Lincoln Assassination Conspiracy Theory

Alex McMullen
Historical Methods
18 May 2010
Professor Neaman
Otto’s Labyrinth: Debunking a Lincoln Assassination Conspiracy Theory
Abraham Lincoln has always been a president of great intrigue. He is widely considered to be one of the greatest, if not the best president, to ever lead the United States of America. There are literally hundreds of books, documentaries and movies that have been made about him. The reason for this is in part because he lived an extraordinary life, and also because he himself was a bit of an enigma, with many hidden facets to his personality.
In the time since his death, much has been discovered, and even more has been speculated about the man. His death marked a major moment and turning point in the history of this country. After it happened, it appeared to be fairly straightforward, but as time went on, more details and inconsistencies have emerged. This had led to a variety of claims and allegations trying to expose the “truth”. Out of all the conspiracy theories available, one stands out above the rest. Otto Eisenschiml presented a theory in his book Why Was Lincoln Murdered? When deconstructed, his basic premise is that Secretary of War Edwin Stanton orchestrated the assassination and manipulated the events following to attempt to gain control of the U.S. government. After thorough examination, his theory is implausible, inaccurate, nor does it contain any truth at all. He relies on character assassination and large assumptions to make his point. The biggest fault is that he creates the story himself, as opposed to following the story the facts present. A true revisionist of history must have their theory fit the facts, not twist the facts to fit their theory, and this is the first and biggest mistake the author makes in his argument. While he does indeed ask thought provoking questions about peculiarities, he fails to give realistic or probable conclusions to be drawn from them.
Before dissecting his theory, it is necessary to expand upon the author himself, and his motives for writing a piece of literature such as this. Otto Eisenschiml was born June 16, 1880 and raised in Vienna, Austria. He graduated from the University of Vienna with advanced degrees in Chemistry. Even though he was brought up in Austria, he was an American citizen by birth (Hanchett 159). His father had immigrated to America, and fought in the Civil War. He then returned to Austria, where he married and had a son, Otto. The younger Eisenschiml recalls his father telling tales and being fascinated by General Grant and President Lincoln, and always told his son of his American life.
Otto came to the United States after graduating in 1901. He settled in Pittsburgh and later lived in Chicago for most of his life. He quickly became a successful scientist, and turned a significant profit in the process. Eisenschiml began working as a consultant for businesses who had chemical problems. His biggest claim to fame was he invented a way to keep the transparent address window on envelopes from getting cloudy. He invented many other little chemical fixes and products, and became increasingly successful as the years wore on. He worked his way up to become the President of the Scientific Oil Compounding Company, a company that became the largest distributor of tools and materials used in manufacturing. After only a few years, he became incredibly wealthy.
He was not satisfied with all the riches he had though, he wanted something that money couldn’t buy- fame. Chemists had created all these new inventions and improvements that were being utilized in everyday life, yet they largely remained anonymous to the public’s eye. Eisenschiml knew this, as he personally experienced it. That is a large reason why he left the science field after he accumulated his wealth. He went from chemist to businessman, “my choice might have been different, had chemists been regarded with more respect, and had the financial returns been anywhere near adequate” (Hanchett 160). This quote sums up his life pretty accurately, and also gives the basis for his motives to write his book.
Eisenschiml was always fascinated by American history, spurred by his father, and he pursued its study as a personal hobby his whole life. On business trips he would often stop at famous war sites, like Custer’s Massacre. He came up with the goal to visit every battlefield in America before he died. He actually published a number of books about American History, not just his book about Lincoln’s murder.
When examining his reasons for writing a conspiracy theory, it becomes evidently clear there is more to it. He wanted the recognition he couldn’t get as a scientist, which clearly bothered him. He also was driven by money. He really only did his science for profit. Writing a book proposing something like this would solve all those major issues. He would gain widespread notoriety and also make a considerable amount of money. This held true to form, as the book became a best seller when released. He gained his popularity as everyone read the book, even though most people disagreed and were outraged by the book, they still read it all the same. As it was a bestseller, it made a sizeable profit for him. In essence, he found something he was knowledgeable, and could write about, and used it to gain the two things he really wanted most from this life. He was trying to achieve the American dream of working the way to top, and somehow he did it.
He to choose to unravel the conspiracy by using the scientific method he had used his whole life as a chemist. His entire theory is based on questioning, which is the first step towards any discovery in the field of science. In his book, he poses questions, which are followed by his theses, which are really a hypothesis in this case. He proceeds to try to answer all these questions by using this method, which he claims is objective. Eisenschiml used Russian scientist Dimitri Mendeleyev to explain his process, “if all the known elements were arranged in order..there are little gaps in between, and that these gaps could be filled in by the discovery of new elements”. He believed he had uncovered new information that filled in these gaps. That is the basic set up for conspiracy theory of the assassination of U.S. President Abraham Lincoln.
Most experts agree on the simple facts of what happened. The arguments begin when examining why they happened the way they did. It is impossible to understand the theory without first looking at what actions were taken, who was involved, and the events that occurred because of them. The Civil war had just come to its conclusion at the Appomattox courthouse on April 9, 1865. The masses were tired, but finally everyone could go home and relax now that the war was over. A lot of the country still hated Lincoln though. Obviously the Confederates despised him, but people living in the Union also were upset with him. Thousands of men had died to preserve Lincoln’s precious Union, and people struggled with letting that go. There was a lot of tension in the air following the conclusion of the war. Questions began arising, like how to rebuild the country that had been so devastated and torn apart by war? What would happen to the Confederate States? Who would be punished? Where do we go from here? Unfortunately, Lincoln wouldn’t live long enough to see his vision.
The story of the assassination begins on the evening of Good Friday, April 14, 1865. President Lincoln and his wife Mary Todd Lincoln planned to attend a play with the Grants at Ford’s Theater. At the last second, General Grant and his wife decided to cancel, but Lincoln went forward as planned. He was accompanied by an officer, General Rathbone and his fiancée. Lincoln was escorted by John Parker, a regular bodyguard for the President. He sat in the Presidential box with his company, and began watching Our American Cousin, a popular comedy play at the time. During the intermission, the bodyguard, John Parker, left and went to the tavern. It is unclear whether he ever returned.
Meanwhile, John Wilkes Booth took the action he had been so diligently planning for weeks. He was an actor, a Confederate sympathizer, and a lot of evidence has been presented proving he was likely mentally unstable. Originally, the plot was to kidnap Lincoln, but time and time again his plans fell through. He finally resorted to trying to kill the President. He would succeed. Booth knew the play well, and timed his entrance to coincide with a moment of laughter at the play in order to muffle the gunshot. Around 10:15 PM, he entered the box and shot President Lincoln in the head. A struggle ensued between Major Rathbone, who was stabbed in the arm by Booth. Booth eventually would break free from the Major, and jumped down from the box. His spur caught on the flag below the box, and he actually fractured his leg on the drop down. He then famously ran on stage, and yelled “Sic Semper Tyrannus!”, or “thus to tyrants!” He escaped out of the back, where he had a horse waiting for him. He escaped out of Washington D.C. that night, and met up with a fellow conspirator, David Herold.
Lincoln would die at a home across the street early the next morning. Secretary of War Edwin Stanton arrived at the house immediately that same night and began taking action. He mobilized troops, gathered intelligence, and began the search for Booth. The troops were under strict orders not to kill the conspirators. It would take two weeks before they would be located by Union troops. Booth and Herold were hiding out in a farm owned by Richard Garrett. Troops surrounded the barn, and told them to come out.
Herold gave up and came out, but Booth refused to leave. In response, the troops set the barn on fire. Booth attempted to fight his way out. A chaotic situation ensued as a Union soldier named Boston Corbett, snuck up to the barn and shot Booth. The bullet hit him in the neck, paralyzing him. Troops pulled his body out of the barn and him up against a nearby tree. Troops gave him water, and sat there with him for two hours until he died.
Herold and seven others were later rounded up as co-conspirators, some involved with the Lincoln assassination, and others involved a failed effort to kill Secretary of State Seward. There was a subsequent trial, carried out and led by Secretary of War Stanton. Four of them were sentenced to death and hanged, 4 others were given a life sentence in prison. Interestingly, one of those hanged was Mary Surratt, who was the first woman in the history of the United States to be hanged.
Andrew Johnson took control as President of the United States following Lincoln’s death. The nation now mourned Lincoln as a hero and a martyr. It has become accepted by historians that Booth and his co-conspirators acted alone. There was not a master conspiracy or grand scheme. Time passed, and a few theories were brought up, but nothing really substantial. Otto Eisenschiml wrote his book in 1937, and it was the first theory to really get anyone’s attention, and set up the premise for a lot of other revisionists later.
His book is over 400 pages, and he presents a number of arguments. I am going to discuss and disprove his main arguments. He believes that certain oddities and inconsistencies are evident in the assassination and the subsequent roundup and trial. He feels that they all converge, and point to Secretary of War Edwin Stanton. His theory is that Stanton masterminded a scheme to try and take over the U.S. government, and intervened in a series of events that took place. He uses a question and hypothesis format to explain his points. His “scientific method” doesn’t help him make his argument though, as it all fails to add up to his very bold conclusion about Stanton.
The author’s first argument is examining why General Grant did not attend the play with Lincoln that night. On the night of the play, Secretary of War Stanton supposedly gave General Grant an “implied order” not to attend the play with the President. This information is according to a secretary who was present at this meeting, who was later interviewed by Eisenschiml. His point was that he didn’t want Lincoln to have a man capable of really protecting him by his side, and it would draw less attention to Lincoln and his box if Grant wasn’t there (Eisenschiml 58).
In actuality, there was no implied order. First of all, that secretary was interviewed 42 years after the event, so it is questionable how well he actually recollected this event. Second, the author had twisted what the secretary, named David Bates, really said. The facts reveal that Stanton knew about a potential threat to the president, and feared for the President’s safety. He wanted to dissuade Lincoln from going by having Grant cancel. Grant was just following orders. Stanton was not trying to set things up for Booth and his attempt (Hanchett 165).
The second issue that Eisenschiml brings up was the choice of John Parker as Lincoln’s escort for that night. Parker had a bit of a rough history, as he was a drunk and had made a few mistakes on prior assignments. He was chosen to guard Lincoln that night despite protests from the President himself. Lincoln asked to be guarded instead by a Sergeant Eckert. The author questions why Stanton would leave Parker in charge of Lincoln. Eckert told Lincoln he couldn’t work that night because he had another assignment, but sources say that Eckert actually didn’t do anything else that night, he just went home. The author believes Stanton told Eckert to refuse to escort Lincoln, and leave Parker in charge. He wanted both of those things all to make it easier for Booth to complete his task.
Again, the idea behind why this happened is skewed. Stanton did not want Lincoln to attend this play. But, Lincoln felt obligated because they had announced in the newspapers that General Grant and President Lincoln would be in attendance. The President didn’t want to go to the play either, but felt personally obligated to attend because he didn’t want to let the people down. Furthermore, when Grant cancelled, he believed he must go to avoid a sort of double no-show at the event. Stanton was upset by this, and was set on trying to dissuade him from going by giving him Parker and not Eckert for protection. It is also the reason he asked General Grant not to attend. Grant never wanted to attend the play, so as soon as it was okay for him to bail out, he did. So while it appears at first glance that Stanton made a few curious decisions, there are reasonable explanations for them. Also, this is not enough evidence to connect him directly to the assassination. Just because he made a few errors in judgment does not mean that he was trying to get Lincoln killed on purpose.
Eisenschiml’s next argument involves the getaway. After Stanton received word of the shooting, he rushed to the house where the doctors were working on Lincoln. Stanton then immediately ordered the blocking of every route out of Washington D.C. except one. Every bridge and exit was covered except one path that led to Port Tobacco, Maryland (Eishenschiml 96). John Wilkes Booth, of course, took that route to make his initial escape. Eisenschiml believes this is not a coincidence, but was in fact planned by Stanton. First of all, there were no troops or telegraph posts in that area, so there was no way to blockade the route in time to catch him. Secondly, Stanton did order troops to station themselves in the near vicinity, and ordered them to watch for the assassin. In a way, one could say that Stanton actually did about as much as he could from his position.
Eisenschiml also claims that the road leading to Port Tobacco was the obvious choice for Booth to take, and that Stanton should have known this. He argues that Stanton failing to block this clear choice for a route in turn implicates him somehow. The author fails to take into account the pressure and intensity of the situation. The American President has just been shot dead, there is a panicked search trying to find out who killed Lincoln, and where is he. Stanton probably wasn’t thinking with an entirely clear mind. Also, it is easy to say he would take that route after the fact. Hindsight is 20-20, and in this situation it is necessary to consider the fact that Stanton probably couldn’t look at the situation with an entirely level head. Also, there is no way for him to know that Booth would take that route. What also detracts from the author’s claim is that this would mean Stanton and Booth had contact with each other, and had set up the proper pieces in place with this elaborate plan. Nowhere in his book, not a single page, does he ever even infer that these two knew each other or had met in their entire lives. The fact that he tries to make it plausible that these two worked together, which they would have to complete this, has no validity. There is no record of these two men ever having any contact.
He then goes on to make a few smaller arguments, each one getting pettier than the next until it becomes almost absurd. The author claims that Stanton didn’t immediately release information about Booth to the public, and that again, this implicates him because it meant he wanted Booth to get away cleanly. In truth, it was because Stanton didn’t want the wrong information getting released if it turned out it wasn’t him. There was a play going on, the scene in the box was chaos, and the man jumped down and then ran away. It wasn’t as if it was obviously John Wilkes Booth. They had to investigate it further to confirm it was him. If Stanton were to make a mistake and send people after the wrong man, then he would look incompetent. The delay was only three hours before he released that the killer was in fact Booth. It really is just opinion as to whether or not that was too slow. Eisenschiml believes that he waited in order to give Booth enough time, but again, there is no real proof of this. Throughout the assassination and the aftermath, Stanton had a large censorship of the press. Although this was and is a major event in U.S. history, Stanton tried to control the exposure to the best of his ability. Throughout this time, there were “remarkably few lurid reports in the press, a fact for which Stanton deserves either the credit of the blame” (Hanchett 175). Stanton did not want to make a mistake, so he made sure the information was correct. This explanation is far better, and has more backing than saying he was giving Booth time to escape.
Another main point was that Booth was shot, not captured. The soldiers at the Garrett’s barn were on strict orders not to kill Booth, but to take him alive. Eisenschiml believers Stanton secretly gave someone the order to shoot Booth in order to “silence him” (Eisenschiml 160). The author fails to make a sustainable claim here as well. It is questionable who exactly shot Booth, but he doesn’t give an answer. He puzzles over who could have done it, but that doesn’t mean that it was a conspiracy. Again, this was an intense situation, there were lots of soldiers, the house was burning down, and the man who had just killed the President was inside. Eisenschiml claims that no one ever saw Sergeant Corbett actually shoot Booth. Maybe that is true, but there also isn’t anyone who says he could not have taken the shot. Corbett took credit for the shot, was never punished, and it was generally accepted. So while he may be asking a good question-Who shot John Wilkes Booth? He doesn’t give any real answer as to why he thinks that it matters, or why it is relevant to his overarching belief that Stanton started this. If Stanton wanted Booth silenced, then whoever killed Booth did a bad job, because he laid there against a tree outside the barn for nearly two hours. The soldiers let Booth talk during that time, and he did. Slowly, Booth died out a few hours later. It is unfair to say that there was any skullduggery that directly involved Stanton in this case.
The last detail that Eisenschiml tries to make is borderline ridiculous. During the capture, sentencing and hanging of the 8 co-conspirators, they were forced to wear shackles and hoods. According to Eisenschiml, the shackles made it impossible for the prisoners to write and communicate. The hoods prevented them from verbally communicating. In the eyes of Eisenschiml, this was done to make sure the prisoners could not talk or share what they knew. He believes this was done by Stanton to silence those who were not killed, but were capable of implicating him and his plot. Stanton did not design the shackles himself, but signed off on them. The restraints were unique in that they made the left hand move the same way as the right, making it impossible to write on paper.
Again, this idea doesn’t hold up under close scrutiny. The prisoners were questioned numerous times when first captured and throughout the investigation. They were able to speak during the investigations and also at the trials, where they had proper legal representation. They were given ample time to talk, and expose Stanton if they wanted to. Eisenschiml claims also that the hoods were designed so that they could not speak. Even if this is true, which it is not confirmed, that does not explain June 10, 1865. The hoods were ordered to be permanently removed due to the extreme heat that day. The prisoners had an opportunity to speak then. Those prisoners that got a life sentence were sent to a prison far away, which Eisenschiml believes was another way to silence them. Again, this is wrong. The prisoners, while in a far away location, could have said something to the guards or other prisoners, or even the crew aboard the transport ship.
The last section of Eisenschiml’s book deals with Stanton himself. He examines his character and beliefs. He notes that Stanton never got along with Lincoln, and they frequently argued over political decisions. He then takes a lot of quotes from Stanton, and makes a few outrageous claims. The first is that Stanton tried to deliberately elongate the Civil War. He believed Stanton thought if the war continued, then the army would only get larger. Stanton believed that when a war ended, they would take the man directly in charge of that large army and make him the supreme ruler. Eisenschiml uses questionable sources, and twists Stanton’s quotes so they are out of context. There is no true proof that Stanton did anything to try to make the war last any longer. It is a ridiculous allegation. Of course, this would explain why he would try and get Lincoln out of office, so that he could make his power play and take over the government. His biggest flaw is just that there is no evidence of this. The author takes a few random words Stanton said and plays with them until they fit his aim. He has based this whole last section of the book entirely on painting Stanton as this bad guy, a man of questionable morals and attitudes. That is not the way to revise history. To say he was a bad guy and that is why he must have done it is not a credible response. Eisenschiml fails here yet again.
Eisenschiml examines a number of possibly intriguing events and actions taken before, during, and after the assassination of President Lincoln. Unfortunately, he fails to draw any realistic or reasonable conclusions from this. Instead, he tries to concoct some ridiculous conspiracy. Essentially his book is a twisted maze that has no exit. As the reader gets deeper and deeper into his points and details, they only get more lost. He has created a labyrinth, and he himself has lost his way in the middle of it. He brings up interesting topics for discussion or revision, but just does not follow through on presenting accurate answers. His method is questionable, and it does not provide any real evidence for any of his arguments. He did have personal motives to write this story, and they can’t be forgotten.
There are people who do believe Eisenschiml’s theory, and it isn’t too difficult to understand why. This event was a huge tragedy, one of the biggest in our nation’s brief history. People wanted an answer. Booth being crazy and acting alone just simply wasn’t enough for a lot of people. The other major assassination in U.S. history, that of John F. Kennedy, has also sparked a huge outburst of conspiracy theories. I think that they partly emerge because of the magnitude of their importance, but also because people struggle to comprehend these events. They want there to be some elaborate reason and cause, when the reality is that it often is the simplest answer. Also, especially in America, there is a sense of individualism that drives everyone to have unique viewpoints and beliefs. One of the foundations of our country is that people are allowed to have those ideas, and share them. Thus, conspiracy theories arise and become popular.
There are numerous other theories out there regarding a plot behind the Lincoln assassination. One involves the kidnapping of all major officials to save the Confederacy. Another one incorporated the Catholic Church, who was believed to be getting revenge against Lincoln for a case he tried while still just a lawyer in Illinois. This topic is interesting to revisionists and historians because there are little inconsistencies in the facts, and certain choices and decisions that do not make a lot of sense. But, for now, until more information is discovered and revealed, there is just this labyrinth. There is this maze, this web, with no clear way out, no up or down, and no exit.

Works Cited

Eisenschiml, Otto. Why Was Lincoln Murdered. Boston: Little, Brown and, 1937. Print.
Hanchett, William. “Ch. 6 Eisenschiml’s Grand Conspiracy.” The Lincoln Murder Conspiracies: Being an Account of the Hatred Felt by Many Americans for President Abraham Lincoln during the Civil War and the First Complete Examination and Refutation of the Many Theories, Hypotheses, and Speculations Put Forward since 1865 concerning Those Presumed to Have Aided, Abetted, Controlled, or Directed the Murderous Act of John Wilkes Booth in Ford’s Theater the Night of April 14. Urbana: University of Illinois, 1986. Print.


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