A Civil War eBay watch leads to new theory about the Lincoln assassination

Paul Mellen's treasure leads to five years of obsessive research and some daring new conclusions


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  • Paul Mellen shows a copy of the Pope Pius IX letter to Jeff Davis, with a stamp from the Vatican archives (Photo provided)




  • Paul Mellen and his 2012 eBay find, Ladd's gold pocket watch



"I am resolutely positive that historians missed key evidence buried in the police reports of detectives who interviewed key witnesses the night of the assassination. These witnesses later changed their statements during the assassination trial to appease government officials."
Paul Mellen


By Ginny Privitar

— In 2013, The Chronicle told the story of Paul Mellen, a Massachusetts resident whose research at the Goshen Public Library and Historical Society led to an exciting discovery about an eBay find. His Civil Era-gold pocket watch once belonged to a man named "Ladd," who stood vigil as the 16th President lay dying. It may well have marked the time right there, at Abraham Lincoln's bedside.

Now, Mellen has come to new discoveries about the Lincoln assassination, all thanks to that watch he so casually picked up years ago. His initial discovery led to a fascination with the subject: he's spent the last four years doing research that has extended to the National Archives, the United Kingdom, and even the Secret Archives of the Vatican. He believes he's uncovered new material that overturns the conventional wisdom that John Wilkes Booth acted alone. Mellen is now sure Wilkes had help from John Surratt and Catholic sympathizers.

"I am resolutely positive that historians missed key evidence buried in the police reports of detectives who interviewed key witnesses the night of the assassination," Mellen says. "These witnesses later changed their statements during the assassination trial to appease government officials."

Conspiracy theories attach to any assassination, and Mellen has resurrected some theories other historians dispute. Different researchers can also come to different conclusions when reading the same material.

Mellen believes Booth belonged to the Knights of the Golden Circle, a secret Confederate society. Brigadier General Henry Lawrence Burnett, a member of the military tribunal that tried the assassination co-conspirators, and who was in charge of collecting evidence, believed the Knights were behind the assassination plot. It was Burnett's account of the assassination and trial, part of the collection at the Goshen Public Library, that clinched Mellen's first discovery.

Enter John Surratt, Confederate spyJohn Surratt, a Confederate spy, was involved with Booth in a previous plot to kidnap Lincoln in return for an exchange of prisoners. That scheme fell through. But Booth's hatred of Lincoln led him to decide to kill the president and, with collaborators, to strike a blow for the recently surrendered South.

According to Mellen, the Knights of the Golden Circle had a custom of using two assassins: one armed with a pistol, and one with a knife.

In the presidential box of the Ford Theatre in Washington, D.C., on the night of April 14, 1865, were President Lincoln and his wife, Mary Todd Lincoln, and their guests, Major Henry Rathbone and his fiancée, Clara Harris. After the President was shot, Rathbone struggled with the assassin, who stabbed him with a knife.

The audience saw Booth leap over the balustrade and cross the stage, brandishing the knife he used to attack Rathbone. No one actually saw Booth with a gun and he was not known to own a deringer, the murder weapon.

Several eyewitnesses contend they saw two men approach the President's box that evening: one was a dispatch envelope, and the other was John Wilkes Booth, an actor familiar to many.

Mellen contends that Surratt was with Booth during the assassination. The two men knew each other and often met at a boarding house owned by Surratt's mother. A bullet mold was later found at the Surratt residence.

Surratt, a former seminarian, fled to Montreal, Canada, where he lived in a Catholic rectory or with friends, according to different stories; and then to Liverpool, England, a cloth manufacturing center sympathetic to the South for economic reasons. It's not known whether Booth confessed his crime or true identity to his hosts. Mellen wrote to the United Kingdom seeking information about Surratt's passport, which could not be found.

By examining the records of the detective who sought Surratt, Mellen learned Surratt had traveled under an assumed name, John Watson. Mellen found a U.K. passport ledger that listed the name John Watson his sponsor as the Joint Stock Bank of London.

Surratt eventually landed in Rome. Oddly enough, a man under the name of John Watson successfully applied to become a Zouave, a member of the Vatican Papal Guard. Mellen obtained a copy of his application from the Secret Vatican Archives.

Surratt was recognized by an acquaintance, arrested, and subsequently escaped. He was re-captured in Egypt and brought back to the United States.

Surratt was tried in 1867, but the civilian jury deadlocked, so Surratt was never convicted of complicity in the plot. His mother, Mary Surratt, was tried by a military tribunal and hanged as a conspirator.

Surratt later claimed at his trial that he was in Elmira, N.Y., when the assassination took place. Yet Mellen found witness accounts, including one by H.M. Wood, a barber in Washington, D.C., who claimed to have cut Surratt's hair on the morning of the assassination. Some witnesses for the prosecution at Surratt's trial later claimed they had been coached, however.

The case of the missing DerringerMellen was also intrigued by the Derringer allegedly used by Booth. It had been missed in an initial search of the President's box and even by souvenir hunters who ransacked the place, only to be found later by William T. Kent, a colleague of Major Ladd.

Kent said he found the Derringer on the balcony floor but did not immediately give it to authorities. Instead, he handed it over to Associated Press reporter Lawrence Gobright, who kept the gun overnight and who eventually handed it over to A.C. Richards, superintendent of the Washington, D.C., Metropolitan Police.

"Why was the gun not found immediately?" Mellen wants to know. "And why would the assassin choose a single-shot gun?"

He has these and other questions and continues to dig, all while planning a book and movie about his theories. His goal is to find a book publisher and a TV network to feature a mini-series documenting his evidence.

Anyone who would like to get in touch with Mellen about his research may reach him at majorjonathanladd.com.

Related story"Goshen sheds light on historic watch": https://bit.ly/2JzXZXc





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