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The real truth behind the assassination of our 16th president
|Product dimensions:||6.36(w) x 9.57(h) x 0.95(d)|
About the Author
Historian LEONARD F. GUTTRIDGE is the critically acclaimed author of Ghosts of Cape Sabine: The Harrowing True Story of the Greely Expedition; Icebound: The Jeannette Expedition’s Quest for the North Pole; Mutiny: A History of Naval Insurrection; and The Commodores.
Dr. RAY A. NEFF is an Emeritus Professor at Indiana State University and an authority on the Civil War era. He has published several books, is the owner of six patents, and served in the Department of Health and Safety for seventeen years.
Read an Excerpt
The Secret Web of Profiteers, Politicians, and Booth Conspirators That Led to Lincoln's Death
By Leonard F. Guttridge Ray A. Neff
John Wiley & Sons
Copyright © 2003
Leonard F. Guttridge, Ray A. Neff
All right reserved.
The Riddle of the
One of the most popular haunts of Philadelphian bibliophiles in
the 1950s was Leary's Book Store. Standing on Ninth Street opposite
the post office, its shelves and counters crammed with as many
as 300,000 volumes, Leary's advertised itself as America's largest
retail outlet for rare books. It had a soft-sell policy and would no
more have employed a high-pressure salesman than hired a known
shoplifter. Customers were invited to browse all they wanted to, and
any who were reluctant to leave empty-handed could at least have
carried off a complimentary lithograph entitled The Bookworm,
ready for framing.
This is where our quest began, on the second floor of Leary's
Book Store one afternoon in April of 1957. Not that either of us, at
the time, had Lincoln's murder in mind. The occasion was a routine
forage among the Civil War collections, and the item we bought was
selected because it contained an account, by an officer of the British
Royal Engineers, of a visit toGeneral George Meade's Union Army
of the Rappahannock. For fifty cents the book was ours.
Colburn's United Service Magazine and Military Journal was
required reading at Sandhurst, West Point, and other academies
where young men were schooled for command. Bound sets filled the
shelves of retired generals and army chiefs of staff. A forum equally
for theorists and sentimentalists, Colburn's mingled reviews of the
latest advances in military science with anecdotes of service life in
peace and war, travel articles, and memoirs reliving the dash and
glory of old campaigns. The bound set bought in Leary's Book Store
was Part Two of 1864, embracing the months May through August.
Its pages, except for the article on Meade, were no more than cursorily
glanced at until the following summer, when a number of them
were seen to contain figures and letters penciled along the inner margins,
close to the binding. Ray Neff was then conducting research at
the office of the medical examiner for the City of Philadelphia. He
showed the book's pages to a chief investigator, Patrick Kmat. To
Kmat, who had served in army intelligence during World War II, the
writing appeared to be a cipher. Kmat knew an expert in cryptography,
who was then shown the Colburn's volume and who confirmed
Kmat's suspicions. He gave instructions for translating it.
The system used was of a "sliding" variety, in which the key pattern
is shifted at intervals to make solution all the tougher. Translation
taxed patience and perseverance but was duly accomplished. And
the first part of this cipher, found on page 181 and dated "2-5-68,"
struck a distinct note of alarm. "I am constantly being followed.
They are professionals. I cannot fool them."
There was yet more: tiny dots under certain letters in essays on
an invasion of Denmark and a voyage to Tenerife. The letters formed
these words: "It was on the tenth of April sixty-five when I first
knew that the plan was in action." What followed was a detailed
charge that Abraham Lincoln's secretary of war had fostered a plot
hatched among influential persons in the North to have the president
kidnapped and, if necessary, killed. On page 107 the decoded
words included "Ecert had made all the contacts, the deed to be
done on the fourteenth." Correctly spelled, the name was that of
Thomas T. Eckert, Secretary Stanton's close aide and chief of the
military telegraph. Pages 119, 120, 127, and 245 yielded this startling
allegation: "I know the truth and it frightens me. I fear that
somehow I may become the sacrificial goat. There were at least
eleven members of Congress involved in the plot, no less than twelve
army officers, three naval officers and at least 24 civilians, of which
one was a governor of a loyal state. Five were bankers of great
repute, three were nationally known newspapermen and eleven were
industrialists of great wealth. The names of these known conspirators
is [sic] presented without comment ... in Vol. one of this series.
Eighty-five thousand dollars was contributed by the named persons
to pay for the deed. Only eight persons knew the details of the plot
and the identity of the others."
The final words, secreted within an account of artillery experiments
along the east coast of England, formed another distress signal:
"I fear for my life, LCB."
At this point, every page in the book had come under close scrutiny.
Several marginal portions seemed oddly discolored. Subjected
to ultraviolet radiation, one of the spots glowed purple. At first,
exposure under the lamp produced nothing. Several days of additional
experimenting were required before an application of tannic
acid brought forth a name: L. C. Baker. The writing had been done
with an "invisible ink" not unknown to secret agents in the Civil
War. Its ferricyanide base would ordinarily have become visible after
an hour's exposure to bright sunlight. But it had lost this property
with the passage of many years, which explained why it had not
responded to the ultraviolet lamp.
The imperiled encipherer? Lafayette Charles Baker was an intimidating
figure, docketed by historians, when noticed at all, as a federal
lackey doing Stanton's undercover work, with the official designation
War Department special agent or provost marshal, chief
of its detective bureau. Baker had launched countless campaigns
against alleged enemies of the Union, arresting military bounty brokers,
uncovering sexual immorality in the Treasury Department, and
raiding liquor and gambling saloons. He had also directed the pursuit
of John Wilkes Booth. After the war, he had infuriated Andrew
Johnson by posting gumshoes on White House grounds to spy upon
the president's female visitors. This impertinence hastened his departure
from government service, and Baker retired to Philadelphia,
where he died in July 1868.
The question remained. Did the handwriting that had given the
Colburn's volume a dimension of mystery belong to Secretary Stanton's
chief detective? We found Lafayette Baker's will at Philadelphia
City Hall and a codicil to it in the same file. Upon the advice of
a member of the Pennsylvania Historical Society, Chief Investigator
Kmat contacted Robert F. Fowler, editor of a national magazine specializing
in Civil War subjects. Fowler obtained the services of Stanley
S. Smith, former officer of the Pennsylvania State Police and an
examiner of questioned documents, who finally reported that the signature
"Lafayette C. Baker" in the left margin of page 574 of the
Colburn's volume and those on Baker's will and codicil were of the
same hand. Not found, although eagerly sought, was the early 1864
Colburn's containing, according to Baker, the names of conspirators
in the plot against Lincoln.
That codicil indicated likelihood of a court hearing. We talked
with Charles Hughes, Philadelphia archivist (the city's first), already
noted for his rescue of important historical documents lost for years
and in danger of destruction. Hughes had, for instance, found the
original deeds that secured for the City of Philadelphia clear ownership
rights to Independence Square and the site of Independence
Hall. Promptly interested, Charles Hughes referred us to Ernest
DeAngelo, register of wills, for authority to go into the City Hall
basement, accompanied by appropriate staffers.
After a week of exhaustive rummaging amid piles of faded documents
and moldering ledgers, we found the shorthand record of a
hearing "In the matter of a paper propounded as a codicil to the
Last Will and Testament of Lafayette C. Baker, deceased." The hearing
was conducted before W. Marshall Taylor, register of wills, on
October 14, 1872. Further search revealed the handwritten transcripts
of the hearing's shorthand text, and this in turn led to the
discovery of additional transcripts typed in 1936 under the federal
Work Projects Administration. Charles Hughes saw to it that the
entire material was brought above ground and microfilmed.
It was this record of a court hearing, dealing with an unprobated
codicil to Baker's will, that most quickened pulses. Viewed alongside
what had been found in the Colburn's book, the document portrays
in arresting detail a former public official who knew too much, who
had determined to mask his dangerous knowledge in cipher and
secret ink, and while so engaged had raced an agonizing death at the
hands of someone beneath his own roof.
Further tests on the Colburn's volume were conducted at the U.S.
National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) by questioned
documents specialists from the United States Post Office, the
Department of Defense, and the FBI. All reached the same conclusion:
The signatures, dots under letters, and numbers in margins
were the work of Lafayette Charles Baker.
The release of a portion of these discoveries in the fall of 1961
touched off a mild furor. Edwin Stanton and Lafayette Baker became,
briefly, front-page news. The New York Times published a
letter from one of Stanton's descendants, angrily defending the secretary's
good name. A professor of history was apparently so eager
to veto the findings that he confused them with the enduring controversy
over the death of Napoleon Bonaparte, for he sailed into
print attacking "veterans of the 'Lincoln was murdered' hypothesis."
Hypothesis? But such hapless irrelevancies aside, the general response
among Lincoln scholars and professional historians reflected
keen, if guarded, interest in what was unearthed to date and an almost
unanimous recommendation that the digging continue.
It did, with caution. A British writer on Lincoln's assassination
called the new revelations "the most extraordinary discovery in this
field." David Kahn, in a definitive work on cryptography, contemplated
as a possible result of it "a reappraisal of one of the cruelest
moments in the whole of American history." Wrote Victor Searcher,
author of Lincoln's Journey to Greatness, "The new data on the
Lincoln murder ... underscores the fact that all has NOT been told."
And the reaction of Ralph T. G. Newman, Lincoln authority, manuscript
dealer, and founder of the Civil War Round Table, was an
admission of belief that Stanton took advantage of Lincoln's murder
to "further his own ends ... that he did, to some extent, 'cover up'
details of the crime. One thing is definite now-the case is not
This was all very well. Enough was known of Baker's duplicity
for us not to place much credence in his cipher-shrouded accusations.
Baker was capable of playing an elaborate and malevolent
joke on his boss or anybody else against whom he had a grievance.
Some suggested that Baker's charges were the product of a senile
brain. He was only in his forty-second year when he framed them,
but his physical health was certainly questionable. He was taking
belladonna and bromides to guard against the epileptic fits that had
plagued him in youth, and the discoveries in Philadelphia's City Hall
make clear that Lafayette Baker had been so dosed with arsenic that
the medicinal leeches his doctor pressed behind his ears fell away
The man Lafayette Baker accused of engineering Lincoln's removal
as part of a plot to seize power was himself something of an
enigma. Like the future president's, Edwin M. Stanton's career had
begun in legal practice. He had an early courtroom encounter with
Lincoln and at that time spoke of him with contempt. When he
joined Lincoln's cabinet in the second year of the Civil War, some
who knew both men expected that it would be only a matter of time
before Stanton gained the upper hand. Yet their wartime relationship
would be recalled by others as, at least outwardly, marked by
cooperation and mutual esteem. It was well known, however, that
Stanton cultivated a close liaison with Lincoln's most active political
foes and, according to one of Stanton's own aides, was in "continual
argument" with the president over his disposition to let the South
off lightly once the war had ended. On at least two occasions, Stanton
overruled the chief executive. Indeed, the two men had a working
agreement that the secretary could ignore White House directives
whenever he saw fit, and he is said to have torn up such notes
in front of visitors.
Unlike the torrid anti-rebel outbursts of his radical cronies in the
Republican Party, self-revealing rhetoric seldom escaped Edwin Stanton's
lips. But his public attitude toward the insurrectionist South
was as retribution incarnate. Some lauded him as an indefatigable
war bureaucrat, devoted to the Union. He was feared by others as a
would-be despot. Friends ascribed his sour personality to asthma.
The deaths of his daughter and his first wife, and a brother's suicide,
may have warped his character. A former law partner is said to have
argued that if it should prove necessary to replace the Constitution
with a military dictatorship, Stanton would be just the man. According
to General Ulysses S. Grant, the secretary held little regard for the
Constitution during those years of extreme national crisis.
A deciphered entry in Lafayette Baker's Colburn's volume reads:
"Address Earl Potter, Ladoga, Indiana." A decade-long hunt revealed
that Earl Potter managed Baker's National Detective Police. The
Virginia-born Potter had been a tracer of missing goods for a Norfolk
shipping firm until the outbreak of war. His antisecessionist
views compelled him to leave the state for his safety's sake, and he
joined Baker's then modest little detective corps after its transfer
from the Department of State to the War Department.
The ostensible function of the NDP was to track down spies,
contrabandists, traitors, and defrauders of the government. Its command
post at 217 Pennsylvania Avenue conveniently faced Willard's
Hotel, a setting for much wartime intrigue, and among its other
Washington installations was a four-floor building on Tenth Street
in the southeast quarter of the capital. Here, Earl Potter's younger
half-brother Andrew ran the Secret Services division, which assembled
photographs and dossiers on hundreds of Americans, well
known and obscure alike. That Tenth Street address was the nerve
center of a clandestine corps that compensated in industry for what
it lacked in manpower. At peak strength the NDP's undercover section
numbered no more than 400 agents, couriers, paid informers,
and a small but effective band of female spies, all operating in territory
both north and south of Civil War battle lines. What Americans
knew of the NDP was learned mainly from its roving agents, who
showed little regard for constitutional rights and due process when
following a "case." This attitude had started at the top with Baker,
who, in his capacity as NDP chief, was answerable only to Secretary
Stanton. Too often for his own good, he flouted even this limited
allegiance, acting as if he were a law unto himself.
Excerpted from Dark Union
by Leonard F. Guttridge Ray A. Neff
Copyright © 2003 by Leonard F. Guttridge, Ray A. Neff.
Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Table of Contents
PART I: THE PROFITEERS.
1. The Riddle of the Colburn’s Volume.
2. Montreal: A Prelude.
3. Wheelers and Dealers.
4. The Dahlgren Raid.
5. The Canadian Go-getter.
6. Lincoln and the Radicals.
7. Lincoln and the Secret Trade Deal.
8. Deepening Peril.
PART II: THE POLITICIANS.
9. The Fatal Rationale.
10. “Deem Myself a Coward”.
11. The Kidnap Plot.
12. The Letter from Cape Girardeau.
13. Desperate Elements.
14. The Fall of Richmond.
15. Holy Week: “Something Never Dreamed Of”.
PART III: THE ASSASSIN.
16. Good Friday—April 14, 1865.
17. Unholy Night.
18. The Incredible Hours.
19. The Eager Connection.
20. Arrests and Confessions.
21. “We Have Booth’s Diary”.
22. Body Snatching and Doctored Documents.
23. Web of Secrecy.
24. The Searchers.