John Wilkes Booth: Assassin or Patsy?

Artist: Alexander Gardner (1821-1882). Moses Parker Rice (1839-1925), possibly one of Gardner’s former assistants, copyrighted this portrait in the late nineteenth century, along with other photographs by Gardner. The author died in 1882, so this work is in the public domain in its country of origin and other countries and areas where the copyright term is the author’s life plus 100 years or less. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

Did John Wilkes Booth shoot Abraham Lincoln or was there a second gunman? Ever since those fatal shots rang out in Ford’s Theater on April 14, 1865, debate about Booth’s involvement in the Lincoln assassination has centered around this crucial question. Now, nearly 150 years after that devastating act, a report the public wasn’t supposed to see may provide answers to this question.

History records that within days of the Lincoln assassination, the actor John Wilkes Booth, accused assassin, died during an attempt to apprehend him. By this time, the controversy surrounding the assassination had prompted President Andrew Johnson to put together a high-level commission to investigate the incident. This commission, headed by then-Chief Justice Salmon Chase, was almost immediately dubbed “The Chase Commission.” Over the course of the next year, hearings were held which called such notable witnesses as German economic theorist Karl Marx, who claimed to have been in correspondence with Booth, and ex-president of the Confederacy Jefferson Davis, who denied the existence of any plot to “get Lincoln.” Booth’s wife Maryanna was not called, primarily because no one could prove he had a wife by that name.

Almost immediately, the investigation centered around Booth’s involvement in the Fair Deal for the Confederacy Committee, many pointing to it as evidence of Confederate co-operation in the assassination. In testimony before the commission, Davis dismissed this involvement, saying, “It was a Copperhead organization and I always suspected they were backed by the U.S. government anyway.”

The most compelling testimony, came from witnesses inside the theater, many of whom claimed to have seen a second gunman hiding behind the curtains, just before Booth’s fatal shots rang out. Witnesses report seeing Lincoln’s body jerk somewhat sideways and to the right, then back to the left, forward, and sort of spun about before he slumped in the chair. Many who witnessed the shooting actually ran toward the stage curtains immediately after the shots, but in the confusion created by Booth’s leap to the stage, the alleged second gunman was able to escape unmolested. Said one witness, “Dang, I was laughing so hard, I thought it was all part of the show. Then somebody said Lincoln was shot and I started wondering if I was going to get a refund or something.”

The greatest hindrance to reviewing the papers, however, has been the disorganized nature of them. Also, the commission was bereft with in-fighting and lack of co-operation on the part of the various government agencies called upon to testify. Repeated attempts by the commission to subpoena FBI files on Booth failed, owing to the fact that the FBI did not exist as a federal agency at the time of the assassination. At last, the investigation was halted by order of Congress, which told the president to “lay off the booze, and quit wasting government resources.” It is believed by some researchers that Johnson’s insistence on continuing the investigation is what largely contributed to his later impeachment.

Conspiracy theorists continue to hammer home their insistence on government involvement. One researcher is quoted as saying, “Not a single person involved with the assassination is alive today. If that’s not evidence of a conspiracy, I don’t know what is.”

Still, over a million pieces of paper have survived, consisting of such odds and ends as transcripts of testimony by various White House insiders, to the list found in Booth’s pocket of what he’d had for breakfast the morning of the assassination. Sources report it could take another 100 years to pick through it all.

2 thoughts on “John Wilkes Booth: Assassin or Patsy?

  1. Based on the historical record, it seems clear now there was a rush to
    judgement regarding the finding that John Wilkes Booth was the
    assassin of Abraham Lincoln. Consider the following:
    1. No eyewitnesses actually saw Booth fire the shot that killed

    2. A Derringer was later found in the Presidential box at Ford’s
    Theater, but there is no proof Booth ever bought, owned, or possessed
    this gun.

    3. Typically, Derringers of this type were sold in pairs but the mate
    to the Derringer found in Lincoln’s box was never found among Booth’s

    4. Booth’s fingerprints were not found on the Derringer.

    5. In 1997, the FBI was asked to authenticate that the Derringer on
    display at Ford’s Theater was the genuine article recovered from the
    Presidential box. The FBI was able to determine that the weapon from
    Ford’s theater matched photographs of the weapon from the 1930s, but
    were unable to match the Derringer to the bullet that killed Lincoln.

    6. There is nothing incriminating about Booth’s appearance at Ford’s
    Theater on April 14, 1865. That was his workplace and even when he was
    not working there, he was known to appear there to collect his mail.

    7. Booth was seen leaping from the Presidential box, but it seems
    likely his handlers told him to make this leap as a diversion to allow
    the real killer(s) of Lincoln to escape unnoticed.

    8. Booth was conveniently killed while completely surrounded by
    Federal troops, precluding a trial that could have exposed the real

    9. John Wilkes Booth was never convicted of the crime in a court of
    law. He was never allowed to present evidence in his defense.

    It seems clear that the case against John Wilkes Booth was largely
    circumstantial and no one has ever established that he ever fired a
    gun in Lincoln’s Presidential box at Ford’s Theater. His alleged co-
    conspirators were rounded up and hanged before they could tell their
    story to the public. For these reasons, we should press our elected
    representatives to reopen the investigation into the mysterious death
    of Abraham Lincoln and insist that all Federal records related to
    Lincoln’s assassination be made public at once.

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