James McPherson: Another Phony Account of Lincoln's Death

Roundup: Talking About History

AHA president James McPherson (2003), writing in the AHA's Perspectives, about Lincoln books that falsify history (Jan. 2004):

The latest entry in the field is Dark Union: The Secret Web of Profiteers, Politicians, and Booth Conspirators That Led to Lincoln’s Death, by Leonard F. Guttridge and Ray A. Neff (John Wiley & Sons, 2003). The subtitle summarizes the thesis, which incorporates and augments all of the apocryphal interpretations of previous sensational exposés except the Jesuit-conspiracy theory. Among the new revelations, Dark Union claims that Booth not only escaped but also made his way to India where he changed his name to John B. Wilkes and accumulated a fortune by the time he died there in 1883.

Dark Union, written mainly by Guttridge, an author of books on naval history and the history of exploration, was based on an archive of copies of documents and manuscripts accumulated over several decades by Neff, a retired chemist. In their introduction, the authors maintain that the orthodox interpretation of Lincoln’s assassination “is substantially rooted in pure myth and faked or incomplete testimony” (p. 3). These words ironically describe their own book, as Edward Steers Jr. (author of a solid study of the assassination, Blood on the Moon, published in 2001 by the University Press of Kentucky) and Joan L. Chaconas demonstrate in a devastating review essay published in the current issue of North & South, the best of the popular Civil War history magazines. The “evidence” for Dark Union’s breathless revelations of conspiracies consists mostly “of transcribed documents, allegedly copies of originals that have been lost or destroyed. However, there is no credible evidence that any of the original documents ever existed,” write Steers and Chaconas.

Two examples among many of this illusory evidence: Dark Union quotes (on page 20) a letter dated August 29, 1864, from the Southern physician Luke Blackburn to Confederate Secretary of State Judah Benjamin. The provenance of the typescript copy of this letter is said to be a copy in the Filson Club Historical Society in Louisville of the original in the National Archives. A search of the Filson Club’s collections and of the National Archives by historian Jane Singer, who is writing a chapter on Blackburn in a book about covert operations in the Civil War, failed to turn up either the copy or the original. Neff first claimed that Blackburn’s biographer gave him the copy; but because the biographer denied having done so, Neff now says he does not remember where he got the copy. Second, the most important “documents” cited in Dark Union are from the papers of Andrew Potter, a supposed member of Lafayette Baker’s National Detective Police who allegedly carried out a thorough investigation of the assassination and then took his papers with him when he left the agency. An exhaustive search by Steers and research assistants of the records of this agency and every related agency in the National Archives plus census and birth and death records for the states where Potter allegedly lived and died turned up no evidence that he ever existed, much less worked for the National Detective Police.

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 without seriously engaging its egregious claims. We have a responsibility to the history-reading public beyond our guild.

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