Booth’s Revenge Chapter Thirty

For the next several days, Baker moved into the Lamons’ spare bedroom, and the two men took long walks along the tree-lined streets of Danville. When townsfolk stopped to talk with them and they asked Lamon to introduce his friend, he described Baker as a friendly acquaintance from his years in Washington City. Sometimes he added that Baker was the man who started the federal Secret Service. The neighbors smiled and nodded with respect and left the men to their intense conversations along the thoroughfares of the small Illinois town. At times, they stepped into wooded areas so Baker could break down in tears. As time passed, the bouts of crying actually moved Lamon to put his large arm around the shorter man to comfort him.
Everything was as Lamon expected. The entire maneuver was an expression of Stanton’s vaunted ego. Now Stanton was intent on avoiding exposure as a traitor and therefore death by hanging in the same prison yard where Mrs. Surratt and the other conspirators had died. After a while, Baker became the voice of reason as Lamon vowed to break into Stanton’s War Department office and shoot him between the eyes with his revolver. To hell with conventional justice, Lamon fumed.
“Then you will take the same path to hell that I took,” Baker said softly but firmly. “I do not recommend it. The personal hell you create is much worse than the hell Stanton created. No, we must make sure he is separated from the power that he abused without letting the nation know the republic it fought to preserve never existed in the first place.”
“But you forget the Tenure of Office Act recently voted into law by the Republicans. We must present valid, compelling evidence to President Johnson to endure the firestorm which will most certainly be unleashed if he tried to fire Stanton.”
Baker smiled knowingly. “You are not as well acquainted with Andrew Johnson as I am.”
“I have already shared my suspicions with him and he issued a postponement to Mrs. Surratt’s execution, though Stanton’s henchmen successfully blocked its implementation. No we need more than your word.”
“My word is not worth a damn with the president,” Baker said. “But I know two people right in the Executive Mansion whom he might believe.”
They spent the entire summer writing and rewriting their statement to Johnson, which included names to verify their allegations. The two people in the Executive Mansion were butler Cleotis and his wife, the cook Phebe. Lamon then added Gabby Zook’s name to the list because he lived a captive’s life in the basement along with the Lincolns.
Baker shook his head. “The last time I saw him was the night Lincoln was assassinated. He was wandering down the street in the rain. I don’t know where to find him now.”
“I do,” Lamon replied. “He’s living with the family of Walt Whitman in Brooklyn.”
“I don’t know if I approve of that.” Baker wrinkled his brow. “Have you read any of that man’s poetry? He’s a crackpot. Linking him to this will discredit our efforts.”
“We’ll have a hard enough time convincing Johnson Gabby is a viable witness, but we still have to try.”
“I have someone too who could confirm our allegations, but he’s mad also.” Baker paused before he said the name. “Boston Corbett.”
“The man who shot Booth?”
“He didn’t kill Booth. The body that came out of the burning barn was Adam Christy. I convinced Corbett to lie for the good of the nation. Booth escaped.”
Lamon shook his head in disbelief. “You allowed the man who killed Abraham Lincoln to go free?”
“I—I wanted the killing to stop,” Baker tried to explain. “No more killing, not even John Wilkes Booth.”
Lamon stopped in the middle of the street. “Go back to your boarding house. I have to deal with this slowly, at my own speed. I’ll contact you in a few days.” He paused. “This is another reason why the details of this plot can never be revealed to the public. Hell, I don’t even know how I’m going to come to grips with it.”
A week passed before Lamon knocked on Baker’s door at the boarding house. They resumed their walks around town. Neither man said anything about the case. Finally, Lamon asked, “Where did you tell Booth to go? Out of the country?”
“I told him to take the horse I had provided him and ride away in the middle of the night. All the military posse concentrated on was the burning barn. My cousin knew the man pulled out of the flames and placed on the farmhouse porch was not Booth, but he pretended it was the assassin, leaning over and hearing last words which were never spoken.”
“Where is he now?”
“I have no idea.” Baker sighed and shook his head. “Hopefully he went out west, disguised himself and will blend in with all the other men who ran away from the war to start a new life.”
By the time August presented its oppressive, stultifying heat to the Illinois countryside, Lamon and Baker had their statement ready for President Johnson to read. Their first stop when they reached the Executive Mansion in Washington City was the basement where Cleotis and his wife Phebe lived and worked. When they entered the musty kitchen through the service entrance on the ground floor, the two men watched Phebe stiffened and swooped up her son, who was now a toddler playing on the floor in front of the fireplace. Cleotis, on the other hand, smiled graciously. If he had recognized them, he showed no signs of apprehension.
“Good afternoon, gentlemen,” he said. “What can we do for you today?”
“Do you remember who we are?” Baker asked, with all undertones of intimidation erased from his voice.
“Of course, we do,” Phebe replied sullenly. “We’re not stupid, you know.”
“Good.” Lamon smiled. “We were counting on your intelligence.” He stepped forward. “You must know you both are living on borrowed time. Ifyou don’t help us remove Stanton from a position of power, it will only be a matter of time before he sends someone else to this basement in the middle of the night to kill you.”
Phebe pointed at Baker. “If anyone’s coming to kill us, it’s that man right there.”
“I don’t think so, dear.” Cleotis walked to Phebe and put his arm around her. “The way that man cried that night, he’s never going to hurt anyone again.” His big black eyes were soft and sympathetic. “If I didn’t know any better, I’d say he’s found Jesus.”
She grunted and pulled away from her husband. “Not even Jesus would want to save his dark soul from the devil.”
“This is a waste of time, Lamon,” Baker whispered. “I can’t ever expect them to trust me, not after what I’ve done.”
“You must believe that working with us will save your little family from being murdered,” Lamon pressed his case. “If you can’t trust us, then trust in Jesus for sending us here today.”
“Go away.” Her voice was a forbidding growl, like a tigress protecting her young.
Cleotis studied Baker’s face and then Lamon’s. “I trust you, gentlemen. What is it you want us to do?”
Lamon told them to go upstairs right now to tell President Johnson their entire story. All of them went up the backstairs, and peered furtively up the main stairs. Soon they saw the president’s secretary Massey climb the stairs and go into his private bedroom across the hall from the presidential offices. Lamon had to convince Johnson that Baker could be trusted, which was no mean feat. He knocked softly on the office door, then opened it, leading the group in.
At first, Johnson smiled broadly from his desk when he saw Lamon. “Why, Mr. Lamon, I thought you had gone home to Illinois.” When he caught sight of Baker, he stood and pointed a wagging finger at him. “What the hell is he doing here? I fired his ass for spying on me!” When he looked beyond Baker to see Phebe with her little boy in tow, he added, “Oh, I’m sorry for the language, Miss Phebe, but this is a very bad man.”
“You’re not telling me nothing I don’t already know.” She picked up her son and wedged him on her hip. “But my old man Cleotis, though, says Mr. Baker here has found Jesus and that you should listen to him.”
Johnson wrinkled his brow and looked at Lamon. “What’s this all about?”
“Remember the story I told you the day of the executions? Well, Baker can confirm every bit of it and more.”
As the president sat at his desk, he motioned to Lamon and Baker. “Gentlemen, have a seat.” As they sat, Johnson viewed Cleotis and Phebe with askance. “Now what can these two add to the conversation?”
“They can corroborate the story. They were here in the basement during the whole thing,” Lamon said.
“Not the whole thing, sir,” Cleotis said. “There was another butler before me when all this mess started.”
“His name was Neal,” Phebe added. “That soldier boy done killed him that night, and this man—“ she paused to point at Baker “—took the body out. Told me if I said anything I’d end up dead too. Cleotis showed up the next morning, and nothing’s been the same ever since. The soldier boy killed himself the night they said the president died. And that man took his body away.” Her large black eyes focused on Johnson. “You better watch out, Mr. President. You could be the next person they kill.”
“Don’t worry about that, Mr. President,” Baker interjected. “Mr. Stanton knows he pushed too far in killing Mr. Lincoln. He doesn’t want to risk killing you, but he does want you removed from office and sent back to Tennessee so no one ever finds out what he did.”
Johnson leaned back in his chair and exhaled in exasperation. “And what can I do about? What do we know now that you didn’t tell me two years when the conspirators were hanged?”
Baker waved his hand. “We have them now, ready to testify about what happened.”
“Testify before who?” Johnson nodded toward Cleotis and Phebe. “Are you sure they would own up in court of law?”
“We are brave people, Mr. President,” Cleotis said softly. “We will do what’s right.”
“And him.” Johnson sneered at Baker. “Everybody knows what a jackass he is. Nobody likes him. They won’t believe him.”
“You don’t have to get everyone to believe me.” Baker leaned forward in earnest. “I only have to convince a handful in Congress to allow you to fire Mr. Stanton. Then he can be the one to go home and rot. We can’t punish him, but we can keep him from doing any more harm.”
Johnson paused before asking, “So you expect me to believe that you found Jesus, and you’re now willing to put your life on the line to get Stanton out of office?”
Baker opened his mouth but nothing came out.
“You have to believe him,” Lamon said firmly. “We can’t let Stanton feel he can try to overthrow the government again.”
Johnson put his hand to his head. “Dammit, you’re right. I’ll get rid of him. And I hope Jesus will save all of us.”