Lincoln’s Assassination Mystery has confounded some historians for years and the question of Secretary of War, Edwin Stanton’s Secret Agents and a possible cover-up and conspiracy, haunt many scholars to this day. During the Civil War, President Lincoln tried his best not to micro-manage the efforts of his qualified cabinet. The Secretary’s were allowed to direct the day-to-day business of their respective sphere’s of responsibilities. The Lincoln administration maintained no centralized Secret Service, each governmental agency employed their own independent sources of intelligence and sometimes these stealthy operatives spied on each other.
Arguably, the most powerful man in Lincoln’s cabinet was Secretary of War Edwin Stanton and during the ebb and flow of the Civil War his omnipotent power continued to grow. Stanton kept a tight rein on his generals and often if they did not follow his dictates they would be banished to a backwater of a career ending oblivion. One of his first power plays was to absorb the Telegraph Service into his War Department, which meant that all communiques would be routed directly to one of his minions. Stanton and Lincoln maintained an uneasy alliance, the President easy-going and affable, the War Secretary impatient, unstable and harsh. Lincoln was the perfect public relations executive and Stanton an administrative tyrant, that was always right and even if he was wrong, he insisted that his decision was correct.
Regular association with the President did not eliminate Stanton’s propensity to disagree or even to sharply criticize the President. One day Stanton sharply rebuked Judge Advocate General Joseph Holt for a mission he had undertaken on behalf of the President, saying: “Well, all I have to say is, we’ve got to get rid of that baboon at the White House!” When the story was repeated to the President, he refused to even consider Stanton’s comment an insult, saying “that is no insult, it’s an expression of opinion; and what troubles me most about it is that Stanton said it and Stanton is usually right.”
All of the central figures in military and government had individuals gathering surreptitious information to further their knowledge of the civil conflict, Lincoln had Ward Hill Lamon, General McClellan employed Allen Pinkerton and Stanton utilized the services of Lafayette C. Baker.
Lafayette Curry Baker was born, October 13, 1826, on a farm located in up-state New York and his family later moved to Michigan where he lived to maturity. After some brief schooling, Baker made his way to New York City where little is known of his doings, although one report related that he dealt in ill-gotten goods, working with street gangs.
In 1849, Baker made his way to the gold fields of California and doesn’t strike it rich, but in 1856, he does make a name for himself as an enforcer for a Vigilance Committee that is trying to eliminate crime on the streets of San Francisco, some relate that Baker was just a bouncer in a wharf saloon and frequently served as an informer to local law enforcement.
When the Civil War began in 1861, Lafayette Baker, hurried back to the east coast and somehow received an interview with the Union Commander at that time, General Winfield Scott. Baker apparently succeeded in making a good impression on the old General, because he was asked to undertake an espionage mission into Confederate territory. Baker was captured twice on his first two missions to Richmond, once by the Union Army and again by the Confederate. He had changed his name to Sam Munson, had managed to fool some, but mainly confused most of the people he came in contact with, gained no information, but returned to General Scott with tales of daring exploits, bravery, intrigue and fabricated Confederate intelligence.
Upon Baker’s safe return to Washington General Scott made him a Captain and head of his intelligence department. When news spread of his heroic exploits, Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton recruited Baker to be the head of the Union Intelligence Service. Stanton then gave him a job as head of the National Detective Police.
In this capacity, Baker operated essentially as the head of a secret police, seeking out and punishing any activity he deemed corrupt or rebellious. Most of Baker’s time was spent tracking down deserters from the Union Army. He also went after profiteers but only to line his own pockets. Baker arrested and jailed those who refused to share their illegal spoils from selling government supplies. Baker violated Constitutional rights without fear or reservations since he was wholly backed by Stanton. He routinely made false arrests, conducted illegal searches without warrants, and blackmailed government officials into making endorsements of his almost non-existent espionage service. No one misused his authority or office more than Lafayette Baker. He developed a reputation for arresting and punishing suspects, “without warrant, or the semblance of law or justice.” One of Baker’s successes was the capture of the Confederate spy, Belle Boyd. Later Baker was accused of conducting a brutal interrogation and despite the inhuman treatment, Boyd refused to confess and she was released in 1863. Baker once unearthed widespread corruption within the Treasury Department. While there was undoubted criminal activity, some felt that the only reason it came to light was because Baker didn’t get a cut. One Treasury Department official commented, “Baker became a law unto himself. He instituted a veritable Reign of Terror. He always lived in the first hotels and had an abundance of money.” Baker was eventually caught tapping telegraph lines between Nashville and the office of Stanton. Baker was demoted and sent to New York and placed under the control of Charles Dana, the Assistant Secretary of War.
When Lincoln was assassinated, Baker was summoned by Stanton to Washington with instructions to find the President’s assassin. When Lincoln died, Stanton took over the government, declaring martial law. What he wanted more than anything at that moment was John Wilkes Booth, offering a $100,000 reward for his capture. Lafayette Baker arrived on April 16 and his first act was to send his agents into Maryland to pick up what information they could about the people involved in the assassination. Within two days, all of the conspirators were in custody. Somehow, Baker knew exactly where he could find the alcoholic George A. Atzerodt whose nerve had failed him when it came time to kill Vice President Andrew Johnson. He also knew that Seward’s would-be assassin, Lewis Paine, could be found in the Washington, D.C. boarding house of Mary Surratt. Colonel Baker knew to arrest Edward Spangler, the carpenter at Ford’s Theater. Baker deduced that Spangler had drilled a hole in the door leading to Lincoln’s box so Booth, while standing in the outer hallway could peer into it and observe the President’s location. Lafayette Baker had all the answers within forty-eight hours, including the escape route taken by John Wilkes Booth and David Herold. After conferring with Secretary of War Stanton, Baker called in a cavalry officer, Lieutenant Edward P. Doherty to his office.
Baker told Doherty that he was to take twenty-five of his best men and go in pursuit of the assassin. Also, Baker informed the startled Doherty, he would directly command this special troop, but the overall command would fall upon two men, his cousin, Luther B. Baker, and Colonel Everton J. Conger. Luther Baker was an enforcer who had carried out several of Lafayette Baker’s dirty deeds. Colonel Everton Conger also worked for Baker’s Intelligence Service and was willing to go to any lengths for his superior. The detachment rode straight to the Garrett farm where they found Booth and Herold barricaded in a tobacco barn in the early morning of April 26, 1865. Booth refused to surrender but allowed the terrified Herold to give up. The barn was set on fire and a shot rang out. Booth was dragged mortally wounded from the blazing building. One of the troopers had shot the assassin in the head. Conger searched Booth’s body and removed a stub of a candle, a compass, a considerable amount of money and most importantly, a leather-bound diary. It was the diary that most interested Conger, an object he had been expressly directed by Lafayette Baker to look for. He gathered all of Booth’s belongings and then ordered Doherty to return Herold and Booth’s body to Washington. Doherty heard Conger shouting to Baker that he was to stay with the troopers. With that, Colonel Conger galloped out of sight.
Conger turned over Booth’s effects, to Lafayette Baker, including the diary. Baker sat silently before Conger, then told his subordinate to witness the fact that he was going to count the exact number of pages in the diary. Then he studied the diary at great length, making notes. Baker then told Conger that he would accompany him to see Stanton. Both men met the Secretary of War in his home, who took from them all of the effects of Booth.
It was obvious to Conger that Baker had wanted him present when he turned over Booth’s effects to the Secretary of War, so that it could never be said that he tampered with anything and that Stanton was the final and only depository of this evidence. Baker then began receiving terse orders from Stanton regarding the conspirators in custody, which included Paine, Herold, Mrs. Mary Surratt, Spangler, Dr. Mudd, Samuel B. Arnold and Michael O’Laughlin. Within two weeks, his men had found and killed the assassin. Baker received a large part of the $100,000 reward offered for Booth’s capture. Lafayette Baker was also promoted to Brigadier General as a reward for his work in bringing the conspirators to justice.
Baker was dismissed as head of the secret service on February 8, 1866. He claimed that President Andrew Johnson had demanded his removal after he discovered that his agents were spying on him. Baker admitted the charge but argued he was acting under instructions from the Secretary of War, Edwin Stanton. In January, 1867, Baker published his book, History of the Secret Service. In the book Baker described his role in the capture of the conspirators. He also revealed that a diary had been taken from John Wilkes Booth when he had been shot. This information about Booth’s diary resulted in Baker being called before a Congressional committee looking into the assassination of Lincoln. Stanton and the War Department were forced to hand over Booth’s diary. When shown the diary by the committee, Baker claimed that someone had “cut out eighteen leaves.” When Stanton was called before the committee he said he didn’t remove any pages from the diary. Speculation grew that the missing pages included the names of people who had financed the conspiracy against Lincoln. It later was revealed that Booth had received a large amount of money from a New York based firm to which Stanton had connections.
Baker died in 1868, supposedly from meningitis. only 18 months after he testified before congress. Some thought that he had been killed by the War Department to silence him. Using an atomic absorption spectrophotometer to analyze several hairs from Baker’s head, Ray A. Neff, a professor at Indiana State University, determined that Baker was killed by arsenic poisoning rather than meningitis. Baker had been unwittingly consuming the poison for months, mixed into imported beer provided by his wife’s brother Wally Pollack. A diary kept by Baker’s wife chronicled several dates Pollack brought Baker beer; they correspond to the gradually elevated levels of toxin in the Baker hair samples Neff studied. Pollack worked for the War Department, though whether he acted on orders or alone has yet to be determined. Nevertheless, Neff’s studies, along with the information
chronicled in Baker’s diary, serve to bolster an alternate history of the Lincoln assassination and how its details are currently related.
Whether Lincoln was a victim of a much larger conspiracy, driven by political and power elite or by a small group of warped lost cause conspirators, the Lincoln Assassination Mystery and Stanton’s Secret Agents are just another chapter in the sometimes blurred history of the Civil War.