Misinformation and Conspiracy Theories about the Lincoln Assassination

Today, most historians and the general public agree that John Wilkes Booth, one of President Abraham Lincoln’s favorite actors, headed the conspiracy to murder the President, cabinet officers and Vice President Andrew Johnson. Throughout the 149 years since the Lincoln assassination, some Americans – and even some historians – have found it difficult to believe that John Wilkes Booth, a mere actor, could orchestrate such a horrible crime. That one individual, acting with a rag-tag assemblage of comrades, could actually change the course of history and fell a national hero at the height of his popularity and at a time of great celebration, seems far-fetched to many.

Emotions ran high and misinformation flowed in the weeks and months following the assassination, as newspapers that will form part of Ford’s Theatre’s Remembering Lincoln digital collection (for which I serve as an advisor) make clear.

The morning of Lincoln’s death, the Nashville Union, a newspaper in Tennessee’s capital that opposed secession, headlined its story about the assassination with “The Rebel Fiends at Work”—implicitly linking Booth’s deed to something beyond his small group. Meanwhile, the April 19, 1865, Demopolis (Alabama) Herald not only celebrated Lincoln’s death but erroneously (like many other newspapers) printed that Seward had perished, and, unlike other newspapers, that Lee had defeated Grant. Most other newspapers mourned Lincoln and printed whatever information—true or false—that they received.

A false report in the Demopolis, Alabama, Herald on April 19, 1865, reporting that not only had both President Lincoln and Secretary of State Seward had died, but that Robert E. Lee’s Confederate army had defeated Ulysses S. Grant’s Union army. Courtesy Alabama Department of Archives and History.

This high emotion and misinformation of that immediate moment provided fertile ground for conspiracy theories, both then and in the future. Scapegoats beyond Booth and his small group emerged in the minds of many.

Given the context of Confederate defeat, it was not surprising that suspicion fell on Confederate President Jefferson Davis; if not Davis, then perhaps Judah P. Benjamin, the Confederate Secretary of State. Not only was Benjamin a tried-and-true Rebel, but he also was Jewish and, allegedly, had connections to the Rothschilds’ banking empire in Europe. European bankers were concerned about the Lincoln’s trade policies, supposedly, and Benjamin was motivated further by revenge. Besides, many believed, “this is what Jews do.”

Keep in mind that the Republican Party contained a virulent anti-immigrant wing, formerly the Know-Nothings, with clear anti-Semitic and anti-Catholic overtones. Many of the convicted conspirators, including Mary Surratt, were ardent Catholics.

The fact that John Surratt turned up at the Vatican after he fled the United States helped cause false speculation that the Pope was involved in the Lincoln assassination. Courtesy Library of Congress Prints & Photographs, LC-DIG-cwpbh-00483.

This led to the theory that the Pope, or at least some high-placed Roman Catholics had a hand in Lincoln’s assassination. Irish immigrants generally opposed the war and supported the Democratic Party. A bloody riot in New York and other cities in 1863 against the Republican-initiated draft featured violence by Irish residents. The theory received further credence by the fact that Lincoln had once defended a priest against the Bishop of Chicago. And John Surratt, the son of Mary Surratt, fled the United States and, oddly, turned up at the Vatican.

But those conspiracy theories did not stop in the frenzied days following the assassination. Perhaps the most lasting of the conspiracy theories was the Eisenschiml thesis. Otto Eisenschiml was not a historian. He was an Austrian-born chemist who emigrated to the U.S. in 1901 and became an oil company executive in Chicago. After nearly a decade researching Lincoln’s assassination, he published Why Was Lincoln Murdered in 1937, claiming that Secretary of War Edwin Stanton masterminded Lincoln’s assassination.

Otto Eisenschiml falsely alleged that Secretary of War Edwin Stanton (pictured) masterminded the conspiracy to kill President Lincoln. Courtesy Library of Congress Prints & Photographs, LC-DIG-cwpbh-00958.

As “proof,” Eisenschiml offered several circumstantial pieces of evidence. First, Stanton had a motive: he was worried that Lincoln’s moderate proposals for southern reconstruction would let the former Confederate states off too easily for the carnage they initiated.

Second, Union general Ulysses S. Grant had planned to attend the play at Ford’s Theatre with the President on the night of April 14 but Eisenschiml alleged that Grant cancelled when Stanton ordered him out of Washington. Further, Stanton had allegedly turned down the President’s request to have Major Thomas T. Eckert serve as his bodyguard for the evening. Following Booth’s dramatic exit from the theatre, Stanton closed all bridges from the city, except one – the Navy Yard Bridge – which Booth took as his escape route.  Stanton also allegedly ordered that Union soldiers should kill Booth rather than arrest him. And, finally, investigators noted 15 pages torn from Booth’s diary, deliberately ripped out by Stanton, Eisenschiml claimed.

So powerful were these allegations that Eisenschiml’s book appeared on most Civil War graduate seminar reading lists through the 1970s. But not a shred of hard evidence has corroborated Eisenschiml’s thesis in the ensuing eight decades.

This is far from the end of Lincoln conspiracy theories, especially in the Internet age, but, unlike with the Kennedy assassination, a majority of Americans are in agreement with the consensus of professional historians that John Wilkes Booth murdered Abraham Lincoln and led the conspiracy to assassinate other members of the administration without outside direction.

David Goldfield is Robert Lee Bailey Professor of History at the University of North Carolina Charlotte. He serves as an advisor on the Remembering Lincoln digital project. Learn more about him here.