[Originally posted under aegis of "Conspiracy for the Day", August 2 through August 6, 1993]

Mask for Treason: The Lincoln Murder Trial

by Vaughan Shelton


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| "The history of the controversial Conspiracy Trial of 1865 |
+ as most Americans know it is a textbook version pared down +

| to a digestible nubbin... [The] basic account, with some |
+ modifications, is the same one the engineers of the +

| Conspiracy Trial set out to promulgate. In a way their |
+ success in planting such a version on the pages of American +

| history was a triumph in propaganda. For even before the |
+ trial began, the first gusts of a storm of protest were +

| shaking the legend." |
+ + -+-+-+-+-+-+-+-+-+-+-+-+-+-+-+-+-+-+-+-+-+-+-+-+-+-+-+-+-+-+-+-+-

The Riddle of Louis Paine

Louis Paine was one of the eight tried in the Conspiracy Trial of 1865. He was one of the four persons (Louis Paine, Mrs. Mary E. Surratt, George Atzerodt, and David Herold) subsequently executed by the government on July 7, 1865.

Paine was arrested on April 17, 1865 (three days after the assassination of Lincoln) when he had the misfortune of knocking on the front door of a boardinghouse operated by Mrs. Surratt while government detectives were on the premises. Three weeks later, Paine was charged with conspiring to assassinate (along with seven others) President Lincoln, Vice-President Johnson, Lieutenant General U.S. Grant, and Secretary of State Seward.

"In addition to the sweeping general charges, Paine individually was accused of entering Seward's house on the night Lincoln was murdered and attempting to stab the Secretary of State to death." It was charged that "...hunger drove him to return to Mrs. Surratt's house [three days after the alleged attack on Seward]... disguised as a laborer."

"Even today, a century later [c. 1965], his [Paine's] image is unchanged from that given him by the prosecution at the Conspiracy Trial: A homicidal, half-witted brute without a flicker of remorse for the vicious crime he had attempted but bungled."

"But the persistence of the prejudice against this young man for a full century [c. 1965]... is a phenomenon of mass thought- conditioning that has no parallel."

"Even while the Trial was in progress, the possibility that the hate campaign being directed against the Booth 'conspirators' was a screen for a less visible conspiracy in high places was being hinted in the press." And when the Trial and execution had been carried out, the accusations of a frame-up did not diminish but rather increased. "In February of 1866 President Andrew Johnson... shouted during a speech from the White House steps:"

"   ... Are those who want to destroy our institutions and      "
"   change the character of the government not satisfied...     "
"   with one martyr? Does not the blood of Lincoln appease      "
"   the vengeance and wrath of the opponents of this            "

" Government?... Have they not honor and courage enough to " " effect the removal of the presidential obstacle otherwise " " than through the hands of the assassin? "

"In spite of the fact that the legend of the Booth 'conspiracy'... has remained the general basis for textbook versions of the episode for a hundred years..." suspicions have remained of a "...plot within a plot." Those looking into the historical material on the subject are often "...left with a strong impression that Edwin Stanton and certain of his political and official associates must surely have had a hand in the intrigue to remove President Lincoln by assassination."

Louis Paine did not know Booth and had nothing to do with the "conspiracy" for which he and the others were tried. "...Of the eight defendants at the Conspiracy Trial he was the most innocent." Ever since Paine's trial and execution, "...it has been the almost universal belief that his real name was Lewis Powell... There was such a man [i.e. Lewis Powell], and he played a leading part in the bloody events of Good Friday, April 14, 1865. But he vanished that same night and never reappeared under his own name, though he evidently lived for many years afterward."

Louis Paine was not Lewis Powell. "Louis Paine was the real name of the young man who was tried, convicted, and hanged."


"In the spring and summer of 1865 the country was under the control of the military establishment." Edwin Stanton presided over a War Department [B.R. Now called a "Defense Department."] that wielded great power.

Stanton and his accomplices organized "...the nation's grief and [focussed] it upon the project of finding and punishing the murderers... the country was kept in a state of hysteria on this one theme."

"This favorable atmosphere of directed emotion allowed the Department's Bureau of Military Justice to stage a mockery of a trial and erect a legend to screen two ominous realities: First, that the assassination was one phase of a power grab within the federal government. Second, that the removal of Abraham Lincoln's restraining influence at a time when Congress was not in session had cleared the way for a military dictatorship headed by Secretary of War Stanton."

Today, we can get a very detailed view of the events of that time. This is due in part to the fact that the "...telephone had not yet been invented, [and so] communications between officials in the War Department were routinely conveyed in written form."

The situation following the assassination of Lincoln was one of great hysteria. Furthermore, the various agencies investigating the murder of Lincoln and attempted murder of Seward lacked overall coordination. One aspect of the confusion then prevailing can be seen in the case of Louis Paine. "As late as April 24, ten days after the assassination, a memo written in the Bureau of Military Justice listed the prisoners committed by [that date]." The list did not include Louis Paine, although he had been arrested in connection with the assassination on April 17th.

Paine was a great puzzle to the investigators. At first he was willing to talk freely, "...though he denied knowing anything about a conspiracy to assassinate the President." However for some reason he suddenly refused to talk to anyone and remained that way "...until six weeks later, two weeks after the Trial had begun, when he just as suddenly decided to communicate with his baffled attorney, Colonel William E. Doster."

There was only one witness that the government had against Paine in the days following the assassination: a young black servant who had opened the door to the man who tried to murder Seward had positively identified Paine as being that man.

Seward's Assailant

"Many historians have sensed that a sinister force was in motion behind the scenes at the Conspiracy Trial." However, the primary force behind the scenes was not Stanton but rather Stanton's Secret Service chief, Colonel Lafayette Baker.

On Tuesday, April 18, 1865, Baker composed the first public "wanted" notice on Booth and "Seward's assailant." The description of Seward's assailant was extraordinarily detailed and specific. In fact, the "...handbill's description of an unnamed man was an almost perfect description of Louis Paine."

Paine had been arrested on Monday, April 17. Until Paine's arrest, "...the War Department's official conception of the appearance of Seward's assailant... was of a man who looked like George Atzerodt [who did not resemble Paine]."

Thus, since the War Department's description of the man and the suspect described in Baker's handbill were so different in appearance, at least one of the two descriptions was wrong. The author contends that "Lafayette Baker composed the handbill with its description of Louis Paine after he had [already] seen him in custody."

"Later, at the Conspiracy Trial, ... [witnesses to the attack upon Seward] would testify under oath that the gaslights at the house that night had been few and turned down quite low, leaving the hallways and Secretary Seward's room in semidarkness."

Contrast the above-mentioned "semidarkness" with the description of the assailant in Baker's "wanted" handbill:

"   Height 6 feet 1 inch; hair black, thick, full, and     "
"   straight; no beard nor appearance of beard; cheeks     "
"   red on the jaws; face moderately full; 22 or 23 years  "
"   of age; eyes, color not known -- large eyes not        "

" prominent; brows not heavy but dark; face not large " " but rather round; complexion healthy; nose straight " " and well formed, medium size; neck short and of " " medium length; hands soft and small; fingers tapering; " " shows no sign of hard labor; broad shoulders; taper " " waist; straight figure; strong looking man; manner " " not gentlemanly, but vulgar. Overcoat double-breasted; " " color mixed of pink and gray spots, small -- was a " " sack overcoat, pockets inside and one on breast, with " " lapels or flaps; pants black common stuff; new heavy " " boots; voice small and thin, inclined to tenor. "

"The handbill description could have been written only after someone had observed its subject closely and at leisure under an excellent light, someone who had the authority to tell the prisoner to hold out his hands palms up."

Also worth noting is that whoever Seward's assailant was knew exactly where in the house to find the Secretary of State. The man who attempted to murder Seward got past the servant at the front door and fought his way upstairs to Seward's bedroom -- all without hesitation. He knew where to find Seward that night. As none of the witnesses remembered ever having seen the man before, it is probable that Seward's assailant had received inside information from someone.

"Whoever it was who rang the Seward doorbell the night of April 14 and tried to stab Secretary Seward to death... knew on which floor of the mansion and in which room to find his victim; yet he was not known to the Seward family or the servants... The assailant was sent by someone -- probably paid by someone -- who could tell him the best time to arrive at the house and the floor and room where his victim could be found."

Mechanics of the Trial

"The case of Louis Paine was the real puzzler. There was every indication that the young man was a total stranger in Washington, known to no one. The residents of the Surratt boardinghouse... were unanimous in doubts that they knew him." The other "conspirators" did not know Paine, yet he was charged with being part of their "conspiracy."

"As we encounter more and more evidence that Louis Paine and his fellow defendants were deliberately framed by officials of the War Department, the reader should be reminded that this was not merely a hysterical national situation in which, because of pressure to find someone to punish for the murder of the President, several suspicious-seeming individuals were made the scapegoats by biased or overzealous prosecutors at a court martial."

"The procedures of these courts had only a vague connection with the established legal processes of the land. Defendants were presumed guilty and, as [Paine's attorney] Colonel Doster remarked in his reminiscences, '... were called on to prove their innocence.'"

In his reminiscences of the Trial, written forty years later, Paine's attorney Colonel Doster reveals some of his frustrations with the proceedings:

" ...this was a contest in which a few lawyers were on one " " side, and the whole United States on the other -- a case " " in which, of course, the verdict was known beforehand... " " During lunch one of the members of the commission " " remarked, 'Well, Payne [sic] seems to want to be hung, so " " I guess we might as well hang him. "

Colonel Doster further remarked upon "...The licence with which the Government dragged into this trial a thousand details of yellow-fever plots, steamboat burnings, and other things that were utterly foreign to the issue and which had no other effect than to inflame the public against the prisoners, showed a barbarous disregard or rather contempt for the settled barriers of legal inquiry."

These extraneous and irrelevant matters which the Government continuously threw into the case served to "...rekindle all the passions of wartime... by using the witness stand to review all the 'atrocities' perpetrated by the South during the hostilities."

As the higher-ups pulling the strings in this trial must have known, these theatrics played well to most of the nation. "In the 1860's it was quite possible for a few clever lawyers and unscrupulous detectives to stage a treason trial in the nation's capital with all the flimflam of a medicine show."

The Arrest of Louis Paine

"At the time of his [Paine's] arrest and for a few hours afterward... Louis Paine answered the questions put to him willingly and with apparent candor. But something happened during that period which caused him to decide to hold his peace... The nature of his interrogation may have convinced him that he had been elected as a whipping boy no matter what he said... Within a short time after his arrest he entered a stolid silence which he did not break for six weeks."

As noted previously, Paine had been arrested when he knocked at the front door of Mrs. Surratt's boardinghouse while it was in the process of being raided. A detective Richard C. Morgan, present at the arrest, gave the following testimony on May 19, 1865, at the Trial:

About twenty minutes past 11 o'clock on the evening of the 17th of April, ...I went to the house of Mrs. Surratt for the purpose of... arresting the inmates of the house; after we had been at the house about ten minutes, ...I heard a knock and a ring at the door at the same time; ...[We opened the door and] the prisoner, Payne [sic], came in... [I asked] "who do you want to see?"

He [Paine] replied, "Mrs. Surratt."

I [Detective Morgan] said, "what did you come here for, this time of night?" He said he came to dig a gutter; that Mrs. Surratt had sent for him; ...I asked where he last worked, and he said somewhere on Ninth street; I asked him where he boarded, he said he had no boarding house, that he was a poor man, and earned his living with the pick-axe in his hand.

I asked him why he came at this time of night? He said he came to see where it was to be dug, so that he could commence early in the morning; I said, have you had no previous acquaintance with Mrs. Surratt? He said, No; I said, why did she select you for this work? He replied, that she knew he was working in that neighborhood; that he was a poor man and she came to him; ...I asked him where he was from; he said from Fauquier county, Va.; previous to this he had pulled out an oath of allegiance, handed it to me and said, that will show you who I am.

[B.R. This "Oath of Allegiance" that is mentioned was, from what I can gather, a signed loyalty oath carried by laborers, drifters, transients, and others which allowed them to travel freely in search of work. My sense is that it served as a sort of passport or identity paper.]

[B.R. What I find interesting about this "Oath of Allegiance" is that it may have been the precursor to our modern "Pledge of Allegiance." The "Oath of Allegiance" involved a signed pledge of loyalty to the federal government. If one wanted to work, one was forced to grant recognition to the Union. In the "Pledge of Allegiance" which I was required to recite every day in grade school, we pledged our allegiance to "one nation"... a nation that was "indivisible." To me it is interesting how this modern day "Pledge of Allegiance" is redundant on the theme of union (i.e. "one nation"... "indivisible," as if stressing the point).]

Brian Francis Redman bigxc@prairienet.org "The Big C"

Coming to you from Illinois -- "The Land of Skolnick"