John Yates Beall, John Wilkes Booth and the killing of a president.

After John Wilkes Booth shot and killed President Abraham Lincoln, theories—many born of hysteria— swept the nation. Some claimed that the assassination involved members of Lincoln’s own cabinet, most specifically, Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton. Absurd as that allegation was, it still surfaces from time to time. But another theory— a legend, really—suggests a more personal motivation for Booth’s horrific act: revenge for the death of a friend.

Although little known today, the name of John Yates Beall was familiar to Rebel and Yankee alike. A principled, soft-spoken member of an affluent old Virginia family, Beall first fought as a volunteer under “Stonewall” Jackson and then became a Confederate privateer on the Chesapeake. He raised a small corps of rangers, known as Beall’s Company, and preyed on Union shipping—seizing vessels and diverting their cargoes to the Confederacy. Beall concocted an ultimately doomed plan to raid the Johnson’s Island Prisoner of War Depot on Lake Erie—liberate the prisoners and destroy the Northern cities on the Great Lakes.

His final act was an attempt to sabotage a prison-bound Yankee train carrying captured Confederate generals as well as a considerable amount of gold. Beall was apprehended and taken to New York City, where he was tried by military court as a “spy and guerrillero.” The man presiding over the trial was Maj. Gen. John A. Dix, commander of the Department of the East and the man who had vowed to hang every Rebel agent and provocateur he caught. The verdict was a foregone conclusion; Beall was sentenced to die.

Beall and his attorney wrote to President Lincoln seeking clemency. Lincoln, arguably the most merciful man ever to hold the office of chief executive, seriously considered granting Beall a reprieve; but on this occasion he deferred to General Dix, who argued the execution should proceed for the “security of the community.” It was a decision that would haunt Lincoln until his own death shortly thereafter. On February 24, 1865— just weeks before the cessation of hostilities—John Yates Beall walked calmly to the gallows, declared “I die in the service and defense of my country,” and was executed.

Less than two months later, a stunned nation sought motivations for Booth’s actions, and somehow the assassination of Lincoln became interwoven with the hanging of John Yates Beall. The story varies with the telling, but the crux is that Booth and Beall were the closest of friends; they were classmates and chums at the University of Virginia, and some versions have Booth engaged to Beall’s sister.

When Beall is condemned, Booth—a celebrity of such stature that the president certainly would have known of him—visits Lincoln to plead for his friend’s life. Some variations have Booth on his knees in supplication before the president. Lincoln, the story goes, “with tears streaming down his face, took Booth by the hands, bade him rise and stand like a man and gave him his promise that Beall should be pardoned.” The young actor leaves the White House, secure in his belief that he has saved his friend.

Here the plot thickens. When he hears of Lincoln’s promise, Secretary of State William H. Seward vehemently protests on the grounds that a display of clemency would “discourage enlistment, lengthen the war, and insult the sentiment that called for blood.” Seward harangues Lincoln, threatening to resign if the president doesn’t reverse his position.

In a variant of the story, Lincoln gives the signed pardon to Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton with instructions to pass it on to General Dix. Stanton, however, shelves the pardon and orders Dix to proceed with the execution. The result is the same: Beall is hanged. When Booth hears of his friend’s execution, he becomes deranged with grief and hatches a plot to exact retribution on Lincoln and his cabinet.

It’s a good story, full of emotion, betrayal and tragedy. And it has enjoyed a long life in its various iterations. To many, it was legitimized over the decades in a number of newspapers and periodicals—such as the January 1901 issue of Confederate Veteran, which featured an account by a supposed former member of Beall’s commandoes. In 1905, a Philadelphia auctioneer named Stanislaus Henkel (or Henkle) claimed to have documentation that substantiated the revenge theory, but somehow it never materialized. A Confederate Army surgeon, Dr. George A. Foote, claimed to have been imprisoned in the cell adjoining Beall’s, and wrote his account of Lincoln’s treachery and Booth’s vengeance. “Booth, for what he termed the perfidy of President Lincoln towards him and his friend Beall, at once swore to avenge his friend’s death by killing both Lincoln and Secretary Seward,” Foote stated. “The war had nothing to do with the assassination of the President; it was due simply and solely to revenge….”

The truth is, it is a classic piece of American folklore, changing with the telling. Not a single element of the story holds up under historical scrutiny. Booth, four years Beall’s senior, never attended the University of Virginia. It is vaguely possible that the two met at John Brown’s execution—Beall as a private in the Botts Grays and Booth a short-term enlistee in the Richmond Grays; but many men were on the field that day, in fixed and solemn purpose, and it is unlikely that these two came together in any meaningful way, if at all.

Both kept diaries; neither mentions the other. Booth’s name never appears in any of Beall’s correspondence, or in the recalled conversations by those who knew him. Beall’s best friend from childhood and university, Daniel B. Lucas, wrote an exhaustive memoir of his comrade in which Booth plays no part. Lucas’ own daughter, Virginia—who knew John Yates Beall well—refuted the Booth/Beall legend in 1926, writing that the story is “all in the air: smoke, the baseless fabric of a vision.” And in John Wilkes Booth’s own final testament, written while in pain and on the run, he makes clear the reason for his deed: “I knew no private wrong. I struck for my country, and that alone.”

There is no record that Booth visited the White House. We do know that one of Lincoln’s closest friends tried to convince the president to spare Beall, as did more than 90 congressmen and a number of staunch Union men, including Washington Chronicle editor John W. Forney. Had Lincoln relented and given his promise to Booth, or anyone else, as Forney wrote in 1876, he “would have fulfilled it at all hazards,” and Seward “would have been the last man in the world to ask him to break his word.”

The idea of Stanton deliberately flouting a presidential mandate, and in a capital case to boot, is nonsense. And although two of Booth’s close friends later confirmed that Beall’s death infuriated the actor, his plots—in their various forms and convolutions—were well underway by the time of the execution.

But we are talking fact here, and logic—two qualifiers that have no place in the realm of folklore. “I think it utterly improbable that there was any friendship between Booth and Beall, but there are some of our Southern people who still cling to the story as an explanation of Booth’s assassination of Lincoln,” a Southern editor wrote in 1927. There will always be those who prefer a good story to a simple explanation, and the bigger the event, the more farfetched the tale.

As Virginia Lucas wrote, “Nothing succeeds among the masses like…a half truth or no truth at all.” No amount of scientific data or hi-tech analysis will convince true believers that Lee Harvey Oswald acted alone, or that John Wilkes Booth was driven solely by a twisted sense of self-importance and a misguided desire to avenge the South.

Author and historian Ron Soodalter has been a teacher, flamenco guitarist, scrimshander (!), folklorist and curator. He is co-author of The Slave Next Door (U.C. Press, May 2009), a study of human trafficking in America.

Originally published in the May 2009 issue of America’s Civil War. To subscribe, click here