On April 14, 1865, President Abraham Lincoln was shot and killed at Ford’s Theater in Washington, D.C. Almost immediately, conspiracy theories arose as to what happened, who ordered it, and who knew about it. Some of these theories revolved around a "Grand Conspiracy" put into action by high-ranking Confederate leaders. Others posited that Lincoln was killed by members of his own staff - or even his vice president.
Soon enough, a conspiracy was discovered - one perpetrated by John Wilkes Booth and others to kill Lincoln, Vice President Andrew Johnson, and others, all to avenge the South's defeat in the Civil War. Still, in the decades that followed, Lincoln assassination conspiracies grew to encompass the Catholic Church, Jewish banking families, the Confederate Secret Service, various disgruntled Republicans, and a cabal of cotton traders. Even Mary Todd Lincoln hasn't been immune from accusations of murder.Here are some of the wildest and most compelling conspiracies about what happened that day in 1865 - and what really happened.
The Shot Through the Hat
During the worst days of the Civil War, President Lincoln took to working late into the night by himself at the Soldiers Home, three miles from the White House. One night, while riding to the Home by himself, as usual, a lone rifle shot rang out and flew through his hat, sending his horse running. Lincoln eventually arrived at the Home unscathed and told his bodyguards what happened.They went back out and indeed found the hat - with a bullet hole in it. The shot missed Lincoln's head by inches, and it's never been discovered who fired it, or why. Lincoln himself believed the shot had been fired by a careless hunter, and is alleged to have remarked "I can't bring myself to believe that any one has shot at me or will deliberately shoot at me with the deliberate purpose of killing me."
His Vice President Took Him Out
Fringe theorists have long speculated on a link between Lincoln's second term vice president, Andrew Johnson, and John Wilkes Booth. A 1997 book called Right or Wrong, God Judge Me: The Writings of John Wilkes Booth purported to reveal that Booth and Johnson met in Tennessee in 1864, where Johnson was serving as Military Governor. For the 1864 election, Lincoln replaced Vice President Hannibal Hamlin with Johnson, seeking to attract southern support - and as the theory goes, this gave Johnson the opportunity to contract the killing out to Booth. In fact, the day of the shooting, Booth first went to see Johnson at the Vice President's house. He wasn't home, so Booth left him a calling card.Most scholars dismiss any link between the two men, and an 1867 committee didn't find any evidence to substantiate it. But the theory did have one high-profile proponent: Mary Todd Lincoln. The President's widow reportedly detested Johnson, seeing him as a repugnant drunk. She wrote to a friend in 1868 revealing that she believed Johnson was involved in the killing: "...that, that miserable inebriate Johnson, had cognizance of my husband's death - Why, was that card of Booth's, found in his box, some acquaintance certainly existed - I have been deeply impressed, with the harrowing thought, that he, had an understanding with the conspirators & they knew their man... As sure, as you & I live, Johnson, had some hand, in all this..."
The Baltimore Plot
Long before Lincoln was assassinated in Ford's Theatre, other plots emerged that threatened the President's life. One took place before he was even in office - the so-called "Baltimore Plot."
With the nation on the verge of civil war in February 1861, Allan Pinkerton, President-elect Lincoln's personal bodyguard, became convinced there was a plot afoot to kill him in Baltimore, as he journeyed to his inauguration. After he was warned, Lincoln still wanted to proceed as planned during the day, but would pass through Baltimore in disguise during the middle of the night. Meanwhile, the Lincoln family used a dummy train to throw off what Pinkerton believed were a cadre of assassins waiting with knives to stab Lincoln as he changed trains.Lincoln got through Baltimore with no assassination attempt, and the existence of the plot was never proven. Lincoln was deeply embarrassed by the affair - and some believed he made it all up to enhance the threat posed by the South.
Booth Never Meant to Kill Lincoln, Only Abduct Him
In the investigation into the assassination, it was revealed that Booth's original plan in terms of Lincoln wasn't to kill him, but to kidnap and ransom him for Confederate prisoners of war. March 1864 had seen General Grant order the suspension of prisoner exchanges, when he realized the South was starved for manpower and immediately recycling the POWs that were being sent back. Booth was outraged by this, and formed a conspiracy to grab Lincoln and trade him for a mass exodus of Confederates.
In fact, Booth and his comrades did attempt to kidnap Lincoln - on March 17, 1865. Booth learned that the President would be attending a play at a rural military hospital. He led a number of men to a position on the road outside the hospital to wait for Lincoln to leave, and ambush his party. But they never left the hospital, since they were never there at all. Instead, Lincoln attended a military ceremony at the National Hotel in D.C. - the same hotel in which Booth was living.Less than a month later, Lincoln gave a speech advocating for citizenship for freed slaves, the idea of which angered Booth so much that he changed the plan from kidnapping to assassination.