Why Did Abraham Lincoln’s Secret Service Fail?

Why Did Abraham Lincoln’s Secret Service Fail?


The assassination of Abraham Lincoln sent
shockwaves through the country that can still be felt today, a hundred and fifty years later. The country had just been through a brutal
civil war, the process of Reconstruction was just beginning, and a single gunshot at Ford’s
Theater robbed the country of its central figure. It was the first successful assassination
of a US President, but not the last: two more Presidents would be assassinated in the next
forty years. One question that lingers today is how it
was allowed to happen. How did a celebrity actor not sympathetic
to the President’s cause sneak up on the President at a show and assassinate him. Why did President’s Lincoln’s security
fail that night at Ford’s Theater? The United States Secret Service, tasked with
protecting the President and other elected leaders as well as finding counterfeit currency
and removing it from the market, was created on July 5th, 1865. This was only three months after President
Lincoln was shot. Before that, Presidents weren’t protected
by a federal agency but by a limited group of bodyguards. This let bad actors get close to Presidents
with little resistance in a way they would never be able to today. The first attempt on the life of a US President
wasn’t Lincoln,but happened thirty years earlier against Andrew Jackson. Richard Lawrence, a disgruntled house painter
with a history of mental illness, attempted twice to shoot the President but the guns
jammed due to rust. Jackson saw this and chased the would-be assassin
down, severely beating him with his cane before he was removed. The target was uninjured, but the same couldn’t
be said for the shooter. Despite this close call, Presidential security
hadn’t advanced much by the time Abraham Lincoln sat in the White House. He was the most controversial President to
that date, hated by half the country for his staunch anti-slavery stance and his unwillingness
to let the Union break up. The Union won the war, but many Confederate
loyalists were unwilling to accept defeat. That didn’t keep Lincoln from venturing
out into public with limited security, as most Presidents only went with a single security
officer or patrolman protecting them. Some past Presidents like Thomas Jefferson
walked to their own inauguration. It wasn’t unusual that when Lincoln went
to see a performance of “Our American Cousin”, he only had Officer John Frederick Parker
of the Metropolitan Police Department of the District of Columbia with him. The idea of a Presidential assassination wasn’t
high on people’s minds in 1865, as neither Lincoln nor his security companion were concerned
with constant protection. Parker was assigned to guard the theater box
where Abraham and Mary Todd Lincoln and their companions, Henry Rathbone and Clara Harris,
were seated. While he stayed at his post at the start of
the play, he would later claim Lincoln had released him at his service at intermission
and Parker went to a local tavern with some of Lincoln’s servants. He wasn’t at the theater when John Wilkes
Booth snuck into the President’s box and shot him. The exact circumstances of Parker’s absence
were hotly debated, and he was placed on trial for dereliction of duty less than a month
after the assassination. Today, a Secret Service agent leaving their
post and abandoning the President to get shot would be an open-and-shut case. In 1865, Presidential security was a very
informal affair and the charges against Parker were quickly dismissed. Not only was he a free man, but Parker was
assigned to be Mary Todd Lincoln’s bodyguard as she moved out of the White House. While the law had forgiven Parker’s negligence,
Mrs. Lincoln never would and she made clear she blamed Parker for her husband’s assassination. While some speculated that he may have been
complicit in the assassination, he was never charged in connection with the criminal conspiracy. The most likely answer for Parker’s role
in Lincoln’s death is that he was a lazy officer looking for an excuse to beg off work. This theory got a big boost in 1868, when
his undistinguished career with the police force ended after he was fired for sleeping
on the job. The lack of protection for Lincoln made his
assassination easy, but another major factor is that John Wilkes Booth was a very unlikely
figure for a Presidential assassin. Most would-be assassins are mentally ill,
political radicals, or have financial grievances against the President. John Wilkes Booth was one of mid-19th century
America’s most famous and well-regarded actors, one of the prominent Booth theatrical
family. His sympathies with the Confederates and his
support for slavery was well-known, but as a member of high society few would have seen
him as a security risk. His hatred for Lincoln curdled into violence
when Robert E. Lee surrendered to the Union, and he believed the war was ongoing because
a sector of the Confederate army led by General Joseph E. Johnston was still fighting. John Wilkes Booth made a uniquely dangerous
Presidential assassin because of his access to the full floor plan of Ford’s Theater. He was not in the cast of the show at the
theater that night, but he had been one of the first lead actors to star in a play there
after it was opened in 1962. He had previously been invited to meet Lincoln
in his booth while performing there, declining due to his hatred for the President. This gave him the opportunity to case the
President’s seating area, something that became deadly when he joined an assassination
plot years later. Booth began conspiring to kill or kidnap Lincoln
as the 1864 election approached, once Confederate fortunes on the battlefield were waning. He originally planned to assassinate multiple
figures, including Vice President Andrew Johnson – an anti-slavery Union loyalist – and Secretary
of State William Seward. Booth put his plan to kill Lincoln into effect
in a hurry after picking up his mail at the theater and learning Lincoln would be there
that night. While security was lax, Booth was far more
thorough than most Presidential assassins. He used his access to the theater to drill
a hole into the door of the Presidential box, letting him spy on the first family and pick
the perfect time to make his move. He deputized two of his co-conspirators, George
Atzerdot and Lewis Powell, to assassinate the other targets. Atzerdot backed out, and Powell nearly murdered
Seward at his own home before being wrestled away by the Secretary of State’s son. It was only Booth who successfully hit his
target, shooting Abraham Lincoln in the back of the head while shouting the line that would
become famous – “Sic Semper Tyrannis”. Booth was nearly captured by Major Henry Rathbone
in the immediate aftermath, but escaped by leaping from the balcony, injuring his leg
in the process. Lincoln succumbed to his wounds a day later,
and the pursuit of the assassin and his co-conspirators was one of the biggest manhunts in American
history at the time. Booth’s co-conspirators were quickly rounded
up, but Booth stayed on the lam for over a week before being shot in a standoff with
Union soldiers. Eight co-conspirators were tried, with Powel,
Atzerodt, David Herold, and Mary Surrat being sentenced to death by hanging. In the angry atmosphere after the assassination,
even Dr. Samuel Mudd, who treated the injured Booth, was convicted and sentenced to life
imprisonment. He was pardoned in 1869. After Lincoln’s assassination, the importance
of Presidential security was made clear, but Congress wasn’t quick to act. The country was in shambles and barely functioning
as a single nation after the civil war, and the priority was on Reconstruction. The Secret Service was founded only months
after the assassination, but its focus was on fighting counterfeit money. While today counterfeiting is a niche crime
for small amounts, at the time up to a third of US money was counterfeit. The agency’s mission soon expanded to investigating
a wide range of federal crimes ranging from illegal gambling to murder. The agency began building a law enforcement
apparatus, but presidential security was still left to local police departments and private
security until a pair of assassinations in the latter part of the 19th century made clear
just how flawed the current system was. President James A. Garfield had only been
in office for four months when he was ambushed at a train station in Washington, DC by Charles
J. Guiteau, a disgruntled lawyer who believed he had been instrumental in Garfield’s election
and deserved a political appointment. He had only been a minor speechwriter and
had a history of mental illness, and stalked Garfield for weeks before making his move. He shot Garfield twice non-fatally before
being apprehended, but poor medical treatment led to infections that claimed the President’s
life 79 days after the shooting. Guiteau was apprehended after the shooting
by local policeman Patrick Kearney, who didn’t even bother to take the gun off the assassin
before taking him in. Guiteau was executed for the assassination,
but many experts say the fault for Garfield’s death lies with his doctors. It was another case of an assassin with a
grievance getting too close to a President with little to no security. It was only twenty years later when President
William McKinley became the next President to fall prey to an assassin and lack of security
in 1901. Just reelected, McKinley was attending the
Pan-American Exhibition at the Temple of Music in Buffalo, New York when he was targeted
by anarchist Leon Czolgosz. This was the biggest event where a President
was targeted yet, making security much more difficult and exposing the President to unfamiliar
people and lax security at every turn. Czolgosz, who had lost his job in the Panic
of 1883, managed to shoot McKinley twice, with one bullet becoming lodged in his abdomen. McKinley eventually died from complications
from his injuries a week after the assassination, and Czolgosz was executed for murder. McKinley was a famously gregarious President
and didn’t like to be surrounded by security, leaving him more vulnerable. Three assassinations in forty years isn’t
a coincidence. If you make a mistake at your job once, it
might be overlooked. Three times, there’s probably going to be
a change in policy or staffing. Soon after the assassination of McKinley,
Congress asked the Secret Service to take over protecting the President and his family. Presidential security stopped being a personal
preference and became an integral part of the job. Secret Service agents foiled an assassination
attempt on Harry Truman in 1950 by Puerto Rican extremists. One of the heroic agents, Leslie Coffelt,
is the only Secret Service agent to die in the process of stopping a Presidential assassination. Presidential assassination attempts remained
commonplace through the 20th century, but were less successful. The fourth and final assassination of a President,
the murder of John F. Kennedy by Lee Harvey Oswald, was the only one done from afar. Oswald used a sniper rifle against Kennedy
from a nearby building, aiming at the passing motorcade. This led the Secret Service to start enforcing
stricter security along the paths of the Presidential motorcade. The Kennedy family had another major impact
on Secret Service policy after the assassination of Senator Robert Kennedy in 1968, when the
agency becan offering protection for major party Presidential candidates. The effectiveness of the Secret Service was
proven in the 1970s and 1980s, when an unstable political climate led to more assassination
attempts. Manson Family groupie Lynette “Squeaky”
Fromme approached President Gerald Ford supposedly to make a plea for trees, but quickly pulled
a gun. She was immediately tackled by Secret Service
agent Larry Buendorf and disarmed. She never managed to shoot Ford, but was charged
under a post-Kennedy law that made attempting to assassinate the President a federal crime. Although sentenced to life in prison, she
was paroled after twenty-nine years and remains the only US would-be assassin to be released
from prison. A far more serious attempted assassination
happened less than a decade later when John Hinkley, a mentally ill man obsessed with
Jodie Foster, shot newly elected President Ronald Reagan only months after his inauguration. Reagan, his Press Secretary James Brady, a
Secret Service agent, and a local policeman were all injured, but all survived. Agents shielded Reagan from further shots
and tackled Hinkley, who was eventually found not guilty by reason of insanity and confined
to a mental institution. Presidential protection has changed with the
decades, and every attempted assassination led to an update in the security process. So how did Abraham Lincoln, maybe the President
with the most enemies of any in history, get shot in his theater box with no one noticing? There are many theories about co-conspirators
and plots, but the most likely answer is that John Wilkes Booth was able to shoot Lincoln
because no one saw it coming. A celebrity actor who works at the theater
developing an elaborate plot to kill the President while he watches a play sounds like a conspiracy
thriller, not history. Every Presidential assassination was a unique
set of circumstances, and the Secret Service evolves with the time. Their proactive approach now has worked, with
no assassination attempts since 1981. Alas, for Abraham Lincoln, no one thought
Presidential security was needed – until it was. Now what we need for you to do is click on
one of these two videos. Both are going to be great videos we know
you’ll love, but you have to pick one so choose now!

Leave a Response

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

100 thoughts on “Why Did Abraham Lincoln’s Secret Service Fail?”