…and why does he merit study?
It seems for the past 12 years I’ve answered that question. Most people, even those with some knowledge of Lincoln, have never heard of the non-descript dentist from Ohio who assured his place in history for helping capture John Wilkes Booth.
I first became acquainted with Conger when I worked for the Carmi (Ill.) Times newspaper. From 1869 to 1880 Conger lived in this small southern Illinois community where he had a brother and where his parents spent their final years.
At this point in my life, I had pretty much abandoned studying history. To be sure, I read a great deal, but that passivity proved to be less than satisfying. A constant companion in my head in those days was the nagging voice that kept telling me if I was ever to become a historian, I had to do something other than read about it.
But what to write about?
That question was answered when I was interviewing an artistic couple who had bought the home of Everton’s brother, Chauncey. I saw a painting of Chauncey in the upstairs hallway and immediately I wondered to myself, who was this man?
In reading about Chauncey in a local history, I came across the story of his older brother and the fact that he had played a role in the capture of Booth.
Often, I drove past the home which Everton was said to have built with part of the proceeds of the $15,000 reward he received (much of which he lost in a bad investment), but the story never really resonated with me. Looking for information on Everton, I became disenchanted. The only story I could find was written by a local historian which was fine, but very sparsely detailed.
I had found my project.
Two years later I wrote a 15,000 word, five-part series for the newspaper which only scratched the surface of just who Everton J. Conger was. I decided then it was time to write a biography.
The project floundered over the next few years as the daily details of life intruded. It wasn’t until 2006, after being interviewed for the National Geographic Channel’s documentary “The Hunt For Lincoln’s Assassin” that I fully committed myself to finishing the story.
If Conger hadn’t been involved with the capture of Booth, his life, however interesting it may be, probably wouldn’t merit a biography. But that is one of the problems (albeit understandable) with the study of history. A story has to be “big” and it has to have broad appeal before it’s considered worthy of telling.
Given how academic historians have failed in telling the story of Lincoln’s murder, it shouldn’t be surprising that Conger’s story was lost. But in fairness, even with the intense interest with Lincoln’s murder among the general public, most people have no idea who Everton Conger was.
I hope to change that.
Even without the capture of Booth, Conger lived an interesting life. Born in 1834 to a Presbyterian missionary and his wife, Conger served with distinction during the Civil War as a cavalry officer, first with the Third West Virginia Cavalry and then with the First District of Columbia Cavalry, where he had de facto command since the colonel of the regiment, Lafayette Baker, was in Washington on detached service with the War Department.
Wounded twice (and once left for dead overnight in the frigid October cold), Conger persevered both as a soldier and later as a civilian.
After the war, when he moved to southern Illinois, Conger studied law in Chauncey’s law office. In 1880, he was appointed to the territorial supreme court of Montana by an old friend, President Rutherford B. Hayes, whom Conger had known when he was a dentist in Fremont, Ohio.
In 1883 he was suspended from the bench due to a political dispute. His opponents exploited his addiction to alcohol and morphine (which he digested in large quantities because of his war wounds) as well as his affection for gambling.
Although cleared of wrong-doing, Conger wasn’t reappointed to the bench. He spent the rest of his life either as a prosecutor in Montana or trying to work a ranch. He died in 1918 after suffering a massive stroke brought on by the death of his beloved daughter, Daisy.
From time to time, I will present various aspects of Conger’s life here, but in order not to suck the energy out of my book, it will be done so sparingly.
I hope I can prove to you that obscurity isn’t the same as unimportance.