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.