Anthony Pitch is the author of They Have Killed Papa Dead! The Road to Ford's Theatre, Abraham Lincoln's Murder, and the Rage for Vengeance.
When Abraham Lincoln slumped forward with a fatal shot to the head 144 years ago, disbelief turned to fear with news that the secretary of state had been simultaneously stabbed in his bed and left for dead by a knife-wielding intruder who escaped. A chilling sense of helpless vulnerability matched the trauma of a later generation mesmerized by the unspeakable horrors of 9/11. All searched for the same answers: Who's behind it? What's coming next?
In the aftermath of both conspiracies, grief gave way to rage and a visceral preference for vengeance. Shortly after Lincoln died, authorities dispersed a menacing mob intent on storming a Washington prison to take revenge against captive Confederate soldiers—a punitive mindset imitated more than a century later when vigilantes assaulted turbaned Indian Sikhs in the mistaken belief they were compatriots of the airborne terrorists.
One Clevelander mourning the April 14 death of Lincoln wrote to his friend, the chief judge of the District of Columbia Supreme Court, "As much as I have always denounced the barbarity of the Spanish Inquisition, in this case I say, give us the rack and make them feel its terrible rending powers until they shall be glad to reveal all they know of damnable conspiracy." Even the puritanical architect of the U.S. Capitol, Thomas Walter, wrote his wife, "I heartily acquiesce in the spirit of revenge that now moves the loyal element of the entire nation."
The most powerful man in Lincoln's cabinet, Secretary of War Edwin Stanton, who had sobbed uncontrollably by the bedside of the dead president, authorized barbaric treatment of those he considered guilty, even before they were charged, and months before verdicts came down from a specially constituted military commission. Stanton had the backing of many enraged by the assassination—a mood duplicated after 9/11 that would contribute to brutal interrogation techniques. All eight of those brought to trial for Lincoln's murder were locked up in single cells, each only 3.5 feet wide by 7 feet long. Six had canvas hoods pulled over their heads and tied tightly around their necks, with removal allowed only when they sat in court. Slits in the cloth enabled them to breathe and eat. Two had metal balls chained to their legs. The aim was to isolate them in a manner both merciless and unforgiving. Latitude was given for prison authorities to impose even harsher restrictions to prevent their "cheating the gallows by self-destruction."
For six weeks during the trial, detainees endured what one of them condemned as "the torture of the bag." Another tried to commit suicide by pounding his head with the ball chained to his leg. The prison doctor, recoiling at the padded hoods that pressed firmly against their eye sockets, demanded they be removed forthwith and the detainees allowed outdoors to exercise in the open air, failing which, he warned, the secretary of war would have "a lot of lunatics on his hands." Only then did authorities yield.
But Stanton refused to give in to critics demanding a civil trial, where jurors would have to agree unanimously on verdicts of guilt. A military commission would give greater probability of conviction, which required only a simple majority, with two thirds necessary to hang. Dissenters were brushed aside, among them Lincoln's first attorney general, Edward Bates, who dismissed the court as unlawful, decrying that "it denies the great, fundamental principle, that ours is a government of law, and that the law is strong enough to rule the people wisely and well."
On the opening day of the trial, one of the military judges, a combat veteran of the bloodiest of Civil War battles, flinched as the hooded detainees were paraded into court. "It was so much of what my imagination pictured the Inquisition to have been, that I was quite impressed with its impropriety in this age," he confided to his journal.
Two days after the verdicts, four of the accused were hanged and the remaining quartet sentenced to prison terms. A ninth suspect would surely have been sentenced to death had he not eluded capture and fled across the Atlantic to Rome. Two years elapsed before he was caught and brought back to Washington. But passions had cooled and he was tried in a civil court. Though the judge had no doubt of the defendant's guilt, the jurors were far from unanimous and the defendant was ultimately freed. Many were disappointed at the outcome, but all agreed that the rule of law had prevailed.