Money (that’s what I want!)

21 04 2008

The following rant, while having a connection with Everton J. Conger and the Civil War, is concerned with a larger, and in some instances, more important aspect of that picture.

As some of you may know, I am currently researching a biography on Conger. For those of you who have done historical research, you’ll understand where I’m coming from.

Doing research costs money. I’m not talking small change either.

In my last post, I wrote about the hearing transcripts concerning the suspension of Conger from the territorial Supreme Court of Montana. They total just over 1,000 pages and before I can write about this aspect of his life, I have to read each and every page, in addition to other letters and papers which I know exists.
Not being made of money, and not having valuable free time to go to Maryland, I had to hire a researcher to get the papers for me. Luckily, the man I hired came up with an idea that saved me a considerable amount of money. He used a digital camera and took pictures of each and every document, and then sent me the discs.
Even doing that cost me around $500.

Fortunately, a loyal customer where I work took an interest in my project after we discussed it one day. After telling him about the problems I was having in figuring out how to afford getting these documents, he offered to bear the costs on the single condition that I let him look through the papers sometime.
My jaw dropped. Protesting at first that I couldn’t take advantage of his generosity, he assured me that he wanted to do this. As a retired neurosurgeon, he has a habit of helping people in need.
Now I have the documents. The problem is they represent just a scratch on the surface of what I need to be able to do my work properly.

There are two sets of microfilm concerning Lincoln’s assassination. The larger of the two (16 reels) are available to me through a regional university library, but the other set, four reels in all, are hard to find. I decided it would make more sense for me to just own them, so I could use them at my leisure and not have to worry about having to return them.
Cost to me–$260 (does anyone remember when microfilm from the National Archives costs $6 a roll?).
Books aren’t a problem. With the advent of inter-library loan and the proximity of libraries around me, I can get much of the secondary sources, and in the case of some newspapers, primary sources, with little or no effort.

But a work like this has to be based on primary material. In order to get what I need, research trips to Montana, Ohio, West Virginia and Washington, D.C. will be necessary. In some instances I can hire researchers, but as I’ve already pointed out, they still require money.

Here’s where the rant begins.

People like the fine professors over at Civil Warriors are eligible for all kinds of research grants and foundation monies that help them in their work. The independent scholar, with no large institution behind him or her, is dependent on the kindness of patrons, or more likely running up the balances of already groaning credit cards.
It’s not that I begrudge the professoriate their research grants. I just wish those same foundations recognized that not all the research work in history is done by the Ph.D., and that there is a legitimate need for grants for those not affiliated with a university (and no, I’m not interested in turning this into a “who is or isn’t a historian” debate).
There is a website run by Michigan State University which lists various grants and fellowships available to individuals studying history. Most are either too specialized for what I need, or are only open to undergraduate, doctoral or post-doctoral researchers.

My good friend Sam Wheeler and I have talked about this, and Sam gave me some good hints on how to defray the costs of traveling to do research, but with gas fast approaching $4 a gallon, even doing what he suggested will still leave a major hole in my pocket.

Since I first started working on this project, I figure I have spent close to $3,000, only scratching the surface of what I need. Even if I’m fortunate enough to find a publisher willing to take a chance on my book, I will never get back what I’ve put into it.
That’s fine (to a point) because my main purpose in writing this book is to bring to life someone wrongly forgotten by history. While making money is always nice, knowing that I’ve in some way contributed to the literature on Lincoln’s assassination is worthwhile to me.
But unless it starts raining pennies from heaven (fitting when the subject is Lincoln), the work may end even before it gets started.


“A malign Satan in human form”

15 04 2008

1883 was not a good year for Everton J. Conger.

He was forced to travel over 3,000 miles to hold 12 terms as an associate justice on the Montana Supreme Court. For a man who had twice been wounded during the Civil War, and who still suffered from the effect of those wounds, that trip had to be pure hell.
Indeed, Conger was forced to consume large amounts of alcohol, and in some cases, morphine, just to make it through the day. The effects of those drugs were soon to become a point of contention in what turned out to be Conger’s greatest challenge since surviving the war.

Just why anyone would want to be a territorial justice is hard to explain. In addition to rough roads and long trips, often in inclement weather, the pay wasn’t that great, even when it arrived. One historian remarked that pay was so bad that a territorial governor had to raise sheep just to make ends meet.

Conger had been appointed to the bench in 1880 by President Rutherford B. Hayes. It was yet another time when Hayes, who knew Conger most likely through Hayes’ uncle, Sardis Birchard, intervened in Conger’s life. The first was in 1861 when Hayes suggested that Conger try to raise a company of soldiers on his own, which he did. The second came in 1865 when Hayes, serving in the House of Representatives, helped hammer out a deal that allowed Conger to receive $15,000 of the $75,000 reward offered by the War Department for the capture of John Wilkes Booth.

When Conger arrived in Montana, he did so alone. It’s unclear if his wife, Emma, refused to go or the couple decided she should stay at home with her family in Ohio. That would also factor into what was facing the jurist. With no family close at hand, Conger returned to an old passion—gambling. Indeed, if his memory is to be believed, Conger said in one newspaper interview that he knew who Booth was because they both frequented the same gambling dens in Washington.

Life on the circuit wasn’t for the faint of heart. In 1943, Llewellyn Callaway painted a picture in an article on territorial judges that is hard to believe. During a case, a juror who attended court did so without a jacket. Asked by the judge to go home and get one, the juror complied. After a half hour, the judge asked the sheriff if he had seen the errant man. He had, the sheriff replied. He told him he was going home to get his coat.
“Where does he live?” the judge asked.
“About 40 miles from here,” was the reply.

When the territorial courts were established in the 1860s, conditions were so raw and unsettled that court was often held in saloons, prompting one newspaper to describe one “courtroom” as “devoted promiscuously to justice, dances, sermons, itinerant shows, and other useful and ornamental institutions.”

In two years on the court, Conger handled cases peculiar to western expansion, ruling on such mundane matters as water rights or violations of laws prohibiting giving alcohol to Indians. But in 1883, Conger was to find out just how rough territorial politics could get.
In 1882, Territorial Governor B.F. Potts discovered that a county commissioner in Custer County was not a legal resident. Residents urged Potts to get rid of the entire commission, but he said he had no legal power to act.
When John Schuyler Crosby was appointed governor in 1883, he rammed a measure through the territorial legislature that vacated the Custer County offices and appointed three interim commissioners before another election could be held.

Democrats were furious at what they felt was the usurping of power by the Republican Crosby. For reasons unknown, the incumbent Custer County Commissioners also had a Republican supporter—Conger. Crosby never saw a problem with fighting anyone who got into his way, Conger included. So Crosby and Wilbur F. Sanders, who themselves fought over political appointments, conspired to remove Conger from office using the one issue they could exploit—his drinking and morphine addiction.
Conger and Sanders crossed paths several times in the three years Conger was in Montana. Seething below the surface of this political feud was a personal one between Conger and Sanders, which erupted after Conger ruled against one of Sanders’ biggest clients, the Northern Pacific Railroad. Indeed after the suspension was approved by President Chester A. Arthur, Conger wrote a letter to an Ohio friend in which he referred to Sanders as “a malign Satan in human form.”

Conger was suspended due to “incompetence, neglect of duty, gambling, drunkenness and keeping companionship of low, vile people.”
Conger’s enemies were elated. “A meeting of citizens here today thank you most heartily for the removal of Judge E.J. Conger…are hunting a cannon to fire a salute,” read a telegram to Arthur.

Conger, however, was not with out his supporters. “Important suits pending…jails of district full of prisoners. If courts are not continued, public interests will suffer. Please have suspension of Judge Conger revoked pending investigation of charges,” read yet another telegram sent to Washington.
A Montana paper, controlled by the Democratic party, said the charges against Conger were “hasty and ill-advised and the agitation which brought it about had its origin with certain parties who have been unable to fashion his course according to their own chart, and could not use him as a stepping-stone to their individual benefit and profit.”
Conger’s supporters were able to persuade the administration to appoint an investigator to look into the charges. When Peter Shannon arrived in Helena on May 30, 1883, he set in motion a hearing which, once done, would take a month and would produce over 1,,000 pages of documents, which today reside in the National Archives in College Park, Md.

In his report, Shannon wrote “Forty witnesses were examined in behalf of Judge Conger.” However, many of those witnesses were not of the best character, several who either had cases pending in criminal court or had been convicted of some crime.
While Conger’s accusers claimed to be concerned with his judicial ability, it is interesting to note that not everyone in his jurisdiction agreed that he was incompetent. While charges were made in Gallatin and Custer counties, none were offered from Madison or Beaverhead counties. This has prompted historian John D.W. Guice to question the political nature of the charges, pointing out that it seems unlikely Conger would act one way in two counties and another in the other two.
After listening to a month’s worth of testimony, Shannon ruled that Conger’s gambling habits were “unbecoming, unseemly, and indecorous; and that they were unsuitable to the office of Justice of the Supreme Court of Montana and Judge of that District…”

While accepting that Conger’s wounds most likely contributed to his alcohol use, which caused him to appear drowsy on the bench, Shannon said that there were too many other occasions when Conger was drinking to be medicinally necessary.
In the end, Shannon wrote that “He was, and still is, respected at his home in Virginia City. His influence in Madison and Beaver Head counties, is, I think, unimpaired. But the bulk of the business of the courts of the District has been done at Bozeman and Miles City, where his reputation is greatly injured.” Saying that if a new district was created in the counties where Conger’s reputation was fine, he “would now fill such Judgeship well, and with satisfaction to the people and attorneys there.”
In closing, Shannon pointed to Conger’s military service as the main reason he should be shown mercy. “His honorable services in the War for the preservation of the Union, his crippled condition, and his physical sufferings, plead strongly for mercy, which I beg may be shown to him.”

Conger was reappointed to the bench, but it was just one day before his term was set to expire. He was out of a job.

It’s too early in my research for any solid conclusions as to the role politics played in Conger’s suspension, but I think it’s easy to see where the feud between Conger and Sanders is a definite factor. That Conger was shown mercy by Shannon, I think, lends some credence to my view that Shannon felt sad for the captor of Booth and Civil War hero, but given the morals of the day, couldn’t just “let him go.”

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.

Just who is Everton J. Conger…

17 03 2008

Everton J. Conger, circa 1862

…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.