Was John Wilkes Booth, dastardly assassin of U.S. President Abraham Lincoln, gunned down by a Union soldier?
Or did he escape to Europe via the Brooklyn waterfront? Oh, you never heard that one?
That little-known conspiracy theory lands Booth the rank of No. 99 on the “Brooklyn’s Most Wanted” list.
Long before “the grassy knoll” entered our lexicon, multiple conspiracy theories shrouded the assassination of U.S. President Abraham Lincoln.
In fact, the Lincoln assassination’s own version of the Zapruder film — missing pages torn from the diary of the dastardly John Wilkes Booth — may be hidden in a 19th century subway tunnel beneath Downtown Brooklyn.
We know Booth murdered Lincoln in dramatic fashion, shooting the president in the head during a performance of the play “Our American Cousin” at Ford’s Theater on the evening of April 14, 1865.
What we don’t know is why?
That’s because after 12 days on the run, Booth was shot dead by Union Sergeant Boston Corbett.
In the aftermath of the killing of Booth, rumors of a cover-up bubbled up, speculating that Booth did not die on that Virginian farm, but escaped to Europe through the Brooklyn waterfront.
A famous actor, while Booth never served in the Confederate Army, he was a staunch Southern sympathizer who interacted with members of the Confederacy’s secret service. The theory follows that Booth was not a lone wolf, but a Confederate spy using his cover as a travelling thespian to journey throughout the Northern United States gathering and passing intelligence during the war. His role in the assassination was part of a larger conspiracy, or so the speculation goes.
Supposedly, Booth wrote down details of the plot in his diary, on pages now missing from the original manuscript, and possibly hidden in a locked box sealed in a bricked-up tunnel under Atlantic Avenue.
Booth did perform on October 24 through October 26 in 1863 at the original site of the Brooklyn Academy of Music on Montague Street, between Court and Clinton streets. That puts him in close proximity to the tunnel.
At the time, there was a strong contingent of Southern sympathizers in New York, known as the Copperheads. The mayor of New York City at the time, Fernando Wood, suggested to the City Council that New York secede from the Union, to preserve its lucrative cotton trade with the South.
Did Booth slip out of New York through the bustling docks, to live out his life in obscurity in some far flung location in rural Europe or remote Asia? The mystery may lie in the tunnel under Atlantic Avenue, a quest that captured the imagination of historian Bob Diamond.
The Atlantic Avenue tunnel itself is steeped in Brooklyn lore, as the oldest subway tunnel ever constructed in America, created as the final leg of an extension to connect the Long Island Railroad to Manhattan and then on to Boston. Beset by corruption and mismanagement, the project foundered and the tunnel was sealed at both ends.
Diamond accessed tunnel in the 1980s, removing the first of two concrete walls to lead guided underground tunnel tours.
However, beyond the second, still-sealed concrete wall lays a train platform, and supposedly, a vintage locomotive with a box containing Booth’s long-lost diary pages. Diamond waged a campaign to unseal the tunnel and National Geographic Channel was even involved for a time, investing in pre-production that included high-tech scan tests that identified an object about the size of a locomotive.
The story was featured in a Newsweek article and in an episode of the popular “Cities of the Underworld” series on The History Channel that delved into the tunnel’s connection to the Free Masons (members helped finance the tunnel), its use as a hideout for bootleggers, and as a gangster graveyard where Murder Inc. stashed the dead bodies of some of its victims.
Yet it was the Booth connection that draws the most sensational speculation. While there is no actual evidence supporting the theory, it is historical fact that Booth’s diary, recovered after the assassination, is missing 18 pages.
Was Booth a Southern spy?
Did he escape to Europe through Brooklyn?
Was the Lincoln assassination part of a larger conspiracy?
Are those lost diary pages in the tunnel, and if so, what do they contain?
Well, we likely will not know if that tunnel can answer these questions anytime soon. Diamond’s tours have since been shut down and a flurry of litigation has alienated all sides involved.
The New York City Department of Transportation has cited expense and safety concerns and declines further comment on the matter.