String of suicides and suspicious deaths
Abraham Lincoln became inflated almost beyond recognition through positive mythologizing very quickly, just as his foil John Wilkes Booth received quite the opposite treatment and morphed into a cartoon character from a cheap melodrama. Forgotten is the reality Booth was the original matinee idol, receiving up to 100 love letters a day, frequently followed home to his hotel by adoring groupies, and the first person in recorded history to have his clothes shredded by fans desiring a piece of him. Not exactly the raving lunatic that’s come down in history, eh? We’ll likely never know the full list of missions Captain Booth undertook for the South, or anything close, but we do know that smuggling precious quinine was a big part of that puzzle.
During the Civil War, hundreds of thousands of soldiers contracted malaria, and at the time, no one knew it was spread by mosquitoes. Produced from the bark of the South American cinchona tree, quinine was the only known cure for malaria, and it was very hard to procure in the South, where malaria was a much worse problem than in the North. By smuggling quinine through the lines, Booth saved thousands of lives and performed a noble service that could have gotten him hanged for treason had he been discovered.
Ella Star Turner made a huge spectacle on a Washington street car the day after the assassination. She was carrying a framed portrait of Booth and reportedly dove into the aisle, threatening suicide. Some say she ran the fanciest sporting house in Washington, but we’ll never know because she quickly vanished off the face of the earth, leaving one to wonder what she may have known. Another rumor stated Vice President Andrew Johnson had visited Turner’s bordello the night of the assassination. Two thousand suspected Booth accomplices were rounded up quickly and George B. Love was just one of them. He slit his throat with a penknife in the guardhouse at Fort Stephens and they later found a baggage claim made out to Turner in his pockets.
On July 11, 1866, Senator James H. Lane of Kansas shot himself. He was the leader of the Jayhawkers, and Quantrill’s bloody raid on Lawrence was really an attempt to assassinate him and avenge some of his raids on the South. Lane was a leader of the Radical Republicans, but after the assassination he switched his support to Andrew Johnson, which must have infuriated Stanton and Stevens.
On July 3, 1868, retired General Lafayette C. Baker died in Philadelphia. He was 44. An examination of his hair decades later revealed he may have suffered arsenic poisoning, and not died of meningitis as claimed. Baker had been thrown under the bus and fired by Stanton shortly after the conspiracy trial was concluded. He had a ghostwriter whip out a pulp-novel style autobiography strung together with newspaper accounts and Baker’s own mythologizing, a book that explosively revealed the existence of Booth’s diary for the first time. Baker long suspected Stanton had been involved, and he seeded some clues in his book, but made no direct accusations. Baker had initially requested three quarters of the reward, the equivalent of almost $2 million today. But he only got a measly $3,500 (or approximately $90,000) and felt massively cheated by Stanton.
In December 1869, Edwin Stanton died shortly after complaining of being haunted by Mary Surratt’s ghost. Caleb Cushing immediately claimed Stanton had slit his throat, same as his brother had done many years earlier, and there was a coverup in progress. Although the Senate had approved Stanton’s appointment to the Supreme Court, President Grant sat on the paperwork for weeks, letting him twist uncomfortably in the wind. Stanton had been rudely rebuffed from a seat on Grant’s cabinet, as he was now one of the most unpopular politicians in the nation. R. F. Harvey had been in charge of preparing his corpse for the casket. In 1903 a Baltimore newspaper story reportedly written by Harvey’s son stated “no human being ever succeeded in getting him to deny or confirm anything on the subject [of Stanton].” The death certificate (severe asthma attack) had been issued by Stanton’s close friend, Surgeon General Barnes.
On November 12, 1875, ex-Senator Preston King tied a bag of bullets around his neck and jumped from the Christopher Street Ferry in New York. King had personally blocked Anna Surratt from an audience with President Johnson, which ended all hope of saving her mother, indicating this might be another death linked to Surratt’s ghost.
One of the more mysterious deaths was Louis Wiechmann, key witness against Mary Surratt, who was later rumored to have been gay and infatuated with the old school chum he’d betrayed, John Surratt. Wiechmann was put into “protective custody” and spent weeks traveling all over the northeast in the failed effort to bring Surratt to justice. He died on June 2, 1902, and according to Lloyd Lewis in Myths After Lincoln, the cause of death listed as “extreme nervousness.” Strangely, Wiechmann had recently signed a declaration stating: “This is to certify every word I gave in evidence at the assassination trial was absolutely true.”
No one knows what happened to John F. Parker, the guard who failed to protect the president. He returned to his post in the White House and was chastised once by Mrs. Lincoln. In 1868 he was dismissed for sleeping on a streetcar while on duty. Similarly, the fall-guy for Booth’s assassination, Boston Corbett, was admitted to a mental institution, escaped and slipped off the pages of history forever.
Edwin Booth did all he could to make amends for his brother’s misguided act, even to the point of paying to rebuild the barn on Garrett’s farm. But Edwin also kept a framed portrait of his younger brother on his nightstand in his bedroom at the Player’s Club on Gramercy Park in New York City. The day of Edwin’s funeral (June 9, 1893), Ford’s Theater, which had been converted to a War Department warehouse by Stanton, collapsed. Apparently too many files had been crammed into the rickety third floor and 22 clerks were killed, and 68 injured.
The War Department files on Lincoln’s assassination remained sealed until 1937 in the interest of national security.