Abraham Lincoln revelation: Letter claims witness ‘exaggerated’ during assassination trial

Abraham Lincoln was watching the play ‘Our American Cousin’, when actor John Wilkes Booth approached the 16th President of the United States and fatally shot him. He assassinated the leader in the hope of reviving the Confederate movement. After he fired the pistol, Mr Booth raced out of the theater and jumped onto a horse, which he rode out to West Virginia. He would eventually be killed after a 12 day manhunt. The subsequent trial saw four people convicted for conspiring to murder Mr Lincoln and all of them hanged for their crimes. But decades after the trial, one police chief cast doubt on the testimonies given during the court proceedings, which he detailed in an unearthed letter. Historian Curtis Lindner told Express.co.uk more about that fateful day and how the murder altered the course of history.

John Wilkes Booth and other members of the Confederacy, had previously tried to collar President Abraham Lincoln as a way to advance their cause.

Mr Lindner explained: “They initially plotted to kidnap Abraham Lincoln and hold him hostage in exchange for confederate prisoners.

“But their plans kept failing and so eventually John Wilkes Booth came up with the idea that he would kill Abraham Lincoln instead.”

On that tragic day, April 14, 1865, the President had attended Ford’s Theatre, in Washington DC, just several blocks away from the White House. 

There Mr Booth committed the life-ending act, firing a single shot that would pierce through Mr Lincoln’s left ear and become lodged near the front of his skull.

Major Henry Rathbone attempted to grab the assassin, causing him to drop his pistol and draw a knife, which he then used to slash the military officer’s forearm. 

As the killer jumped off the Presidential box – where Mr Lincoln was sat – his leg became entangled in a decorational flag causing him to fall 12ft to the ground, breaking his left ankle. 

Mr Lindner told Express.co.uk: “John Wilkes Booth jumped off and after the fall bumped into many people on his way out.

“Outside no one knew why a horse was being held right in front of the doors until he jumped onto it and rode off into the night to Virginia.”

Before the assassin left the theater, the killer yelled one final phrase to the room, which history depicts differently depending on whose account is shared. 

Contradicting theories emerged about what the final words were, some claiming it sounded like “Freedom” and others thought it was “Death to all traitors”. 

Another belief is that he shouted “Sic semper tyrannis” – the old Virginia state motto, meaning “Thus always to tyrants”.

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The President’s killer was shot dead 12 days later after a nationwide manhunt for the fugitive that ended in a standoff with police.

Meanwhile on the night of the murder, Mr Lincoln was taken to The Petersen house, which was just across the street from the theater.

Mr Lindner told Express.co.uk: “The White House was five or six blocks away from Ford’s Theatre and they didn’t think he would survive the carriage ride.

“Abraham Lincoln was 6ft 4in, so they had to lay him corner to corner because he was too tall for the bed.

“His head was rested on a pillow, which by the time of his death the following morning was soaked in blood.

“When his body was taken away after he died, pieces of the pillow were cut off – some of those pieces still come to market to this day.”

Mr Lindner, who works for Heritage Auctions, revealed a letter that claims one of the witnesses was lying during the assassination trial that followed.

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Four people were hanged for allegedly conspiring to kill the President, including Mary Surratt, who would become the first woman to be executed in the US.

Ms Surratt, who maintained her innocence up until her death, ran a boarding house near Ford’s Theatre.

She had been introduced to killer John Wilkes Booth, who visited her establishment numerous times and shortly before killing the President he gave her a package. 

The parcel meant for one of her tenants, John M Lloyd, contained a pair of binoculars. 

In court, Mr Lloyd claimed that Ms Surratt had instructed him to have the “shooting irons” ready – although many have questioned this statement.

His damning testimony and that of Louis Weichmann would lead to her hanging – which was seen as controversial at the time due to her sex and age. 

Five of the nine judges demanded for her to be granted clemency by the President’s successor Andrew Johnson – it’s not clear whether he actually received the request or simply chose not to grant it.

Mr Lindner explained: “Louis Weichmann was considered to be a tattletale, he lived at the boarding house and claimed to have witnessed meetings with the conspirators.

“He gave a lot of information and testimony at the trial, unfortunately leading to Mary Surratt’s demise, she was the only woman up until that point to be executed.”

The unearthed letter, which goes under the hammer with Heritage Auctions on April 22, raises doubts about the police work of the time and particularly one testimony.

The handwritten note sent to “tattletale” Mr Weichmann, was written by Almarin C Richards who was also a witness at the trial.

Mr Richards was the superintendent of the Metropolitan Police at the time and gave insight as someone who held a chief role during the time of the investigation. 

The letter, penned 33 years after the assassination, especially critiqued government detective William ‘Billy’ Williams.

Mr Richards wrote: “I never knew of his doing any real detective work – nor did I ever hear of his being connected with any work in the great conspiracy trial.”

He also raised doubts about Colonel Joseph B Stewart, who was the only witness to pursue Mr Booth after he shot the President. 

Mr Richards wrote: “I do not understand why he gave his imagination such full play in embellishing the part he performed that night. 

“I note also that his testimony in some minor particular does not harmonize with that of certain other witnesses.”

His claims of exaggeration could arguably cast doubt on what was said during the trial and the verdict decided by judges. 

The letter from Mr Richards to Mr Weichmann is listed as part of the Historical Manuscripts Signature Auction later this month. 

Mr Lindner said that these types of letters can sell for as much as $15,000 (£12,000) – but revealed that while this one is legitimate, many others are problematic as they can be hard to verify them. 

He added: “Abraham Lincoln material is very collectible, people collect campaign items, artefacts from his assassination and more.

“At the time everyone said they were there because they wanted to be big shots, many people wrote letters about how they ‘witnessed’ the situation.”

For more information visit: www.ha.com 

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