BY WARREN GETLER
April 14, 2014
A year from today, on April 14, 2015, we will mark the 150th anniversary of the assassination of President Abraham Lincoln at the hands of actor John Wilkes Booth (Lincoln died the next morning). Conventional wisdom has held that Booth and a small group of thuggish accomplices committed this heinous act (and the attempt to kill Secretary of State William H. Seward) alone.
But evidence is slowly emerging that the “decapitation” plot and its execution came at the behest of a much larger, more organized cabal, the Knights of the Golden Circle.
Few Americans have ever heard of the KGC, the subversive Confederate underground that operated with paramilitary cells in both the North and South. To point a finger at them now sounds like a conspiracy theory. But, the fact is, the U.S. government — specifically the War Department’s office of the Judge Advocate General — itself had been hot on the heels of the KGC during the war, and every captured “conspirator” in the Lincoln assassination trials was questioned intensively by the Bureau of Military Justice about involvement in the secret society.
So why did the KGC fall off the radar screen? There are no easy answers, but a bigger truth is worth exploring: Was Booth a hired gun, a paid assassin, a passionate card-holding member of the “terrorist,” well-financed KGC that put him up to the task?
The answer is a qualified “yes.” Yes, Booth almost certainly was a member of the KGC, inducted via its Baltimore “castle,” or secret lodge, at the beginning of the war. And yes, Booth was almost certainly put up to the assassination by the sub-rosa organization’s higher-ups (some of whom may have been “insiders” within the Lincoln administration itself). When dealing with the machinations of a secret society whose members were sworn to blood oaths of silence, coming up with incontrovertible “conclusive” evidence is near impossible.
My years of research in co-writing an investigative book on the KGC, “Rebel Gold,” and the independent research undertaken by author David C. Keehn in his recently published book, “Knights of the Golden Circle,” have revealed a tantalizing trail of evidence for the KSG’s role in the assassination. As disclosed in “Rebel Gold,” the KGC did not fade away after the defeats at Gettysburg and Vicksburg, as established history would have us believe, but rather went underground and prepared, through the secret hoarding of treasure and munitions, for a potential second Civil War, the expansion of a slave empire into South and Central America, and the elimination of the South’s most formidable foe — Abraham Lincoln.
How chilling is it that an anonymous author, in publishing his “Authentic Exposition of the KGC, Knights of the Golden Circle,” in 1861, had this to say:
“Members of the Inner Temple of the Knights of the Golden Circle are to be scattered all through Missouri, Kentucky, Virginia and Maryland, for the purpose of harassing and injuring the friends and soldiers of the Union in every way they can. If they can use poison successfully, they will do it, . . . if they can, by false statements, so direct the movements of the United States troops as to cause them loss or defeat, they will do that. . . . But one thing above all others, some of them is to distinguish himself for — if he can, that is — the assassination of the ‘Abolition’ President.”
To be sure, Lincoln was warned of the dire threat to the nation posed by the KGC in various letters. Yet, he never bothered to ramp-up his personal security detail while prosecuting the war to a successful conclusion in that fateful spring of 1865.
Here are some established markers that point to the KGC:
•Michael O’Laughlen, a childhood friend of Booth from Baltimore and one of the eight co-conspirators on trial for the assassination, confessed to his membership in the KGC.
•Col. Henry Burnett, the officer put in charge of the assassination investigation, discovered at the outset of the probe “the footprints of the old Order of the Knights of the Golden Circle crossing my paths in all directions . . . [T]here is reason to believe that many, if not all, the persons connected with the late assassination of the President were members.”
•Booth traveled to and from Montreal, where high-ranking KGC officials operated and dispensed funds for covert operations in gold and cash.
•The KGC also was planning Booth’s escape across the Potomac into Virginia.
Perhaps the Confederate secret service and even Confederate President Jefferson Davis were behind the plot. The KGC, if it provided the hidden hand and gold financing, would provide plausible deniability to Davis.
There is much more to investigate and explore, such as the role, if any, played by Vice President Andrew Johnson of Tennessee, as we approach this important milestone in U.S. history.
Warren Getler, a former reporter for The Wall Street Journal, The International Herald Tribune and Bloomberg News, is co-author of “Rebel Gold: One Man’s Quest to Crack the Code: Behind the Secret Treasure of the Confederacy” (Simon & Schuster, 2003).