Posts Tagged With: Ford’s Theatre

The Hidden History of Spencer Clark

On April 1, 2017, I spoke at the annual Surratt Society Conference. The topic of my speech revolved around the hidden histories of some of the minor characters in the Lincoln assassination story. One of the subjects of that talk was Spencer M. Clark, a witness at the conspiracy trial with a very scandalous past. The following text comes from my speech. Click here to read about another subject of the speech, James P. Ferguson.


Spencer Morton Clark

Burial Location: Spring Grove Cemetery, Hartford, Connecticut

Connection to the Lincoln assassination:

Spencer Morton Clark was the very first superintendent of the U.S. Bureau of Engraving and Printing. At the trial of the conspirators Clark was called to testify regarding the pair of boots that had been confiscated from conspirator Lewis Powell. The day before Clark gave his testimony he was given one of Powell’s boots by the Assistant Secretary of the Treasury and was asked to inspect them. Inside one of the boots was a mark of ink. After examining the boot under a microscope, Clark came to the conclusion that the mark of ink had been put there to obscure some sort of writing that lay beneath it. Using a bath of oxalic acid, Clark was able to remove the top layer of ink. He was clearly able to see the letters J W then a letter that was either a P or a B. He also determined the last two letters were th. Clark concluded that the written word that had been cover up was the name J W Booth. Unfortunately Clark left the oxalic acid on too long and the ink from the name was also dissolved away. However, Clark was supported in his assessment by two other treasury workers who were with him. Spencer Clark’s testimony at the trial was brief but worked to prove that the boots worn by Powell had either been owned or purchased by John Wilkes Booth.

Hidden History:

Spencer Clark was born in Brattleboro, Vermont in 1811. As a young man Clark entered into many business ventures all of which failed. He declared bankruptcy twice before gaining employment in D.C. in a position he was not qualified for. In 1860, Clark was made the Acting Engineer in the Bureau of Construction for the U.S. Treasury Department despite the fact that he was not an engineer. However Clark made a good impression on Treasury Secretary Salmon Chase and was retained.

Salmon P. Chase was Lincoln’s Secretary of the Treasury from 1861 – 1864

Clark’s employment in the Treasury department came at a monumental time. Prior to the Civil War the only legal tender in the United States were gold and silver coins produced by the Treasury. These coins were known as specie. However the costs associated with the Civil War were so high and the amount of gold and silver was limited. Lincoln and his government had to look elsewhere to find a way to finance the war. The decision was finally made to introduce paper notes to serve as legal tender bills. This is commonplace to us now, but back then it was highly controversial and even Lincoln only agreed to it as a necessary, yet unfortunate, war effort. The treasury at this time did not have the facilities to print their own notes and there was great fear that the practice of printing money would fuel corruption within the government. Therefore these early notes were printed by private companies and then sent to the Treasury in sheets. In his position in the Treasury, Clark and his clerks were charged with cutting out the notes, signing them on behalf of the treasury officials, and the imprinting each note with a seal.

Clark soon required a larger work force to handle the increased output of the notes. With most able-bodied men off fighting in the war, the Treasury became one of the first government agencies to hire a large number of female clerks. The women who joined the ranks were often teenagers and young women whose fathers were either off fighting or had been killed. The Treasury sought to hire only girls and women who demonstrated a true need for employment to help provide for their families. Over 300 women found employment in the Treasury department before the end of the war.

In July of 1862, Clark and his department were investigated by a Congressional committee over the government’s contracts for the notes and qualifications of its workers. The committee determined that the contracts signed by the government with the private printers resulted in an extravagance in the expenditure of public money. They also found that Clark was not qualified for his position and suggested his removal. Clark was retained however due to his familiarity with Secretary Chase and his other superior, Francis Spinner, who was the Treasurer of the United States.

Francis Spinner was the Treasurer of the United States from 1861 – 1875

In August of 1862, Clark was authorized to purchase the machines necessary for the government to print some of its own notes rather than buying all of them from private companies. This decision essentially established the Bureau of Engraving and Printing and resulted in Spencer Clark becoming its first Superintendent. Clark supervised the production of the $1 and $2 notes. Clark’s new bureau was also tasked with the printing of the government’s new fractional currency. These bills were worth less than a dollar and were meant to supplement the dwindling supply of specie. In the initial run of fractional notes only Thomas Jefferson and George Washington appeared.

Examples of U.S. fractional currency

Clark, it should be noted, did a good job of instituting better security measures to impede counterfeiting. In the second issue of fractional currency, Clark had a copper circle placed around the head of Washington and Jefferson. If the bill was photographed, this ring would come out as black, thwarting the counterfeiter. Yet despite the positive aspects Spencer Clark brought to his position, there were also many negative aspects. Clark’s investment in the government’s printing presses proved to be misplaced. The presses Clark acquired literally came from the lowest bidder and the quality was lacking. Broken presses were common and delayed their production. Clark was also very poor in his book-keeping. His incomplete records of production and distribution were troublesome to members of Congress who were already worried about the corruptible nature of printing the country’s money.

In late 1863, Secretary Chase began hearing rumors about his printing department. These rumors were not about poor books or broken machines, however. The rumors being spread were about Clark, his female employees, and “gross immoralities” that were occurring under his supervision. Chase, who still held aspirations of his own to become President, decided to look into the matter in order to prevent any political enemy from discovering something that might damage his future. Chase requested that Secretary of War Edwin Stanton lend him a capable investigator to look into the rumors. Specifically Chase requested the assistance of Lafayette Baker.

Lafayette Baker

Chase would come to regret his request to have Baker investigate. Baker had served as a detective, special agent, and finally as a special provost marshal under Stanton. While Baker made himself useful to the government, his methods and character were highly questionable. He was notorious for throwing those he believed of wrongdoing into the Old Capitol Prison without charge. The declaration of martial law during the war gave him the authority to do so. After Lincoln’s assassination in 1865, Stanton would call on Baker again to help manage the manhunt for John Wilkes Booth and his conspirators.

Lafayette Baker committed himself to his investigation into the Treasury and opponents of the administration could smell the scent of scandal brewing. Salmon Chase had hoped for a quick exoneration of his subordinates but that was not what Baker had in mind. Baker believed that the public demanded a full and detailed inquiry and he would not allow himself to be a tool for Chase’s benefit. Baker was far too much of a loose cannon to do Chase’s bidding and wrap up the investigation quietly. While Baker charged a couple of Clark’s clerks with corruption, his biggest accusations were about Clark himself whom he accused of committing sexual misconduct with his female workers. Baker gathered statements by female employees that added up to a very damning picture against Clark, a married man.

Ella Jackson stated that she and another female clerk had traveled to Philadelphia at the invitation of Clark and another male clerk in the department named Gustavus Henderson. In Philadelphia, Miss Jackson registered at a hotel under an assumed name and spent the weekend with Clark. She also stated that Clark often offered her beer in his private office late at night, though she insisted she never drank more than two glasses and was never drunk at work. Ada Thompson, an actress, provided further details of Clark’s affair with Miss Jackson by informing to Baker that, “During the month of December last, Miss Jackson seldom came home before two or three o’clock in the morning. She stated to me that during these times she did not work later than ten or eleven o’clock and that the balance of that time…she spent in Mr. Clark’s private office.” Thompson also stated to Baker that she had “often seen in Miss Jackson’s possession obscene books, pictures, and prints, which she…informed me were given to her by Clark.”

Baker interviewed and received a statement from another young woman who had been in the employ of Mr. Clark. This girl stated:

“Mr. S M Clark came to me in the office, and asked me to come to his private residence, at the same time informing me that his wife was in the country. I did not at first comply with his request. On the next Saturday night…I went to Mr. Clark’s house about eight o’clock in the evening…Mr. Clark and myself occupied the same room until morning…About two weeks after my first visit to Mr. Clark’s house, he again asked me to go to his house and spend another evening with him; this request I complied with. I recollect distinctly a conversation I had with Mr. Clark. He said his wife was very jealous and at one time told him that she believed the Treasury Department was nothing more nor less than a house of ill-fame…Clark paid me as high as forty dollars; these amounts were independent of my wages earned in the Department…I freely confess my shame and disgrace, trusting that no publicity will be given to my statement.”

Lafayette Baker did not heed this woman’s request for confidentiality. Slowly, different pieces of Baker’s investigation were being leaked to public. Secretary Chase was seeing the reputation of his department and himself sullied. Chase suspended Clark but stopped short of firing him. Chase wanted Clark to resign but the latter would not go so easily. “I think it right that the country should know that your confidence in my official management has not been misplaced,” Clark wrote in an open letter to Chase that was published in the newspaper. Clark claimed that the charges against him were politically motivated since he was a hold out from President Buchanan’s administration. Essentially Clark set it up that if Chase moved to fire him, it would be far more damaging to Chase and his prospects as it would be confirmation that he had allowed things to get so out of hand in his department. Chase was trapped. The allegations against Clark were so detailed and extensive that they were undoubtedly true, but Chase had to save face. And so Chase turned to the only thing left of him, partisan politics.

While Baker’s investigation failed to find any major examples of monetary corruption in the Treasury department, the reports surrounding Clark’s sexual malfeasance became blood in the water to opponents of Lincoln’s administration in Congress. An investigative committee was created. Chase however, was connected enough to make sure that the majority of the Congressmen placed on the committee were friends. While there were a few token Democrats to provide the illusion of impartiality, the chairman of the committee was Republican representative, and future President, James Garfield.

Representative James A. Garfield

Chase and Garfield had become extremely close with Chase considering Garfield to be the son he never had.  The Republican majority committee worked extensively to attack Baker’s investigation. Each political party now found itself in a strange place. The Democrats, who loathed Baker and his methods, jumped to Baker’s defense while the Republicans, who had relied on Baker many times to be the shady means to achieve their ends, turned against him. Baker, feeling betrayed by his friends released all the pages of his scandalous findings to the public. Many newspapers would not print the reports deeming them too depraved to print, but others published the ladies’ statements in all their depraved detail. A political cartoon of the day even included the scandal with a brazen gentlemen eyeing a group of young ballerinas preparing for the Treasury Department’s production of “A New Way to Pay Old Debts”.

One might think that with all of the uproar that was being caused in the Democratic newspapers over Clark’s misconduct and the release of Baker’s reports that it would be impossible for Chase, Clark, and the Republicans to come out unscathed. However, in the end, Lafayette Baker’s own over-zealousness in his investigation would cause his downfall.

In early May of 1864, right about when the congressional investigation began, one of the Treasury department’s female clerks, Maggie Duvall, suddenly died. Maggie was described as “a beautiful and attractive young lady, with auburn hair, somewhat freckled.” Baker did not believe this death was a coincidence. He believed that Maggie had been a victim of Mr. Clark and died as a result of an abortion. Baker was able to collect a statement from another clerk that seemed to support this idea. And so, against the heartrending protests of Maggie’s family, Baker had Maggie’s funeral halted and had her body sent to an examining committee of local physicians to check for signs of an abortion.

In the end, however, Baker’s gamble backfired. It was found that Maggie had died of consumption and that her “virtue” was still intact. When the press heard the news of what Baker had done, they crucified him for it. His desecration of the poor girl’s body against the wishes of her family and the way he had attempted to sully her reputation became more of an outrage that than Clark’s alleged actions towards the other women. The Republicans were amazingly able to refrain the issue and turn Baker into the enemy. When Garfield and his majority in the congressional committee released their report they alleged that most of the charges against Clark were fabrications created by Baker on behalf of private printing companies in New York who were unhappy with having lost their contracts to print the government’s notes with the establishment of Clark’s bureau. In the end, the committee found that Lafayette Baker, “by the aid of coerced testimony” and with the assistance of “female prostitutes associated with him” had set out to destroy the reputation of Spencer Clark.

Lafayette Baker was livid and challenged Garfield to produce any evidence that he was working behalf of printing companies, had coerced any testimonies, or had used female prostitutes to make his case. In truth, all of these charges were groundless but it didn’t matter. Garfield had managed to reframe the issue in the public mind to protect his friends and his party. The Treasury scandal just went away which is why Spencer Clark was still in his position as superintendent of the printing division when he was asked to examine Lewis Powell’s boot in 1865.

But we’re still not done with Mr. Clark. In fact, we haven’t even touched on the scandal he is most known for and the way in which he changed the course of American currency forever.

In June of 1864, just after the inquiry over Clark’s sexual misconduct ended, Congress approved the creation of a third issue of fractional currency. The first and second issues, which ranged from 5 cents to 50 cents, had only contained the portraits of Washington and Jefferson. The design process was a lengthy affair with dies having to be created by outside companies. During this time Secretary Chase resigned from his post. He was replaced by Maine Senator William Fessenden who became the new Secretary of the Treasury.

William Fessenden was Lincoln’s Secretary of the Treasury from 1864 – 1865

Clark was in charge of the creation of the new fractional notes. It’s possible he was trying to curry favor with his new boss when he approached him with his idea for the portraits that should be placed on the new notes. Clark suggested that the notes contain the images of Secretary Fessenden, Assistant Secretary of the Treasury George Harrington, Controller of the Currency Hugh McCullough, and the Treasurer of the United States Francis Spinner.  Secretary Fessenden agreed to have his own face on one of the bills but told Clark to ask the other gentlemen for their consent. The other gentlemen were reluctant to the proposition but eventually agreed to it when they were assured by Clark that Secretary Fessenden wanted it so (which was a lie). In time Secretary Fessenden’s portrait appeared on the 25 cent note, and Treasurer Spinner’s portrait went on the 50 cent note.

Fractional currency notes bearing the likenesses of William Fessenden and Francis Spinner

These high value notes went into circulation but were not as common as the lower ones. The die for Controller McCullough’s note was damaged upon delivery to the Treasury and he, already being uncomfortable with the idea of being on currency, refused to allow Clark to order a new one. The design for Harrington’s note was apparently not yet in production. What occurred next is a little uncertain but end result was this:

A 5 cent fractional note bearing the likeness of Spencer Clark

Spencer Clark put his own face on the 5 cent fractional note. The story goes that the demand for 5 cent notes were so high that the treasury was under a time crunch to release the new issue of these bills. Strangely, or perhaps purposefully, Clark had originally planned for Francis Spinner to be on the 5 cent note but moved him to the less popular 50 cent note. Clark went up to Treasurer Spinner, told him of the almost completed design for the 5 cent note but lamented he had no portrait to put upon it. According to one story, Clark then said, “What head shall we use?” Clark asked Spinner, “the boys have got up a die with my head, what objection is there to using it?” Spinner then allegedly replied, “I have none”. Clark then went off telling people that he had the authorization of Francis Spinner to use his own image and he just so happened to have a die with his own portrait on it ready to go. However the truth is that Francis Spinner did not have the authority to approve designs nor did he claim to. When Secretary Fessenden saw the early proofs of the new 5 cent notes with Clark’s face, he rebuffed Clark. Clark then told him that it was Spinner who had insisted that Clark’s image be put upon the notes due to his years of faithful service to the bureau (which was a lie). The other story surrounding the placement of Spencer Clark’s face states that, when Clark approached Treasurer Spinner inquiring about who to put on the 5 cent note, he said something along the lines of, “Would the likeness of Clark do?” Spinner apparently believed that Spencer was referring to that great American explorer William Clark, of Louis and Clark fame. Spinner agreed to this and it was not until after the proofs were made that it was discovered that there had been a “misunderstanding”. Regardless of what really happened, due to the time constraints and demand for the bills, the production of the 5 cent notes with Spencer Clark’s face was allowed to continue.

As you might imagine, when these new 5 cent notes first appeared in public in February of 1866, there was quite an uproar. People had previous talked of the impudence of when Salmon Chase was placed on the $1 notes produced by the treasury and now here were fractional bills containing the images of three more treasury workers. Though George Washington was retained on the 3 cent and 10 cent notes, Thomas Jefferson had lost his place among our nation’s money completely.

Members of Congress were the most outraged especially considering the drama that had unfolded around Clark just two years earlier. The man had been rightfully accused of using his position to solicit sexual favors from his female subordinates and now he was the face of the 5 cent note. So, on March 1, 1866, Representative Martin Thayer of Pennsylvania added the following amendment to an appropriations bill for the Treasury:

“Hereafter no portrait or likeness of any living person shall be engraved or placed upon any of the bonds, securities, notes, or postal currency of the United States.”

Thayer humorously demonstrated how teachers all over the country will have to do away with their old table of Federal currency and learn the one currently promoted by the Treasury.

Rep. James Garfield expressed his disagreement with the amendment, initially citing his belief that money should represent the leaders of the day. However, his argument quickly shifted into a prolonged and flowery defense of Spencer Clark:

“Sir, I take pleasure in saying a word for an abused man, who is not here to answer his accusers; and I say it, too, remembering the declaration of an ancient philosopher, that people love to hear accusation better than defense. I do not hesitate to declare it as my opinion that when the history of our financial struggles during the later war shall have been written; when all passion and prejudice shall have died away; when the events of the present shall be seen in the clear light of veritable history, this man, whose picture is now sneered at; this man, so little known to fame, and so unfavorably spoken of among many members of this House, will stand out in that history as a man most remarkable for genius and ability, for having accomplished a work which will take its place among the wonders of mechanism and useful invention, and for having saved to the Treasury, by his skill and fidelity, millions of money. Whatever people please to say concerning S. M. Clark and his antecedents, he has done his country signal service; and, sir, I believe his merits will some day be recognized by the American people as they have been and still are by those who know what he has done and is still doing in the public service.”

Representative James Brooks from New York, the Congressman who had started the call to investigate Clark two years ago and served as one of Garfield’s token Democrats in the committee could not let Garfield’s aggrandizement of Clark go without a response.

Rep. James Brooks of New York

“What a eulogy he has pronounced upon a great hero of this war! When the name of Grant shall have faded away; when the magnificent victories of Sherman, from the mountains of Tennessee throughout all George, North and South Carolina, and Virginia, shall have been forgotten; … when even Lincoln shall have been buried with Julius and Augustus Caesar, there will arise one remarkable man; high on the horizon, and that is Clark, the printer of the public money!”

This response was met with laughter from the House. Garfield and Brooks then argued for some time about the past investigation into Clark before Brooks brought the attention back to the matter at hand.

“Sir, the honorable gentleman from Pennsylvania, Mr. Thayer is right. No man should be immortalized upon the public money of the country until the verdict of posterity has been pronounced upon his name, and it can go down upon that record sanctioned by the voices of men of all parties, all politics, and of all religions.”

In the end, the Representatives voted to put Rep. Thayer amendment in. When the amendment arrived in the Senate the only change made was to allow the current plates of notes to be used until their expiration in order to avoid the cost of halting production and purchasing new ones at this time. This was agreed to by both the Senate and House without dissent.

Finally on April 7, 1866, the appropriations bill was passed which contained the amendment banning living people from appearing on our money and stamps.

This policy still stands today. Coincidentally. the same appropriations bill that banned portraits of living people on money also approved the expenditure of $100,000 for the purchase of a property in Washington City “for the deposit and safe keeping of documentary papers relating to the soldiers of the army of the United States, and of the museum of the medical and surgical department of the army.” The property’s name? Ford’s Theatre.

Spencer Clark survived an investigation into his qualifications. He survived an investigation into his immoral and predatory behavior with his female clerks. Spencer Clark even survived the aftermath of the widespread embarrassment he had brought upon his government by putting his own face on money. However, could not survive one last scandal. On November 17, 1868, Clark tendered his resignation after an investigative committee found him guilty of…improper book-keeping. After leaving the Treasury, Clark acquired a position in the Department of Agriculture, eventually becoming the head of the Bureau of Vital Statistics. Clark died on December 10, 1890 and is buried in Hartford, Connecticut next to his wife.

Spencer Clark was a failed businessman, a fake engineer, the Superintendent of the Bureau of Engraving and Printing, a scumbag sexual predator, and man who put his own face on money. That’s quite a scandalous hidden history.

References:
The Enemy Within: Fears of Corruption in the Civil War North by Michael Thomas Smith – a fascinating book which details Spencer Clark and the Treasury Scandal

Categories: Grave Thursday, History | Tags: , , , , , , , , | 4 Comments

An Assassination Cane

An Interesting Artifact

The collection of the Abraham Lincoln Library and Museum in Harrogate, Tennessee contains many fascinating artifacts relating to the 16th President. Among their collections is a cupboard made by Abraham’s father, Thomas Lincoln; a china set owned by the Lincolns in their Springfield home; a lock of Willie Lincoln’s hair taken from his head after his death; and a massive archive of art, books, manuscripts, photographs, and ephemera relating to Lincoln. One of the most famous artifacts in the museum, however, is an ebony cane topped with a sterling silver knob handle which bears the inscription “A. Lincoln”.

Compared to modern canes which are mainly used as functional tools to assist in walking and balance, this 35.5 inch long cane owned by Lincoln was solely a fashion piece. Short canes, or walking sticks, were very common accessories for men during the Victorian era. Many men carried canes as evidence of class and elaborate canes were common affectations designed only to impress or convey prestige. For example, Lincoln’s future assassin, John Wilkes Booth, was often photographed with walking sticks. Since Booth would often give out these photographs to friends and admirers, the cane helped to subtlety reinforce his self-image as a member of high society.

While Lincoln was not known to crave prestige, canes were also often presented as gifts. Visiting dignitaries often received decorative canes as tokens of esteem. There are many accounts of Lincoln being presented with canes during his career as a lawyer and politician.

The question remains then, why is the Lincoln cane at the ALLM one of the highlights of the museum’s collection? What sets it apart from any number of canes that are said to have been owned or presented to Lincoln? Well, this cane is said to have been with Abraham Lincoln when he was assassinated at Ford’s Theatre on April 14, 1865.

The Provenance

The Lincoln cane arrived in the collection of the ALLM on September 10, 1929. It was given to the museum by a former resident of Troy, New York named Joseph Mayhew. In his donation of the cane, Mr. Mayhew included two notarized letters conveying the history of the cane. One letter was written by Mr. Mayhew and the other was by his sister, Emma Cuenin nee Mayhew. The following is from Emma’s affidavit:

“In 1875 my father, Stephen Mayhew, was the proprietor of a grocery and meat market at the corner of Fifth and Ferry Streets, Troy, N.Y. After school I would often wait on the customers who came into the store. This was when I was about 11 years old.

I remember a man and his wife named Phelps trading at the store. Phelps was an actor. He would purchase groceries and meats and then charge them. When his bill amounted to about $40.00 and he was unable to pay he offered father Abraham Lincoln’s cane in lieu of the bill. Father accepted the cane as payment in full.

Phelps related how he became possessor of Abraham Lincoln’s cane, saying that he, Phelps, was an actor having a minor part in the play at Ford’s Theatre in Washington, D.C. on the night President Lincoln was assassinated. In the excitement that followed Lincoln’s being shot Phelps entered the President’s box and seeing the cane in the corner where Lincoln left it he picked it up and kept it as a memento.

Father often carried the cane, making no secret that it at one time belonged to President Lincoln.”

Stephen Mayhew continued to own and display Lincoln’s cane to his friends and neighbors. According to the affidavits, the display of the cane caused jealously among a certain Troy resident who sought to claim the cane as his own.

“Some litigation was started concerning the cane, as a man named Kisselberg though he would like to gain possession of it. My father’s interests in the matter were defended by a lawyer named Palmer. After spending some money and time in the courts Palmer caused the cane to be sold at Sheriff’s sale in order that a clear title could be obtained. It was bought in for my father.

During the litigation a letter was written to Lincoln’s son concerning the cane, in which it was explained how father became possessor of it. Lincoln’s son replied, stating that as long as father had obtained it through an honest debt he was entitled to it.”

Joseph Mayhew’s affidavit contains a bit more detail regarding the legal battle concerning the cane, but fails to mention the detail regarding Robert Todd Lincoln’s involvement in the case:

“At a later date, when it became generally known that my father had the cane in his possession, it was seized by the local authorities. It was kept for a time by the Sheriff of Rensselear County and also in a jeweler’s safe. This jeweler’s name was Kisselberg and his place of business was on River Street in Troy, N.Y.

My father took legal action to recover the cane. He engaged a lawyer, named Palmer. Palmer caused the cane to be sold at Sheriff’s sale and bought it in for my father so that my father would have a clear title to it. The litigation cost my father between eighteen hundred ($1800.00) and two thousand ($2000.00) dollars.”

After recovering his property, Stephen Mayhew continued to own Lincoln’s cane. In 1914, Stephen gave the cane to Joseph. The elder Mayhew died in 1917.

With these two pieces of evidence in hand and a priceless, highly fought over, silent witness in their collection, the assassination cane has been a centerpiece of the ALLM’s collection for years.

Recently, I have been looking through my files relating to my own visit to the ALLM back in 2014. Though I was only able to spend a brief period of time researching in their archives, I was amazed at the breadth of their collection. I previously did a blog post about a letter owned by conspirator Samuel Arnold that is in the museum’s collection. In revisiting my files, I decided it would be worthwhile to publish a quick post about the Lincoln cane with the intention of bringing about some more awareness to this unique artifact. After a bit of research into this cane and the provenance behind it however, I have come to an unexpected conclusion.  I do not believe this cane was at Ford’s Theatre on April 14, 1865.

The Research

Near the end of Joseph Mayhew’s affidavit he mentions that when his father finally presented the cane to him, it was also accompanied by, “a copy of ‘The Trojan Observer,’ a newspaper dated Monday, January 26, 1880, and published at Troy, N.Y. This newspaper contains an account with reference to the Lincoln cane.” It turns out that the seizure and legal battle concerning the cane was a newsworthy event. The local Troy papers talked about the recovery of the cane and how it would, undoubtedly, be returned to Robert Todd Lincoln. The story of Lincoln’s cane was reprinted across the country. The newspapers, likely getting their information from Stephen Mayhew, reported that the man who recovered the cane was named A. R. Phelps, the stage name of actor Alonzo Raymond Phelps. This name concurs with the Mayhew children’s statements years later. Also helpful to the Mayhews’ statements is the fact that Alonzo Phelps, for a brief period of time in the mid 1870s, did reside in Troy, NY as evidenced by his inclusion in a Troy city directory.

From this point onward, however, the evidence against the cane’s provenance begins to add up. By consulting Thomas Bogar’s impeccably researched book, Backstage at the Lincoln Assassination, one finds that Alonzo Phelps did not perform in Our American Cousin at Ford’s Theatre that night. He was not part of the Ford’s stock company and was not a member of Laura Keene’s visiting troupe. The idea that Phelps was acting at Ford’s Theatre on the night of Lincoln’s death is not supported by the evidence.

The question then becomes, if Phelps did not perform at Ford’s Theatre that night, was it possible for him to be there in the role of an audience member instead? Unfortunately, that does not appear to be likely.

The entry for A. R. Phelps in the 1870 edition of Brown’s History of the American Stage states that, “in 1854 [Phelps] sailed for California, in company with the Denin Sisters, where he opened in ‘Love’s Sacrifice,’ on April 10 of that year. He remained on that coast, playing through California, Oregon, Nevada, etc., until 1866, when he took the overland trip to New York.” Further research demonstrates Phelps’ long residence in California where he worked as both an actor and a theater manager. In 1856, for example, A. R. Phelps and fellow actor Junius Brutus Booth, Jr. leased the Union Theatre in San Francisco. Among the actors the business partners brought in that season was June’s younger brother, Edwin Booth, who was just beginning his starring theatrical career.

Phelps stayed in California during the course of the Civil War and the evidence indicates that Phelps was likely still in California when Lincoln’s assassination occurred. In addition to the entry in Brown’s History of the American Stage which states that Phelps did not return east until 1866, we also find A. R. Phelps’ name in the 1864 and 1865 city directories for San Francisco. Newspaper advertisements also indicate that he was performing at the Metropolitan Theatre in San Francisco as late as March of 1865. With the journey between San Francisco and New York lasting about a month in those days, it is extremely unlikely Phelps was on the correct coast when Lincoln was assassinated. The bulk of the evidence points to him still being in California when Lincoln was killed.

With it having been established that Phelps was not performing at, or likely even near, Ford’s Theatre on April 14, 1865, the provenance of the “assassination” cane is dealt a significant blow. What is interesting, however, is that this is not the first time the authenticity of the cane has been questioned. In fact, the true history of the cane may have very well been established back in 1880 when the initial reports went out about its recovery from Stephen Mayhew. An article, originally published by the Troy Evening Standard and reprinted by other newspapers across the country, gives a different history of where this cane came from:

“Many years ago, when President Lincoln was a poor lawyer in Springfield, Illinois, he carried about with him a plain ebony cane, with a silver ferrule, marked ‘A. Lincoln.’ The cane may have cost $5.

When Lincoln found himself in Washington he still carried the old ebony, being loath to part with his old friend. One day a delegation of friends waited upon and presented him with an elegant modern cane with an elaborately engraved gold handle. He accepted the gift more to accommodate his friends than to please himself. The old cane was given to a trusty valet who often frequented a prominent restaurant in Washington, where nightly assembled many professional men, actors, lawyers and musicians. Among the number was A. R. Phelps, the first manager of the Grand Central Theatre. Hard pushed for money, the valet pawned the cane with the proprietor of the restaurant, and from the latter it passed into the hands of Phelps. In his vocation as a theatrical manager and actor Phelps struck Troy some three or four years ago, and assumed the management of the Grand Central Theatre for Thomas Miller, the proprietor. Finally adversity overtook him. Misfortune fell heavily upon him, and he with his wife and six children was left in the direst distress, and he pawned the cane to a down-town citizen for $25. He then left town and has not since been seen here…”

If accurate, this article paints a very different story as to the circumstances surrounding Alonzo Phelps’ attainment of Lincoln’s cane. Rather than having retrieved the cane from the President’s box at Ford’s Theatre, Phelps is said to have received the cane as a gift from a restaurant proprietor in Washington on an undetermined date. In addition, the article claims that the cane was one purchased by Lincoln himself while living in Springfield and given away by the living Lincoln when he received a different one in Washington. While the article does not provide any sources for the history behind Lincoln’s cane, it is clear that at least some research was undertaken in its reporting. The article gives the circumstances of Phelps’ residence in Troy in the mid-1870s stating that he was the theatrical manager of the Grand Central Theatre. This appears to be backed up by a January 20, 1877 article in the New York Clipper which announced that Phelps was to receive a complimentary benefit at the Grand Central Theatre.

However, there are some small discrepancies in the article as well, such as the amount Phelps owed to Mayhew ($25 vs $40) and the number of children Phelps had at the time (6 vs 5). In addition, the article goes on to recount the involvement of Robert Todd Lincoln in attempting to recover the cane:

“Robert T. Lincoln, son of the dead President, learning that the cane was in this city, corresponded with Chief Markham with a view of obtaining possession of it. Yesterday morning Markham received track of its whereabouts and served a search warrant upon the proprietor of a meat market at the corner of Federal and North Fourth streets. There the cane was recovered. In the police court yesterday afternoon, before Justice Donohue, the matter of the disposition of the cane was taken up, and postponed for two weeks. It is supposed Phelps gave the cane as security for the meat consumed by his family.”

According to this article, Robert Todd Lincoln was taking an active role in the recovery of his father’s cane. This is in contrast to the Mayhews’ statements which claim the seizure of the cane was brought upon by a jealous and covetous neighbor and that it was a letter by Robert Lincoln which allowed them to retrieve the artifact. After some further digging, however, it appears that neither set of these circumstances are true.

Between 1903 and 1926, Robert Todd Lincoln maintained a correspondence with a former journalist named Isaac Markens of New York. Markens was studying Abraham Lincoln and wrote many letters to Robert asking him questions about his father. Markens published a few pamphlets on Abraham Lincoln and was said to have been working on a full biography of the President that was never completed. In the 1960s, the 82 letters written by Robert Lincoln in answer to Isaac Markens’ questions were donated to the Chicago Historical Society. In 1968, the CHS published the bulk of the letters as a book titled, A Portrait of Abraham Lincoln in the Letters by his Oldest Son. While the book does not contain the original letters Markens sent to Robert, it seems clear that at one point Markens came across one of the 1880 newspaper stories regarding the assassination cane and decided to ask Robert about it. The following is part of a letter Robert Lincoln sent to Markens on January 25, 1918 in which he discusses the cane:

“The story about the cane is queer. I think I should have remembered any such events as are described in it if they had occurred, and I do not. I do not think there is a word of truth in the story. I do not own any cane ever possessed by my father, and I never took any interest in any such cane. He never used a cane himself at all. At various times in his life there were presented to him canes. I remember such things, but he never cared anything about them, and gave them no attention. I think it is true that after his death my mother gave away to servants some canes which had come to him in Washington, for which none of us had any regard whatever. Such canes may be in existence, but they possess no real interest in connection with my father.

Very sincerely yours,

Robert T. Lincoln”

In this letter, Robert Lincoln makes it clear that he never had any involvement regarding a cane belonging to his father. This is in contrast to both the newspaper articles and the affidavits from the Mayhews. Nevertheless, Robert Todd Lincoln is a more reliable source on these matters than the other two and his statement must carry the most weight.

Conclusions

We are left with an “assassination” cane whose provenance is full of holes and half-truths. Each piece of the story can be broken down into categories of likely and unlikely.

It seems likely that Alonzo Phelps gave Stephen Mayhew a cane in exchange for a debt the actor owed the grocer. This piece of the story is consistent across all sources and there is evidence that places Phelps in Troy during the applicable time period.

It seems highly unlikely that Alonzo Phelps retrieved the cane from the President’s box at Ford’s Theatre on the night of Lincoln’s assassination. Evidence proves that Phelps was not performing at Ford’s Theatre in direct contradiction to the claims of the Mayhew family. Given Phelps’ established residence in California up until March of 1865, it seems incredibly unlikely that he was even in Washington, D.C. that fateful night.

It is unlikely that this cane was even carried by Abraham Lincoln to Ford’s Theatre on April 14th. For this point we have two pieces of evidence. The first, and admittedly weaker, piece of evidence is Robert Lincoln’s assertion that his father did not regularly carry a cane. Since Robert was not a witness to his father’s assassination, this piece alone does not prove much. However, there was an eyewitness to Lincoln’s assassination who publicly disputed the idea that Lincoln carried a cane with him that night. After the story of Lincoln’s cane was published across the country in 1880, a brief retort was published in Washington, D.C.’s the Evening Star. The article stated, “The story telegraphed from Troy about the recovery of a cane stolen from Mr. Lincoln’s box in the theater on the night of his assassination, is pronounced by Mr. Charles Forbes, who was an usher at the White House at the time, to be false, as Mr. Lincoln had no cane with him.” Though the brief article failed to mention it, Charles Forbes was far more than just a White House usher. Forbes had accompanied the Lincoln party to Ford’s Theatre that night and he was the one sitting outside of the President’s box when John Wilkes Booth approached. Booth presented Forbes with a calling card of some sort and Forbes allowed Booth entry into the box. Forbes is a very reliable witness in this matter and his claim that Lincoln had no cane with him that night is further evidence against the cane’s reported history.

Charles Forbes, the man who sat outside of Lincoln’s box and allowed John Wilkes Booth to enter. He denied Lincoln carried a cane that night.

After looking at all of the evidence, I do not believe the “assassination” cane held by the ALLM was ever with Lincoln at Ford’s Theatre on April 14, 1865. The most likely history of this cane, in my mind, was largely laid out by Robert Lincoln. We know that Abraham Lincoln was presented with many canes during his lifetime. The Lincoln Financial Foundation Collection contains an entire file folder of clippings relating to Lincoln canes. In addition to ones gifted to him, Lincoln himself was known to present canes as gifts. In 1864, for example, 19 silver headed ebony canes were purchased by the government and presented to the 19 governors of the Pueblo tribes in New Mexico. Each of these canes were engraved with the name of the governor and also the name of the President “A. Lincoln”. In his letter, Robert Lincoln mentions how, after his father’s death, Mary Lincoln gave away canes that had been presented to her husband. I believe a situation similar to this likely occurred with the cane at the ALLM. Somehow, perhaps from a restaurant owner in D.C. as the newspaper account stated, Alonzo Phelps acquired a cane that had, at one time, been owned or presented to Abraham Lincoln. Phelps cherished the cane until he was forced to part with it in Troy in the 1870s to Stephen Mayhew. Over time, either through outright lies or faulty memories, the story of the cane morphed, giving it a far more dramatic backstory. Lincoln Memorial University was more than happy to acquire this unique piece for their growing Lincoln collection and the two notarized statements from the Mayhew children were provenance enough in the 1920s. However, with the help of modern tools and resources, we can more deeply investigate the provenance behind artifacts like the Lincoln cane. While such investigations may lead to disappointing conclusions, like the debunking of a cherished Lincoln artifact, the process is an important part of evaluating and reevaluating what we think we know about the past.

References:
Abraham Lincoln Library and Museum (ALLM)
Provenance records for President Lincoln’s cane at the ALLM (80.0379)
Backstage at the Lincoln Assassination by Thomas Bogar
San Francisco Theatre Research: Theatre Buildings Vol. XV Part 1 edited by Lawrence Estevan
History of the American Stage (1870) by T. Allston Brown
San Francisco City Directory, Oct 1864 and Dec 1865 accessed via Ancestry.com
“Lincoln’s Cane” Troy Evening Standard article reprinted in the San Francisco Bulletin, February 2, 1880
A Portrait of Abraham Lincoln in Letters by his Oldest Son edited by Paul M. Angle with assistance of Richard G. Case
Charles Forbes Statement in the January, 23, 1880 edition of the Evening Star
Lincoln Financial Foundation Collection: Canes Owned by Lincoln file, Cane – Assassination file
“At the Griswold Opera-House, Troy, N.Y. …The veteran actor and manager A. R. Phelps, and wife, who recently resigned from the Griswold Opera-house, are to be the recipients of a complimentary benefit at the Grand Central.” – The New York Clipper January 20, 1877

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Replica Booth Diaries for Sale Again!

Looking for that special gift for the Lincoln assassination aficionado in your life? How about a replica of the diary John Wilkes Booth used during his 12 day escape?

A few years ago, I assisted a prop maker named Pasquale Marsella to create near perfect replicas of John Wilkes Booth’s diary. Using photographs of the diary that were taken during the 1970s, Mr. Marsella was able to reproduce the interior of the diary with amazing detail. The interior of these replicas contained Booth’s own handwriting and duplicated the number of missing and torn pages exactly. Mr. Marsella created only a limited number of diaries and quickly sold out of them. I was fortunate enough to purchase one of the diaries, as did the Surratt House Museum, which keeps the replica on display in their visitor center.

Replica Booth diary on display at the Surratt House Museum

In the years since Mr. Marsella’s first run of diaries, demand for the replicas has been high. In 2015, I was contacted by producers at the Smithsonian Channel who were hoping to get their own replica diary for use in a documentary. I had to inform them that Mr. Marsella had no more left. Instead, I agreed to lend them my replica diary for use in their documentary, Lincoln’s Last Day:

Over the last few years I’ve had several other folks contact me hoping they could purchase diaries, and I sadly also had to inform them that Mr. Marsella had no more left and wasn’t making them anymore. However, Mr. Marsella has recently decided to do another run of his diaries which are available for purchase!

In this second run of diaries, Mr. Marsella has made some improvements from his earlier design. The new replicas utilize a higher quality leather which is softer and gives the diary an older look and feel than previous models. Further, Mr. Marsella is including a more accurate piece of brass on the outer part of the diary. During the last few years, Mr. Marsella has improved his technique for aging paper, giving these new diaries a more authentic “old” look to them. Lastly, the interior pockets marked “Postage” and ” Tickets” are no longer just sewn on displays, but fully functioning pockets like on the real diary.

One of Pasquale Marsella’s new, second run of John Wilkes Booth diaries

This second run of replica John Wilkes Booth diaries consists of only 30 diaries, several of which have already been sold. The limited amount is due to the time consuming process of detailing and tooling the leather, which Mr. Marsella does himself.

Mr. Marsella is selling his limited number of John Wilkes Booth diary replicas for $375 each plus $30 shipping. Payment is accepted through PayPal. Due to the nature of his work, Mr. Marsella will need 25 days from receipt of payment to complete each diary. If you are interested in purchasing a replica diary, please email Mr. Marsella directly at pasqualemarsella@yahoo.it and he will give you instructions on how to pay through PayPal.

If you have any questions about the diaries feel free to leave a comment below or email Mr. Marsella directly. As an owner of one of Mr. Marsella’s replica diaries, I can say that his workmanship is impeccable. I have used this diary as a prop during my own reenactments as John Wilkes Booth, I’ve brought it along with me to speeches, and I always carry it when I give the John Wilkes Booth escape route bus tour. You should see the interest in people’s faces when I pass around my handmade, Italian crafted (Mr. Marsella lives in Italy) replica John Wilkes Booth diary. Everyone on the bus enjoys leafing through the pages and seeing John Wilkes Booth’s handwriting duplicated exactly. They have no idea that the piece is so exactly duplicated that even the missing and torn pages in the replica match the real McCoy in the Ford’s Theatre museum. My diary has passed through many hands in the 4 years that I have had it and it’s holding up great.

Yours truly showing off his own replica Booth diary while presenting at the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library in Springfield, Illinois

I truly enjoy giving Mr. Marsella some free advertising and assisting him in selling his diaries because he provides such a unique and well-crafted piece that you can’t get anywhere else. Get yours today before they’re gone once more.

Categories: History, News | Tags: , , , , , | 12 Comments

The Hidden History of James P. Ferguson

On April 1, 2017, I spoke at the annual Surratt Society Conference. The topic of my speech revolved around the hidden histories of some of the minor characters in the Lincoln assassination story. One of the subjects of that talk was James P. Ferguson, assassination witness and proprietor of the Greenback Saloon next to Ford’s Theatre. The following text comes from my speech and is presented in lieu of a Grave Thursday post.


James Patton Ferguson

Burial Location: Spring Grove Cemetery, Cincinnati, Ohio

Connection to the Lincoln assassination:

In the assassination story, James P. Ferguson is known as being the man who owned the Greenback Saloon on the north side of Ford’s Theatre. Ferguson was well acquainted with the actor turned assassin, John Wilkes Booth. On the day of Lincoln’s assassination, in the late afternoon hours, Booth had showed off his escape horse to Ferguson and some of the Ford’s Theatre employees. That night, Ferguson secured two tickets to “Our American Cousin”. He had been told that General Grant was going to be the guest of the Lincoln’s that night and Ferguson wanted to see the great general. Ferguson secured seats on the balcony level opposite the President’s box in order to get a good view of its occupants. When the President arrived with different guests, Ferguson was disappointed but kept his eyes on the box hoping that Grant might join the party later. Ferguson was perhaps the only person looking at the President’s box when John Wilkes Booth entered and fired. He was one of the first witnesses to be interviewed and his descriptions of the events of that night are one of the best.

Hidden History:

James Patton Ferguson was born on August 20, 1828 in Highland County, Ohio. As a young man he had a roving restless nature. He found employment as a boatman on a river steamboat that ran between Cincinnati and New Orleans, he was elected as a policeman in Cincinnati until he was fired for being found asleep in a barrel while on duty, then he moved to New Orleans where he worked as a bartender. While he would continue to work as a bartender and restaurant keeper for the rest of his life, in the mid 1850’s Ferguson left his job in New Orleans and joined up as a soldier of fortune. Ferguson traveled down to Nicaragua to fight under the command of a man named William Walker.

William Walker

William Walker was a Tennessean physician and lawyer turned mercenary. He was a firm believer in both the practice of slavery and in belief of Manifest destiny. Walker sought to annex land in Mexico and Central America in order to create new American colonies that practiced slavery. These colonies would be ruled by Walker as republics in the hope they would later be accepted into the United States as additional slave states. In 1853, Walker successfully invaded the sparsely inhabited Mexican state of Baja and declared it the Republic of Lower California.

Walker planned to invade and annex the nearby Mexican state of Sonora but, in 1854, with his supplies running low, he retreated back to the U.S. Though he was put on trial for violating the Neutrality Act of 1794 which made it illegal for an American to wage a war against any country at peace with the United States, Walker was acquitted by a jury after only 8 minutes of deliberation.

While Walker had been fighting in Mexico in 1854, a civil war had broken out in Nicaragua.  The two groups fighting for control of the country were the Legitimist Party and the Democratic Party. After hearing about Walker’s incursion into Mexico, the leader of the Democratic party, Francisco Castellon, sought Walker’s help to defeat the Legitimists. Back then, Nicaragua, like Panama, was a crucial point for transcontinental trade. Walker saw the benefit of controlling Nicaragua and traveled down to “help” Castellon and the Democrats. On June 29, 1855, Walker with a group of about 45 mercenaries and 100 natives, seized the city of Rivas, Nicaragua. By October of 1855, Walker and his men had completely defeated the Legitimist army and had seized their capital of Granada. The civil war in Nicaragua had been won for the Democratic Party. News of Walker’s success traveled far and wide and apparently made an impression on the 27 year-old James P Ferguson. Ferguson left New Orleans and traveled down to Nicaragua to join Walker and his men.

As commander of the whole army, William Walker essentially ruled Nicaragua through a provisional president. Walker’s regime was even recognized as the legitimate government of Nicaragua by U.S. President Franklin Pierce. Though it is unknown when exactly James P. Ferguson joined the ranks of Walker’s army, we know it was at least by April of 1856. You see after the Nicaraguan Civil war ended with Walker’s army victorious, the neighboring countries of Costa Rica and Honduras had growing concerns over their border. Walker’s well known desire to annex and expand his territory was a problem. In March of 1856, Costa Rica declared war not on Nicaragua but on Walker’s army of mercenary invaders. On April 11, 1856, the army of Costa Rica made attacked on Walker’s army in Rivas, the same city that Walker had seized when he first arrived in Nicaragua the year earlier. James P. Ferguson was in that battle which was later known as the Second Battle of Rivas. The Costa Rican army of almost 9,000 volunteers were too much for Walker and he was forced to retreat to his stronghold of Granada. At the end of the battle casualties were high on both sides. Though the circumstances are unknown, Ferguson is listed as one of those wounded during the battle.

He was lucky he was not killed, for, as they were retreating from Rivas, Walker ordered the bodies of the dead to be thrown into the city’s wells in order to poison the town’s water supply. This dastardly deed was very effective and resulted in a cholera epidemic after the battle had ended. The Costa Rican army unwittingly brought tainted water back with them when they returned home which resulted in a cholera epidemic that killed 10% of the country’s population.

The wounded James P. Ferguson left Nicaragua shortly after the Second Battle of Rivas and returned to the United States. Though he recovered, for the rest of his life, James P. Ferguson would walk with a limp.

After his return to the U.S., Ferguson went back to his chosen profession as a bartender. When the Civil War broke out, Ferguson, like many others, made his was to Washington, D.C. which had increased in size due to the war. In April of 1861, 33 year-old Ferguson married a woman named Martha who was about the same age as him. The pair settled down in D.C. where Ferguson came to run the Greenback Saloon.

Among the countless others who made Washington their home was a young couple named Sabret and Ann Cecil. The Cecils had three children. In 1862, Sabret died unexpectedly leaving Ann to raise their children Martha, Mary and John all by herself. To make ends meet Ann worked as a dressmaker. Somehow, the Fergusons came to know Ann and her children. Perhaps seeing the difficult situation Ann was in as a single mother and perhaps because James and Martha never had any children of their own, the Fergusons apparently offered to help Ann by caring for her middle daughter, Mary Ella, at the time. The Fergusons provided Ella with lodging and care and she became essentially one of the family. James Ferguson was very fond of 12 year-old and doted upon her greatly.

Martha Ferguson’s health was not always the greatest and that is the reason why, on the night of Lincoln’s assassination, it was Mary Ella Cecil who was James P. Ferguson’s guest at Ford’s Theatre instead. Ferguson’s detailed account of the crime made him a hot commodity with his story being  carried in many of the newspapers of the day, while Ella doesn’t seem to have been interviewed at all.

A few months after the assassination, Martha Ferguson’s health worsened and so James suggested that his wife leave D.C. James arranged for Martha to stay with some friends of his in his home state of Ohio. With Martha gone, Ella went back to live with her mother Ann. While James was very dutiful in writing letters to his wife in the period shortly after her departure, over time his letters to her became less and less until they inexplicably stopped coming altogether. By late 1866, Martha heard some terrible news from some of her other acquaintances, her husband had apparently taken a mistress and was parading her around as his wife. Angry, Martha left Ohio and travelled back to D.C. to confront her cheating spouse. When she arrived in D.C. she found that James had left the city, apparently having learned of her return. She traced him up to Baltimore before learning he departed that city and gone back to D.C. just before she had arrived. Returning to D.C., Martha learned the identity of the woman who was her husband’s mistress. Filled with fury and anger, Martha knocked on a door that was located near 6th St and H St, right around the corner from Mary Surratt’s boarding house. When the door opened Martha Ferguson upbraided the girl who had ruined her life, Mary Ella Cecil.

Yes, it appears that at some point over the years, James P. Ferguson’s interest in Ella changed from guardian to suitor. It’s possible that Ferguson was interested in Ella romantically as far back as the assassination when Ella was only 14 years old. It seems increasingly likely that James Ferguson sent his wife away to Ohio in order to remove any barriers against his relationship with Ella.

James Ferguson was not present in the home that Ella shared with her mother, but unfortunately “Jimmy the canary was. You see, as a token of his affection, James had presented Ella with a lovely canary whom Ella named Jimmy after its donor. Martha, seeing the bird and hearing its name, was so enraged that, to quote to newspaper, “she took the bird and wrung its head off”.

Screaming ensued between Ella and Martha and Ella seized Martha in order to kick her out of the house. At this, Martha pulled out a revolver and aimed it at Ella’s chest. Martha pulled the trigger three times, but the gun did not fire. Someone intervened and prevented the two from fighting further while a police officer was sent for. Martha Ferguson was arrested and charged with assault and battery with intent to kill with her bail set at $1,000.

Despite a hearty search, I was unable to find any additional details about Martha’s arrest or even if she stood trial for what she had done. It is unlikely Martha went to jail for committing avicide against Jimmy the canary and though she intended to serious harm Ella, the fact that the gun did not fire also probably saved her. Regardless, Martha falls completely off the radar after her arrest, even to the point that James did not know where to find her. In spring of 1867, James sought to divorce Martha but the issued subpoena is returned as Martha was, “not to be found”.

In July of 1867, James took a legal notice in the National Intelligencer stating that if she does not appear within 40 days he will go through the divorce proceedings in her absence. There is no evidence that Martha ever comes forward and in December of 1867, the divorce is put on the docket in the D.C. courts. On February, 11, 1868, James P. Ferguson is granted a divorce against Martha. In what is likely a final insult to Mrs. Ferguson, James alleges that his reason for divorce is because Martha committed adultery in October and November of 1866 and was also addicted to drinking.

Fifteen days after his divorce from Martha, 39 year old James P. Ferguson married 17 year-old Mary Ella Cecil in DC. After losing his bar and restaurant the couple would move to Cincinnati and have three children together. James P. Ferguson died in 1897 while Ella lived almost 40 more years dying in 1936. They are buried together in Spring Grove Cemetery in Cincinnati.

That’s some of the hidden history of James P. Ferguson, saloon keeper, key assassination witness, Nicaraguan mercenary, and creepy adopted father/husband.

Categories: Grave Thursday, History | Tags: , , | 14 Comments

Grave Thursday: Jacob Rittersbach

Each week we are highlighting the final resting place of someone related to the Lincoln assassination story. It may be the grave of someone whose name looms large in assassination literature, like a conspirator, or the grave of one of the many minor characters who crossed paths with history. Welcome to Grave Thursday.


Jacob Rittersbach

jacob-rittersbach-grave-1

Burial Location: Hampton National Cemetery, Hampton, Virginia

Connection to the Lincoln assassination:

Jake Rittersbach was a French immigrant who came to the United States with his family when he was eight years old. His family settled in Pennsylvania and, after the Civil War broke out, 21 year-old Jake joined the 124th Pennsylvania Infantry. He served in the army for a period of 9 months before he was discharged. After leaving the service, Rittersbach found his way to Washington, D.C. where he sought out a way to make a living using his knowledge of carpentry. As he looked for a job, he took up residence at a boardinghouse owned by a Mrs. Scott on the corner of 7th and H streets in D.C. One of Rittersbach’s fellow boarders at Mrs. Scott’s home was another carpenter by the name of Edman Spangler.

Spangler made his living as a carpenter and a scene shifter at Ford’s Theatre. After about a year and a half in Washington, Jake Rittersbach found himself working side-by-side with Spangler when he too was hired by the Ford brothers to work as a carpenter in their theater in March of 1865.

It would have been impossible for Rittersbach, a Union veteran, not to have quickly picked up on the pro-Southern sentiments of his fellow coworkers at Ford’s Theatre. Many of the others engaged in backstage work supported the Confederacy and were mourning the recent events. Rittersbach often found himself quarreling with Spangler about their differing political views. Yet, they continued to do their work together, nonetheless.

Like the other employees of Ford’s Theatre, Jake Rittersbach was present backstage when John Wilkes Booth assassinated Abraham Lincoln on April 14, 1865. Rittersbach was situated right near Spangler on the stage left side (the side of the stage where the President’s box was located) when Booth fired the fatal shot. After Booth leapt to the stage and then made his way out the back door, both Spangler and Rittersbach followed in the direction of the commotion.

On the Stage 4 Frank Leslie's 5-20-1865

“That was John Booth!” declared Rittersbach. “Hush your mouth!” Spangler replied. “You don’t know whether it’s Booth or not.” In his reply, Spangler was speaking a likely truth. Rittersbach had been at Ford’s Theatre for such a short amount of time that he was not very familiar with John Wilkes Booth. It had only been earlier that day that Rittersbach had finally asked Spangler for the name of the actor he had seen around from time to time. Though Rittersbach ended up being correct in his identification of the assassin, in those hectic first moments, Spangler wanted only to protect a man he had known for years and worked alongside in the theater from being wrongfully accused. In the minutes after the assassination, Spangler grabbed his coat and exited out the same back door to search for John Wilkes Booth in hopes of proving this identification incorrect.

But, to Edman Spangler’s dismay, it was John Wilkes Booth who had shot Lincoln. This truth caused a lot of problems for the scene shifter who had known the Booth family since 1852 and who had done errands for John Wilkes, one of the few actors who treated stagehands with respect. Since the crime was committed at Ford’s Theatre and Spangler’s theatrical friendship was well known, Spangler was quickly identified as person of interest.

However, before Spangler found himself under arrest, Jake Rittersbach had already been laying the groundwork to incriminate him. Rittersbach spent the night of April 14-15 in the manager’s office of Ford’s Theatre. He was awakened in the morning by another stagehand named Louis Carland who was looking for Spangler. Rittersbach told his version of events to Carland but added that, upon claiming that it was John Booth who ran out the door, Spangler had slapped him in the mouth. Later, when back drop painter, James Lamb, reported to work, Rittersbach once again told him that Spangler had slapped him the night before. In the opinion of Tom Bogar, author of Backstage at the Lincoln Assassination, “Rittersbach appeared intent on making sure everyone knew what he had experienced, but was too new to Ford’s to perceive how each would receive the information.”

When Rittersbach left to take his breakfast at his boardinghouse on Saturday morning, he found Spangler there. After failing to find Booth, Spangler had spent the night at the home of two of the actors, John and Kate Evans. After a few minutes at breakfast, policemen arrived at Mrs. Scott’s and took both Spangler and Rittersbach in for questioning. Rittersbach was released quickly while Spangler had to endure almost four hours of questioning before he was released. After hearing rumors that Ford’s Theatre would be burned, Spangler, Rittersbach, Carland and some of the other employees decided to spend the night. On Sunday morning, Carland took Spangler to the home of the Gourlay family, a family of actors who had been in Our American Cousin on the 14th. Jeannie Gourlay was engaged to the Ford’s Theatre orchestra director, William Withers, and both had been near Booth’s path when he escaped. Carland asked Withers and Jeannie if either of them had seen Spangler slap Rittersbach as had been told to him. Though the couple had been nearby neither one claimed to have seen any sort of slap between the two men.

Spangler, however, seemed unaware that Rittersbach was making plans to implicate him. On Monday, Spangler took his supper at Mrs. Scott’s boardinghouse and found Rittersbach waiting in the doorway for him when he was leaving. He suggested the pair take a friendly walk. According to Bogar:

“[The walk] lasted about a half hour, the main topic of conversation being Rittersbach’s desire to get some of the reward money being offered. Did Spangler know of any information they could use? Rittersbach said that he, too, had given a statement at police headquarters on Saturday (although no evidence exists that he did). Spangler, as trusting as the animals he befriended seemed completely unaware that Rittersbach had already implicated him to others. Back at their boardinghouse around sunset, the two men parted ways (for good, as it turned out), and Spangler went upstairs to rest…”

Edman Spangler was arrested, for the final time, about two hours after his walk with Rittersbach. He was placed in irons and imprisoned in the Carroll annex of the Old Capitol Prison. Later, Spangler would be moved to the iron clad warships that housed Booth’s core group of conspirators.

spangler-manacled

If Rittersbach was hoping to get a piece of the reward money, it was in his best interest to continue to incriminate Spangler as an active party. Claiming that Spangler slapped him was a great way to cast suspicion. Perhaps Rittersbach hoped that, if Spangler was found to be an active conspirator in Booth’s plot, he would get some money out of his “assistance” to the authorities. It’s possible that Rittersbach had already laid the groundwork when he was briefly detained on Saturday. If this was Rittersbach’s plan, however, it seems that he changed his mind about it when he, himself was arrested. Jake Rittersbach was arrested one day after Spangler, Tuesday, April 18th. He was imprisoned in a communal room at the Old Capitol Prison and gave a brief statement. Despite the pains he had taken to inform others at Ford’s that he had identified Booth and that Spangler had apparently slapped him because of it, Rittersbach made no such claims in his statement. Rather, he told the prison superintendent that “he did not see [Booth’s] face and could not say who it was.”

So, we have this contradiction with Rittersbach. When the stakes were lower, Rittersbach told his fellow stagehands Carland and Lamb that he had identified Booth and that Spangler had slapped him. However, while under arrest, he denied having both recognized Booth and the slap. Perhaps protecting himself from any suspicion was worth more than trying to turn against Spangler. As the investigation continued and the authorities heard about Rittersbach’s prior statements to Carland and Lamb, they would take an active role to eliminate these contradictions.

A few years after the events, John T. Ford, who had also found himself locked up at the Old Capitol Prison, recounted an instance where significant pressure was put upon Rittersbach to re-implicate Spangler:

“Ritterspaugh [sic] – a witness- was brought before Colonel Lafayette C. Baker, at Baker’s office. Being questioned in regard to what happened on the stage, Ritterspaugh told that when Booth jumped from the box and ran across the stage, after firing the pistol, he (Ritterspaugh) said that that was Booth; and that Spangler turned and said: ‘Hush your mouth! You don’t know whether its Booth or not.’ Here Baker broke in on Ritterspaugh, saying: ‘By God, if you don’t testify to what you said to me before, I’ll put you among the rest, ‘ (meaning the prisoners.) ‘You said to me that Spangler, when you said ‘It’s Booth,’ said: ‘Don’t say which way he went.’

This bullying by Baker was perfectly calculated to shake Ritterspaugh’s nerves and cause him to think he believed he heard what he did not believe he heard.”

There may be some truth to Ford’s belief that Rittersbach was turned (perhaps rather easily based on his own actions before being arrested) against Spangler by the authorities. When Rittersbach was first put upon the stand by the prosecution at the trial of the conspirators on May 19th, he was not asked any questions about what happened at Ford’s Theatre on April 14th. Instead, the prosecution only used Rittersbach as witness regarding Spangler’s arrest and the government’s seizure of his belongings. It was not until May 30th that the prosecution recalled Rittersbach to the stand to testify about the events at Ford’s Theatre. In the trial transcript, right before Rittersbach is brought back, it gives the following statement:

“The Judge Advocate, stated that, since the examination of Jacob Ritterspaugh [sic] for the prosecution, facts had come to the knowledge of the Government not known at the time that witness was examined, and he proposed now to recall that witness for the purpose of examining him in relation to the accused, Edward [sic] Spangler; and he applied to the Commission for permission to re-examine that witness.”

In his new testimony, Rittersbach became the key witness against Spangler. He testified about Spangler having struck him after he identified Booth. Rittersbach also changed Spangler’s words, claiming that Spangler said, “Don’t say which way he went!” and “For God’s sake, shut up!” None of Rittersbach’s testimony was ever supported by Jeannie Gourlay who stood near Rittersbach and Spangler when the exchange was supposed to have occurred. In what may be the most telling piece of evidence of all, Rittersbach was released from prison on the very same day he gave his damning testimony.

While Spangler’s defense attorney, Thomas Ewing, did a noble job of poking holes in Rittersbach’s version of events, he could not completely undo the damage it had done to his client. Mainly due to Jacob Rittersbach, Edman Spangler was found guilty of aiding and abetting in John Wilkes Booth’s escape and was sentenced to 6 years of hard labor.

While Spangler was taken to Fort Jefferson in the Dry Tortugas to serve his prison sentence, Jake Rittersbach largely fell from view. John T. Ford invited most of his former workers to help him re-open Ford’s Theatre but that was prevented and the government purchased the building. Some of the stagehands found employment in Ford’s Holliday Street Theater in Baltimore but it is highly unlikely Rittersbach was ever offered a position given what he had done to Spangler.

Despite everything that had happened, Jacob Rittersbach stayed in D.C. for over 30 years working as a carpenter. After the death of his wife, Rittersbach moved to Ohio, where, in 1901, he finally tried to get some money from the government for the events of April 14, 1865. Rittersbach appealed to his Congressman, Representative Charles Grosvenor, not for any reward money for Spangler’s conviction, but for the loss of his tools that were stolen after the assassination:

rittersbachs-claim

Rep. Grosvenor was apparently unsuccessful in getting Rittersbach his reimbursement in 1901 as the Congressman introduced the same bill in 1903. It is unknown if the bill ever passed.

By 1913, Jake Rittersbach had returned to the east coast. On June 12th of that year, he was accepted into the National Home for Disabled Volunteer Soldiers located in Hampton, Virginia. He only stayed in the home for three months before asking to be discharged. He re-entered the home on April 5, 1914 and lived there for over four years before he was transferred to the National Home in Dayton, Ohio. He resided there until 1920 when he was transferred back to Hampton.

Jacob Rittersbach died at the Soldier’s Home in Hampton on June 28, 1926. While some of his former coworkers survived him, at 86, Rittersbach was the longest lived of those working at Ford’s Theatre on the night of Lincoln’s assassination. He was buried with a military stone in Hampton National Cemetery.

jacob-rittersbach-grave-2

GPS coordinates for Jacob Rittersbach’s grave: 37.018650, -76.334817

Most of the information in this post came from Thomas Bogar’s wonderful book, Backstage at the Lincoln Assassination: The Untold Story of the Actor’s and Stagehands at Ford’s Theatre. Please pick up a copy today to learn more about the many people who were working at Ford’s Theatre when their lives, and our history, changed forever.

backstage-at-the-lincoln-assassination-by-thomas-bogar

Categories: Grave Thursday, History | Tags: , , , , | 2 Comments

Grave Thursday: Laura Keene

Each week we are highlighting the final resting place of someone related to the Lincoln assassination story. It may be the grave of someone whose name looms large in assassination literature, like a conspirator, or the grave of one of the many minor characters who crossed paths with history. Welcome to Grave Thursday.

dr-thomas-bogarI’m very pleased to announce that this week’s installment of Grave Thursday is the contribution of author and theatre historian, Dr. Thomas Bogar.

Dr. Bogar’s books include American Presidents Attend the Theatre and his most recent book Backstage at the Lincoln Assassination: The Untold Story of the Actors and Stagehands at Ford’s Theatre. Dr. Bogar was kind enough to share his own picture of Laura Keene’s grave and write about her for this week’s entry.


Laura Keene

laura-keene

Burial Location: Green-Wood Cemetery, Brooklyn, New York

laura-keenes-grave-thomas-bogar

Connection to the Lincoln assassination:

Laura Keene’s performance as Florence Trenchard in Our American Cousin was a major reason why President Lincoln chose to attend Ford’s Theatre on April 14, 1865. He enjoyed the play’s folksy humor and knew that night was to be Keene’s benefit. (He made it a point to attend such events whenever he could, to boost box office revenue for the chosen performer.) He had seen her act the year before and admired her acting. Born in England in 1826, Keene came to America under the aegis of manager James Wallack in 1852 and became an immediate success in witty, polite comedies that showcased her natural elegance and refinement. Her strongest assets were her large, dark, expressive eyes, slender, graceful figure, lustrous auburn hair, and melodious voice. In an era of overwhelmingly male manage­ment, she succeeded for nearly a decade (1854–1863) managing theatres in Baltimore, Philadelphia, and New York, compiling an admirable record of artistic and financial success. Her productions were noteworthy for their taste and attention to detail.

That night, at the moment of the shot, she was donning her gloves offstage right for her next entrance. Her managerial instincts prompted her to stride to the footlights and call out repeatedly, “Order, gentlemen! Order! For God’s sake have presence of mind and keep your places and all will be well.” Then, led by a backstage route up and around and into the presidential box, she knelt at Lincoln’s side and cradled his head in her lap, bathing his face with water. After his death, she left Washington (against orders) with John Dyott and Harry Hawk en route to perform in Cincinnati, only to be arrested in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. From then on, her career and health (tuberculosis) entered a slow, irreversible decline. She toured in a lesser orbit to tepid reviews and poor box office. Bookings grew more difficult, and the towns and theatres grew smaller and dingier. Past the peak of her fame, she was unable to draw the crowds she had before and during the war. The constant travel was grueling, and she was sometimes ill for weeks at a time. Performing in tiny Tidioute, Pennsylvania, on the Fourth of July, 1873, she suffered a massive stroke. Few in the theatrical profession even learned of her death on November 4 at age 47 until after her interment, in Brooklyn’s Green-Wood Cemetery. Ultimately, the events of one night overshadowed all of her accomplish­ments; when she is remembered today, if at all, it is as “that actress who was performing at Ford’s Theatre when Lincoln was shot.”

GPS coordinates for Laura Keene’s grave: 40.647506, -73.992331


For more information about Laura Keene and the others working at Ford’s Theatre on the night of Lincoln’s assassination, please purchase your copy of Dr. Bogar’s book, Backstage at the Lincoln Assassination: The Untold Story of the Actors and Stagehands at Ford’s Theatre.

backstage-at-the-lincoln-assassination-by-thomas-bogar

The book is an amazing read and is filled with fascinating stories about the different employees and actors from America’s most (in)famous theater. My sincerest thanks go to Dr. Bogar for writing this post.

Categories: Grave Thursday, History | Tags: , , | 10 Comments

Grave Thursday: C. Dwight Hess

Each week we are highlighting the final resting place of someone related to the Lincoln assassination story. It may be the grave of someone whose name looms large in assassination literature, like a conspirator, or the grave of one of the many minor characters who crossed paths with history. Welcome to Grave Thursday.


C. Dwight Hess

C Dwight Hess

Burial Location: Westville Cemetery (Old Section), Westville, Indiana

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Connection to the Lincoln assassination:

C. Dwight Hess was the manager and co-owner of the National Theatre in Washington D.C. The theater, also known as Grover’s Theater after Hess’ co-owner, Leonard Grover, was the main theatrical competitor of Ford’s Theatre in Washington City. As the manager of the National Theatre, Hess was very familiar with the actor turned assassin John Wilkes Booth.

On April 13th, the day before Lincoln’s assassination, John Wilkes Booth paid a visit to the National Theatre where he found Hess running lines with the stage prompter George Wren. Booth barged into the office where Hess and Wren were speaking, sat himself down, and proceeded to converse with the two men. Hess and Wren broke from their rehearsal and entertained the young actor. During the conversation, Booth inquired with Hess whether he was going to participate in the Grand Illumination planned for that evening. Hess replied in the affirmative but that he was saving his best material in order to illuminate the next night, Friday, April 14th, the anniversary of the fall of Fort Sumter. After mentioning his plan to illuminate on Friday night, Booth then asked Hess, “Ain’t you going to invite the President out?” Hess replied that, yes, he was hoping to invite the Lincolns and even thanked Booth for reminding him to do so. After a bit more conversation, Booth departed and both Wren and Hess would comment that they thought it odd that Booth would mention the President given his known dissatisfaction with the Union government. Hess was not aware that Booth was laying the groundwork for a possible assassination right inside Hess’ own theater. C. Dwight Hess did send along an invitation to Mrs. Lincoln, inviting her and her husband to his planned illumination on Friday and for the theater’s performance of Aladdin! or the Wonderful Lamp. While Tad Lincoln would take up Hess’ offer, Mr. and Mrs. Lincoln would choose Ford’s Theatre for their entertainment on April 14th, and John Wilkes Booth’s plan would change venues because of it.

Hess would be present at his theater when the terrible news came in that the President Lincoln was assassinated over at Ford’s Theatre. His first thought after clearing the house was to send word to Leonard Grover who was not in D.C. at the time. Hess quickly dispatched a telegram to Grover which conveyed both his shock and relief:

hess-telegram-to-grover

Clarence Dwight Hess (who is also often recorded as Charles Dwight Hess) would later be a witness at the trial of the conspirators where he would testify about Booth’s visit to his theater on April 13th. After 1865, he continued in the theatrical business where he managed other theaters and even his own opera group which toured throughout Americas. In his later years, Hess retired to a small farm near Westville, Indiana. When he died on February 15, 1909, he was buried at the Westville Cemetery. Check out the Maps page for more details. For more information about Grover’s National Theatre and its connections to the Lincoln assassination story read the Grover’s Theatre and the Lincoln Assassination post.

GPS coordinates for C. Dwight Hess’ grave: 41.540153, -86.914445

Categories: Grave Thursday, History | Tags: , , , | 9 Comments

Do You See It?

151 years ago tonight, President Abraham Lincoln was fatally shot by John Wilkes Booth. This singular event changed the course of American history forever. While this website provides research and insight regarding Lincoln’s assassination every day of the year, the anniversary of April 14th gives the knowledge contained here greater perspective. The reality of the event and its aftermath take on a renewed life when the clock marks the exact moment of the fatal gunshot or the final breath of the Great Emancipator. For those fleeting minutes and seconds, history is no longer this abstract idea. Rather, on exact anniversaries such as tonight, history is very much in the present. The events of the past travel through time and connect us all together, but, like an eclipse, the connection only lasts for the briefest of moments before the alignment is gone.

I teach and learn about Lincoln’s assassination as a way to honor Lincoln, and though my methods often involved delving deeply into the lives of those who plotted his death, I do so with the hope that learning more about the men and women who caused this great national calamity might help me better appreciate and comprehend the complex nature of Lincoln’s life.

So, on this night, at this moment, while I do see John Wilkes Booth readying his derringer and waiting to strike, I also see the crowd at Ford’s Theatre. I see the happy faces stealing glances at their revered President as he sits in his box. Most of all, though, I see Abraham Lincoln in his last moments of consciousness. I see him holding Mary Todd’s hand and enjoying the play. I hear the line, “Don’t know the manners of good society, eh? Well I guess I know enough to turn you inside out, old gal. You sockdologizing old man-trap.”

In that moment though, I don’t see John Wilkes Booth in the shadows firing his gun. I don’t see an assassin releasing all of his hate and anger at an unarmed man. Instead, I see the joy and happiness in Abraham Lincoln’s eyes as reacts to the play with a deep and full laugh.

The assassination of Abraham Lincoln is an event filled with horror and tragedy but for the briefest of seconds on its anniversary, I always see our 16th President, in his last moments,  engaging in a well deserved laugh.

Rest in Peace, Mr. Lincoln.

Categories: History | Tags: | 9 Comments

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