Today I found out Abraham Lincoln established the Secret Service on the day he was shot by John Wilkes Booth.
Unfortunately, even had the organization been instituted earlier, it wouldn’t have helped. The Secret Service in the beginning had no part in protecting the President, but rather were tasked with cutting down on the amazing amount of counterfeit money circulated in the United States at the time (hence why until March of 2003 they were a branch of the U.S. Department of the Treasury). It is estimated that about 1/3 of the U.S. currency in circulation was counterfeit when Lincoln signed the piece of legislature that would establish the Secret Service.
Lincoln did technically have a permanent assigned guard on the night of his murder, but a more inept guard they could not have found for the President. The man was policeman, John Parker. How did Parker get such an illustrious job as one of the four hand-picked to guard President Lincoln? It’s a mystery. As a policeman, Parker frequently found himself in front of police boards for such things as being drunk on duty, sleeping on the job, frequenting brothels on the job, and a myriad of other charges that basically all came down to “conduct unbecoming an officer”.
Despite this, Parker managed to get off each time he went before the boards. For the “sleeping on the job” charge, he supposedly claimed that he was performing his duties patrolling his area when he heard several ducks quacking on top of a trolley car. Naturally, he climbed up top to see what was going on… and promptly fell asleep.
As for frequently visiting brothels while on duty, he supposedly defended himself by claiming that he was not actually there as a customer, but rather to visit certain of the ladies privately as they had called for a police officer; so it was naturally his job to go hear what they had to say and, of course, they wanted to talk to him privately…
Through all this, not only did he manage to keep his job, but when the death threats against President Lincoln became severe enough, Parker was selected with three others to be the President’s guard. It is theorized by some that this was because he may have been related to Lincoln’s wife, Mary Todd Lincoln, through her mother’s family. Mrs. Lincoln is known to have written a letter on Parker’s behalf to get him out of the draft, so at least there was some association there, whether family or not.
Unfortunately for the President, on the night he was assassinated, it was Parker’s shift, and not one of the other three who had outstanding records as policemen.
So where was John Parker when President Lincoln was being shot in the head? No one is quite sure. He did in fact start off the evening guarding the President as he was supposed to. But as he couldn’t see the play from his guard position, he left to find a better location with which to watch.
During intermission, he is known to have left with the President’s coachman to go to the Star Saloon for some drinks. Incidentally, some accounts claim around that same time John Wilkes Booth could also be found drinking at the Star Saloon.
After this, no one is quite sure where Parker was when he was supposed to be guarding the President. The important part is that he was not at his guard post. This may or may not have mattered though. Even had Parker been there, he very likely would have let Booth in to see the President, as Booth was a famous actor at the time and Lincoln had even been at Ford’s Theater to see one of Booth’s plays in 1863. That being said, Booth would have likely been announced in that case, perhaps making it more difficult for him to deliver a fatal shot.
As fellow Presidential guard William H. Cook stated, “Had [Parker] done his duty, I believe President Lincoln would not have been murdered by Booth… Parker knew that he had failed in duty. He looked like a convicted criminal the next day.”
Even without Parker there, Lincoln also may have survived the ordeal had his son, Robert Lincoln, chosen to accept his father’s invitation to the play, instead of going to meet his friend John Hay, who was the President’s private secretary. Being the youngest of that party, Robert Lincoln would have sat in the back seat directly next to the door. Given Booth was using a Derringer, he would have had to get close to the President for an accurate shot, thus would have had to walk past Robert Lincoln, which would have made it so Booth would not have been able to sneak up on the President.
As with the case of Booth being announced had Parker been there, who knows what would have happened if Robert Lincoln had decided to attend? But it’s not farfetched to think the President would have had a much better chance had he been aware of Booth’s presence. At the least, it likely would not have been a head shot as Derringer’s were notoriously inaccurate unless at extremely close range, so Booth would have probably aimed for the abdomen if he hadn’t been able to get directly behind the President. But who knows? Maybe he would have gone in close for a handshake and got off the shot at close range anyways.
As to Parker’s excuse for not being at his post, according to Lincoln’s dressmaker, Elizabeth Keckley, Parker had this to say to Mary Todd Lincoln after she accused him of murdering her husband:
I could never stoop to murder, much less to the murder of so good and great a man as the President. I did wrong, I admit, and have bitterly repented. I did not believe anyone would try to kill so good a man in such a public place, and the belief made me careless.
Now you might think that Parker would finally see some real consequences for his dereliction of duty with this one. I mean, he was the President’s guard and wasn’t at his post and possibly partially drunk at the time of the assassination. But, no… the charges against Parker was dismissed, though he was tried. (The transcript of that event has unfortunately been lost). In addition, the fact that Parker had been away from his post at the time of the murder was not mentioned in the official report on the Lincoln Assassination nor was it mentioned in major news reports of the day, so Parker avoided the public’s wrath too.
Not only this, but Parker managed to keep his job, though at least now not guarding a President directly. His new position was as White House security, including being assigned to protect Lincoln’s widowed wife.
So did Parker learn his lesson after such a dramatic occurrence? Nope. After three more years of spotty service, he was finally fired on August 13, 1868 for sleeping on the job. Ironically, Parker and his family are buried in a cemetery that borders Lincoln Road (Glenwood Cemetery).
If you liked this article and the Bonus Facts below, you might also like:
- John Wilkes Booth’s Brother Saved Abraham Lincoln’s Son’s Life Shortly Before Lincoln Was Assassinated
- Abraham Lincoln and the Gettysburg Address
- George Washington Did Not Have Wooden Teeth
- Andrew Jackson Kills Charles Dickinson for Calling Jackson a “Worthless Scoundrel, a Poltroon and a Coward”
- President Andrew Jackson Beats Richard Lawrence with a Cane After Lawrence Attempted to Assassinate Jackson
- While you’d have thought Lincoln’s assassination would have shown the need for better protection for the President, this didn’t happen until after President Garfield and President McKinley were assassinated in 1881 and 1901 respectively. After the McKinley assassination, it was ultimately decided that the Secret Service should take over the responsibility of guarding the President, starting with Theodore Roosevelt. This may seem like a strange choice, to assign the Treasury Department’s police force to this task, but at the time, they were the only Federal law enforcement agency with enough man-power to take on this job and others given to the Secret Service (many of those jobs later went to the FBI, CIA, etc.).
- Lincoln’s was not initially meant to be the only assassination on the night Booth murdered him. Lewis Powell, David Herold, and George Atzerodt were also to kill strategic targets at the same time, with the hope of destabilizing the government. Powell and Herold were to kill Secretary of State William H. Seward. Atzerodt was to kill Vice President Andrew Johnson. Powell almost managed to assassinate Seward, who was already bedridden at the time. But he was intercepted before getting to the bedside of Seward and in a subsequent scuffle his gun misfired and it became useless. He then switched to using a knife, but was only able to wound Seward before a scuffle with others in the house resulted in him having to flee. Atzerodt simply lost his courage for the thing and went out and got drunk instead. Atzerodt had initially only signed on to the ordeal when it was planned to simply kidnap the targets. Once the plan changed to murder, he lost his enthusiasm.
- It’s actually kind of a wonder that Lincoln wasn’t assassinated before he was. Despite the numerous death threats he received and a near miss in 1864, he frequently walked around, rode horseback, took in plays, went to church, etc. without any guard whatsoever. Whenever possible, he avoided bringing his assigned police guard or, before that, occasional military escort as he disliked having an escort.
- Though commissioned on April 14th, 1865, it wouldn’t be until July 5, 1865 that the Secret Service officially got to work.
- While the Secret Service is authorized to protect a variety of people, such as visiting heads of state, presidential candidates, the President, Vice President, their respective immediate families, etc., all of these can decline the Secret Service’s protection except for the President, Vice President, President-elect, and Vice President-elect. Also the person next in line for the Presidency if something happens to the President or VP also cannot refuse protection until once again there is a sitting President and Vice President.
- While Secret Service Agents protecting the President are often depicted in movies always wearing suits, in fact the non-uniform division will dress to blend into their surroundings. So if they are at a beach, they’ll likely be wearing shorts and a t-shirt, depending on what is appropriate. The fact that the President is generally shown at suit and tie type events, means that the Secret Service are also generally seen that way as they dress to match. But these Secret Service agents protecting the President directly don’t have a specific uniform (though others do).
- The first Secret Service Agent to die in the line of duty was William Craig. He died when a Trolley car struck President Roosevelt’s horse carriage. Roosevelt was not seriously injured, but Craig was killed.
- The only member of the Secret Service to be killed while protecting a President (in this case President Harry Truman) was Leslie Coffelt. Not only did he die protecting the President, but after being shot three times in his chest and abdomen, he managed to get off a single shot at one of the would be assassins, Griselio Torresola. He made that shot count, hitting Torresola in the head, killing him. The other would-be assassin, Oscar Collazo was shot by two White House policemen during the same altercation. He recovered, but had to serve 29 years in prison before being let out.
- Special Agent Tim McCarthy nearly became the second to be killed protecting a President when he put himself in between a would-be assassin and Ronald Reagan on March 30, 1981. For his efforts, he got a bullet to his abdomen, which could have been worse as a total of six shots were fired at Reagan. McCarthy recovered from the incident with no ill effects.
- During the Kennedy assassination, Agent Clint Hill jumped from the running board of his car (directly behind the President’s, both of which were in motion) to the President’s car and used his body as a shield for the President and his wife. Of course, the damage was already done as far as President Kennedy’s fate went.
- Agent Rufus Youngblood, riding with the Vice President during the Kennedy assassination, similarly jumped into the front seat to protect Vice President Johnson.
- While for a long time lifetime protection was offered to all Presidents and Vice Presidents and their immediate families, that is no longer the case. For all Presidents after January 1, 1997, protection will only be offered for 10 years after leaving office. This change was put down as part of the Treasury Department Appropriations Act of 1995. Anyone who was President before that date still will receive lifetime protection.
- Today the Secret Service has two primary jobs. First, protection of the President, Vice President, and other dignitaries. Second, financial fraud investigations of varying sorts. They are also now a branch of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security.
- General George Washington was given a “Commander-in-Chief” Guard during the American Revolution, but this was disbanded in 1783.
Expand for References
- Standing Next to History, An Agent’s Life Inside the Secret Service, by Joseph Petro and Jeffrey Robinson
- Blood on the Moon: The Assassination of Abraham Lincoln, by Edward Steers Jr.
- Lincoln and the Secret Service
- Protective Mission
- Secret Service FAQ
- History of the U.S. Secret Service
- United States Secret Service
- Lincoln’s Missing Body Guard
- John Frederick Parker
- How Protection Works
- Assassination of William McKinley
- Assassination of Abraham Lincoln
- William Craig