Did a horrific secret related to the assassination plot against President Abraham Lincoln truly exist?
If so, the secret died with all who knew it. To learn author David O. Stewart's theory on this secret, history buffs will have to read his new novel, "The Lincoln Deception."
Stewart, nationally known for his award-winning nonfiction works, appeared at Lunch With Books at the Ohio County Public Library in Wheeling Tuesday, June 3, to discuss his work of historical fiction and to share what is known about assassin John Wilkes Booth's co-conspirators.
Of "The Lincoln Deception," Stewart said, "It's very much a work of fiction," although the novel blends real and fictional characters. The book is "my first novel after three straight histories," the author said.
His first book, "The Summer of 1787: The Men Who Invented the Constitution," was published in 2007. His second nonfiction work, "Impeached: The Trial of President Andrew Johnson and the Fight for Lincoln's Legacy," was released in 2009. His latest nonfiction work, "American Emperor, Aaron Burr's Challenge to Jefferson's America," was issued in 2013.
A former lawyer, Stewart said the novel grew out of his research for "Impeached." The author expanded upon a deathbed confession by John Bingham, a a former congressman from Cadiz. Bingham, the lead prosecutor in Johnson's impeachment trial, also prosecuted Booth's eight co-conspirators.
In a dusty biography of Bingham stored in the Library of Congress, Stewart read a paragraph that stopped him cold. It stated that in March 1900, the dying Bingham told his Cadiz doctor, Dr. Jamie Fraser, that during the trial 35 years earlier, Booth's co-conspirator Mary Surratt told him a secret about the assassination conspiracy. Bingham told Edwin M. Stanton, the Steubenville native who was secretary of war, and they agreed that "the secret was too terrible to tell - it would destroy the republic." Stanton took the secret to his grave, and so did Bingham.
Using that information as the basis for the novel, Stewart created the fiction of the doctor investigating the mystery, aided by Speed Cook, a black, college-educated professional baseball player. Stewart based the fictional character of Cook on Steubenville native Moses Fleetwood Walker.
To propel the plot, Stewart said, "I was going to have to make up the secret." He added that his publisher wouldn't want him to reveal the secret at speaking engagements.
Researching the co-conspirators, he found that publications of the period had "a fascination with Mary Surratt," Stewart remarked. She and her husband, John, opened a tavern in Surrattsville, Md. (later renamed Clinton, Md.) and she operated a boarding house in Washington, D.C.
The Surratts' tavern was a way station for Confederate agents; their son, John Jr., was a Confederate spy and courier. In late 1864, John Surratt Jr. had "a momentous meeting" with Booth, a matinee idol and celebrity. They began recruiting other conspirators. The meeting was set up by Dr. Samuel Mudd, a Confederate sympathizer, who later treated Booth's injuries after the assassin fled into the countryside.
The conspirators planned to kidnap Lincoln after a performance for wounded soldiers in March 1865, but Lincoln changed his plans and did not attend the event. Over the next four weeks, "the kidnapping plot evolved into an assassination plot," Stewart said. Mary Surratt met with Booth, then told her tavern manager to have rifles ready on April 14, 1865, the author said.
Stewart noted that Lincoln was not the only target that night. Conspirator George Azterodt, a German immigrant, was assigned to kill Johnson, the vice president, but after two drinks, Azterodt suffered a loss of nerve and fled.
Conspirator Lewis Powell, a Confederate veteran, was assigned to target William Henry Seward, the secretary of state. Stewart said Powell's gun misfired and he slashed Seward with a knife before leaving.
Union Gen. Ulysses S. Grant also was targeted, but he and his wife decided to visit their children on the Jersey shore rather than accompany the Lincolns to Ford's Theatre, the author said.
"This was not a single person shooting a single target. It was very close to a coup d'etat," Stewart said of the plot.
A military commission was convened and nine Union officers served as judges, convicting all eight co-conspirators. Four were hanged and the other four were imprisoned, Stewart said. John Surratt Jr., who insisted he was in Elmira, N.Y., when Lincoln was killed, fled to Canada and to Rome where he joined the pope's army. Eventually, he was arrested and returned to Washington where his trial ended with a hung jury, the author said.
Over the years, conspiracy theorists tried to implicate Johnson, Stanton, Confederate President Jefferson Davis and even Pope Pius IX in plots against Lincoln, Stewart said, adding that the Stanton theory is his favorite.
As secretary of war, Stanton ran the investigation and was "in a position to destroy all the evidence," the author said. "The reason we know he (Stanton) did it is because we have no evidence," Stewart quipped.
In response to a question from the audience, Stewart said he did not know of Bethlehem native George Fetherling's 2010 historical novel, "Walt Whitman's Secret," which also relates to Lincoln's assassination.