attendant notoriety was hard on her already floundering career. The actress was eminently resourceful, however, and left America to barnstorm through England before returning in 1869 to manage the Chestnut Street Theatre in Philadelphia. She later took to lecturing on the fine arts and publishing a weekly art journal. Laura Keene died of tuberculosis on November 4, 1873, in Montclair, New Jersey. She was believed to be forty-seven, although she was often vague about her actual birthdate and may have been three years older.
Edwin Stanton did not live long after the death of Abraham Lincoln, and those years he did live were fraught with controversy. Stanton clashed repeatedly with President Andrew Johnson over the process of Reconstruction. Johnson’s vengeful policies toward the South were in direct contrast with what Lincoln had hoped for, and despite their earlier animosity toward each other, Stanton was keen to see Lincoln’s wishes put in place. Tensions between Stanton and Johnson got so bad that in 1868 the president fired Stanton as secretary of war and replaced him with Ulysses S. Grant. Stanton refused to leave the office and was vindicated when the Senate voted that Johnson’s actions were illegal. Johnson tried once again to replace Stanton, this time with General Lorenzo Thomas. Stanton barricaded himself in his office to avoid being removed. The Senate, which had openly clashed with Johnson over other key issues, now began impeachment hearings, stating that Johnson did not have the authority to remove the secretary of war. Though Johnson escaped removal from office by one vote in the Senate, Stanton was the clear winner in the case. He retired soon after the vote, only to be nominated as a justice to the Supreme Court by the newly elected president, Ulysses S. Grant. Edwin Stanton died before he could take the oath. The end came on Christmas Eve 1869; at the age of fifty-five, Stanton died from a sudden and very sever asthma attack. Did he have any part in the assassination of Abraham Lincoln? To this day, there are those who believe he did. But nothing has ever been proved.
Few men could have successfully followed Abraham Lincoln as president, but Andrew Johnson proved particularly inept. His Reconstruction policies were bitterly divisive, to the point that he warred openly with members of his own party. He dodged impeachment but was not reelected to office in 1868. Later in life, Johnson was reelected to the Senate, but soon afterward he died from a stroke, on July 31, 1875.
Lafayette Baker became an instant celebrity for finding Lincoln’s killer. The red-bearded detective wrote a best-selling memoir in 1867, History of the United States Secret Service. In the book, he detailed his role in finding John Wilkes Booth. Several of his claims, including that he’d handed Booth’s diary to Edwin Stanton, led to a congressional investigation into his role in the disappearance of the diary. Soldiers had given Baker the diary upon returning to Washington with Booth’s body. Baker then gave it to Stanton, who locked it in a safe for almost two years, never telling investigators that he had the crucial piece of evidence in his possession. The publication of Baker’s memoir provoked a great public demand for Stanton to produce the diary. He did so reluctantly, but eighteen pages were missing. The secretary of war denied being responsible for excising the pages. The investigation ended without a formal placement of blame.
In 1960, a controversial amateur historian named Ray Neff came upon a description of the Lincoln assassination in a copy of Colburn’s United Service Magazine, a British military journal. The article was dated February 5, 1868. Lafayette Baker was the author. Neff claims to have deciphered a coded message from Baker within the story. The substitution code revealed a message that reads thus: “It was on the 10th of April, 1865, when I first knew that the plan was in action. I did not know the identity of the assassin, but I knew most all else when I approached Edwin Stanton about it. He at once acted surprised and disbelieving. Later he said: ‘You are a party to it, too.’”
Baker, decoded by Neff, goes on to add: “There were at least eleven members of Congress involved in the plot, no less than twenty Army officers, three Naval officers, and at least twenty-four civilians, of which one was a governor of a loyal state. Five were bankers of great repute, three were nationally known newspapermen, and eleven were industrialists of great repute and wealth. Eighty-five thousand dollars were contributed by the named persons to pay for the deed. Only eight persons knew the details of the plot and the identity of others. I fear for my life.”
There is no consensus about whether Neff’s hidden message is authentic. What we do know for sure is that Stanton did not hesitate to ask the previously disgraced Baker to lead the Booth investigation—this at a time when the secretary of war had every single detective in the nation at his disposal—and that Baker magically pinpointed Booth’s actual location when the thousands of soldiers and detectives combing the woods and swamps could not.
It should be noted that Neff’s hypothesis and his entire body of work have been repudiated and dismissed by the vast majority of trained historians and assassination scholars. Civil War Times, which originally published his findings about the cipher messages, later denounced him. Once Neff became involved with the movie The Lincoln Conspiracy and began promoting bizarre theories about Booth’s escape and a later second life in India, he became even more ostracized from mainstream scholars.
The fact remains, however, that Stanton’s withholding of Booth’s diary was suspicious, as is the subject of the eighteen missing pages. No one has adequately explained this behavior, thus allowing some conspiracy theorists to continue to wonder if he had a larger role in Lincoln’s assassination.
Baker became increasingly paranoid after the congressional investigation, certain that he would be murdered. And he was right! Just eighteen months after the investigation, he was found dead in his home in Philadelphia. While Baker was at first believed to have died from meningitis, evidence now points to a slow and systematic death by poisoning. Again, this evidence comes from Ray Neff. The Indiana State University professor used an atomic absorption spectrophotometer to analyze strands of Baker’s hair. The results showed that arsenic had been slowly introduced into his system during the last months of his life. Comparing the rising levels of arsenic with diary entries made by Baker’s wife, Neff noted a correlation with visits from Wally Pollack, Baker’s brother-in-law, who was in the habit of bringing imported German beer to Baker’s house whenever he came calling. Pollack, not incidentally, also worked under Secretary Stanton as a War Department employee. The suspicion is that Pollack poisoned Baker by mixing small amounts of arsenic into the beer. Whether or not he acted alone is a matter of conjecture.
Abraham Lincoln’s irresponsible bodyguard John Parker never presented himself for duty or tried to help in any way on the night of the assassination. Incredibly, Parker was not held accountable for shirking his duties. In fact, the first time he was seen after the assassination was when he showed up at a Washington police station the next morning in the company of a known prostitute. Formal police charges of dereliction of duty were pressed against Parker, but once again he was acquitted. Three years later, after many attempts to remove him from the police department, Parker was finally booted for “gross neglect of duty.” He went on to work as a carpenter and machinist. He died of pneumonia on June 28, 1890, at the age of sixty.
Lincoln’s responsible bodyguard William Crook had a more esteemed career, working in the White House for more than fifty years—a time that spanned administrations from Abraham Lincoln’s to Woodrow Wilson’s. However, it was his relationship with Lincoln that he treasured most, and his 1910 memoirs provide a vivid insight into the journey to Richmond and the events of April 14. Critics have accused Crook of padding his own part, but the book makes for compelling reading. William Crook died in 1915 from pneumonia, at the age of seventy-seven. He was buried in Arlington National Cemetery, in a service attended by President Wilson.
After the war, Robert E. Lee applied for a pardon for his acts against the United States. Secretary of State William H. Seward did not file the pardon but instead gave it to a friend as a souvenir. The document wasn’t discovered for more than one hundred years. President Gerald R. Ford officially reinstated Lee as a U.S. citizen in 1975.
Marse Robert was buried not at his beloved Virginia home, Arlington, which was confiscated during the war and redesignated as a U.S. military cemetery, but at Washington and Lee University, in Lexington, Virginia. He died on Columbus Day 1870, at the age of sixty-three.
Lee’s counterpart on the Union side, General Ulysses S. Grant, had an admirable career after the war ended. He remained in the army, helping to implement Reconstruction policies that guaranteed the black vote. He saw his popularity soar in the North. Elected president in 1868, he served two terms in office. Grant’s later years were filled with travel and, later, financial upheaval. After losing his entire fortune to bad investments in the early 1880s, he sat down to, with the help of editor Mark Twain, write his memoirs. Considered by many to be one of the best military autobiographies in history, Grant’s life story was a best seller. Royalties from the book guaranteed his family a comfortable life long after he died of throat cancer, on July 23, 1885.
The question “Who is buried in Grant’s tomb?” seems an obvious one, for Ulysses S. Grant is buried in this enormous mausoleum in New York’s Riverside Park. However, so is Julia Grant. She died on December 14, 1902, at the age of seventy-six, and now lies alongside her husband.
After being discovered alive on the battlefield that day after the battle for High Bridge, Colonel Francis Washburn was immediately transported to a field hospital, then home to Massachusetts, where he died one week after Lincoln did. Coincidentally, he passed away on the exact same day as the Confederacy’s General James Dearing, his opposite on the field of battle. They were the last two casualties of High Bridge.
Two officers present at Sayler’s Creek, General James “Pete” Longstreet and General George Armstrong Custer, followed remarkably different paths after the Civil War. Longstreet’s longtime friendship with Grant figured prominently in his embrace of pro-Union Reconstruction efforts, much to the chagrin of diehard rebels, who soon began an active series of revisionist attacks on the great southern general, attempting somewhat successfully to impugn his reputation as a leader and paint him as a coward. By the time Longstreet died, in 1904, at the age of eighty-two, he had served as a diplomat, a civil servant, and a U.S. marshal. A house fire consumed all of his Civil War memorabilia, leaving almost no legacy other than his autobiography to set his wartime record straight.
General Custer continued to fight, using the same aggressive, impulsive tactics that served him so successfully at Sayler’s Creek. In his time he would become far better known for his battles on America’s western frontier and for his friendships with other larger-than-life figures, such as Buffalo Bill Cody. In June 1876, Custer and his Seventh Cavalry were sent to Montana to force Sioux and Cheyenne Indians back to their reservations. On the morning of June 25, his scouts reported that a small band of warriors were camped along the Little Bighorn River. Behaving in much the same fashion as he did at Sayler’s Creek, Custer split his cavalry into three columns and attacked without making a preliminary study of the terrain.
The results were disastrous. Custer and his men were soon cut off, surrounded by a vastly superior force of Oglala Sioux under the legendary warrior Crazy Horse. Custer ordered his men to shoot their horses and stack the bodies to shield them from incoming rifle fire, but within an hour every last man was dead. When the Battle of the Little Bighorn was over, the bodies of the slain soldiers were stripped and mutilated, thanks to an Indian belief that the soul of a mutilated body would wander the earth without rest for eternity. Scalps were taken, stomachs slit open, eardrums punctured, and genitals dismembered. In the case of Custer’s brother Tom, who had won his second of two congressional Medals of Honor at Sayler’s Creek, his heart was cut out and eaten. Another brother, twenty-seven-year-old Boston, was also killed and scalped.
Strangely, the only body left unmutilated was that of George Armstrong Custer. When U.S. soldiers later came upon the battlefield, they described Custer’s face as being a mask of calm. A round .45-caliber bullet hole in his left temple and another just below his heart were the only signs of violence—and point to the likelihood that he was killed by a long-range rifle shot.
Initially, Custer was buried in a shallow grave on the battlefield, next to his brother Tom. News of the devastating defeat was quickly conveyed to Fort McPherson, Nebraska, then on to Washington, D.C., by telegraph. Ironically, word of Custer’s defeat arrived in the nation’s capital on July 4, 1876—America’s first centennial. In its own way, the death of Custer was as traumatizing as that of Lincoln, emboldening the United States Army to seek revenge against the Indians in the same way Lincoln’s assassination had northerners seeking revenge against the South. Custer was just thirty-six when he died. His body was later relocated from the Little Bighorn and buried at the United States Military Academy at West Point.
William Seward would live just seven more years after being attacked in his own bed on the night of Lincoln’s assassination, but in that time he would undertake an activity that would leave an even longerlasting legacy than the heinous attack. In 1867, while still serving as secretary of state and still bearing the disfiguring facial scars of the knife attack, he purchased Alaska for the United States. What soon became known as “Seward’s Folly” would later be seen as a huge asset when silver and gold and oil were discovered in the new territory. Seward died on October 10, 1872. He was seventy-one.
Major Henry Reed Rathbone, present in the box on the night Lincoln was shot, later married his date from that evening, Clara Harris. Unfortunately for Harris, Rathbone later went insane and killed her with a knife. He was institutionalized for the remainder of his life.
Boston Corbett, the man who shot John Wilkes Booth, received a handsome reward for the killing, even though he’d disobeyed orders. He left the military soon afterward, first working as a hatter, then serving as assistant doorman for the Kansas state legislature. It appears that the mercury used in making hats, which was well known for causing insanity (giving rise to the term “mad as a hatter”), caused him to become mentally unstable. In 1887 he, too, was sent to an insane asylum, after brandishing a revolver in the legislature. He escaped, then moved north to Minnesota, where he died in the Great Hinckley Fire of 1894. He was sixty-two.
Dr. Samuel Mudd, Samuel Arnold, and Michael O’Laughlen were all given life sentences for their roles in the assassination conspiracy. Ned Spangler, the besotted sceneshifter, received a six-year sentence. All were sent to the Dry Tortugas, a baking-hot group of islands west of the Florida Keys. Their jailers, black Union soldiers, had complete power over the daily movements of these white supremacists. O’Laughlen died of fever while in prison, at the age of twenty-seven. Spangler, Mudd, and Arnold were pardoned in 1869 by Andrew Johnson and lived out their days as law-abiding citizens.
The man who helped John Wilkes Booth and David Herold escape into Virginia, Thomas Jones, was circumspect about his role in the assassination for many years. He was taken into custody shortly after Booth was killed and spent seven weeks in the Old Capital Prison before being released. Even though he became a justice of the peace after the war, the tight-lipped former member of the Confederate Secret Service was ever after wary of persecution for aiding John Wilkes Booth and David Herold. That changed in 1893, when he wrote a 126-page book telling his side of the events. Jones died on March 5, 1895, at the age of seventy-four.
Perhaps the most shadowy figure in the Lincoln conspiracy, John Surratt, Mary Surratt’s son, could have been instrumental in reducing his mother’s sentence by showing that her part in the assassination was that of passive support instead of active participation. But rather than give the testimony that might have spared her life, John Surratt fled to Montreal, Canada, immediately after the assassination, where he followed the news of his mother’s trial and execution. Surratt then fled to England under an assumed name and later continued on to the Vatican, where he served in the Papal Zouaves. He was discovered and arrested but escaped. Another international search for Surratt soon found him in Alexandria, Egypt. Arrested again, he was brought back to the United States to appear before a judge. Amazingly, the jury deadlocked on his involvement. John Surratt was free to go. He died in 1916 at the age of seventy-two.
Mary Surratt’s body was reburied in the Catholic cemetery at Mount Olivet in Washington, D.C., where it remains to this day. The petition to spare Mary’s life never got to President Andrew Johnson; his assistant Preston King kept the information away from Johnson. But apparently that action preyed on King’s conscience. A few months later, King tied a bag of bullets around his neck and leapt from a ferryboat in New York’s harbor; he was never seen again. He was fifty-nine years old.
The last days of Abraham Lincoln’s life included perhaps the most dramatic events in the nation’s history. It is eerie that Abraham Lincoln found much solace in the play Julius Caesar, by William Shakespeare, given that the two great men met their ends in the same way. Caesar was betrayed by his countrymen, as was Lincoln. Both men died within months of their fifty-sixth birthday, before they could complete their life’s work. Just as the story of Julius Caesar has been told and retold for centuries, the tragedy that befell Lincoln should be known by every American. His life and death continue to shape us as a people, even today. America is a great country, but like every other nation on earth it is influenced by evil. John Wilkes Booth epitomizes the evil that can harm us, even as President Abraham Lincoln represents the good that can make us stronger.