An Interview with Professor Donald Elder: Who Else was Involved in Lincoln’s Assasination?

Apr 6, 2012 by

Michael F. Shaughnessy –

1) Professor Elder, we are approaching April 14th, the anniversary of Lincoln’s assassination. When I speak of that event, what are the first thoughts that come to your mind?

I think of that great “what if?” If Lincoln had lived, what would post-Civil war America have been like? Would Lincoln have favored a process of Reconstruction that would not have forced changes upon white Southerners, or would he (unlike Andrew Johnson) have demanded fair treatment for the newly freed slaves.

2) Now, you and I are reading True Crimes in the Civil War by Tobin T. Buhk and maybe even Bill O’ Reilly’s book on Killing Lincoln. Why the historical interest in Lincoln at this time in history ?

Lincoln is one of only a few Americans who truly transcend time. He is both a typical and an atypical American, and the contradictions between his humble origins and manifest greatness as a president intrigue us.

3) I was surprised to read that this “assassination” was first conceived of as abduction- is this True?

This is absolutely true. In the spring of 1864 John Wilkes Booth contrived a plot to kidnap Lincoln and turn him over to the Confederacy, presumably to be held until the Union agreed to release all Confederate prisoners of war. The closest Booth came to executing this plan came in March of 1865, when he and the individuals he had recruited for his plan prepared to pounce on him as he journeyed to attend a play. But at the last minute, he changed his plans, and Booth’s effort was thwarted.

4) Apparently, Lewis Payne or Lewis Powell was attacking William Seward ( Secretary of State- known for Seward’s folly) when Lincoln was being assasinated. Was this part of some big conspiracy?

After the Army of Northern Virginia surrendered in April of 1865, Booth changed his plan. Now he wanted to assassinate Lincoln, Vice-president Andrew Johnson, and Secretary of State William Seward. Lewis Powell attacked Seward the night that Booth assassinated Lincoln, but Seward survived. The man tasked with killing Andrew Johnson lost his nerve, and that attack never took place.

5) Now, there was a Doctor Mudd, who apparently treated John Wilkes Booth- was he simply following his Hippocratic Oath, or was he involved in this skullduggery?

For almost 150 years, the complicity of Dr. Samuel Mudd in Booth’s plot has been hotly debated. It is indisputable that Mudd knew Booth, and lied about meeting Booth in December of 1864 to authorities investigating Lincoln’s assassination. One of the Booth conspirators swore that Booth knew about Booth’s plan, and the fact that Mudd didn’t report the fact that he had set Booth’s broken leg until almost two days after Booth had left his residence further implicated Mudd. I believe that Mudd’s conviction for complicity was absolutely justified.

6) Who was David Herold and what did he have to do with this event?

David Herold had met a man named John Surratt while attending school in the 1850s. Surratt became part of Booth’s conspiracy, and introduced Herold to Booth. Herold then joined the conspiracy. After Booth assassinated Lincoln, Herold accompanied him as he fled from authorities. When the two were finally cornered, Herold surrendered. He was tried along with the other conspirators that had been captured, and was hanged in the summer of 1865.

7) Apparently, from Buhk’s book, there was also a plan to attack U.S. Grant- from pictures of Grant, I would shudder approaching him, even with a weapon, but what was the plan relative to General Grant?

Historians are not certain, but it seems that Booth had information that Lincoln had invited Grant and his wife to attend Ford’s Theater on April 14. Julia Grant thoroughly disliked Mary Lincoln, however, and asked her husband to politely decline the offer. Thus Grant was not in the president’s booth the night Lincoln was assassinated. It also seems that Booth may have tried to have one of his associates assassinate Grant that night after he and his wife boarded a train to leave Washington, but Grant’s traveling car was locked after he entered it. Grant would thus live to become president himself a few years later.

8) Apparently, a woman, Mary Surratt was hanged, due to her involvement in this heinous event. I would suspect that hanging a woman was looked at askance even in those days. What was her involvement?

Here again, the involvement of Mary Surratt in Booth’s plot is debatable. Clearly Booth used a boarding house owned and operated by her to hold his meetings, and ran errands for him. It was asserted at her trial that one of these errands involved taken guns and a pair of binoculars into rural Maryland for Booth to use during his escape. Here again, a major factor in establishing a guilty verdict was the fact that Surratt was proven to have lied about running errands for Booth. Even though evidence was sparse and testimony less than convincing, she was found guilty and was sentenced to be executed. She may have been sentenced to death in the hopes that her son, who was wanted by federal authorities, would turn himself in in return for a promise to spare her life. He did not, and Mary Surratt was executed. She was the first women ever executed by the federal government, so this is a significant case in American legal history. Here again, I believe that Surratt was guilty of aiding and abetting the conspiracy.

9) George Atzerodt was another accomplish- what was his role or his task or chore in this entire enterprise?

Atzerodt ran a carriage repair business in Washington, and became acquainted with Booth. Booth recruited him for his team, and assigned him the task of assassinating Vice-president Johnson. Atzerodt lost his nerve, and didn’t follow through. Nonetheless, he was found guilty of conspiracy, and was executed.

10) I would say that most Americans today probably think that John Wilkes Booth was a lone perhaps deranged individual. Why does history, in your mind, neglect this entire apparently complex conspiracy to attack Lincoln, Johnson, Seward and U.S. Grant ?

I’m of the opinion that we only focus on successful assassination attempts. Very few people, for example, know that a man named Joseph Zangara attempted to assassinate Franklin Roosevelt, and came very close to succeeding. Because only Booth killed someone (and a very important someone), he is the only one we remember.

11) There was apparently a number of other co-conspirators who avoided the hangman’s noose, but spent the rest of their lives in prison- what do we know about Michael O’ Laughlen and his involvement in this sinister event?

O’Laughlen was one of Booth’s oldest friends, and was one of the first to join Booth’s cabal. But when Booth changed his plan from kidnapping to assassinating Lincoln, O’Laughlin dropped out. Still, because he was in on the plot and did appear to have been the one who followed Grant to the train on the night of April 14, he was tried, found guilty, and sentenced to life in prison. He died a few years later in prison.

12) What have I neglected to ask about this entire sordid affair?

You have covered the subject well!

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