O.E. and EJC: A Match Not Made in Heaven

8 04 2008

Searching for truth in history is a thankless task, make no mistake about it. If your findings run contrary to tradition and public belief, you are a heretic and are treated accordingly. Few people, even intelligent ones, are interested in the truth, although none will admit it. If you, for example, were to disprove the story of Washington and the cherry tree, they would throw bricks at you, not roses. They will call you a debunker, an iconoclast, or something worse. Calling names, you see, is easier than arguing. I know whereof I speak.
–Otto Eisenschiml
From O.E. Historian Without An Armchair

When it came to history, he disliked being called a chemist. Yet, he claimed, in studying Lincoln’s death, he was asking the questions that any scientist would ask in determining just what had happened.

It is doubtful that in the entire Lincoln assassination oeuvre there is a more complex and interesting, yet highly maddening, figure than Otto Eisenschiml. Complex and interesting because from the date of publication of his Why Was Lincoln Murdered? in 1937 to his death at age 83 in 1963, Eisenschiml was the source of information the majority of general readers turned to concerning Lincoln’s murder. Not only that, but Eisenschiml enjoyed a good reputation with some of the field’s more prominent personages, notably Ralph Newman, founder of the Abraham Lincoln Book Shop. He also was a regular contributor and reviewer for the Journal of the Illinois State Historical Society.

Maddening, because what Eisenschiml produced was based mainly on innuendo and open-ended questions that, in the end, proved nothing.

Eisenschiml’s thesis was that powerful Northern interests, spearheaded by Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton, were behind Lincoln’s assassination. Problematically, Eisenschiml never came out and said that. Instead, he asked a series of questions he claimed were only to stimulate discussion and further research. Yet, much of what Eisenschiml wrote about the way he was treated resonates today in the never-ending question of just who is and who isn’t a historian.

His books were taken seriously enough that they were reviewed in all the leading historical journals of the day. While it is true they were mostly disparaged, had book review editors believed them to be completely worthless, one wonders why they would have granted precious page space to such an endeavor?

Eisenschiml developed his theory, according to his account in O.E. Historian Without An Armchair, after wrestling with the idea of why General Ulysses S. Grant decided to forgo going to Ford’s Theater with Lincoln on the night of April 14. Eisenschiml was bothered as to why Grant would have “left town unceremoniously an hour and a half before the curtain rose.” One day, while driving down a street in Chicago, Eisenschiml suddenly had an idea—one so revolutionary (to him) that it caused him to slam the brakes on his car, causing the driver behind him to bump into Eisenschiml.

“Out of it stepped a six-footer with the meanest face in six states,” Eisenschiml recalled. “He lumbered up to my open window. ‘Say, fellow,’ he bellowed, ‘what you been thinking about?’ ‘I’ll tell you, my friend,’ I replied. ‘I’ve been thinking that for the first time I have an inkling why General Grant did not accompany Lincoln to the theater on the night of April 14, 1865.’”

A humorous story, to be sure, but what Eisenschiml thought even staggered his own imagination. If Grant had been with Lincoln at the theater, he reasoned, Booth would have been unable to enter the presidential box because of the number of soldiers Grant would have brought with him to the play. Since Grant begged off, had anyone induced him to do so?

The only person that Eisenschiml knew who outranked Grant would have been Stanton. In a torturous and convoluted path, Eisenschiml decided that the only reason Grant would have for not showing up was due to Stanton’s orders, forgetting (or ignoring) that Julia Grant couldn’t stand Mary Todd Lincoln. I’m not going to go into great detail in this post, simply because it deserves more space than I am willing to give it now. But suffice it to say, this path eventually led directly to Everton J. Conger.

Conger came to the War Department after his second wounding during the attempt to seize the Staunton River Bridge during the Wilson-Kautz Raid in 1864. As the actual commander of the regiment, Lafayette Baker (known as Lafe), was on detached service with the War Department (under whose umbrella the First D.C. had been attached), Lieutenant Colonel Conger served as de facto commander. After Conger was declared unfit for military service, he was suddenly a man without an occupation and a family to feed.

Realizing that the success of the First D.C. was in large part thanks to Conger’s leadership, Baker most likely offered him a post with the National Detective Police so his subordinate wouldn’t become destitute. Once Lincoln was murdered, and the NDP was brought into the investigation, Conger also became part of the chase.

“Was it Colonel Conger who killed the cripple visitor of the Garrett household?” Eisenschiml wrote in Why Was Lincoln Murdered? He quoted Lafe’s cousin, Byron Baker, who was part of the Garrett Farm Patrol and who also was with the NDP. During the impeachment investigation of President Andrew Johnson in 1867, Baker testified before Congress that “I supposed, at the time, that Conger shot him, and I said, “What on earth did you shoot him for?” Said he, “I did not shoot him.” Then the idea flashed on my mind that if he did, it had better not be known.”

By the time Byron Baker said this, he was angered that Conger received $15,000 of the $75,000 reward money offered by Stanton’s War Department, while he only got $3,000. His statement that “it had better not be known” was made in an attempt to show that the posse had orders to bring Booth in alive. Conger, however, squelched that in his initial statement after Booth’s death when he said neither Lafe nor Stanton had issued orders that Booth was to be taken alive, although that certainly would have been preferable to bringing just his lifeless body back.

Throughout his life, Byron did what he could to disparage Conger’s role and to puff up his supposed leadership. He even accused investigators of mysteriously losing his statement which he immediately made aboard the monitor Montauk after Booth’s death in order to cheat him out of what he felt to be his rightful share of the money. As William Hanchett has noted in his book The Lincoln Murder Conspiracies, Baker’s statement hadn’t been lost. It was near Conger’s in the records of the War Department.

Eisenschiml notes that Conger got the lion’s share of the reward, but if this was to be seen as an attempt to show that the money Conger received was literally blood money if he had indeed been ordered to keep Booth from talking, Eisenschiml failed to ask another important question. If Stanton ordered Lafe Baker to kill Booth, and Conger carried out the contract, then wouldn’t it have made more sense for Lafe to get the bulk of the money? After all, given Baker’s salacious reputation (Senator Benjamin Butler said it was doubtful that Lafe had ever told the truth in his entire life “even by accident”), Stanton would have had more to fear from the NDP head than he would have had from Conger.

Isn’t it meaningful to note that Lafe got only $3,750—exactly four times less money than Conger received?

Eisenschiml never makes his case that Conger stood quietly near Richard Garrett’s tobacco barn and fired his pistol into Booth’s neck. Indeed, he rarely made his case on any of his accusations. Yet, the serious student of Lincoln’s assassination ignores his work at his own peril. Highly suspect? Yes. Safe to discount and toss aside? Never.