One of the more interesting things about my time at the Lincoln Forum in Gettysburg (November 16-18) last week was the theme of this year’s event: The Assassination of President Lincoln on April 14, 1865. As with the Kennedy assassination in 1963 a host of theories have surrounded Lincoln’s death for over 140 years. For example:
1. Did John Wilkes Booth act alone? There is no doubt at all that he fired the shot that caused Lincoln’s death at 7:22 a.m. on April 15. In this case there is no second-shooter theory advanced by anyone.
2. If the eight co-conspirators arrested in the aftermath were really involved how so? All eight were convicted by military tribunal, not a civil court. Four of the eight who were convicted were hung and four were sent to prison. The four who were hung included the first woman put to death by law in American history. What did these eight individuals know and when did they know it? Were all truly guilty in some way? The sense of the panel, though not entirely universal, was that all were rightly convicted.
3. Was the Confederacy involved directly in Lincoln’s assassination? Did Jefferson Davis know of the plot and even finance it? (Why was Booth going to meet with Rebels in Montreal regularly? Where did he get his money? Where was he going when he tried to escape through Maryland?)
Perhaps the most foolish, and completely unsubstantiated, of all the conspiracy ideas associated with the Lincoln assassination is the suggestion that the Catholic Church helped to kill the president. The eight scholars at the Lincoln Forum were asked, "Did the Catholic Church particpate in Lincoln’s death in any way?" They answered emphatically, and clearly, "No."
I have thought about this question a great deal since last week. I had been aware of the idea for many years. I had no idea where it came from or what fed it over the years. But 140 years after the death of Abraham Lincoln some still cling to the idea that Rome was involved. Why? Simply put, some people hate the Catholic Church, plain and simple. Because of this hatred they find this theory appealing. Sadly, some things never change. Anti-Catholicism is still around. It has a long history in America, dating back to the founders in some ways. And it was thick in the Civil War era, especially in the South. And today, from Chick tracts to recycled conspiracy theories, some people are still convinced the source of much evil in the world has to be the pope and the Catholic Church. Face it, fear and hatred still have great power. Thank God, however, the love of Christ has much greater power.
"Dear friends, let us love one another, for love comes from God. Everyone who loves has been born of God and knows God. Whoever does not love does not know God, because God is love" (1 John 4:7-8).
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Odd how quickly history becomes forgotten. It is truly a sickening reality that John Wikles Booth (no relation to myself) orchestrated a series of assination attempts for that same evening, including the Vice President, the Secretary of War, and the Secretary of State. It is theorized that John Wilkes Booth wanted to cripple the US government in a desperate attempt to let the South rise again.
It is interesting that with all the actual and attempted bloodshed on senior government officials that night (including the incidental non-fatal stabbing of Major Rathbone at the theatre), only Lincoln’s death genuinely remains in the national memory.
It was not really a question of “was it a conspiracy?” but rather, “how big was the conspiracy?”
Sorry, John, no great insights here. Just pondering the fickle nature of human memory.