By BRANDY RICHMOND
This is the fifth in a series of articles exploring the circumstances surrounding the assassination of Abraham Lincoln and the alleged links to Clay County as told by co-authors Ray Neff and Leonard Guttridge in "Dark Union: The Secret Web of Profiteers, Politicians, and Booth Conspirators that led to Lincoln's Death."
Indiana may be known as the Crossroads of America, but until Ray Neff delved deeper into his hobby of Civil War research, he had no idea exactly how many Civil War period political connections linked the Hoosier state to unusual dealings in the nation's capital.
Federal experts confirmed that a coded message secreted inside a military magazine, found by Neff at a book store in the 1950s, was written by Lafayette Baker, Chief of the Civil War-era National Detective Police. An Indiana address inside led the author to the Ladoga area, where he purchased sensitive NDP files, documents and correspondence taken there by brothers Earl and Andrew Potter after the end of the Civil War. Older brother Earl managed the NDP while younger half-brother Andrew headed up the NDP Secret Services Division. Their materials are known as the Potter Papers, now part of the Neff-Guttridge Collection at Indiana State University Cunningham Memorial Library, Terre Haute.
The assassination of Abraham Lincoln was far from the only unexpected or mysterious death with links to Washington, D.C., during that time period.
Around the Christmas holiday in 1867, Baker was stabbed outside his home, Neff writes with co-author Leonard Guttridge. That same week, he was shot at, and in early 1868, someone tried to kidnap him. He allegedly told a servant his "old friends" were after him. Former NDP agent Walter Pollock started visiting Baker, bringing imported beer and oysters with him. According to the diary kept by Baker's wife, her husband would often become ill after these visits. Baker had been involved in plans for the clandestine trade of cotton, using blackmail to get in on a five-way split with the Henry J. Eager Co. Leeches applied to help alleviate Baker's suffering shortly before his death fell away dead, indicating he may been the victim of poisoning.
Andrew Potter attended the court proceedings in the fall of 1872 regarding the unprobated codicil to Baker's will. Neff and Guttridge describe Potter as one of Baker's earliest NDP proteges. After the impeachment of Andrew Johnson, the NDP no longer officially existed as a government entity, but most employed there had gone to work for a private company, the United States Detective Service.
But Potter had been commissioned by President Ulysses S. Grant to discreetly investigate the deaths of several persons whose lives came to mysterious or sudden conclusions, including that of Baker. Some papers belonging to Col. Levi C. Turner, Holt's second in command with duties that Neff and Guttridge write often overlapped those of Baker, were found in the basement of the U.S. War Department. The papers had not been formally inventoried with the rest of Turner's documents. They included information about scandalous and underhanded dealings, and a memorandum allegedly indicated that those involved in some of the war profiteering and other schemes would stop at nothing to keep their secrets, a possible explanation for at least one of the mysterious deaths. These papers came to be known as the Turner-Baker Papers, and are part of the Neff-Guttridge collection.
Grant launched an investigation to discover whether all the deaths were natural, and gave command to Gen. Lew Wallace, who had sat on the military court that tried the assassination conspirators. A judge and Crawfordsville resident, Wallace is also known for authoring "Ben Hur" and several other novels. The field work was carried out by Andrew Potter and brother Luther Potter. Other detectives worked with them to log more than 200 interviews in a four-year period throughout the nation as the number of mysterious deaths grew. They also learned of the cotton-for-pork deal between Union and Confederate politicians and businessmen, and the plan to temporarily remove Lincoln from office before it went awry and became a matter of murder.
"Was there some plan to kill off these people who worked for the Union? Detectives traveled all over taking interviews, from Washington to Crawfordsville," Neff told The Brazil Times.
The Potter Papers were assembled and studied in Wallace's carriagehouse in Crawfordsville, and the investigations led to recommendations for murder charges in some cases, although none were ever carried out after being handed over to Pres. Grant. Decades later, Neff purchased part of the papers from a Crawfordsville antique dealer after one of his students at ISU, where Neff taught in the Department of Health and Safety, let him know of their availability.
Meanwhile, Neff said, Wallace's sketches created during the trial of the conspirators are displayed in a museum in Crawfordsville.
The probe of the mysterious deaths in the years following Lincoln's assassination did not end the investigations by the Potters or Wallace, but led them - and more Hoosiers - to information concerning a mysterious John B. Wilkes of India, who wrote letters to several people in the United States. Among the recipients of his correspondence was Pennsylvania native Kate Scott, whose daughter Sarah Katherine, born in Greencastle, Ind. with the assistance of a midwife, was fathered by none other than presidential assassin John Wilkes Booth.
In future installments of the Dark Union report, read about the sworn statement of Scott and about her daughter Sarah Katherine, who would later marry a Brazil man and settle in the area, and of Judge Robert B. Stewart of Brazil, whose letter connects Wallace and attorney Gaylord McCluer of Crawfordsville to Wilkes of India. Learn more, as well, about the sale of a Terre Haute man's identity, his connection to ISU, and how Wilkes of India came to name the daughters of Booth his heirs -- in a will filed in the Clay County Courthouse.