In an earlier entry to this blog I related the story of President Garfield lying in his death bed, calling out in Latin for his “book of truths.” How ironic to think, that at the very time he lay there, succumbing not so much to the assassin’s bullet as to the incompetent medical care that followed, someone else, his successor, Chester A. Arthur, most likely, was already either transcribing or reading the true story and details of his assassination in that elusive tome.
One might imagine a very similar tragic tableau unfolding during both the Lincoln and Kennedy assassinations, except with Lincoln it might have been Secretary of War Edward Stanton holding the book perhaps, and the Vice President, Lyndon Johnson, in Kennedy’s case.
I believe the true story however, at least in regards to the Lincoln assassination, is even stranger and more ironic than that imaginary scenario, involving the eccentric and often vilified figure of Mary Todd Lincoln, the President wife. It’s a tale not often told in history books or even in the likes of historically based conspiratorial fiction. But the pieces of the story are there to be found, by those who dig long and deep enough, and within them I found another piece of the puzzle I was assembling, the next dot revealing the existence of the President’s Book.
The tale begins a few days before the assassination, as Lincoln apparently had a dream about being killed, telling his wife that he had seen himself in a casket. Mary Todd Lincoln was both a bit eccentric and a known believer in spiritualism, and therefore is rumored to have taken her husband’s prophetic dream very seriously. The very next day she began preparing for her beloved Abraham’s death, securing away valuables, family heirlooms, and important documents.
Mary Lincoln also had a reputation for being somewhat meddlesome and fully involved in all off President Lincoln’s affairs, a trait that made her exceedingly unpopular with both Lincoln’s cabinet and the people of Washington in general. It’s impossible to say how many First Ladies were aware of the existence of the President’s Book, but if any of them were, it’s safe to assume that Mary Lincoln would be one of the enlightened few. So shortly before President Lincoln was shot, perhaps even the very morning of Friday, April 14, 1865, I believe Mary Todd Lincoln took and hid the President’s Book.
There’s an entire conspiracy cottage industry centered around the Lincoln assassination, and one of the most popular and persistent theories names Lincoln’s Secretary of War Edward Stanton as the mastermind of the entire plot. Much of the evidence used to support this theory stems from the somewhat odd behavior Stanton displayed directly before the assassination, such as his documented refusal to allow his assistant, Major Thomas Eckert, to accompany Lincoln to the Ford Theater that fateful night, despite a direct request by the President.
What aren’t as well known or frequently discussed are Secretary Stanton’s actions after the assassination. In a speech Stanton made shortly after Lincoln died on April 15th, nine hours after being shot, he said a very odd thing. “We have lost more than you know with the President’s passing,” he reportedly told a small group of associates. In the days that followed Stanton’s actions grew even more radical, and are described in one account thusly:
“. . . in the aftermath of the assassination Secretary of War Stanton unleashed a reign of terror which rivaled that of the French Revolution. Prisoners were physically and psychologically mistreated, denied all constitutional rights, and condemned by a military court that made a mockery of the American judicial system.”
DeWitt, David Miller, The Assassination of Abraham Lincoln, pp. 55–91
I think he was talking about the President’s Book, and that his “reign of terror” was an attempt to recover the precious document he knew contained secrets that he couldn’t afford to have revealed. I can’t help but imagine Stanton’s dismay as he entered the White House immediately after Lincoln finally succumbed, only to find the book in which he feared Lincoln might have transcribed his suspicions of or even proof of Stanton’s actions missing. Mary Lincoln would not have even been a suspect in Stanton’s mind, since she had secreted the book away earlier and never left the side of her husband since the shooting.
Despite being an experienced and successful politi-cian prior to becoming Vice President, Lincoln’s successor, Andrew Johnson, seemed uncharacteristically ill-prepared and ineffective when he did become President, a fact that has puzzled many historians for years. It’s even more baffling due to the fact that the majority of Lincoln’s most able aides stayed on after his death to help in the transition of power. Was it because Johnson wasn’t afforded access to the President’s Book and the continuity of exclusive knowledge it had provided to his predecessors?
When President Andrew Johnson dared go against Stanton and dismissed him as Secretary of War in 1867, the Congress moved to impeach him on eleven counts, proof of where the real power in Washington still resided at that time.
Mary Lincoln by that time had headed off to Europe, secretly carrying away the President’s Book with her. In some of her private letters to trusted friends, she hinted at knowing more about the truth behind the conspiracy to kill her husband then the official investigators had been unable to uncover in the some period of time.
"...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 - As sure, as you & I live, Johnson, had some hand, in all this..."
Mary Todd Lincoln to her friend, Sally Orne, in a letter dated March 15, 1866
It wasn’t until a full ten years after she had first taken the Book that her son Robert somehow learned that she had it in her possession. Already somewhat estranged from her, Robert resorted to the one recourse he thought he had. In 1875 he began legal proceedings to have her declared insane, leading to her commitment to a sanatorium in Batavia, Illinois.
With access now to all of his mother’s belongings, Robert Lincoln eventually found the President’s Book and returned it to Washington, where in 1877 President Rutherford B. Hayes' offered him a position as Assistant Secretary of State, despite having no experience at all in government service. Four years later, in 1881, President James Garfield appointed him Secretary of War. Was this all in reward for Robert Lincoln’s returning the President’s Book to its rightful home in the White House?