Wednesday, February 9, 2011

JFK: The Lincoln Parallels

First, a disclaimer. I am not an authority on the Lincoln assassination. Not even close.

But close your eyes for a moment and imagine I'm some bigmouth in his cups, down at the end of the bar. (Never mind that you can't read if you close your eyes.)

I've noticed an odd parallel between the assassinations of Abraham Lincoln and John F. Kennedy.

There's an old Ann Landers column about curiosities between the two assassinations. You've probably seen it: Lincoln had a secretary named Kennedy, Kennedy had a secretary named Lincoln. Both secretaries warned their boss not to attend what turned out to be a rendezvous with death. Both slain presidents were succeeded by men named Johnson, and blah blah blah.

Cue the creepy music.

I'm not talking about the Ann Landers stuff.

No, I'm talking about similarities that to me, at least, suggest a pattern.
Historians know no more than the information made available to them, and for many years the United States War Department kept the records on Lincoln's assassination locked in files marked "secret."
This quotation is from a 1959 book called The Web of Conspiracy, by Theodore Roscoe. It was the first thing in that book to really get my attention. Readers familiar with the JFK case know that classifying much of the evidence "secret" is precisely what happened after the Warren Commission concluded its work in 1964.
Lee Harvey Oswald, the alleged Kennedy assassin, was of course shot down by Jack Ruby a few days after the assassination. No trial.

In the Lincoln case, John Wilkes Booth escaped the scene of the crime and evaded authorities for about twelve days, before finally being cornered and killed in a Virginia barn.

Yet in this instance, there was a trial. Not only did Booth have co-conspirators who were captured alive; they carried out coordinated attacks on several other government officials, including Vice-President Andrew Johnson, at nearly the same moment Booth was killing Lincoln.
This is sometimes overlooked. We learn, of course, about Booth shooting Lincoln. But these other crimes are downplayed, as is the fact of conspiracy. I don't think I learned there was a Lincoln conspiracy until my teen years, and only then because I had a book of historic photographs. It included pictures of the execution of four of the eight conspirators (above).

The other four received prison sentences.
Although trial proceedings were published at the time, the Bureau of Military Justice sat on a great deal of conspiracy information, and the Army chiefs refused to release much of the data on the assassination and the pursuit of the conspirators. Not until the mid-1930s were pertinent War Department records placed in the public domain. 
The mid-1930s!

Why were these records suppressed for so long? Theodore Roscoe argued that within, say, twenty-five years of Lincoln's killing, no Civil War-era intelligence secrets could have been compromised.
What could be compromised was the security of a myth, or the reputation of an institution, or the concealment of some figure or group who had been party to a heinous crime.
Roscoe continued:
The military censors had a field day with the Lincoln murder case. From the outset [Secretary of War Edwin] Stanton held that many of the facts relating to the assassination were "not in the public interest." Eventually so much of the truth was tampered with that no one could learn the truth. Thus an immense deception was imposed and a stupendous crime was covered...
Today the cover-up is conceded by at least one Government agency which tells us in its official literature that "confusion and mystery" cloak Lincoln's assassination and "we probably shall never know all the facts"...
Does any of this sound familiar? "So much of the truth was tampered with that no one could learn the truth."

I'm seeing some definite parallels between Lincoln and JFK. It is tempting to conclude that the similarities reveal a model for the clandestine removal of a president of these United States, but I think that would be reckless.

And anyway, I'm just the loudmouth drunk down at the end of the bar.

Most of the material presented here comes from a single source: The Web of Conspiracy, by Theodore Roscoe (Prentice-Hall, 1959). I turned to Wikipedia for a few factoids, such as the location of Booth's death.


  1. It wouldn't surprise me that the JFK plotters had a good knowledge of how the Lincoln assassination investigation played out, which for the higher-up Confed plotters turned out rather well, partly by their own surreptitious intervention in the trial stage (shades of CIA intervention with a bogus witness in the Garrison case) and partly by luck in getting an aggressive, authoritarian Stanton type who was secrecy-prone and unwilling to let the full investigative record come to light.

    In the Lincoln case, the original botched attempt to hold Confed officials accountable for Lincoln's murder enabled the false portrait to emerge of a simple conspiracy involving only Booth leading a small band of ne'er-do-wells while the Confed govt conspiracy angle appeared fully discredited. The simple conspiracy view was so dominant and confidently asserted by historians that, as you note, it almost became a simple lone nut murder case with the other conspirators a footnote at best.

    That view held for over 130 years by my non-expert count. And it took 3 independent, non-professional historians, all with a civil service and intel background, to crack the case and bring the Confed govt conspiracy -- the grand conspiracy -- back into play. Their breakthrough book in 1988, Come Retribution, appears to not only have withstood challenge, but is probably the major factor which in 2000 led the dean of Lincoln assass'n historians, Wm Hanchett, to step out of the old paradigm of simple conspiracy that he espoused for years and into an embrace of the grand conspiracy point of view.

    So take heart, John. A breakthrough can happen no matter how deliberately muddled the evidence. Might take a while though.

    Btw, re the eerie Lincoln-Kennedy similarities (in 9th grade civics in the late 1960s we got that handout, the only time, iirc, the JFK assassination was ever alluded to in school), the one which sends chills down my spine is the one where Lincoln security people in 1861 called in the NY Superintendent of Police to help thwart the Baltimore plot, then again SoW Stanton in 1865 calls him back to help investigate the assassination. The police official's name was John A. Kennedy.

  2. Hi, and thanks for your extensive comments. I just requested "Come Retribution" via interlibrary loan. This has been a side interest of mine for a long time. You must have noticed my source book was quite old, with a 1959 publication date; I hope none of what I said was too off the mark. (That's why I used the drunk metaphor!)

  3. Hey, no problem. And re mistakes, I'm no more than an intermediate-level student of the Lincoln case, far from an expert. Anyway, hope you enjoy the Wm Tidwell et al book and their careful research and reasoning. A follow-up book WT did in the mid-90s, April '65, is more of the Woodsteinesque "follow the money trail" approach and also worth a look.

    Author Edward Steers is also good in this field and has written a lot (particularly to prove Dr Mudd's guilt), though I've only gotten around so far to his fine Blood on the Moon.

    I'm going to be ordering your well-recommended Praise from a Future Generation, but still need one more order to accept Amazon's fancy offer of free shipping. Any rec's from that field, Kennedy or related? I've read the recent J. Douglass book, the Wrone book on the Z film, and the McKnight book on the WC, but that still leaves probably dozens more books just from the past decade.

  4. Thanks for the additional recommendation. "Woodstein." Heh heh.

    Thanks too for thinking about ordering Praise. It is also available from me; I will undercut the price-gouging Amazon. If you're interested I am reachable by private message on Facebook. (It isn't likely my signature is much of a lure, but I inscribe copies purchased directly from me.)

    Elsewhere on my blog there is a post called "A Certain Type of Book," which is think is in the December 2010 group. In it I discuss JFK books in general, and give a quasi-top-ten listing. the Jim Douglass book is on it. So are The Last Investigation (Gaeton Fonzi), Accessories After the Fact, and others.

  5. Whoops! "JFK: A Certain Type of Book" is in the January 2011 group.

  6. Thx for the anti-Amazon option. I'll look into it this weekend. The early critics of the WC have long interested me, and at the time I was a little too young to catch much of it, with the exception of seeing Mort Sahl ca 1967 take the Commission to task often on his nationally syndicated tv show.

    As for your Best Books List, concur with all picks, read them all. I also liked Henry Hurt's Reasonable Doubt, a dramatically-written good overview of the case as of the mid-80s.

    As for Manchester in the Worst list, I never could finish that book; too depressing and by the time I got around to trying to slog through it, I was already aware of how he was forced to substantially alter his first-draft comments about LBJ. It would be fascinating to see that draft and/or his notes, but to my knowledge these have never been made public. Great writer and historian otherwise, and what a book it might have been.

    His 1980s book about his friend JFK, A Bright Shining Moment, includes the interesting but credible conclusion that Kennedy was a greater statesman than Churchill. Shame though that he was such a WC apologist -- what a powerful and influential voice he could have been in the media in countering the usual lone nut academics like Dallek and the rest of the establishment historians.

  7. I think I made a passing reference somewhere on my blog to Hurt's book. My main problem with it is the Easterling section. I suspect Hurt needed something to set his book apart, so included it.

    re: Manchester, Mark Lane once quipped that the deletions to Death of a President might themselves make an excellent book. There is an interesting book called "The Manchester Affair" detailing the history of Death of a President. Author is John Corry or Corrie.

    I never slogged all the way through Death of a President either, but tried. There are indeed some fine passages, some very excellent prose. Too bad his point of view was all wrong.

  8. John, re ordering your book, I'd hoped to be able to contact you via Facebook w/o signing up -- I'm in that small minority of firm holdouts, for various reasons -- and by the brief looks of it I didn't see how that could be done. So, I'm going to get my hands on your book one way or another, but Facebook might not be an option for me.

    Agree about that section in the Hurt book, though iirc the author carefully qualified that chapter as perhaps the most speculative part of his book and involving probably at best only a low-level operative. But overall I thought HH did a fine job -- it was the 2d book on the case I'd read, the first I'd read to make a pro-conspiracy case, and for me he hit nearly all the right notes in research and tone of writing. Dramatic impact on me in fact back in the mid-80s.

  9. Yes, I think that overall Hurt did a good job on Reasonable Doubt, even if the Easterling chapter is, in my view, regrettable. In scope, I think it is similar to the Anthony Summers book, and one of the few I recommend to people who I think might be interested in the subject but unlikely to read beyond a single book.

    My email address is on this site, in the "view my complete profile" section.