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Lincoln, Abraham, Assassination of From "Conspiracy Theories in American History" COPYRIGHT © 2003 BY PETER KNIGHT The assassination of Abraham Lincoln on Good Friday (14 April), 1865, by actor John Wilkes Booth unleashed a flood of rumors regarding larger conspiracies afoot. Hardly had the president breathed his last early Saturday morning, when officials and public alike began accusing Confederate leaders and secret organizations in the North of masterminding the murder. A New York Times editorial on 26 April vowed that when the time came for revelations, “[i]t will be seen that all the talk of ‘Knights of the Golden Circle,’ ‘Sons of Liberty,’ ‘American Knights,’ &c., was not without foundation.” President Andrew Johnson’s proclamation of 2 May 1865 ordering the arrest of Jefferson Davis and several others explicitly accused the Confederate leadership of complicity in Lincoln’s death. While the very tangible political and emotional stresses that gave rise to these accusations abated in the years following the murder, the effort to tie the deed to a larger, hidden plan did not. Theories implicating a surprising range of persons and causes—from the Confederacy, to Andrew Johnson, the Catholic Church, Wall Street financiers, and even Lincoln’s stalwart secretary of war, Edwin Stanton—surfaced over the next century. Some remain in vogue to this day. If the Kennedy assassination has been the greatest single source for conspiratorial expression in recent U.S. culture, Lincoln’s certainly deserves credit as the longest running. And like their contemporary cousins, conspiracy theories linked to the first presidential assassination were forged in the context of surrounding political, social, and cultural forces. The Basis in Events In the days following the shooting, there were legitimate reasons for fearing a larger plot. Booth accomplice Lewis Powell’s simultaneous knife-attack on Secretary of State William Seward made the possibility of an organized assault on the Union leadership very real. It was reported that officers sent to inform Stanton of the shooting accosted a man “muffled in a cloak” on the secretary’s doorstep. Booth’s calling card left for Vice-President Andrew Johnson at the latter’s hotel raised hackles further. And the discovery of a letter in the actor’s trunk at the National Hotel, in which Booth’s correspondent advised a halt in plans until “Richmond could be heard from,” ( U.S. Government, 46:3, 781) seemed to confirm the authorities’ worst suspicions. The capture of Powell at Mary Surratt’s boarding house on 17 April, and the arrest within a few days of most of Booth’s other accomplices, provided firm evidence that the attacks had sprung from an organized center. In the minds of many, including Edwin Stanton and the officers charged with bringing the conspirators to trial, there was little doubt this center originated with the Confederacy.

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