Devious, manipulating, and with the heart of a sneak-thief, Lafayette Baker became head of the Union Intelligence Service during the American Civil War. He accomplished this mighty task with pure bravado and the ability to artfully lie while unblinkingly staring into the eyes of America's greatest leaders.
Though he later claimed to be a descendant of one of Ethan Allen's Green Mountain Boys, who had named him after the illustrious Marquise Lafayette of American Revolution fame, no such lineage really existed. Baker was born on a farm in upstate New York. His father, a poor farmer, moved the family to Michigan when Baker was in his teens. After some brief schooling Baker made his way to New York City where little is known of his doings, although one report has it that he became a fence for stolen goods, working hand in glove with the notorious Bowery Boys gang.
In the gold rush of 1849, Baker joined tens of thousands of nugget seekers and went to California. He did not find gold but he did find the kind of action that suited his basically brutal nature. In San Francisco he became a member of the Vigilance Committee, patrolling the fog-bound streets of the Barbary Coast at night in search of desperate criminals, or so Baker later advertised that adventurous episode of his life. In reality, he worked as a bouncer in a notorious Barbary Coast saloon and informed on his employers to the local constabulary. He was later a willing member in several lynchings.
When the Civil War began in 1861, Baker hurried back east, shuttling between New York and Washington as he sought appointments with high-ranking Union Army officers to offer his services as a Union spy. In New York, he managed to get an appointment with a cavalry colonel, telling this officer that he would be an ideal spy, that he had done considerable undercover work as a former vigilante in San Francisco. He enthusiastically described how he personally had meted out justice to several suspected criminals by holding three-minute trials in the streets of San Francisco, then hanging these hapless creatures from lampposts. We don't enlist hangmen, the Union officer snorted and shoved Baker from his office.
Undaunted, in early 1862, Baker made his way to the field headquarters of General Winfield Scott, then Commander-in-Chief of the Union Army. He stood outside the general's tent, arguing with Scott's aide, insisting that he see the Commander-in-Chief on urgent business. The aide finally informed Scott that a persistent man wanted to see him. Scott, then seventy-six, was a rather self-indulgent character amused by anyone possessing an eccentric personality. He was particularly impressed with flamboyant young Union officers, believing that the more arrogant and brash they were, the more likely they would be brave and brilliant in battle. Typical of Scott's protégés was George Armstrong Custer.
As usual, Scott's fancy got the better of him. He told his aide to bring in the dark-bearded young stranger. Lafayette Baker strode into Scott's tent. He solemnly announced that he would speak to the general only after the aide left and he was alone with the Commander-in-Chief. Scott, a giant of a man who weighed more than 300 pounds, had been studying his battle maps. He threw a blanket over them, and then waved the apprehensive aide out of his tent.
Baker then told Scott that he came to offer his services to him as an accomplished spy. He explained that he had lived in Richmond, Virginia, for some time and that he proposed returning to that city, now the capital of the Confederacy, to gather vital military information and bring it back.
Scott had nothing left of his Intelligence Service at that time operating in Richmond. A dedicated group of Allan Pinkerton's spies had been rounded up and jailed, including the inventive Englishmen Pryce Lewis and John Scully, along with the valiant mail carrier Timothy Webster and his erstwhile companion. Hattie Lawton. (Pinkerton was then the most famous criminal detective in America who had successfully smuggled Abraham Lincoln to Washington. D.C., in 1861 to avoid assassins planning to kill the President-Elect en route. He was later named chief of the fledgling Union Intelligence Service but he would be relieved for his failure to properly estimate Confederate Army troop strength and positions at the Battle of Antietam.)
Scott explained to Baker that his going to Richmond would not serve the Union Army's needs. He needed detailed reports from the fields, how many men were in the Confederate Army of General Pierre Goustave Toutant Beauregard, where were they positioned, and where were they headed? How many pieces of field artillery did Beauregard have and how much rolling stock? All of this important data could not be found in the tearooms of Richmond, but in the field.
Baker nodded, saying that he could successfully infiltrate the Confederate lines between Maryland and Virginia and that he had the perfect disguise to accomplish what General Scott desired. With that Baker produced a tripod upon which he teetered a rather cumbersome, large black box with what appeared to be a round glass window. It was a camera, Baker announced. He would go through the lines as a southern photographer, offering to take pictures of high-ranking Confederate officers and he would thus be allowed into the camps to obtain the very information needed.
Scott liked the plan but quickly added that he could pay Baker very little money. There was no budget left for an Intelligence Service. Baker said he would work for expenses only, and if he returned with useful information, that he be rewarded with a commission in the Union Army. Scott agreed and sent Baker on his cavalier mission. From that point on most of his celebrated adventures appeared in his self-aggrandizing memoirs, which Baker recorded later.
Using the alias of Sam Munson, Baker lugged his camera equipment to the Maryland-Virginia border and, after being stopped by Union sentries, he had to call upon Scott to save him from being shot as a spy. He was freed and renewed his perilous journey. At the time Scott asked Baker if he wanted to change his mind about being a spy. Baker shook his head and set out again for the Confederate lines. This time he crossed into Virginia but he was stopped by a Rebel patrol and was arrested as a spy.
He was taken to Richmond and thrown into a cell. Baker later claimed that he next sent a note to General Beauregard through a southern friend in Richmond. Beauregard was also informed that Baker was an itinerant southern photographer who had been captured by the Yankees after the war broke out and had worked his way southward by photographing Federal officers and their staffs. He had, the southern general was told, all the while spied on the Union garrisons, camps, and defense lines and had much to tell Beauregard .
The general ordered Baker to be brought to him. At that time, Baker gave Beauregard detailed information of Union troop movements, positions of heavy gun emplacements, and locations where ammunition and goods were stored. Beauregard's aides diligently wrote down the information but the general seemed more interested in Baker's camera and the then revolutionary techniques of photography. Very few photographers were present during the immense, bloody battles of the Civil War. The greatest of these was Matthew Brady who had been recording the terrible war from its first important battle, Bull Run, in 1861, and who also busied himself with photographing the war's key figures for the North, especially the high-ranking officers, their staffs and their loved ones. This had prompted some southern photographers to reCord Confederate leaders with their marvelous and mysterious black boxes.
According to Baker, Jefferson Davis, the President of the Confederacy, along with Vice-President Alexander H. Stephens, were called to the interview by Beauregard. Again, Baker claimed his innocence, begging to be set free so that he could resume his profession. Davis decreed that Baker should be allowed to do exactly that, and, after conferring with Beauregard, was given a pass which permitted him to photograph any of the southern military commanders, their troops, and camp sites, as he saw fit.
Beauregard was the first to request a photograph and he and his staff posed for Baker a short time later. With a Confederate officer at his side, Baker was thereafter allowed to go freely into all the Confederate camps and photograph whomever and whatever he pleased. He thus recorded priceless information for the North, but not on his camera. Had the Confederates known anything about this new apparatus, they would have realized that it did not work, that it had a broken lens and that it had no glass plates upon which to record a single photograph.
For several weeks, Baker wandered freely from one Confederate military installation to another, making notes, and pretending to photograph hundreds of officers and even companies of enlisted men. He appeared in Fredricksburg, Virginia, some time later and had the mischance of meeting some officers whom he had photographed some time earlier. These officers were angry because they had not received the photos he had promised. Baker attempted to explain that he had been kept so busy taking photographs by the General Staff that he had had no time to develop the pictures he had taken.
Baker was not believed and was thrown into the Fredricksburg jail to await trial on charges of espionage. By then, a professional photographer had inspected Baker's camera and had discovered it to be useless. Baker knew he would be found guilty and quickly executed. He had, however, secreted a pocketknife in his boot and, late that night, he managed to use the knife to free two loose bars on his cell, slip through the opening and make his escape. He somehow managed to get back to the Union lines to report his fantastic experiences. General Scott was so impressed with the information Baker had obtained that he made him a captain and put him in charge of his Intelligence Service.
At least, that was the story Baker later penned, to explain his first grand success at espionage. The truth was less spectacular. He was, indeed, captured, and taken before Jefferson Davis who did not give him a pass to photograph the whole of the Confederacy but listened for some minutes to Baker's inept lies and then pronounced him a spy and ordered him held for trial. Baker did escape from the Richmond jail, then wandered for weeks through Virginia, living in shacks and the woods, stealing food where he could find it, as he desperately tried to regain the Union lines. He was picked up in Fredricksburg as a vagrant and later held as a spy, but he again escaped, this time with the help of local prostitute whom he had been staying with, and finally managed to return to Scott's headquarters.
The tales of Baker photographing Confederate officers was nonsense. He had lost his camera before being picked up by the first Confederate patrol. The information regarding Confederate forces he later relayed to Scott he had learned from a Union officer he had met in the Richmond prison and all of this information was outdated by the time Baker passed it on to Scott. General Scott was an impressionable old man, however, whose whim to send the errant Baker forth into espionage without any training or experience suited his odd fancy.
Baker knew his man. He knew that the more incredible he made his report the more likely it would be believed by the doddering old Scott. Scott, who knew very little about espionage, swallowed Baker's fantastic tale whole. So impressed was he that he not only granted a commission to the conniving Baker but he warmly retold Baker's saga to several members of Lincoln's administration. The man who appreciated the story most was Secretary of War Edwin McMasters Stanton .
Stanton was a quick-tempered man of action. Although he paid lip service to the great humanity of Abraham Lincoln, to the President's compassion, decency, and kindness, Stanton himself was a bigoted, calculating person in whom dwelled a vicious bully, and, if certain historians are to be believed, the ambition of a presidential assassin. When Scott introduced the brash, young Baker to him, Stanton immediately recognized a man of his own stripe, one to whom conspiracy and collusion were second nature. He saw a man who would say or do anything to gain prestige and, more importantly, power, a man that Stanton himself could use to his own good ends.
Stanton took Baker under his own wing. He became the Secretary's personal secret agent, conducting close surveillance of those Stanton distrusted most, other members in Lincoln's cabinet, and high-ranking officers who were Lincoln's appointments. Stanton also wanted Allan Pinkerton out of the way as head of the Union Intelligence Service. Pinkerton answered only to Lincoln, and Stanton resented that. He, Edwin Stanton, should be in complete charge of the war, not this well meaning but uninformed Lincoln.
At every opportunity, Stanton, through Baker's intrigues, discredited Pinkerton, and, equally, General George McClellan, who had taken over the army, brilliantly organized and trained it to a peak fighting machine but proved indecisive in battle. Baker spent much of this time discovering McClellan's mistakes and having reports of his blunders brought before Lincoln, or leaked to the Union press. Since Pinkerton was the espionage chief serving McClellan, the more mistakes the Union Army made, the more blame could be shifted to Pinkerton who apparently was not providing the kind of intelligence that would allow McClellan to make decisive military moves.
Following the Battle of Antietam , the bloodiest battle of the war which claimed more than 5,000 Union and Confederate lives, McClellan's image dipped drastically. His critics chorused his inability to learn of the true strengths and positions of Confederate forces under the brilliant command of General Robert E. Lee. This responsibility really fell upon Pinkerton. When McClellan was removed from command, Pinkerton was also dismissed. This was a well-rehearsed scenario by Stanton, who had long badgered Lincoln to replace Pinkerton arguing that Pinkerton was a detective whose ability to track down criminals had little or nothing to do with expertise in espionage.
Stanton, with Scott's backing, recommended that none other than the enterprising Lafayette Baker, descendant from American patriots and one of the greatest spies in the Union forces, head the Intelligence Service. Lincoln agreed and Baker, a man with no real knowledge of military espionage, was phenomenally promoted to the rank of full colonel and assumed one of the most powerful positions in the Union.
Baker's techniques were identical to those he had practiced in San Francisco as a vigilante. He terrorized, threatened, and blackmailed suspects, both Union and Confederate, to obtain information. For three years, he continued to operate a haphazard espionage system for the North but most of his information was learned second-hand from scouts working directly for Union cavalry commands. He continued to have some spies behind the Confederate lines but Pinkerton picked the best of these first.
The most celebrated Confederate spies captured by the Union during this period were apprehended by those who did not work for Baker, but once they came under his supervision as prisoners, Baker conducted brutal interrogations of Belle Boyd and Wat Bowie. He woke them from sound sleeps and hectored them. He made sure they missed meals and suffered every kind of inconvenience. He deprived them of proper sanitary conditions. All of this inhuman treatment was to induce Boyd and Bowie to provide him with information. They gave him nothing. Bowie escaped from the Washington, D.C., jail from under the noses of Baker's guards and Boyd was released in 1863. Both went on to continue spying for the Confederacy.
Most of Baker's time was spent tracking down deserters from the Union Army. He also went after profiteers but only to line his own pockets. Baker arrested and jailed those who refused to share their illegal spoils from selling government supplies off. Baker violated Constitutional rights without fear or reservations since he was wholly backed by Stanton. He routinely made false arrests, conducted illegal searches without warrants, and blackmailed government officials into making endorsements of his almost non-existent espionage service. No one misused his authority or office more than Lafayette Baker.
One of Baker's most important duties was the protection of President Abraham Lincoln, a job at which he failed miserably. This responsibility would later become that of the Secret Service, which was created in Lincoln's last cabinet meeting of 1865. Its proposed duties were chiefly to guard the President and to detect and apprehend counterfeiters and otherwise serve the Treasury Department. Actually, Baker's Intelligence Service had nothing to do with the federal agency that later became the Secret Service, although Baker was to arrogantly and, as usual, mislead the public into believing that he headed that service. He entitled his memoirs: History of the United States Secret Service.
At one Point Baker bragged that there is no single Confederate spy or agent behind Union lines who is unknown to me and our service. Yet, flourishing within Washington, D.C. were dozens of conspirators all plotting the assassination of President Lincoln. One group met regularly only a few blocks from Baker's offices throughout the early part of 1865. Its leaders were, John Harrison Surratt, Jr. and a vainglorious actor from an illustrious theatrical family, John Wilkes Booth.
On the night of April 14, 1865, Good Friday, John Wilkes Booth went to a saloon next door to Ford's Theater in Washington, D.C., where he knew President Lincoln was watching a comedy, Our American Cousin. The war was officially over. Lee had surrendered at Appomattox. Yet many still sought Lincoln's death, including the diehard Booth / Surratt group. Booth was seen drinking brandy in the saloon at 10 P.M. A few minutes later the actor walked into the theater lobby, then, softly humming to himself, he climbed the stairs to the mezzanine (or dress circle), and walked behind the last row of seats to a door that led to the presidential box. The chair next to this door was vacant. The policeman assigned to guard the president, John F. Parker, who was under the command of Lafayette Baker, was not present.
Without notice, Booth went through the door, then into the box where Lincoln, his wife Mary Lincoln, Major Henry Riggs Rathbone, and his fiancée Clara Harris sat watching the play. Booth stepped close to Lincoln and fired a single shot from a small Derringer pistol into the president's head. Rathbone jumped up and struggled briefly with Booth, who slashed him with a knife and then jumped dramatically from the box to the stage, a leap that broke his leg.
Instead of fleeing, Booth, ever the limelight-seeking actor, could not resist a grandstand play. As the audience erupted in panic, he raised the bloody knife and shouted: Sic Semper Tyrannis! ( Thus shall it be for tyrants! ) With that he hobbled wildly across the stage, screaming: The South is avenged! Wincing with pain, Booth ran limping toward the theater's rear door. Once in the alley, he grabbed the reins of a horse held by John Peanuts Burrough. The boy, not knowing that the actor had just shot Lincoln, had been asked by Booth earlier to hold his horse in the back of Ford's Theater.
Once in the saddle, Booth wheeled about and raced down the alley, heading for the Navy Yard Bridge, a passage he knew would lead to freedom. No more than two minutes had passed from the time Booth had shot the President to the moment he mounted his horse and dashed away into the night.
At almost the same time Booth was firing the fatal bullet into Lincoln's head, another of the conspirators, hulking Lewis Paine (born Lewis Thornton Powell), lumbered into the home of Secretary of State William Henry Seward on the pretext of delivering medicine and rushed up the stairs and into a bedroom. Seward lay in a heavy cast around his arm and head as the result of a carriage accident a week earlier.
Paine rushed toward Seward with a knife and began slashing at him, cutting the bedridden Seward but not fatally wounding him. The casts prevented the conspirator from delivering a mortal wound. Seward's grown sons, Frederick and Augustus, along with male military nurse, George T. Robinson, struggled with Paine who broke loose and dashed back down the stairs toward the open front door, shouting: I am mad! I am mad!
Paine ran to his horse cursing. Another Confederate, youthful, nervous David Herold was not there as was the plan. Herold was the only person who knew where they were to meet up with Booth but when he heard the commotion inside the Seward house, he bolted, leaving Paine to find his own place to hide.
At a prearranged meeting spot, Herold caught up to Booth in Anacostia. Herold told the assassin that he panicked and abandoned Paine after he heard shouts of Murder! coming from the Seward house. The pair then rode quickly to Surratsville, Maryland, a hamlet that consisted only of a few buildings, the most important being a small hotel owned by Mary E. Surratt, mother of John H. Surratt, Booth's co-leader in the plot to kill Lincoln. Surratt, who had met with Booth only hours before the shooting that night, was not in sight.
Surratt had left the fugitives a bottle of whiskey, two carbines with ammunition, a monkey wrench and a coil of rope. ( Surratt later claimed at his trial that he had left these items at his mother's hotel two weeks earlier and not for any specific purpose.) Booth also retrieved a pair of binoculars. Baker later claimed that Mary Surratt, the owner of the binoculars, left them at the hotel, intended for John Wilkes Booth.
Booth and Herold rode southward. Though they apparently knew their destination, Booth was in great pain from his broken leg. He told Herold that they would detour to the farmhouse of a physician he knew, a Dr. Samuel Mudd, who lived outside of Beantown. At about 5 A.M., the pair arrived at Mudd's home. They woke the doctor and he cut away the actor's left boot so he could set the broken anklebone, affixing splints to it. He then bandaged the ankle and leg. Booth borrowed a razor, and, while he was shaving off his mustache, the doctor quickly assembled a crude pair of crutches for the actor. Booth then gave Mudd $25 before he and Herold once more rode off southward.
Mudd later insisted that he did not know nor recognize John Wilkes Booth, and that Herold had helped the injured man into a bedroom where he lay with his face against the wall while he set and bandaged his leg. The physician also later claimed that the man he aided was wearing a red wig at the time. Though sent to prison for life, Mudd consistently maintained his innocence and his case was the subject of controversy for years to come. Mudd, however, was lying about knowing Booth. He had introduced Booth and John H. Surratt, a then accomplished Confederate spy, in the fall of 1864.
By then Lincoln had died and Edwin McMasters Stanton had taken over the government, declaring martial law. What he wanted more than anything at that moment was John Wilkes Booth, offering $100,000 for his dead-or-alive capture, preferably dead. Before Lincoln had been shot, Baker embarrassingly admitted later, he and Stanton had no knowledge of the conspiracy. Yet, within two days, all of the conspirators were in custody. Somehow, Baker knew exactly where he could find the alcoholic George A. Atzerodt whose nerve had failed him when it came time to kill Vice President Andrew Johnson. Somehow, he knew that Seward's would-be assassin, Lewis Paine, could be found in the Washington, D.C., boarding house of Mary Surratt, hiding under a bed in a third-floor room.
Somehow, the illustrious Colonel Baker knew to arrest Edward Spangler, the carpenter at Ford's Theater who had made a portable barrier for Booth so he could successfully bar the inside of the door that led to Lincoln's box once the assassin had entered this restricted but unguarded hallway. Somehow, Baker's keen but unexplained perceptions deduced that Spangler had also drilled a hole in the door leading to Lincoln's box so Booth, while standing in the outer hallway could peer into it unmolested and know when the President was most vulnerable.
The very man who was responsible for protecting the life of the President had, twenty-four hours before the assassination, no idea of the identities of the conspirators. But then suddenly, inexplicably, almost magically, Lafayette Baker possessed all the answers within forty-eight hours, including the exact obscure escape route taken by John Wilkes Booth and David Herold. After conferring with Secretary of War Stanton, Baker called an inexperienced junior cavalry officer, Lieutenant Edward P. Doherty to his office.
Baker told Doherty that he was to take twenty-five of his best men and go in pursuit of the assassin. Also, Baker informed the startled Doherty, he would directly command this special troop but the overall command would fall upon two men, Baker's cousin, Luther B. Baker, and Colonel Everton J. Conger. Luther Baker was nothing more than a strongman thug who had for years carried out Lafayette Baker's most unsavory chores. Colonel Everton Conger also worked for Baker's Intelligence Service and was as conniving and secretive as his superior.
The riders left Washington by boat, sailing down the Potomac. They then disembarked and rode straight to the Garrett farm where they found Booth and Herold barricaded in a small, rickety tobacco barn on the evening of April 16, 1865. Booth refused to surrender but allowed the terrified Herold to give up. The barn was set afire and a shot rang out. Booth was then dragged mortally wounded from the blazing building. One of the troopers had shot the assassin in the head.
The dying Booth, held by Colonel Conger, murmured: Tell my mother I died for my country... I did my best. He asked Conger to hold up his arms so that Booth could view his own delicate hands. Conger raised the assassin's arms. Booth stared at his hands and muttered useless, useless... and died. Conger searched Booth's body thoroughly. He removed a stub of a candle, a compass, several photos of actresses, a considerable amount of money which eventually vanished, and, most importantly, an oblong, leather bound diary. It was the diary that most interested Conger, an object he had been expressly directed by Lafayette Baker to look for, seize, and immediately return to the Intelligence chief.
Conger held Booth's diary, glancing through it briefly in the light of two flaming torches held by troopers. He then pocketed Booth's belongings, slipping the diary into an inside coat pocket. Conger then ordered Doherty to return Herold and Booth's body to Washington. He mounted his horse, saying, I have urgent papers to deliver. Luther Baker ran forward, insisting that he accompany Conger. The colonel refused, and a brief argument ensued. Then Doherty heard Conger shouting to Baker that he was to stay with the troopers. With that, Colonel Conger dug his spurs into his horse's flanks and galloped out of sight.
Baker met Conger with sleepless eyes and jittery movements. He nervously asked what Conger had found on Booth's body. Conger turned over Booth's effects, including the diary. Baker sat silently before Conger, then told his subordinate to witness the fact that he was going to count the exact number of pages in the diary. He proceeded to do this. Then he studied the diary at great length, making notes. Baker then told Conger that he would accompany him to see Stanton. Both men met the Secretary of War in his home. Stanton was in his dressing gown when he met with Baker and Conger in his study, taking from them all of the effects of the dead Booth.
It was obvious to Conger that Baker had wanted him present when he turned over Booth's effects so that it could never be said that he tampered with anything and that Stanton was the final and only depository of this evidence. Baker then began receiving terse orders regarding the conspirators in custody, which included Paine, Herold, Mrs. Mary Surratt, Spangler, Dr. Mudd, and two ex- Confederate soldiers Booth had at one time involved in a kidnapping attempt of Lincoln, Samuel B. Arnold and Michael O'Laughlin.
A secret tribunal overseen by Stanton tried the conspirators. Paine, Herold, and Mrs. Surratt were condemned to death by hanging. Arnold, O'Laughlin, and Mudd received life terms and Spangler six years in prison. The main conspirators insisted that Mrs. Surratt was innocent, and that she was being unjustly prosecuted simply because her son, John H. Surratt, had been one of the co-leaders of the conspiracy.
John Surratt, however, was nowhere to be found. He was the one man whom Lafayette Baker had failed to apprehend despite his infinite ability to reach out, locate, and capture all of the other parties in the conspiracy! A petition for Mrs. Surratt that begged for mercy by a commutation was sent to then President Andrew Johnson. Lafayette Baker delayed this petition. Johnson never saw the petition until after Mrs. Surratt, along with Paine, Atzerodt, and Herold had been hanged in the courtyard of the old Arsenal Building on July 7, 1865.
Try as he might, however, Lafayette Baker had little success in tracking down the elusive John H. Surratt. The conspirator fled to Canada following the assassination. He then sailed for England and then on to Italy. He was reported the following year to be a member of the Papal Zouaves, the elite guards who protected the Pope in Rome. A fellow guard turned Surratt in to American diplomats at the American Embassy in Rome who arranged for his arrest on November 8, 1866. Baker was informed of this arrest and made arrangements for Surratt to be returned to the U.S. These arrangements were apparently shoddy in that Surratt managed to make a fairly easy escape to Egypt. He had sufficient funds to live comfortably in Alexandria for some time until a consulate employee there identified him and immediately contacted Baker and Stanton.
Incredibly, Baker, in Stanton's name, told the consulate officer not to take any action, that the famous chief of the Intelligence Service wanted to look into the matter first. Realizing that Surratt might learn that he had been identified and flee once more, the diplomat took it upon his own authority to arrest Surratt and put him aboard an American ship under arrest. (The diplomat received a severe upbraiding from Stanton for his independent actions.) Surratt, despite the footdragging of his pursuers, was returned to the U.S. and stood trial on June 10, 1867.
Surratt's trial was a strange affair in which new evidence was presented and much more evidence appeared to have been suppressed. Surratt boldly admitted he had plotted with Booth to kidnap Lincoln but that he had had nothing to do with the assassination. Four witnesses stepped forth to swear that Surratt was in Elmira, New York, on the night Booth murdered the President. Surratt's defense was masterfully handled by one of the most expensive legal firms in the North. The government's prosecution seemed lame, at times indifferent. In the end, to the shock of many, Surratt was acquitted and released.
Perhaps to some the outcome was not surprising. The very lawyers who represented Surratt were close friends of none other than Secretary of War Stanton who had, on occasions past, used this legal firm for his own business. The source of payment for the high fees this firm demanded and received is still unknown. The great doubts lingered for generations and they all continue to center upon Stanton and his enforcer, Lafayette Baker.
The wily Stanton and his equally shifty chief of Intelligence, Baker, do not stand well under close examination of the conspiracy to assassinate Abraham Lincoln. It was well known that Stanton was the harshest critic Lincoln had in his cabinet. He found the President too tolerant of the enemy which he, Stanton, had vowed to crush when the war was over. Stanton vehemently opposed Lincoln's pacification plans for the South once it had been beaten. He saw no reason to rebuild its ruined cities and reconstruct its damaged society. Even before the war ended, Stanton and others had formed a private cabal to loot the South of its goods, its crops, and, especially, its best real estate. These men wholeheartedly embraced the idea that to the victor belonged the spoils.
The squat, angry little Secretary of War could achieve all that only if Lincoln with his ridiculous humanitarianism ceased to be the head of state. Stanton, like Baker, had not only acted suspiciously on the eve of Lincoln's murder but he had literally refused to provide anyone who might protect him. The President had asked Stanton to attend the theater with him that night and was told bluntly by Stanton that he was too busy, that he would be working on important matters.
On the last afternoon of his life, Lincoln walked to the Telegraph Office, the nerve center of all news, which Stanton had made his headquarters, and asked Stanton if he would loan him the services of Major Thomas Eckert by allowing that officer to attend the theater with him and his wife Mary. Eckert was a towering giant who broke pokers over his arm to prove his great strength. As chief of the Telegraph Office, Eckert was in charge of all the news, which he directed to Stanton, not Lincoln.
Stanton brusquely told Lincoln that Eckert would also be too busy with work. This was the second time Stanton had lied to Lincoln's face that day. Stanton had no work that night. In fact, he had a leisurely dinner, then visited the home of Secretary of State Seward to see how badly injured he might be after the recent attack on him by Lewis Paine. He sat struggling for conversation with Seward. Both men had always disliked each other and when Stanton left Seward wondered aloud to his sons why the Secretary of War had come to see him. Stanton, in fact, was just leaving the Seward home when Booth's bullet crashed into Lincoln's head. Stanton's man, Major Eckert, also had no business to perform that evening. He was at home shaving when the news of Lincoln's murder reached him.
There was then, only one man, John F. Parker, who could protect Lincoln . This policeman who was under direct orders from Lafayette Baker, left his post, the chair outside the door leading to the hallway and the presidential box, simply because he was bored with the play, or so he later claimed. Only a few minutes before Booth approached the door, Parker got up, walked downstairs, through the theater lobby and into the saloon next door for a drink. Booth could have passed Parker in the lobby or even seen him in the saloon to know that the way was clear.
All of those involved in tracking down Booth were handsomely rewarded by Stanton. Lafayette Baker was promoted to brigadier general and he received a substantial portion of the $100,000 reward. Colonel Conger, who had so quickly delivered Booth's diary to Baker and Stanton, received $15,000 and a fast promotion. With Stanton's help, Conger was later appointed a federal judge.
Major James O'Beirne also received $3,000 of the reward money and he, too, was promoted to the rank of general by Stanton. It was never made clear how O'Beirne came to earn this money and promotion as he was leading cavalry troops in Maryland at the time of the assassination. Upon closer inspection, perhaps it was where O'Beirne was stationed in Maryland that counted most. His men were guarding the very escape route through Maryland which Booth took, one where the assassin galloped past outpost after outpost without being challenged, stopped, or questioned.
A grateful Secretary of War handsomely rewarded even strong man Eckert. Major Eckert was soon promoted. He then became Assistant Secretary of War. His star rose even higher years later when, through Stanton's efforts, Eckert became president of Western Union. Why was Eckert rewarded? He was too busy to sit next to Lincoln at the theater. (Had Eckert, not the frail Rathbone, been present in the box, he could have undoubtedly snapped Booth's spine in a single move.) He had more important duties at home, such as eating a huge meal, then leisurely shaving before going out on an errand. The telegraph lines, which Eckert controlled, were all suddenly, inexplicably out of action and no signal could be sent from the city to announce the assassination and to alert the countryside of the escaped murderer. No cause for this massive malfunction was ever found or explained. Eckert's wires were working properly, however, when Booth reportedly sent one or more encoded wires to Washington a day later. His attempt to contact those who had sponsored his bloody action contained information which, in hours, was being given to Doherty and Conger by Lafayette Baker, a wire that foolishly pinpointed his whereabouts.
In 1867, the Attorney General attempted to build a case against John Surratt. He was informed that Stanton was in possession of Booth's diary and he asked that the Secretary of War turn it over. Stanton refused. The Attorney General insisted, officially ordering him to do so. The diary Stanton relinquished was missing eighteen pages. The Attorney General wanted to know where the missing pages had gone. Stanton said he had turned over the diary just as he had received it. Lafayette Baker and Colonel Conger were called in. Both reluctantly stated that the missing pages were present when they turned over Booth's diary to Stanton. What information did those pages contain? Some speculated that Booth had revealed the names of those who had financed his prolonged conspiracies to kidnap or kill Lincoln. (It was later learned that Booth had received large unexplained amounts of money from a New York-based firm to which Stanton had connections.)
Baker maintained his power for some time under Stanton's rule, even after President Johnson fired Stanton who refused to leave his headquarters. In this incredible political battle for power, Stanton threatened Johnson that if he wanted to go on being President, he would rescind his order. Johnson, a heavy drinker and a basically timid person, suddenly was incensed at this rank insubordination. He decreed that Stanton was dismissed. Baker tried to intervene, telling Johnson that he had accumulated enough scandal on the President to bring about his ruination and would do so unleSS Johnson made peace with Stanton.
President Johnson replied by openly accusing Baker of maintaining spies in the White House and of attempting to blackmail him. He fired Baker. Then both Stanton and Baker worked hard to have Johnson impeached, although their efforts were not successful. Baker thoroughly exposed his treacherous nature by testifying at the impeachment hearings in 1868. He committed perjury by insisting that certain documents would prove that Johnson had no right to hold the office of the presidency. These documents existed only in Baker's imagination, it was proved.
From that point onward, Baker's star faded as did his sanity, or so it appeared. He barricaded himself inside his home and told his few friends that a secret cabal was intent on murdering him. In 1868, Baker was found dead. It was concluded that he was either poisoned to death or had committed suicide. He had left cryptic notes that pointed to a high-level conspiracy to murder Lincoln —one going far beyond that involving John Wilkes Booth.
Some years later, the President's only surviving son, Robert Lincoln, was visited by a family friend in his home. Robert Lincoln was burning papers in the fireplace. The friend tried to prevent the destruction of these historic documents, written in President Lincoln's own hand. Robert Lincoln was firm and continued tossing sheaves of paper into the fire, saying: I must --some of these letters prove that there was a traitor in my father's cabinet.
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