Thursday, February 17, 2011

The Successful Catholic Plot to Kill President Lincoln

Charles P. Chiniquy (1809-1899) was a Catholic priest from Quebec who immigrated to Illinois where he became a famous preacher for advocating temperance, that abstinence from alcoholic beverages. This has never been a particularly favorite theme among Catholics but Chiniquy enjoyed considerable popularity among Catholics and Protestants alike. Temperance was a significant theme among nineteenth-century Evangelical Christians, particularly Baptists and Methodists and even some Presbyterians and Chiniquy’s zeal for the cause of abstinence not only gave him a respect among many Protestants but built a network of personal relationships with Protestant clergy and laity that was unusual for the time. Chiniquy was also used to the relative autonomy the clergy enjoyed in French Canada especially in regard to business matters where it was not uncommon for the secular clergy to engage in commerce—finance, land speculation, investments—often quite successfully and Chiniquy prospered financially as well as pastorally. Unfortunately it was not always clear whether the financial success was personal or on behalf of the Church, and Chiniquy was at one point, in 1856, sued by the Diocese of Chicago—which at that time consisted of the entire State of Illinois. He hired a prominent lawyer from Springfield to defend him—Abraham Lincoln.
No matter the decision of the courts, the Church has its own final word and Chiniquy was excommunicated on a variety of charges. His followers (and modern day advocates) defend his honor; his enemies (including modern scholars) argue serious moral flaws. My research neither exonerates him not faults him and perhaps at some point we can do a further blog on him and examine the issue more closely. Chiniquy left the Church, started his own congregation, and became a noted anti-Catholic lecturer and writer. In 1886 he published a book Fifty Years In the Church of Rome, in which he claimed that the Jesuits, at the behest of Pope Pius IX, were responsible for the assassination of President Lincoln.
In his lectures and publications Chiniquy had long been claiming that Lincoln’s 1856 defense had begun a long and close personal friendship which included visits to the White House and long evenings spent with Lincoln who shared his anxiety that there was a Catholic plot to kill him. Historians don’t take Chiniquy seriously and believe that he used a business relationship to manufacture—after Lincoln’s death—a fantasized friendship with imaginary conversations to promote his lectures and writing. Despite the good will won by the Nursing Sisters of the Civil War Battlefields and the war efforts of Archbishop Hughes, the post-Civil War years were rampant with anti-Catholicism. The Jesuits were particularly feared because they, for the most part, represented the conservative and foreign voice in the Catholic Church in the United States. (While the original foundation of the Society of Jesus in the American Colonies and the new American Republic came out of the Maryland colonists families, many of the late nineteenth century Jesuits were German immigrants or had ties to the German immigrant Catholic community.)
Chiniquy’s conspiracy theories may have been little more than sensationalism but the fact of the matter is that Catholics did play a significan role in the Assassination of President Lincoln. There is debate about John Wilkes Booth’s religion. His father was not a church-goer; his mother was Episcopalian. As a boy, Booth attended Quaker and then Episcopalian schools and was baptized Episcopalian at age 14. His sister, Asia, had converted to Catholicism and there are claims that Booth too had become a Catholic, possibly under her influence, but as far as I can ascertain there is no Church record of his being received into the Catholic Church, his baptism (normal at the time for a Protestant becoming a Catholic), or his Confirmation. If Catholic, he was not the devoted communicant that were Dr. Samuel Mudd or the Surratts.
Mary Jenkins Surratt who ran the boarding house where the conspirators met was from a slaveholding Catholic Southern Maryland family. Like many, if indeed not most, southern Marylanders Mary Surratt and her family were Confederate sympathizers. Maryland Catholics were mostly rural farmers and depended on slave labor whether for the large plantations or the ordinary small farms. John Surratt (Mary's son ) who was one of the conspirators, successfully fled Washington after Lincoln’s murder before he could be arrested and escaped through French Canada to Europe where he served in the armies of the Papal States as a Zouave. He then fled to Alexandria Egypt where he was arrested and brought home to trial. His trial ended in a mistrial when four jurors voted guilty and eight for acquittal.
Probably the Catholic most deeply involved was David Herold who was born in Maryland, the sixth of ten children of Adam and Mary Porter Herold, a clerk in the Washington Naval Yard, Herold attended Jesuit run Gonzaga College High School and then Georgetown College. He worked as a pharmacist. He accompanied Lewis Powell to Secretary of State Seward’s home where Powell attempted to murder Seward the same night that Lincoln was killed. (An attempt was also to have been made that night on Vice-President Andrew Johnson but the assailant, German born George Atzerodt got drunk and backed out of the plot in fear.) Herold later met up with Booth and remained with him until his capture 12 days later. Herold and Booth went to Surrattsville Maryland where Mary Surratt allegedly had left a cache of weapons for them. They then proceeded on Dr. Samuel Mudd’s where Booths broken leg was set.
The final Catholic charged as a co-conspirator, and the most devoutly Catholic among them, was Dr. Samuel Mudd, age 31, who was a physician, tobacco grower, and slave owner in Southern Maryland. He had attended St. John’s College in Frederick and Georgetown College. Dr. Mudd was a not only a southern sympathizer but a member of the Confederate underground in Southern Maryland. It is difficult to ascertain how deeply involved he was in the plot to assassinate Lincoln. He had introduced John Surratt to John Wilkes Booth and he had met with Booth several times in the year preceding the murder. The plot had begun as plot to kidnap the President to force the Union to acknowledge the independence of the Confederacy, and as with the surrender of Lee at Appomattox Courthouse, the plot morphed into an assassination several conspirators distanced themselves or withdrew from the project. Mudd may have been among them. Then again he may not have. This much can be ascertained. Booth arrived at the Mudd home about four in the morning after the President had been shot. (Lincoln was actually still clinging to life at this point.) Mudd set his broken leg and Booth and Herold stayed at the Mudd residence at least until the afternoon. Mudd probably did not know that Lincoln had been shot when Booth arrived (unless, of course, Booth told him) as news could not have travelled to southern Maryland that fast, but he certainly would have discovered the news when he went into town that Saturday, the day after the assassination. It is unclear whether Booth and Herold were still at Mudd’s home when he returned with the news and it is unknown whether if they were still there he helped them in their escape. What is known is that Mudd made no effort to notify authorities until the following day, Easter Sunday, when at Mass he asked his cousin to notify the local Union commander. Mudd was found guilty of being part of the conspiracy and sentenced to life in prison. He was transferred to Fort Jefferson in the Dry Tortugas off the Florida Keys. However, a little over two years later when Yellow Fever broke out in the prison and the prison doctor died, Mudd stepped in with such heroic service that the soldiers in the Fort petitioned President Johnson to pardon him. He was released and returned to southern Maryland where he died of pneumonia at the age of 49 in 1883
Michael O’Laughlen was a boyhood friend of John Wilkes Booth and was deeply involved in the various plots to kidnap Lincoln but claims to have had nothing to do with the conspiracy to assassinate Lincoln. Like Mudd he was condemned to life imprisonment at Fort Jefferson. He was one of the many who succumbed there to the Yellow Fever epidemic of 1867
Mrs Surrat was convicted and sentenced to be hanged for her role in the assassination conspiracy. She was attended at the gallows by the Rev. Bernardin Wiget SJ of Gonzaga College High School David Herold, George Atzerodt, Lewis Powell, were hung at the same time.
The image today is the Presidential Box at Ford's Theatre, site where John Wilkes Booth shot President Abramham Lincoln

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