Despite the early conviction and punishment of the men and one woman tied to the fatal murder plot against Abraham Lincoln, a mind-boggling number of other suspected conspiracies to murder the president were looked at by investigators after his death.
Some suspected schemers seemed to have been more likely than others. The list included disaffected Southerners, greedy northern bankers, insiders in the Lincoln administration, the Catholic Church and the Freemasons.
Investigators quickly singled out the conspirators who worked with the actor-assassin John Wilkes Booth, and the punishment was swift. Booth was tracked down less than two weeks after the murder and reportedly died in a burning barn when he was shot by a Union Army sergeant.
Four other conspirators were hanged, including Mary Surratt, who owned a boarding house where the plotters gathered and a tavern where they stored their weapons. The others who died at the end of ropes in the yard at the old prison at Fort McNair in Washington, D.C., were: David Herold, who surrendered when Booth was shot; George Atzerodt, who got drunk and failed to carry out his job of killing Vice President Andrew Johnson; and Lewis Powell, a Confederate secret service agent who stabbed but failed to kill William H. Seward, Lincoln’s secretary of state.
Several others, ranging from a stable boy who held a horse for Booth to the doctor who set his broken leg, were given long prison sentences. Mrs. Surratt’s son, John, escaped to Canada.
Investigators learned that Booth put together an earlier plan to kidnap the president then trade him for the release of thousands of Confederate prisoners. That scheme, like other shadowy conspiracies against the president’s life or safety, was never put in motion. Some probably never existed in the first place but were concocted in the vivid imagination of certain Yankees who saw conspiracies around every corner – especially every corner in the Confederate capital of Richmond, Virginia.
Some pointed the finger of guilt at Jefferson F. Davis, Confederate president and former U.S. secretary of war. It was true that Davis put a $1 million bounty on Lincoln’s head, but supporters pointed out that the Confederate leader was also the target of an apparent Union assassination plot. The scheme was uncovered when documents outlining the conspiracy were discovered on the body of a Union cavalry officer. The plan was to carry out a lightning raid on Richmond and kill the Confederate leader.
Confederate Secretary of State Judah Benjamin was a favorite whipping boy among the growing ranks of Union conspiracy theorists who accused him as being up to his ears in the Lincoln assassination scheme. After all, Benjamin put all his records and many other government documents to the torch before escaping and eventually settling in England. He remained in exile in Europe, practicing law until his death in Paris of natural causes in 1884.
After Lincoln’s tragic death, conspiracy theories floating around the former Union states, some more believable than others, were a dime a dozen.
Some of those that didn’t involve Davis or southern extremists focused on Andrew Johnson, the unpopular vice president who was a notorious drunk and, worse yet, a Southerner who remained loyal to the Union. He was hated on both sides. Secretary of War Edwin Stanton also came under suspicion from some circles.
But some of the more exotic conspiracy theories ranged from greedy international bankers led by the wealthy Rothschild family to Freemasons and the Catholic Church. All have been and still are regular targets in the conspiracy world.
Supporters of the Catholic connection pointed out that Booth, Mary Surratt, her son John Surratt Jr. and David Herold were Catholics. John Surratt and Herold studied at Catholic schools, and Surratt was trained at a monastery run by the Sulpician Fathers — a branch of the Jesuits — according to the conspiracists. When Surratt escaped to Canada he was briefly taken under the wing of a Catholic priest in Montreal.
Surratt soon left Canada and was on the run for years in Europe and Egypt. Fuel was added to the Catholic conspiracy theory when the fugitive briefly served as a Papal Zouave. When he was finally returned to the United States to face the music in the Lincoln murder conspiracy, he had been on the run so long and the courtroom proceedings became so complicated that after a mistrial, he was cleared of all remaining charges.
Two decades after Lincoln’s death a former Catholic priest, Charles Chimquy, wrote “Fifty Years in the Church of Rome” painting the assassination as the culmination of a conspiracy leading all the way to the Vatican and orchestrated by Jesuits. It was the job of the Jesuits to train the killers, Chimquy wrote.
Ironically, in 1858 when Lincoln was a young lawyer in Illinois, he once represented the testy Chimquy in a slander suit resulting from a quarrel between the priest and his bishop.