Most of what we know about La Fayette Curry Baker is taken from his autobiography, and undoubtedly lies mixed with gross exaggerations, as Baker didn’t even write the book, but had it ghostwritten. When grilled about it on the stand, he wasn’t completely sure of its contents. Baker was undoubtedly one of the most corrupt officials in Washington DC, during the Civil War, so why would we expect the truth to cross his lips with any frequency? The fact he never bothered to read his own autobiography should be an indication he was not a learned fellow, although street-smart and schooled in the arts of spook world.
Secretary of War Edwin Stanton hand-picked Baker to run the goon squad, the National Detective Police (NDP), which had been under control of the Secretary of State until Stanton snatched it away. Stanton also snatched the telegraph lines around the same time.
Stanton soon became a law unto himself, and Baker, chief enforcer. Admittedly, Baker wasn’t good at administration, although he did like dressing in disguise and doing his own gumshoe spook work. Interrogating suspected spies (especially pretty female ones), and manifesting fake evidence were among his admitted specialties, talents that made him quite useful to Stanton.
Right before the assassination, this duo got into a tiff, perhaps because Stanton suspected Baker was investigating him (the official story), or more likely because he wanted him far away as he helped move Booth’s kidnap plot to murder.
The Radical Republican cabal was running Washington, even though Lincoln was supposed to be in charge. Lincoln was a novice and hick compared to the old guard in Congress, however.
But suddenly Baker was demoted and moved to the NDP office in Manhattan, the precise time the assassination plot went into action. Yet, two days after the assassination, Stanton recalled Baker and reinstated him as NDP chief. He was still, after all, the best detective on the force. It seemed Stanton was doing everything possible to help Booth slip away, but Baker located Booth in eight days, hiding in Virginia. I’ll always believe Baker was moved briefly to Manhattan to prevent him from uncovering Booth’s conspiracy and stopping it. The only question is did Stanton let it happen, or make it happen. Similar questions would be asked of Dick Cheney and Don Rumsfeld after 9/11.
When Baker got the news of Booth’s capture, he was elated since the equivalent of around $2.25 million in reward money was at stake. He bolted to Stanton’s home to give him the news. Stanton was a highly emotional man given to outbursts of rage and happiness. At first, Baker did not tell Stanton Booth was dead, only captured, as he wished to judge Stanton’s reaction. Surprisingly, upon hearing Booth was captured, Stanton registered zero emotion, but silently put one hand over his eyes while laying on his living room couch, remaining still as a statue until Baker told him Booth had not survived his capture. Instead of becoming angry they could not move up the chain-of-command through torturing Booth, Stanton calmly rose and put on his coat for the trip to the office.
The story is revealing, and takes me back a few days to that initial meeting the duo had when Baker was recalled and reinstated. Stanton spun his chair around and put his back to Baker. Baker assumed this was because Stanton was shedding tears over Lincoln’s death and did not wish to be seen in a moment of weakness. But knowing Stanton, it’s far more likely he turned around and feigned that moment, simply so Baker couldn’t look deeply into his eyes and read the guilt. Even though Baker was chief of the secret police, and involved in all sorts of nasty business, he remained on the outside of the assassination conspiracy as Stanton did not fully trust him.
After President Johnson went to war with Stanton and Thaddeus Stevens, and they mounted an impeachment campaign against him, word around Washington was the cabal had already decided Johnson had to go, and with manufactured evidence if necessary.
Just as they had invented the testimony that hanged Mary Surratt, they were already busy inventing evidence against Johnson. Under oath General Baker (he was promoted after Booth’s death) claimed to have seen letters between Johnson and Jefferson Davis, letters he promised to produce, but never did. Odd because forgery was not an issue for Baker.
To give an idea of the sort of shenanigans Baker fomented, he had a detective hire a prostitute to carry a pardon request to the White House. But when she arrived, Baker was waiting and nabbed her, claiming she was not of sufficient character to be in the White House. During the impeachment trial, this incident would be twisted to paint Johnson as a drunk who engaged prostitutes in the White House.
But it all backfired because Johnson won his impeachment trial by one vote, meaning Stanton and Baker were both soon fired. Which is why Baker was forced to sign that publishing deal. He did put some clues in his book, however, and the most important had been to reveal the existence of Booth’s diary captured at Garrett’s farm. Until then, the diary had never been revealed. This was an obvious case of obstruction, and Congress eventually forced Stanton to bring the diary so they could examine this curiosity, although when it finally arrived, most of it had been snipped out with a pair of scissors.