President Lincoln’s death was the first successful presidential assassination in United States history and as such deserves attention because many of the details mirror those found in later assassinations. The biggest missing piece from the officially sanctioned history are the names of the secret societies that manipulated events behind the scenes and the political operatives they often employed. If you saw Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln, you saw that passage of the 13th Amendment was left to some professional political fixers who traded patronage jobs for votes.
John Wilkes Booth was likely a member of a devious Southern rights secret society called the Knights of the Golden Circle, which apparently had tens of thousands of members at one time (although the masonic-style society had a penchant for changing its name). The network was uncovered by a Union War Department investigation shortly after the Civil War broke out.
Prior to the assassination, Booth had made frequent trips to New York City and Canada, and the reasons for these trips remain unknown, but since Booth was a spy working for the Confederacy, it’s safe to assume these were not vacations or family visits to his brother’s brownstone.
A few years ago, a researcher suggested Booth may have been meeting with Congressman and former Mayor of New York, Fernando Wood, who wanted New York City to secede from the Union in support of the South. Wood was a shipping merchant who rose to Grand Sachem of the Society of St. Tammany, the group that gained control over the city by uniting its just arriving immigrant population. Wood also apparently controlled a vicious Five Points gang known as the Dead Rabbits, whose totem was an impaled rabbit on a spike that was carried into street battles against the Bowery Boys on the Lower East Side.
But when Republicans got control of the New York State legislature, they attempted to disarm the Democrat Wood by eliminating his corrupt Municipal Police force, replacing it with a “Metropolitan” police force under their command. On June 16, 1857, Captain George W. Walling of the newly formed Metropolitan Police arrived at City Hall with an arrest warrant for Wood for the crime of selling the position of Street Commissioner to Charles Devlin for $50,000. However, 300 members of the Municipal Police (which refused to disband) were guarding the mayor, and tossed Walling and his warrant into the street, inciting an ensuing melee that lasted for days known today as the “New York City police riot.”
Since Wood represented Wall Street interests invested in the cotton industry, which involved both the South and Great Britain, he became an open supporter of the Southern cause, and was probably an equally active supporter of the Southern secret service. Spies were everywhere during the Civil War, and this landscape was dotted with double agents.
But one of the most ruthless and most effective secret services was being run by Secretary of War Edwin Stanton, through his dirty tricks specialist Lafayette Curry Baker, a man famous for fabricating evidence and strong-arming bribes. It appears Stanton had a double agent planted inside Booth’s conspiracy, a man who worked as a clerk at the War Department named Louis Weichmann. Another possibility, of course, is that Stanton was fomenting the murder plot, and not just observing it from a distance.
Both Wood and Stanton have major parts in Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln, and many of their lines are real, like when Stanton erupts at Lincoln, “I am not going to listen to another one of your stories!” Wood is portrayed as a charming Southerner with a biting wit, and does not convey the ruthless gangster he actually was.
Strangely, Baker was demoted and shipped off to New York City just prior to the assassination. I believe this was to prevent him from stumbling across the plot, as he soon came to suspect Stanton’s complicity, but dared not shared these feelings with anyone.
The night of the assassination General Grant was scheduled to sit beside Lincoln during the play at Ford’s Theater, but apparently the Secretary of War ordered Grant elsewhere, which meant Grant’s entourage and body guards were not at the theater. Meanwhile, Stanton assigned a notorious drunk as the only guard for Lincoln, a man who left his post to have a drink at the tavern across the street as soon as the play started. Booth was having a drink in that same tavern and probably witnessed the guard arrive at the bar, signalling his coast was clear. Ask yourself why Booth carried only a one-shot derringer. Obviously, he was not expecting interference.
Once Lincoln was shot, Stanton should have become a suspect, but he was able to completely control the investigation by quickly rounded up all the suspects except Booth within 48 hours. Baker published a book titled The Secret Service in the Late War (John Potter & Co., 1874), and revealed the existence of Booth’s diary. This revelation prompted a Congressional investigation, and when Stanton was forced to produce the diary in Congress during President Johnson’s impeachment trial, Baker announced 18 leaves were missing.
Read Baker’s book here: