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Murdering Mr. Lincoln: A New Detection of the 19th Century's Most Famous Crime (Book Review)

Originally published on Published Online: June 12, 2006 
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Reviewed by Brian John Murphy
By Charles Higham
New Millennium Press, Beverly Hills, Calif., 2004

If nothing else, the charge that Abraham Lincoln was corrupt is enough of a shock to the reader to ensure that Charles Higham's Murdering Mr. Lincoln: A New Detection of the 19th Century's Most Famous Crime (New Millennium Press, Beverly Hills, Calif., 2004, $24.95) entertains — and sometimes surprises — both assassination scholars and unwary newcomers to the topic alike.

The accepted facts of the assassination are that a gang of Confederate sympathizers, led by the megalomaniacal actor John Wilkes Booth, tried to decapitate the U.S. government on April 14, 1865. The plan was to murder the president, vice president, secretary of state and General Ulysses S. Grant. Ringleader Booth believed the crime would miraculously resuscitate the fallen South. The murder of Lincoln and the unsuccessful assault on Secretary of State William Seward succeeded only in inflaming the North and placing a revenge-minded president in the White House in time for Reconstruction.

In recent years, some scholars have theorized that the plot extended to the Confederate secret service, and perhaps even to Confederate President Jefferson Davis. Their participation in the conspiracy was retaliation (so the theory goes) for an unsuccessful raid on Richmond in March 1864, after which papers discovered on the body of Union Colonel Ulric Dahlgren indicated that Davis was to be killed. The implications that high-ranking Confederates were involved in such a counterstrike have never been satisfactorily proved.

Enter author Charles Higham, who suggests that by allowing General Grant to curtail the trade in licenses to export cotton and other products out of the Confederacy and into the Union — a trade that had been enriching friends and family who dealt in Rebel goods — Lincoln was in effect putting out a contract on himself. He had lost his usefulness to the powerful mercantile interests up North who profited lavishly from Rebel cotton.

Higham weaves a long and complex tale of conspiracy and treason. Such assertions deserve footnoting at the least, but sadly, Higham has provided none. On the other hand, he does supply a bibliography including many documents that, Higham claims, have not seen the light of day in a century and a half. He also takes an expanded look at the controversial roles of Mary Surratt and her son, John, in the assassination conspiracy, and the role of the Roman Catholic Church in North America as a sympathizer to and ally of the Confederacy. It is fascinating detective work and worth more than just a glance.

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