This is the first in a series of articles exploring the circumstances surrounding the assassination of Abraham Lincoln and the alleged links to Clay County as told in "Dark Union: The Secret Web of Profiteers, Politicians, and Booth Conspirators that led to Lincoln's Death."
For Ray Neff and Leonard E. Guttridge, there is no doubt that John Wilkes Booth murdered President Abraham Lincoln on April 14, 1865, at Ford's Theatre in Washington, D.C. But while children in schools across the country are still taught that Booth was cornered and killed in a barn on the Garrett family farm after he fled the capital, the two 80-something authors aren't buying it. And after decades of accidental finds, intensive research and interviews that have taken them to numerous states, including Indiana, Neff and Guttridge are ready to defend their version of an alternate ending to the Lincoln assassination story.
The two men, partnered for a writing project in the early '70s are co-authors of "Dark Union: The Secret Web of Profiteers, Politicians, and Booth Conspirators that led to Lincoln's Death," published in 2003. Their narrative untangles a complex set of intertwining plans and relationships set against the background of the U.S. Civil War and its aftermath. This year marks the 140th anniversary of Lincoln's assassination.
"We may be wrong. I don't think we are, and I think we have the evidence to prove it," Neff told The Brazil Times. Neff and Guttridge have donated their research materials as a single special collection to Cunningham Memorial Library at Indiana State University.
Had it not been for a strong-willed professor intent on encouraging his student to explore an unfamiliar topic, Neff may never have delved into Civil War history at all. In 1947, an assignment in one of his college courses required him to write a term paper. His initial plan was to write about railroads, but his professor talked him into researching a topic related to the Civil War. He learned that a Col. Francis Neff was listed among Lee's Lieutenants.
"I got an A on that paper," he said. "But the bug bit me."
Neff, who has earned multiple degrees in multiple disciplines, said his hobby since that time has been researching aspects of the Civil War. But for several years, he worked as a Public Health Officer in New Jersey before becoming a professor at ISU. He is now retired and resides in Marshall, Ill., with his wife.
Browsing in a bookstore in Philadelphia in 1957, Neff was looking through Civil War books and found the second part of "Colburn's United Service Magazine and Military Journal" from 1864. After reading a specific article of interest, Neff later realized there were all kinds of markings in the margins close to the binding.
"It was serendipitous. I just happened to pick up the right book," Neff said.
According to the first chapter of "Dark Union," he was working with the office of the medical examiner in Philadelphia at the time, and showed the pages to the chief investigator, Patrick Kmat, who served in Army intelligence during World War II. Kmat concluded it could be cipher, and obtained deciphering in-structions from a cryptography expert he knew. The first coded message read: "I am constantly being followed. They are professionals. I cannot fool them."
It was dated Feb. 5, 1868.
In the next coded section were more mysterious messages: "It was on the tenth of April sixty-five when I first knew that the plan was in action." The section in the first chapter of "Dark Union" goes on to describe the rest of the coded message, which relates how persons from the U.S. War Department, members of Congress, army and naval officers, a governor, newspapermen, wealthy industrialists and bankers were involved in a plot not described in the code. Only a certain number were aware of who was involved and the exact details, and some conspirators had contributed $85,000 to pay for a deed, also not described. The writer who initialed his secret account "LCB" also wrote that he feared for his life.
Noting a strange discoloration on some pages, Neff's experience with chemistry aided him in finding a name written with an archaic form of invisible ink, made of a ferricyanide base, which could be revealed with tannic acid. The name, reflecting the initials, was L.C. Baker. Neff questioned whether the coded information was the work of Lafayette Charles Baker, a U.S. War Department special agent who headed its detective bureau. He directed the search for Booth after Lincoln's assassination, and died three years later in 1868 in Philadelphia, according to "Dark Union."
Consulting multiple experts of questioned documents after finding Baker's will and unprobated codicil, as well as additional testing by the U.S. Post Office, FBI, National Archives and Record Administration and the Department of Defense, it was concluded the signature on Baker's will and the signature in "Colburn's" were from the same Baker.
What first led Neff to Indiana in his quest to learn more was a hidden address in the same issue of "Colburn's." "Address Earl Potter, Ladoga, Indiana." But Ladoga would prove to be one of many Indiana towns to reveal more details of what was turning out to be an untold mystery.
"We've always followed where the evidence led," Neff said.
In future articles of the Dark Union Assassination Theory reported by The Brazil Times, learn how Neff and Guttridge became writing partners, how their search for facts led them throughout Indiana towns, and how their theories were developed from their findings.