On April 14, 1865, John Wilkes Booth shot President Abraham Lincoln at Ford’s Theater in Washington, D.C. The president perished the next day. 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 felled by members of his staff - or even his vice president.
Soon enough, a conspiracy was discovered. Booth and others conspired to slay 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 bankers, the Confederate Secret Service, various disgruntled Republicans, and a cabal of cotton traders. Even Mary Todd Lincoln hasn't been immune from accusations.
Here are some of the wildest and most compelling conspiracies about what happened that day in 1865 - and what really happened.
President Lincoln sometimes worked late into the night by himself at the Soldiers Home, three miles from the White House. One night, while riding to the Soldiers Home by himself, a lone shot 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 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 discharged by a careless hunter and is alleged to have remarked: "I can't bring myself to believe that anyone has shot at me or will deliberately shoot at me with the deliberate purpose of killing me."
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 Johnson contracted the slaying out to Booth.
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 drinker. She wrote to a friend in 1866 revealing that she believed Johnson was involved in his husband's demise:
That, that miserable inebriate Johnson, had cognizance of my husband's [passing] - 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.
She added: "As sure, as you and I live, Johnson, had some hand, in all this..."
Long before Lincoln perished 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 conflict in February 1861, Allan Pinkerton, President-elect Lincoln's personal bodyguard, became convinced there was a plot afoot to take Lincoln out in Baltimore as he journeyed to his inauguration.
After he was warned, Lincoln proceeded as planned during the day, but passed through Baltimore in disguise during the middle of the night. Meanwhile, the Lincoln family used a dummy train to throw off what Pinkerton believed was a cadre of conspirators waiting for Lincoln with knives as he changed trains.
Lincoln got through Baltimore with no attempts on his life, and the existence of the plot was never proven. Lincoln was deeply embarrassed by the affair - but some believed he made it all up to enhance the threat posed by the South.
In the investigation of the slaying, it was revealed that Booth's original plan was to capture and ransom Lincoln for Confederate prisoners. In fact, Booth and his comrades did attempt to nab 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, at which point they'd ambush his party. But they never left the hospital, since they were never there at all.
Instead, Lincoln changed his plans - or was never actually planning on attending at all - and so foiled Booth's scheme.