Lafayette Baker was born on 13th October, 1826. The family moved to Michigan but Baker left home in 1848 and did a variety of different jobs in the West. In 1856 he joined the Vigilance Command that cleaned up San Francisco following the Californian Gold Rush. During this period he was involved in several lynchings.
On the outbreak of the American Civil War Baker managed to gain an interview with General Winfield Scott. Baker told Scott he had lived in Richmond and proposed that he be sent to that city, now the capital of the Confederacy, to gather military information for the Union Army. Scott agreed to the proposal and he was sent to Virginia to spy on General Pierre T. Beauregard and and his forces in Virginia.
The plan was for Baker to pose as photographer who wanted to take pictures of the leaders of the Confederate Army. However, on 11th July, 1861, Baker was arrested by the Union Army at Alexandria, Virginia, as a Confederate spy. Baker was in danger of being executed as a spy until General Winfield Scott intervened to gain his freedom.
Baker eventually reached the Confederacy but he was quickly arrested by an army patrol. According to Baker, he was interviewed by President Jefferson Davis and Pierre T. Beauregard and after providing information about Union troop movements, positions of heavy gun emplacements and locations where ammunition and goods were stored, he was released. Baker took with him a photograph of Beauregard that he used to help him enter Confederate Army military camps.
In Fredricksburg Baker was once again arrested as a Union Army spy. Convinced that he was about to be executed, Baker managed to use a small knife that he had hidden in his shoe, to free two loose bars in his cell.
When Baker returned to Washington General Winfield Scott was so impressed with his information he made him a captain and put him in charge of his intelligence service. Scott told the story of Baker's adventures to several members of Abraham Lincoln's government. When Edwin M. Stanton Secretary of War, heard the story he recruited Baker as his replacement for Allan Pinkerton, head of the Union Intelligence Service. Baker was given the job as head of the National Detective Police (NDP), an undercover, anti-subversive, spy organization.
One of his successes was the capture of the Confederate spy, Belle Boyd. Later Baker was accused of conducting a brutal interrogation and despite the inhuman treatment Boyd refused to confess and she was released in 1863.
In 1863 Baker raised a battalion of cavalry called the 1st District of Columbia Cavalry. This unit was used against John S. Mosby and his Partisan Rangers. However, they were unable to hunt him down and his raiders continued to create problems for the Union Army until the end of the war.
Baker was also suspected of being guilty of corruption. He went after people making profits from illegal business activities. It was claimed he arrested and jailed those who refused to share their illegal gains with him. Baker was eventually caught tapping telegraph lines between Nashville and the office of Edwin M. Stanton. Baker was demoted and sent to New York and placed under the control of Charles Dan, the Assistant Secretary of War.
On the assassination of Abraham Lincoln Baker was summoned by Edwin M. Stanton to Washington with the telegraphic appeal: "Come here immediately and see if you can find the murderer of the President." Baker arrived on 16th April and his first act was to send his agents into Maryland to pick up what information they could about the people involved in the assassination.
Within two days Baker had arrested Mary Surratt, Lewis Paine, George Atzerodt and Edman Spangler. He also had the names of the fellow conspirators, John Wilkes Booth and David Herold. When Baker's agents discovered had crossed the Potomac near Mathias Point on 22nd April, he sent Lieutenant Edward P. Doherty and twenty-five men from the Sixteenth New York Cavalry to capture them.
On 26th April, Doherty and his men caught up with John Wilkes Booth and David Herold on a farm owned by Richard Garrett. Doherty ordered the men to surrender. Herold came out of the barn but Booth refused and so the barn was set on fire. While this was happening one of the soldiers, Sergeant Boston Corbett, found a large crack in the barn and was able to shoot Booth in the back. His body was dragged from the barn and after being searched the soldiers recovered his leather bound diary. The bullet had punctured his spinal cord and he died in great agony two hours later.
Booth's diary was handed to Baker who later passed it onto Edwin M. Stanton. Baker was rewarded for his success by being promoted to brigadier general and receiving a substantial portion of the $100,000 reward.
Baker was dismissed as head of the secret service on 8th February, 1866. Baker claimed that President Andrew Johnson had demanded his removal after he discovered that his agents were spying on him. Baker admitted the charge but argued he was acting under instructions from the Secretary of war, Edwin M. Stanton.
In January, 1867, Baker published his book, History of the Secret Service. In the book Baker described his role in the capture of the conspirators. He also revealled that a dairy had been taken from John Wilkes Booth when he had been shot.
This information about Booth's diary resulted in Baker being called before a Congress committee looking into the assassination of Abraham Lincoln.
Edwin M. Stanton and the War Department was forced to hand over Booth's diary. When shown the diary by the committee, Baker claimed that someone had "cut out eighteen leaves" When called before the committee, Stanton denied being the person responsible for removing the pages.
Speculation grew that the missing pages included the names of people who had financed the conspiracy against Abraham Lincoln. It later transpired that John Wilkes Booth had received a large amount of money from a New York based firm to which Edwin M. Stanton had connections.
After his appearance before the Congress committee Baker became convinced that a secret cabal was intent of murdering him. He was found dead at his home in Philadelphia on 3rd July, 1868. Officially Lafayette Baker died of meningitis but the authors of the book, The Lincoln Conspiracy (1977), claim that he was murdered by his brother-in-law, Walter Pollack, a detective at the War Department.
(1) Description of Lafayette Baker that appeared in George Alfred Townsend's book, Life, Crime and Capture of John Wilkes Booth (1865)
Baker has a hard and grizzly face. His inconsiderable forehead is crowned with turning sandy hair, and the deep concave of its insatiate jaws is almost hidden by a dense red beard, which cannot still abate the terrible decision of the large mouth, so well sustained by searching eyes of spotted grey, which roll and rivet one.
(2) L. E. Chittenden, Recollections of President Lincoln (1891)
Baker took into his service men who claimed to have any aptitude for detective work, without recommendation, investigation, or any inquiry, beyond his own inspection. How large his regiment ultimately grew is uncertain, but at one time he asserted that it exceeded two thousand men.
With this force at his command, protected against interference from the judicial authorities, Baker became a law unto himself. He instituted a veritable Reign of Terror. He dealt with every accused person in the same manner; with a reputable citizen as with a deserter or petty thief. He did not require the formality of a written charge, it was quite sufficient for any person to suggest to Baker that a citizen might be doing something that was against law.
Corruption spread like a contagious disease, wherever the operations of these detectives extended. Honest manufacturers and dealers, who paid their taxes, were pursued without mercy for the most technical breaches of the law, and were quickly driven out of business. The dishonest rapidly accumulated wealth, which they could well afford to share with their protectors.
(3) In his book, History of the Secret Service, Colonel Lafayette Baker described hearing about the assassination of President Abraham Lincoln from Edwin Stanton.
As I entered the Secretary's office, and he recognized me, he turned away to hide his tears. He remarked - "Well, Baker, they have now performed what they have long threatened to do; they have killed the President.
(4) Albert G. Riddle, Lafayette Baker's lawyer, wrote about the capture of the conspirators in his book, Recollections of War Times (1895)
Baker's intuitive grasp of the conditions of the case made it certain that the assassins would seek cover in Virginia. Before the starting of the search party, the Chief spread out a map of Virginia and designed the crossing-place of the fugitives and the place where they had probably landed; then, taking a compass, he placed one point at Port Conway, where a road crossed the Rappahannock, and drew a circle, which he said included a space of ten miles around the point, and within that territory they would find the fugitives. The fugitives were captured within Baker's circle.
(5) Lafayette Baker, History of the Secret Service (1867)
On 24th April there was brought to my headquarters a colored man, who I was informed had important information respecting the assassins. On questioning the colored man I found he had seen two men, answering the description of Booth and Harrold, entering a small boat in the vicinity of Swan's Point. This information, with my preconceived theory as to the movements of the assassins, decided my course.
(6) Lafayette Baker, History of the Secret Service (1867)
Fletcher learned that two suspicious characters had just crossed the Navy Yard Bridge on horseback. He returned to General Augur's headquarters about one o'clock on Saturday morning, and reported the fact. Here begins the first series of blunders in this attempted search for the assassins. Fletcher's statement was entirely disregarded. No steps were taken by those in possession of this information to follow up the clue this given until sixteen hours afterward. This delay enabled the assassins to get entirely beyond the reach of those sent in pursuit.
(7) Benjamin Butler, speech in Congress about the diary of John Wilkes Booth (1867)
That diary, as now produced, had eighteen pages cut out, the pages prior to the time when Abraham Lincoln was massacred, although the edges as yet show they had all been written over. Now, what I want to know, was that diary whole? Who spoliated that book?
(8) Colonel Lafayette Baker was interviewed by a Congress committee about the state of the diary of John Wilkes Booth when he handed it over to Edwin Stanton, the Secretary of War (2nd April, 1867)
Q: Do you mean to say at the time you gave the book to the Secretary of War there were no leaves gone?
A. I do.
Q. That is still your opinion?
A. That is still my opinion.
Q. Did you examine it pretty carefully?
A. I examined the book, and I am very sure that if any leaves had been gone I should have noticed it.
Q. Did you examine it carefully?
A. It did not require careful examination to discover the absence of so many leaves.
(9) Otto Eisenchiml, Why Was Lincoln Murdered? (1937)
The man who died at Garrett's Farm was stripped of his belongings before he was dead. The things that were taken from him were of no great consequence, with the sole exception of a diary in which he had written some declamatory descriptions of his experiences and sentiments. This diary was subsequently to become the centre of a fiery controversy, not so much because of its contents as because it had been kept hidden from the public.
For two years the little volume lay locked up in the archives of the War Office. In the meantime Baker had been dismissed and had written his book, The History of the Secret Service. Therein repeated references were made to Booth's diary, creating a sensation in all circles. The judiciary committee of the House, then in session, seized upon the item with alacrity, and bade Baker take the stand and repeat his statements under oath. There the detective exploded another bombshell: the the diary had been mutilated since it had been taken from the body at Garrett's Farm.
(10) Lafayette G. Baker wrote a report on the assassination of Abraham Lincoln in code in a bound edition of Colburn's United Services Magazine. It was found and deciphered by Roy Neff in 1960.
It was on the 10th April, 1865, when I first knew that the plan was in action. I did not know the identity of the assassin, but I knew most all else when I approached Edwin Stanton about it. He at once acted surprised and disbelieving. Later he said: "You are a party to it too. Let us wait and see what comes of it and then we will know better how to act in the matter." I soon discovered what he meant that I was a party to it when the following day I was shown a document that I knew to be a forgery but a clever one, which made it appear that I had been in charge of a plot to kidnap the President, the Vice-President being the instigator. Then I became a party to that deed even though I did not care to.
There were at least eleven members of Congress involved in the plot, no less than twelve Army officers, three Naval officers and at least twenty-four civilians, of which one was a governor of a loyal state. Five were bankers of great repute, three were nationally known newspapermen and eleven were industrialists of great repute and wealth. Eighty-five thousand dollars were contributed by the named persons to pay for the deed. Only eight persons knew the details of the plot and the identity of the others. I fear for my life.
(11) David Balsiger and Charles E. Sellier, The Lincoln Conspiracy (1977)
Colonel Lafayette Baker threatened to expose those involved in the plot against Lincoln and attempts were made on his life to silence him. In addition to newspaper reports of such attacks, Mrs. Jenny Baker's diary treats them at length. On January 2, 1868, Mrs. Baker writes, "Lafe's shoulder is healing but he complains of soreness. He'd been shot at just before Christmas. Splinters hit him in the shoulder.
On January 3, the diary records, "Lafe cancelled the hunting trip he, Tom and Wally had planned. Lafe does not sleep, but walks the floor all night."
"Wally" is Walter Pollack, Baker's brother-in-law, who was still a detective for the War Department. Baker and Pollock had married sisters. Because of the family relationship, "Wally" was not suspected of having been sent to recover Baker's confidential War Department papers.
"Wally, Mary, Lafe and I went to the Rathskeller for dinner. We got home about8 and Lafe was sick."
By chemical analysis of a lock of Baker's hair, acquired with Mrs. Baker's diary, Dr. Ray A. Neff has determined that Baker had been slowly killed by arsenic poisoning resulting from his beer laced with it.
© John Simkin, March 2013