It’s tragic that no photo exists of Charles Dunham, aka San(d)ford Conover, whose career as a journalist, con-man, paid perjurer, and possible triple agent holds a place all its own in the parade of great spooks in history who dance through raindrops and come out dry as a bone. Apparently Dunham was dark and handsome and employed a facile tongue in all sorts of intricate intrigues. He was a Zelig of his time, appearing in the strangest places and always under a different identity. So you can understand why he seems to have had a strong aversion to cameras.
Only a few researchers would devote serious effort to peel this onion and unmask Dunham, most notably Joseph E. Missemer, David R. Barbee, James O. Hall, and Joseph George, Jr.
Carman Cumming wrote Devil’s Game, the only book devoted to Dunham, whose colorful exploits have yet to be fully exploited by the entertainment industry, something sure to happen eventually. I suspect this story is overlooked because it provides a window inside the Great Lincoln Conspiracy. The best I can do is a newspaper clipping that reports his presence in a Washington courtroom.
Dunham was a New York lawyer and possible dirty tricks operative for the Democratic party. When the war broke out, he was busy running a scam to collect money for a fictional Union regiment that never materialized. In April 1863, he obtained a Union military pass for traveling South, and soon found himself surrounded by a grinning contingent of Mosby’s Rangers on horseback, who turned him over to General John W. Winder, head of Confederate Counterintelligence. Dunham was immediately transferred to Castle Thunder, a former tobacco warehouse converted into a prison for suspected spies and traitors. But Dunham successfully charmed his jailers by telling them he wished to defect and raise a Confederate regiment through his connections in Baltimore, as he knew hundreds of Northerners like him ready to join the rebellion.
Unfortunately, after being released, he was soon re-captured in a heavily-guarded military zone, and his excuse for being there just before the summer assault was not believed, so Dunham was deported back to the North over his protests he would be hanged as a traitor upon arrival.
Funny how the first thing Dunham did on return was post a letter to Colonel Lafayette Baker, head of the Union Secret Services. Soon, he was back in New York and contributing regularly to three different newspapers, all under different bylines, although his primary identity had become that of Sandford Conover. But since he seldom signed his journalism, the one time his byline did appear, the typesetter left off the “d,” and since then, Dunham became known as Sanford Conover.
Dunham was a master of melodrama and wove some amazing tales. His favorite characters included the villainous Colonel George Margrave and Colonel Charles Dunham (yes, his alter-ego remained in Virginia and raised and led a Confederate regiment, although like most everything Dunham wrote, it was all a fabrication). Dunham would submit an explosive story for a Copperhead newspaper one day, and then attack that same article in a Union paper the next day, exposing his own lies. He pitted his fictional characters against each other in epic battles. Dunham sent a letter to President Lincoln requesting permission to kidnap Jefferson Davis, and then wrote an editorial condemning an alleged plot to kidnap President Lincoln, a plan that didn’t exist yet, although it soon would take form under John Wilkes Booth and John Surratt. Dunham may have given Booth the idea, as Booth made several unexplained trips to New York before fomenting his plot, a plan that eventually turned to murder after the war was nearly over.
Dunham was a master at forging documents and signatures, and it doesn’t take much imagination to wonder if he might have invented a document indicating Lincoln was planning to capture and execute Jefferson Davis. Had someone like Booth been shown a document like that, he might have felt justified in serving Lincoln his own medicine. Booth did write a letter fully explaining his actions and motivations and had handed it to a fellow actor at Ford’s Theater the day of the assassination, requesting him to deliver it to a local newspaper. Big mistake. What happened next we’ll never know, but years later, that actor would finally come forward, now claiming he burned this crucial evidence in horror without showing it to anyone. More likely, he brought that letter to the War Department, where it was suppressed and maybe burned there, otherwise that letter should have come up for discussion during the trial of the conspirators. In his diary shortly before his death, Booth considered returning to Washington to clear his name, something he felt he could do. Booth was stunned to discover he was universally despised by all newspapers after the assassination. He had not achieved hero status from the Copperheads that he’d been expecting, and it crushed him.
Testifying as Sanford, Dunham made the case Davis was behind Lincoln’s assassination, a charge believed until he later appeared before the Judicial Committee in Congress, told similar stories and was convicted of perjury. Since those perjuries involved similar testimony he’d given earlier before the tribunal, one wonders why Dunham wasn’t charged in that more important case as well?
When John Surratt finally returned to stand trial, Dunham visited him and offered a deal: If Surratt agreed to implicate President Johnson in Lincoln’s assassination, he’d receive immunity and other rewards. The only person who could have possibly brokered that deal was Secretary of War Stanton.