Yesterday marked the 148th anniversary of John Wilkes Booth fatally shooting President Abraham Lincoln at a play at Ford’s Theatre in Washington, D.C.
Hours later, while hiding in a pine thicket and waiting to cross the Potomac River unseen, Booth made an entry in his diary: “I have a greater desire and almost a mind to return to Washington and in a measure clear my name. Which I feel I can do.”
For nearly a century and a half, this entry has spurred conspiracy theorists in their quest to prove that Booth was not a lone assassin.
It all began when the assassin’s diary was found on his body when he was killed twelve days after Lincoln’s murder. What happened to that diary shortly after its discovery started a conspiracy theory that has lasted well into the twenty-first century.
In his new book, Hoax: Hitler’s Diaries, Lincoln’s Assassins, and Other Famous Frauds, Ed Steers debunks the many mysteries surrounding Lincoln’s assassination and pays careful attention to Booth’s diary. “[This is] one of history’s more successful hoaxes,” says Steers. “Conspirators have shocked the public into believing a sensational crime.”
Mystery surrounds Booth’s diary. The little book was taken off Booth’s body by Colonel Everton Conger. He took it to Washington and gave it to Lafayette C. Baker, chief of the War Department’s National Detective Police. Baker in turn gave it to Secretary of War Edwin Stanton. Despite its obvious interest to the case, the book was not produced as evidence in the 1865 Conspiracy Trial.
In 1867 the diary was re-discovered in a forgotten War Department file with more than a dozen pages missing. Conspiracy theorists became convinced that the missing pages contained the key to who really was behind Lincoln’s assassination, and several fingers pointed toward Stanton. Support for this theory came about in 1975 when Joseph Lynch, a rare books dealer, claimed to have found the missing pages through one of Stanton’s descendants.
Despite the apparent authenticity of Lynch’s claim, his story contained a few missing pages of its own. Over the years there has been endless speculation on those missing pages including rumors that they had surfaced. Nevertheless, they remain officially missing.
Was Lincoln’s death part of a larger conspiracy, or was Booth acting alone? Were the missing pages torn out deliberately by Stanton, or was it someone else who had something to hide? Whether or not the pages contain answers about Lincoln’s assassination, Steers has little doubt that conspiracy theorists will give up on their quest.
“Like other myths associated with Lincoln, the myth of the missing pages will continue to live on, finding new believers in future generations,” Steers says. “As Lincoln once said, ‘You can fool some people all of the time and all of the people some of the time, but you can’t fool all of the people all of the time’—or did he?”
Order Hoax: Hitler’s Diaries, Lincoln’s Assassins, and Other Famous Frauds