Abraham Lincoln Assassination Conspiracy Theories: Why Did John Wilkes Booth Kill The American President?

Abraham Lincoln assassination conspiracy theories abounded in the days following the death of the 16th American president. How could John Wilkes Booth manage to pull off such a feat with only a small group of supporters? What was the role of the Confederate government in the whole ordeal? Even the Rothschild family and the Pope were named as potential conspirators.

Accepted Events

With more than 150 years of research behind them, historians have established a general timeline of how Abraham’s assassination originated. First, it’s worth noting that plots to kill the president were uncovered several times before Booth was finally successful in 1865. Lincoln was, after all, a head of state during a time of unprecedented civil war. Shortly after the South decided to secede from the North, critics began to hatch plans to bring about his demise that would follow him for the rest of his life. John Nicolay, a Bavarian immigrant hired to help the president sort through his correspondence, was shocked at the amount of vitriol that was sent to him.

“His mail was infested with brutal and vulgar menace, and warnings of all sorts came to him from zealous or nervous friends. But he had himself so sane a mind, and a heart so kindly, even to his enemies, that it was hard for him to believe in political hatred so deadly as to lead to murder.”

While the president often tried to discount the severity of these threats, Abraham was almost assassinated on multiple occasions. Once in 1861, detective Allan Pinkerton uncovered a secessionist plot to murder Lincoln at his Baltimore inauguration, narrowly sneaking the president out of the city to the safety of Washington, D.C., reported Smithsonian. In 1864, his hat was shot off of his head by an unidentified rifle blast.

Those would-be assassins were finally vindicated on April 14, 1865. Overcome with hatred for Abraham, John Wilkes planned to take Lincoln’s life with a small group of conspirators, including Dr. Samuel Mudd, the doctor who aided Booth in his escape and eventually perished alongside of him.

Before Robert E. Lee surrendered to Ulysses S. Grant at Appomattox Court House in Virginia, the group had simply planned to kidnap Abraham to tip the war in their favor. Incensed at Lincoln’s proposals for the future of the nation, their goal shifted to assassination. During a performance of Our American Cousin at Ford’s Theatre, John Wilkes waited outside of the State Box for the presidential body guard to step away. Once he did, he shot the president in the back of the head, stabbed his guest Major Henry Rathbone in the arm and jumped 11 feet to the stage, breaking his fibula. Booth managed to escape and evaded capture for 12 days before he was fatally shot inside of a burning barn.

Abraham Lincoln died the following morning, and Vice-President Andrew Johnson was inaugurated to the nation’s highest office.

Abraham Lincoln assassination conspiracy theories John Wilkes Booth
On April 14, 1865, Abraham Lincoln was assassinated by John Wilkes Booth, but what was his motivation? [Image by Hulton Archive/Getty Images]

Conspiracy Theories

One of the most popular conspiracy theories still pins John Wilkes with the crime, but wonders if Johnson had a role in the assassination of Abraham. Even Mary Todd Lincoln later wrote to her friend that she was sure that “miserable inebriate… had some hand, in all this.” The First Lady was likely referring to her husband’s second inauguration a few months prior, where the VP got so drunk that he kissed the Bible before swearing on it.

This particular conspiracy theory has a number of holes that have been pointed out by historians. First of all, Abraham was actually not the only target on the night of his assassination. Two other men were assigned to take out Secretary of State William Seward and the VP himself.

George Atzerodt, charged with killing Johnson, failed to carry out his mission. Later on, materials were found in his bedroom that linked him to Booth. In his defense in court, his lawyer argued that Atzerodt had actually saved Johnson’s life by not carrying out the murder that would have been passed on to someone else had he refused outright. It didn’t hold up in court. He was hanged to death later that year, according to The Trial by Edward Steers.

Abraham Lincoln assassination conspiracy theories John Wilkes Booth
Following the Abraham Lincoln assassination, a group of conspirators were sentenced to death for their crimes. [Image by Alexander Gardner/ U.S. Library of Congress via Getty Images]

Another common conspiracy theory about the Lincoln assassination is that John Wilkes and his co-conspirators were actually part of a much larger conspiracy by the former Confederate government. Perhaps the most credible of the theories, proponents point to the fact that Atzerodt spoke of a larger effort to blow up the White House in a meandering confession recovered in 1977.

University of North Carolina Charlotte history professor David Goldfield said that these suspicions may have also been linked to other conspiracy theories of the day.

“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 Abraham’s trade policies, supposedly, and Benjamin was motivated further by revenge. Besides, many believed, ‘this is what Jews do.'”

The banking industry, specifically the Rothschilds, and the Roman Catholic Church are both common conspiracy theory targets. These ideas may have at least partially arisen from distrust of the Jewish and Irish Catholic community. As Goldfield points out, the Republican Party had openly anti-Semitic and anti-Catholic members at the time who may have fomented such rumors. Irish Catholics, who were largely anti-Civil War Democrats, also rioted against the draft during the war. Lincoln once sided against the Bishop of Chicago in a legal battle, leading some to believe that the Pope and Roman Catholic Church were behind the Abraham assassination.

The Eisenschiml Thesis

At least some of these conspiracy theories stayed rooted in academia for quite some time. Goldfield remarked that a book called Why Was Lincoln Murdered by Otto Eisenschiml popularized the idea that Abraham’s Secretary of War Edwin Stanton was actually responsible for the plot. Annoyed over what he saw as an overly sympathetic deal for the South, he allegedly discouraged Grant from attending the play that night, removed a preferred security guard and left just one city bridge open to facilitate John Wilkes Booth’s escape. However, none of conspirators ever revealed his name during their trials, a fact that seems odd considering how badly it would have disparaged the Union if Lincoln were murdered by one of his own cabinet members.

Do you think Abraham Lincoln assassination conspiracy theories have any truth to them?

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