Lincoln assassination conspiracy theories

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Lincoln assassination conspiracy theories abound,[1] ranging from the somewhat plausible (John Wilkes Booth was assisted by public officials attempting a coup d'etat) to the most fantastical, one of which holds that the Society of Jesus played a major role in the plot to assassinate Abraham Lincoln.[2] Another being that it never happened at all.[3] Unlike other events which have such claims surrounding them, Lincoln's assassination is unusual for having unquestioningly already been the result of a conspiracy—by Booth and at least three others. However, these theories put in additional players with no real evidence. It was believed Booth had converted to Catholicism and had been encouraged by Jesuits to aid the infamous plot. There has never been a plausible explanation as to why Jesuits would want Lincoln dead, unless you want to sprinkle in some ideas of world domination.

Secretary of State William Seward and Vice President Andrew Johnson were also targeted by Booth and his henchmen. Seward survived a stabbing attempt by Lewis Powell and Johnson's would-be assassin, George Atzerodt, got drunk and lost his nerve. That Johnson was even a target conflicts with theories he was in on it (unless you claim this was to throw suspicion off him).

Political conspiracies[edit]

On the more mundane side, there are three schools of thought about who, besides Booth and his cohorts, might have wanted Lincoln dead.

  • Jefferson Davis and the Confederate government. Besides Booth's open sympathy for the Confederacy (his initial plan was to kidnap Lincoln and ransom him in exchange for Confederate prisoners of war), Lewis Powell, Seward's would-be assassin, served in the Confederate army and may have worked for their military intelligence. However, there's no credible evidence of higher-up involvement. Indeed, Davis seems to have regretted the assassination, fearing that it would lead to a harsher crackdown on the South.
  • Edwin Stanton, Lincoln's Secretary of War, and other Radical Republicans like Thaddeus Stevens. This originates from the disputes between Lincoln and Radicals over their alternate plans for Reconstruction. Lincoln wanted more lenient policies and a swift reconciliation of North and South. The Radicals wanted a harsher occupation, to punish the South for rebellion and to enforce new anti-slavery, pro-racial equality laws. Authors like Charles E. Sellier (The Lincoln Conspiracy) produced circumstantial evidence implicating Stanton, which mainstream historians discount.
  • These same Radicals implicated Andrew Johnson in the assassination, ignoring that Johnson himself was targeted by the assassins. Presumably so that Johnson, a Southerner, could initiate even more lenient Reconstruction than Lincoln presumably would have. Representative James Ashley of Ohio was a particular proponent of this theory, even convening a Congressional committee to investigate the charges. Congress, openly hostile to Johnson at that point, nonetheless cleared him in several investigations.

These theories, while implausible, at least take into account the political context of Lincoln's assassination. Other theories, however...

Questionable testimony[edit]

A defrocked Catholic priest named Charles Chiniquy[note 1] claimed that he had spoken to Lincoln on several occasions after the 1860 Presidential Elections,[note 2] and that the President had reflected on the possibility that Catholics were conspiring against him.[4] Robert Todd Lincoln denied his father said any such thing, and lamented that many people had attempted to put words in his father's mouth.[5]

Booth's religion[edit]

The conspiracy declares that John Wilkes Booth converted to Catholicism later in his life, and joined the Knights of the Golden Circle, claimed to be a lay Catholic Organization.[6][7] This purported affiliation contradicts a New York Times article that describes the Order as profoundly anti-Catholic, with the intent to take over Mexico. After doing so, they intended to bar Catholics from office.[8] It also should be mentioned that Booth was a member of the Know Nothing Party in the 1850s, which despised the Catholic Church.[9]

There is no evidence of Booth's conversion to the Catholic faith. John Surratt, one of Booth's confederates, and his mother, Mary Surratt, were Catholic.[10][note 3][11][note 4] but this is likely coincidence. Other conspirators were Protestant as well.


John Wilkes Booth was believed to be in contact with a person code-named "Veritas" (Truth in Latin).[Who?] The identity of "Veritas" was never uncovered, but the conspiracy theory assumes Veritas was a Jesuit, as Jesuits study Latin. Educated men often knew a small measure of Latin—Abraham Lincoln himself would have learned some phrases in the course of his law career.

The usual suspects[edit]

If not disaffected Southerners, Radical Republicans or Catholics, you can always blame the Freemasons[12] or international bankers![13]

John St. Helen[edit]

Like many assassination conspiracy theories, there is a theory that the assassin got away. Finis L. BatesWikipedia, a lawyer from Memphis, Tennessee, authored a book, The Escape and Suicide of John Wilkes Booth, alleging that a man named John Wilkes Booth had survived under the alias John St. Helen. John St. Helen supposedly told him to tell his brother, Edwin BoothWikipedia, that he had survived and that he was now dying of illness. He later recovered from his illness and claimed that the leader of the conspiracy was Vice President Andrew Johnson and that the man killed in the Garrett tobacco barn was a farm hand named Ruddy who was asked to retrieve Booth's papers; this caused the Union soldiers to mistake Ruddy for John Wilkes Booth.

Who buys into this stuff?[edit]

See also[edit]


  1. Author of 50 Years in the "Church" of Rome, a "Conversion" tale
  2. Lincoln had represented Chiniquy years earlier in a libel suit, so they were not total strangers.
  3. In later life, Mr. Surratt was a Catholic School teacher,
  4. Mrs. Surratt's remains are now buried in a Catholic cemetery,