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Subornation of Perjury at the Lincoln Conspiracy Trial? Joseph Holt, Robert Purdy, and the Lon Letter Joseph George, Jr. The most famous military trial of civilians in American history took place in Washington, D.C, in May 1865. Eight defendants were accused of conspiring with John Wilkes Booth, Jefferson Davis, and Confederate agents in Canada, to assassinate Abraham Lincoln, Vice President Andrew Johnson, Secretary of State William H. Seward, and General U. S. Grant. It was the intention of Joseph Holt, Judge Advocate General of the United States, and judge advocate at the trial of the conspirators, to connect Davis, through his Canadian agents, with Booth's deed. Holt later urged that Davis be subjected to a separate trial before a military commission for this crime.1 In his effort to convince the judges of Davis's culpability at the trial of the alleged conspirators, Holt was willing to introduce testimony that he had every reason to believe was perjured. This was patently true regarding the testimony of one Robert Purdy and what became known as the Lon letter, one of three strange letters introduced by the government at the conspiracy trial as evidence that the assassination was the result of a premeditated plot involving Confederate leaders. The first letter was placed in evidence as part of the testimony of a Mrs. Mary Hudspeth. She explained that she had overheard two men I wish to acknowledge the assistance of John C. Brennan of Laurel, Maryland, and James O. Hall of McLean, Virginia, in the preparation of this article. ' The formal charge against the eight defendants appears in Benn Pitman, ed., 77ie Assassination of President Lincoln and the Trial of the Conspirators (New York: Funk and Wagnalls, 1954), 18-19. For Holt's wish to subject Davis to trial by military commission for complicity in Lincoln's death, see Holt to E. M. Stanton, Jan. 18, 1866, Letters Received, file 1891, Records of the Office of the Judge Advocate General, Record Group 153, National Archives. Civil War History, Vol. XXXVlII, No. 3, ° 1992 by The Kent State University Press HOLT, PURDY, AND THE LON LETTER233 speaking while she was riding on New York's Third Avenue cars back in November 1864. The younger of the two, who wore false whiskers, mentioned that he planned to leave soon for Washington. When the two men left the cars, Hudspeth came upon an envelope on the floor beneath the seats occupied by the two gentlemen. A letter in the envelope, addressed to "Louis," signed Charles Selby, and dated St. Louis, October 21, 1864, reminded Louis that he was destined to be the Charlotte Corday of the nineteenth century. It further stated that "Abe must die, and now," and made clear that Louis would meet other conspirators in Washington who would assist him.2 The second letter, in cipher, and found floating in the water near Morehead City, North Carolina, was dated Washington, April 15, 1865, the day Lincoln died, and was written to "John." The envelope was addressed to John W. Wise. When decoded, the text announced that "Pet has done his work well," that he was "safe," and that "Old Abe is in hell." The letter also made clear that a Southern conspiracy was afoot to murder other Northern leaders.3 The Lon letter, like the first two, also suggests that an elaborate conspiracy on the part of Southerners to murder Lincoln had been in the making. Fortunately, evidence is available to assess the value and background of this letter. The story of the Lon letter represents a case in which competent investigative work by members of the War Department 's Bureau of Military Justice was negated by the head of the bureau, Judge Holt. Although the prosecutor's investigators had determined that the letter was a fake, Holt used it in court as "evidence against every other party to this conspiracy" to murder Lincoln.4 It was during the course of the conspiracy trial, on June 2, 1865, that this potentially damaging bit of evidence against the defendants was introduced by the government. It was a letter sent to "J. W. B." at the National Hotel in Washington, where John Wilkes Booth...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1533-6271
Print ISSN
0009-8078
Pages
pp. 232-241
Launched on MUSE
2012-01-04
Open Access
No
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