Reviving old prejudices

After seeing the highly acclaimed movie, “Lincoln,” I remembered a talk show that I heard last October driving in my car. A caller noted that both nominees for Vice President Joseph Biden, the Democrat, and Paul Ryan, the Republican, identified themselves as Catholics. Wake up! Did not the American people realize that the old Catholic plot to take over the country was alive and well? Whoever won, Biden or Ryan, “the Catholics” would have their foot in the door, poised “to take over.” 

Beware! The caller wailed that “the Catholics” assassinated Abraham Lincoln! 

I thought the Lincoln charge had been forgotten, but apparently not in the mind of this caller. It was fairly widespread for years after Lincoln was shot. 

This was the reasoning back when many said that “the Catholics” murdered Lincoln on Good Friday evening in Ford’s Theatre, Washington, D.C. 

While the assassin, John Wilkes Booth, was not a man of virtue, to say the least, the assassination aside, and came from a Protestant background, the charge was made that he was a secret Catholic because he met Dr. Samuel Mudd, without doubt a Catholic, in a Catholic church in Eastern Maryland before the Lincoln murder. 

After shooting Lincoln, and breaking his own leg in the process, Booth fled on horseback into Maryland. He came upon, or went to, Mudd’s home. The doctor set the leg. Maintaining that Booth had just happened upon his house, Mudd said that he did what any physician would do.  

Others, saying Booth and Mudd were in cahoots, won the day. Mudd was tried and convicted of conspiracy in the crime. He served some years in prison. 

There was a conspiracy, with or without Mudd. Lincoln was not the only target. Other conspirators were, or presumed to be, or eventually would be, Catholics. They met in a Washington rooming house owned by Mary Surratt, a Catholic. She was arrested, tried and convicted, in a proceeding that brings a kangaroo to mind, and was hanged. 

Her son, John Surratt, a former seminarian, fled to Canada to avoid arrest, was harbored by a priest and later became a papal guard at the Vatican in Rome. The pope was behind it! 

Two other conspirators, at least known conspirators, had names that just “sounded Catholic,” Michael O’Laughlen and George Atzerodt. Another convicted conspirator, Edmund Spangler, who went to prison, was baptized a Catholic shortly before he died in 1875. David Herold, who was convicted and hanged, had studied in Jesuit schools. An Italian immigrant, Cipriano Ferrandini, and Louis J. Weichmann, a close friend of the Surratt family and certainly a Catholic, brother of a priest, were suspects. Many were convinced that they too were guilty. 

Why would “the Catholics” want to murder the president? It was simple. If Lincoln were gone, Vice President Andrew Johnson would succeed him. 

Johnson, from Greeneville, Tenn., had been elected Congressman, governor and U.S. senator. Never a Catholic, he had loudly denounced anti-Catholicism throughout his career. He sent his children to Catholic schools. He attended Mass in Washington’s old St. Patrick’s Church. His daughter became a Catholic. 

If “the Catholics” had him in the White House, the charge ran, they would go far in taking over the country. (The conspirators also tried to kill him that night. Who cares about logic when it comes to prejudice?) 

Indeed, Johnson became president. Until his death, he was especially friendly to Catholics, but he assisted nobody’s “takeover of the country.” The bigots noted, nevertheless, that Johnson pardoned Mudd and Spangler before he left office. 

Msgr. Owen F. Campion is OSV’s associate publisher.

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