Review: Book on Lincoln's death unconvincing
By L.D. Meagher
(CNN) -- Given the world's fondness for conspiracies nowadays, it is easy to overlook a real conspiracy. Even one that resulted in the death of a president.
But the historical record is clear -- Abraham Lincoln died as the result of an elaborate plot, involving far more people than his assassin.
Four of the conspirators were executed for their role in Lincoln's death. Four more served prison terms. And John Wilkes Booth was shot to death by the United States Army.
The fact of the Lincoln conspiracy is indisputable. The size of it, however, is another matter. For nearly a century and a half, historians have been debating the scope of the plot that led to the first assassination of a U.S. president.
Now, celebrity biographer Charles Higham steps into that debate. His book "Murdering Mr. Lincoln" proposes not only to show the expanse of the conspiracy, but its motives as well.
In short, Higham asserts Lincoln signed his own death warrant by permitting Union merchants to trade with the Confederacy during the Civil War. The author claims those merchants were willing to do anything to protect that commerce, even aiding and abetting the Confederate operatives who planned the assassination. And he places the blame for the murder itself on the shoulders of the Confederate government.
As proof of his assertions, Higham relies on a tangled web of interlocking acquaintances that he says can be traced to Montreal, the seat of much intrigue during the war. Confederate operatives and sympathizers used the Canadian city as a base of operations safely beyond the reach of the Union military.
Higham claims the Confederate secret service, with the complicity of commercial interests in the Union, concocted and carried out the plot to kill Lincoln.
His evidence is sketchy at best. He fills the air with allegations that one or another Northern merchant was growing fat from what he calls "trading with the enemy" (which he also calls "traitorous"). He examines in minute detail the often-inept exploits of the Southern operatives based in Montreal.
The links between them are tenuous and Higham tries to obscure his lack of proof with bluster.
"From top to bottom, the B & O [Railroad] was a Confederate operation," he writes, "and every time the Union put troops aboard, there could be little doubt their movements would be reported to Richmond. Certainly, the B & O was essential for [Baltimore merchant David Preston] Parr's operations in espionage, covered by shipments of medical supplies by Booth, and by the agents Robert E. Coxe, John Surratt and (later) Lewis Paine ..."
Booth and his co-conspirator John Surratt did smuggle medical supplies to the Confederacy. Paine (real name Lewis Powell), who would hang for his role in the Lincoln plot, is more problematic. Historians are still debating whether he was a Confederate spy or merely a brutish ex-soldier drafted as muscle for Booth's plan.
Higham claims the foundation of his allegations is a long-lost congressional report on wartime smuggling. Yet he cites the report on only seven pages of his 250-page text.
The author's celebrity biographies have done little to establish his reputation as a careful researcher. "Murdering Mr. Lincoln" will do nothing to improve it.
Even so, Higham does accomplish an important task. He reminds us that there was once a successful conspiracy to kill a President of the United States, even if he fails to convince us he knows who was involved.
L.D. Meagher, CNN.com's regular book reviewer, recently completed a novel on John Wilkes Booth.