HNN Debate: The Lincoln Murder Mystery


The question of why John Wilkes Booth killed Abraham Lincoln was settled long ago as far as most historians are concerned. Booth in league with a ragtag group of Southern misfits was out to change the outcome of the Civil War. But do we know the full story? This sounds like a question one might hear on a bad TV show about the Kennedy assassination. But it's been raised anew in the aftermath of the publication of the book, Dark Union (John Wiley & Sons, 2003), which claims that a fellow by the name of Boyd was killed in Booth's place at Garrett Farm and that Booth got away. The book, written by Leonard F. Guttridge, an historian, and Ray Neff, a longtime collector of Lincoln documents, utilizes a huge cache of heretofore unexamined documents accumulated through the years by both Neff and Guttridge. They insist that the old story is in error and that we have all been had.

text goes here If the documents, which the authors turned over to Indiana State University, are legitimate then Guttridge and Neff are right to believe that the history books have to be rewritten. If the documents are illegitimate then what we have here is one of the great frauds of all time.

So what do have we here? The biggest hoax of our new century (with Guttridge and Neff as its first victims; no one accuses them of manufacturing the documents)? Or a startling, dramatic, and hair-curling discovery?

The opening round in this debate began in January with the publication of"Dark Union: Bad History" by Edward Steers, Jr., and Joan L. Chaconas in the pages of the popular history magazine, North & South.

Shortly thereafter James McPherson, the Civil War historian and a contributing editor at North and South, weighed in against Dark Union, calling the book egregiously in error. He recommended that historians debunk it.

Why should historians be concerned about such fiction passing as history? Precisely because the authors and their publisher repeatedly insist that it is the only true story of the assassination—and thousands of readers will continue to believe them if historians merely ignore or dismiss the book ....
Professor McPherson's comments, appearing in his final column as president of the American Historical Association, drew wide attention.

Next came the counter-attack. David Vancil, the archivist who accepted the documents Neff and Guttridge deposited at Indiana State University, argued in a vigorous piece posted on the web that they are indeed legitimate. He brushed off McPherson's critique.

At HNN's request, Steers and Chaconas then wrote a response to Vancil.

That left just the authors of the book in question to respond. At first, they were reluctant. Neff said any response should be written by Guttridge, who apparently wrote most of the book. But Guttridge indicated he didn't want to stage a defense of the book. The book would speak for itself. He subsequently changed his mind and wrote a lengthy piece taking his critics to task for their unwillingness to countenance a fresh thesis that undermines the"perpetuated story of the Lincoln murder case."

Who's right? You decide.

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More Comments:

Hugh High - 3/10/2004

I would trust that readers will realise that my earlier submission was sent pre-maturely, and inadvertedly.

I wish to completely endorse what Mr. Thatcher wrote , not only as regards the aspersions cast by individuals on the credentials, as opposed to the arguements and/or evidence marshalled, on others. The quality of the positions taken hardly depend on whether they earn they living as biologists, historians, janitors, or ......... It depends on the quality of their presentations and evidence they marshall.

It is true, of course, that those trained in a particular arena might find it easier to do research in that arena, and might be able , as a result of that training, to more readily avoid errors which have already been discovered and/or dealt with ; but, the contrary is often the case -- those trained in other field might be more zealous in their work as a result of a recognition of their lack of training in the discipline.

In all events, what matters is the argument and the evidence, as Mr. Thatcher suggested.

Hugh High - 3/10/2004

Thomas Thatcher - 3/9/2004

Without making a judgement on the controversy itself, I must say I am disappointed to see aspersions being cast on the various parties because they are not professional historians. Mr. McPherson refers Dr. Neff as a retired chemist but does not mention that Steers is a retired biologist; Guttridge dismisses Steers as a retired biologist and Chaconas as an expert on Washington DC (as if that had nothing to do with Lincoln's assassination) but does not acknowledge Neff's amateur status. Ironic, isn't it. "My amateur is better than yours." The "professional" historians who have taken sides in the debate ought to recall the Bellesilles case, in which the amateurs caught the professionals with their pants down.