FIRST CENTURY OF U.S. PRESIDENTSJuly 4 Fatal illness Murder Attempt Assassinated
CONSPIRACY OF JOHN SMITH DYE
What if the history of the Presidency during the first century of the United States was plagued by a murderous conspiracy thanks to slavery? In 1864, the year that preceded the defeat of the confederacy, Wall Street businessman John Smith Dye self-published a book called Adder’s Den, or Secrets of the Great Conspiracy. It claimed just that. Dye examined the history of the White House to show how slave politicians, seeking to stay in power, orchestrated the demise of as many as four presidents (James Monroe, William Harrison, Zachary Taylor, and Abraham Lincoln) and made unsuccessful attempts on the lives on two more (Andrew Jackson and James Buchanan).
Dye took his title from the Holy Bible: Isaiah 11.8; “and the child shall put its hand on the adder’s den.” The phrase, familiar to church-going Americans at the time, referred to the fact mankind was fated to fall victim to the serpentine betrayer from the Garden of Eden. America’s snake, according to Dye, was South Carolina slave politician John C. Calhoun. He championed slavery from the retirement of 3rd President Thomas Jefferson in 1809 to the death of 12th President Zachary Taylor in 1850. Calhoun’s protégé, Mississippi slave politician Jefferson Davis, took over, and before Abraham Lincoln could take office as the 16th President in 1861, Davis became a confederate one and led the South out of the United States.
Dye rushed Adder’s Den to press to ensure that Americans knew White House history well enough to make the right choice in the Election of 1864. Lincoln faced unprecedented criticism due to the mounting war casualties. Fortunately, grateful Americans turned out for Lincoln. The 16th President even racked up big victories in border states like Kentucky, where Davis and most of his insiders resided. Yet before Lincoln could reunite the country, he was murdered by actor John Wilkes Booth on Good Friday, the same holiday that Davis had begun the Civil War four years earlier. An investigation undertaken by the U.S. Conspiracy Court convened after the assassination revealed evidence Davis plotted the killing using a cabal of spies in Canada.
Witnessing the conspiracy hissing back to life only five days after Robert E. Lee surrendered to Ulysses S. Grant at Appomattox, Dye doubled down on his history. Replacing his Sunday school title with The History of the Plots and Crimes of the Great Conspiracy (1865), Dye’s new edition included direct testimony from one of the three prosecutors on the U.S. Conspiracy Court convened to seek justice for Lincoln. Remembered as author of the 14th Amendment today, Bingham’s testimony left no doubt Davis was behind Lincoln’s murder:
Surely no word further need be spoken to show that John Wilkes Booth was in this conspiracy; that John Surratt was in this conspiracy; and that Jefferson Davis and his several agents named, in Canada, were in this conspiracy. Whatever may be the conviction of others, my own conviction is that Jefferson Davis is as clearly proven guilty of this conspiracy as John Wilkes Booth, by whose hand Jefferson Davis inflicted the mortal wound on Abraham Lincoln.
The History of the Plots and Crimes of the Great Conspiracy also contained testimonials from Republican John Thompson (1800-1891) and former Democrat Charles Edwards Lester (1815-1890). Thompson was the son of a Revolutionary War hero and the founder of the First National Bank of New York, the predecessor to Chase Manhattan Bank. Lester served with Calhoun in the Tyler administration as U.S. Consul to Genoa. Disgusted by what he saw and seeking redemption for himself, Lester became a Republican clergyman devoted to emancipation.
Dye’s book received generally favorable reviews from the press. “No one who reads it can doubt his sincerity and zeal,” claimed the February 5, 1866 Philadelphia Daily Evening Telegraph. A follow-up review in the Telegraph called the book serious, if unsurprising, history:
It is the author’s object to give, in a small compass, a complete history of the political crimes originating with, or from, slavery. All the proofs are arranged with great care and nicety, and make a strong line of circumstantial evidence. From such materials, it was impossible that the author could fail to make an interesting work. Too prejudiced to be received with trusting confidence, it is too clearly evident to cause any misapprehension on the part of the reader. We are assured it has had an immense sale, and it is probable the demand for it will continue to increase the more its style and character are known.
Reviewers declared the incredible facts would be met with a huge demand. Yet Dye never found, nor is there any evidence he ever sought, a mass market for his work. During the decades that followed, copies of The Adder’s Den (1864) and The History of the Plots and Crimes of the Great Conspiracy (1865/8) all but disappeared. Indeed, until Google Books was launched in 2002, the only place a person could read it was inside one of five or six rare book libraries.
Footnotes are the other reason Dye is left out of textbooks. Historians going back to the Jim Crow era branded Dye “unreliable,” “disreputable,” “scandal-ridden”, and even “a criminal.” Arthur Schlesinger, Jr. began the Dye-bashing while a professor at Harvard University in the 1950s, calling Dye a man of “scurrilous” and “dubious” reputation. Hudson Strode, a cousin of the wife of Jefferson Davis, was writing his exhaustive three-volume biography of the confederate leader at the time. Perhaps Schlesinger was misled by Strode’s tendentious “embattled rebel”?
In the 1960s, Professor Richard Hofstadter at Columbia University, following Schlesinger, labeled Dye’s book a “conspiratorial fantasy.” Yale University Professor David Brion Davis, citing Schlesinger and Hofstadter, effectively ended all Dye talk with his The Slave Power Conspiracy and the Paranoid Style (1969) published by the Louisiana State University Press. Strangely, the Colorado-born, Los Angeles-raised Davis dismissed Dye’s history as fiction no different than conspiracy theories floated by slaveholders.
With footnotes like these, excavating the truth about Dye is not easy. Further complicating matters is the fact that so little is actually known about the man. Assembling Dye’s life takes detective work and a little imagination. One truth stands out: the data about Dye that exists in the archives does not merit the scorn heaped upon him by historians.
Dye was born sometime around 1822. He arrived in the world a few blocks from Independence Hall in Philadelphia. In or around 1840, he entered Washington College, the only institution of higher learning affiliated with America’s founding president during his lifetime. Then Dye embarked on a career as a currency detector. A detector published encyclopedias that helped banks determine if the cash they took in was counterfeit or real.
To be successful in his trade, Dye had to show readers the difference between “good presidents” (genuine currency) and “bad presidents” (counterfeits that only looked the part). In this regard, a surviving “bank note” from 1846 is telling because it bears his name along with the Great Seal. Dye’s note features the portraits of two women. One looks to be his spouse; the other a teenage child or perhaps a coquette (she pulls at her hair seductively). In between the two sits an obedient dog, as if to say tranquility reigns in the “Banking House of John S. Dye.”
If the 1846 note was a statement of sorts, perhaps Dye’s calling card to advertise his trade, the U.S. Census taken four years later offers one possible explanation. 1850 was the first time the U.S. government collected metadata on its citizens. It claims 28-year old “Wall Street publisher” John Dye kept a New York City apartment in lower Manhattan (Ward 14: Canal to 14th Street) where he lived with a 23-year old Ohio woman named Julia (last name is illegible) and 12-year old native New Yorker John Welsh.
If Julia was Dye’s mistress, it would be the earliest surviving evidence, Exhibit A, to support the claim Dye was a man of “scurrilous” reputation. Census data says John Smith Dye was also living at the headwaters of the Ohio River in Morgan County, Ohio as a married man. In fact, Dye kept a home in eastern Ohio with his 27-year old spouse, Mary, and two sons, 7-year old Joseph and 4-year old John.
Two census entries for one man sounds suspicious. Yet it makes sense for Dye, because a detector had to have an office in Manhattan to print, publish, and sell his currency books at the same time he needed to be at the headwaters of the Ohio River where the nation’s currencies joined in one place. Nearby Parkersburg, West Virginia was the nation’s crossroads for the generation of Americans who pursued their dreams west after the Revolution.
The Staunton-Parkersburg Turnpike, the nation’s first interstate highway, came to an end not far from Dye’s house. There travellers boarded river freighters and headed further inland by floating down the Ohio River followed by the Mississippi. A series of boomtowns grew up along the way. They appear on old maps like stops on a discontinued subway: Chillicothe, Maysville, Cincinnati, and Louisville on the Ohio; then Memphis, St. Louis, and Vicksburg on the Mississippi.
Below Vicksburg, at Natchez, traders completed their transactions with New Orleans businessmen, burned their riverboats, and returned to the headwaters of the Ohio on foot or by horse using the famous Natchez Trace. When traders arrived back on the banks of the Ohio River near Parkersburg, they exchanged the bank notes they collected along the way, which inevitably were a mix of currencies foreign and domestic. One of the most common bills, the French Dix, meaning ten, is behind the term “Dixie” (referring to the lower Mississippi region of the South).
Leading his double life, Dye was in the right places, in the right times, to build a business. Dye was also fortunate to partner with the nation’s foremost engraving firm: Rawdon, Wright, Hatch & Edson. Rawdon Wright was the first private firm to receive a contract from the Federal government to design postage stamps: precursor to the national currency. Dye was friends with Tracy Edson who ran Rawdon Wright’s office in Cincinnati. Recruited from New Orleans, Edson later founded the American Banknote Company and filed a patent for the green ink still used in U.S. currency today.
Firms like Rawdon Wright, together with detectors like Dye and engravers such as Edson, helped the American economy find footing in its early years. Dye’s bestseller, The Bank Mirror (1852), was published alongside similar works released by Robert T. Bicknell, Sylvester J. Sylvester, and John Thompson. They offered reproductions of the genuine bills any trader could expect to find in circulation. At the same time, to keep people from being duped, detectors like Dye had to show readers what dissemblers looked like. So they had to reproduce counterfeits, which was a crime.
Dye was apparently gathering examples of counterfeit notes when he was arrested near his Ohio home in 1853. He was charged, but not convicted, of “keeping an office for the redemption of fraudulent bank notes.” This is Exhibit B to support the notion Dye was disreputable. The Cincinnati Enquirer found one of Dye’s 1846 bills and used it to expose a conspiracy by Dye “to impose upon the people of the West a spurious and totally irresponsible currency.” This is Exhibit C for the “scurrilous” Dye, although it is doubtful a note featuring two women and a dog was meant to be exchanged.
The Cincinnati Enquirer declared, “The credit of Dye’s detecting is ruined.” Do not believe everything printed in the press because the facts attest to the opposite. Dye expanded his Bank Bulletin and Bank Mirror publications after being released from jail. Then he added a Bank Note Plate Delineator, which was an ambitious new book of engravings.
Delineator was released through the New York office of Rawdon Wright, which billed Dye’s new volume as a “mighty publication [that] contains perfect description of all the genuine bank bills circulating in the United States and British America.” A reviewer raved: “We have received a copy of the above named work published by John S. Dye, 172 Broadway, New York. We take pleasure in recommending it to all businessmen as a work of great value. No one need have a bad bill thrust upon them while they have a copy of Dye’s Delineator.”
While his business in New York flourished, Dye ran into personal problems back in Ohio. He became estranged from his wife and children: Exhibit D for the “scandal-ridden” Dye. Perhaps frustrated by her husband’s absences in New York, Dye’s wife returned to Pennsylvania. The 1860 U.S. Census shows Mary living on a farm near Pittsburgh with her 17-year old son Joseph; 11-year old John is listed as a farm laborer at a house several doors down.
Back in Manhattan, free from family obligations, Dye expanded his printing business. He moved his press into a new building on Wall Street around the time Jefferson Davis attacked Fort Sumter and launched the Civil War. Nothing is known about Dye during the Civil War years except for one serious fact: New York City records say 41-year old John Smith Dye registered for the draft in June of 1863.
That detail is telling. Dye was too old to be drafted. He also possessed the means to purchase a substitute, which was commonplace for successful businessmen. Dye volunteered for active U.S. military service in the deadliest months of the Civil War, a murderous time in American history when simultaneous July 4, 1863 ceasefires left 80,000 casualties on the battlefields of Vicksburg and Gettysburg.
Denied enlistment, undoubtedly because of his age, Dye volunteered for another service to the public. Worried President Lincoln might be defeated in his midterm Election of 1864, Dye set out to write a history of the White House so explosive in its truth it would propel Americans to make the right choice in the election. His plot went something like this:
Abbeville, the South Carolina town where John C. Calhoun was born, is called the birthplace (“Secession Hill”) and deathbed (“Burt Mansion”) of the Davis confederacy. It is no accident. Calhoun grew up making annual summer trips to Newport, Rhode Island and stopped by Monticello to visit with Thomas Jefferson, or so say biographers. If he was prepared for his slave politician career by the Declaration author, it would explain how, as a freshman at Yale, Calhoun won a debate he demanded with his college president; and also why he graduated valedictorian.
The years during which Calhoun came of age were pivotal for American history. Founding Father George Washington said “no thank you” to an all but certain third term as America’s first president. Instead, Washington gave up his New York White House to his loyal vice president John Adams. A lifelong abolitionist from Boston, President Adams moved the Executive Mansion to Philadelphia while one in Washington, D.C. could be built. Yet Adams ran into a snag thanks to an error in the U.S. Constitution (later corrected by the Twelfth Amendment) and was paired with his pro-slavery rival from Virginia: Thomas Jefferson
Vice President Jefferson spent four years sabotaging Adams’ anti-slavery efforts. Then Jefferson used his inside knowledge of the Adams administration to defame Adams in the press while running against him in the Election of 1800. When Jefferson won, Adams refused to attend his inauguration. The two had once been close and wrote famous letters to each other. Yet Adams, who always celebrated Independence Day on July 2nd (when Congress resolved) and not July 4th (when Jefferson declared), never recovered from Jefferson’s betrayal. It divided the men until their death on the same Fourth of July in 1826.
2-JOHN ADAMS | 3-THOMAS JEFFERSON
President Jefferson was coasting into his second term, thanks to the Louisiana Purchase negotiated by James Madison and James Monroe, when Calhoun graduated from Yale and went 40 miles inland to the Connecticut town that gave birth to Harriet Beecher Stowe. He lived a few doors down from the Beecher family attending the best law school in the land, which in 1805 was not Harvard or Yale but tiny Litchfield Law School. It produced 102 congressmen, 29 senators, three Supreme Court justices, and two vice presidents.
Calhoun graduated, won his first election to Congress in 1810, and established himself as a competent bureaucrat. When the War of 1812 broke out, his abilities caught the attention of 4th President James Madison. The author of the U.S. Constitution needed more help than he could find at a difficult time in American history. The British had sailed back to their former colonies and set fire to government buildings in Washington, D.C., including the White House. Fleeing the Executive Mansion, Dolly Madison saved its most important object: Gilbert Stuart’s “Lansdowne Portrait” of Washington turning down a third term. Still, the War of 1812 came close to destroying the new nation.
4-JAMES MADISON | 5-JAMES MONROE
Serving under President Madison as secretary of state and secretary of war, James Monroe was overworked. Even the Battle of Valley Forge hero could not run two parts of the U.S. government at the same time. Overwhelmed, Monroe handed his war department over to the 37-year old Calhoun while he focused on the State Department. Calhoun excelled as his stand-in; so much so that when President Monroe followed Madison into the White House in 1817, Calhoun stayed in his seat. Even so, Calhoun was Monroe’s sixth choice; he prevailed only because Monroe’s other nominees refused to serve their country.
Calhoun was so ambitious he wanted to run for president as early as 1824. But when John Quincy Adams entered the race, he realized a bureaucrat like himself would never beat the son of a Founding Father. So he joined Adams instead, campaigning for the Massachusetts politician in hopes of becoming his vice president. Adams, fatefully, went along, undoubtedly because he needed Calhoun’s pro-slavery votes to prevail in the general election.
When the second Adams entered the White House as America’s 6th president in 1825, he arrived there with Calhoun, and that vice president betrayed Adams just as Jefferson had done to his father. When the Election of 1828 approached, Calhoun abandoned Adams in order to campaign for the War of 1812 Battle of New Orleans hero Andrew Jackson. Jackson’s popularity overwhelmed Adams and he became the 7th President. Calhoun became the second vice president to serve under different commanders-in-chief (after George Clinton).
6-JOHN QUINCY ADAMS | 7-ANDREW JACKSON
Notwithstanding their political alliance, Calhoun and Jackson were rivals going back to the Monroe administration when Calhoun ran the war department and Jackson was the nation’s top general. Calhoun plotted to replace Jackson in the Election of 1832. To make that unlikely turn of events happen, he needed a scandal, and he believed he had one with his inside knowledge of Jackson’s 1817 invasion of Florida. To make his accusation stick, he needed corroborating testimony from his old boss, so Calhoun wrote a dozen letters to Monroe in the winter of 1831 begging him to support his version of the events in Florida–that Jackson was not authorized to invade Spain’s territory.
Unwilling to go to war with a sitting president, protecting his Monroe Doctrine, or perhaps knowing Calhoun all too well, Monroe refused to back the scheme. They were arguing about the matter in letters passed back and forth through Monroe’s son-in-law when Monroe died on July 4, 1831. Going into his 74th summer, Monroe was ill at the time. Still, that date made Monroe the third of America’s first five U.S. presidents to die on Independence Day. The odds of such a happenstance occurring naturally are incredibly slim.
If Monroe’s death was accelerated to prevent the former president from revealing the plot to Jackson, it would have been an easy crime for Calhoun to commit. Poisons were readily available; Calhoun also owned African-Americans who were forced to obey any command. Calhoun’s final words to Monroe’s son-in-law were (are) not reassuring: “He is approaching the period that naturally brings life to a termination. I feel assured that one of his firmness of mind who has passed through so honorable and useful a career will look at the approach of the period with perfect calmness.”
Monroe passed away before he could let Jackson know he was being betrayed. Yet Monroe’s death left Calhoun without the backstop he needed to follow through on his slander of Jackson. Going forward on his own, Calhoun released evidence of Jackson’s wrongdoing to the press. It backfired. Calhoun’s long legal arguments confused some people while convincing others he was out for himself. They also exposed the plot to Jackson, who sidelined his vice president; and then forced him to resign. That is when Calhoun became one of two vice presidents forced out of office (with Nixon’s man Spiro Agnew).
Famously, Jackson wanted Calhoun hung for treason. That did not stop South Carolina slaveholders from making him their U.S. Senator. Calhoun was still serving in that capacity three years later when a lone gunman stepped up to President Jackson on the steps of the U.S. Capitol and tried to shoot him twice at point blank range. Incredibly, neither one of the assassin’s pistols would discharge. The unemployed house painter who was arrested refused to finger the man who hired him. But he did let the police know his favorite politician was John C. Calhoun.
8-MARTIN VAN BUREN | 9-WILLIAM HARRISON
Dark rumors kept the “Cast Iron Man” sidelined during the administration of 8th President Martin Van Buren, America’s only non-native speaking president (his first language was Dutch). Van Buren so frustrated Calhoun that he used his spare time to draft his intellectually bankrupt theory of nullification, or the fraudulent argument, cloaked in the principles of states rights, that the U.S. Constitution allowed rule over a majority by a powerful minority like slave owners. Jefferson Davis later used Calhoun’s specious doctrine to justify secession in the Civil War.
Calhoun’s prospects improved after the Election of 1840, which is ironic because William Harrison became 9th President on his promise to stand firm against the slave politicians. But Harrison died unexpectedly from a mysterious illness only days into office. Textbooks blame the victim for delivering too long a speech on a cold day without a hat (the official cause of Harrison’s death is pneumonia). Still, many antebellum Americans believed Harrison was poisoned because he hesitated to admit Texas for the slave politicians led by Calhoun.
To quash those rumors, Calhoun introduced his infamous “Gag Rule” on Capitol Hill. It prevented congressmen from raising inflammatory questions about slavery. While Calhoun suppressed facts, Harrison’s vice president, Virginia slaveholder John Tyler, became the 10th president, and “His Accidency” never filled his own shoes. For advice, Tyler turned instead to Calhoun. Once the dust settled, Tyler made Calhoun his secretary of state and the pair set out to dramatically expand the “peculiar institution” in the United States.
First they admitted the giant slave state of Texas. Then they prepared to admit the large slave state of Florida. When Tyler’s campaign flagged, Democrats brought in Tennessee slaveholder James Polk, who replaced Tyler in the Election of 1844. Calhoun stuck around the White House to help Polk admit Florida in 1845. Then, in 1846, he stood by when Polk ordered the U.S. invasion of Mexico with a goal of creating more slave states with New Mexico, Arizona, and Southern California.
10-JOHN TYLER | 11-JAMES POLK
First-time congressman Abraham Lincoln stood up on Capitol Hill and declared Polk’s war illegal and immoral. Zachary Taylor, the nation’s top military official at the time, stood firm beside him. Both future presidents paid a steep price for doing the right thing: Lincoln lost his reelection to Congress and did not return to national politics until the Lincoln-Douglas debates a decade later. Taylor was demoted by Polk and put in charge of the volunteers who followed the U.S. Invasion Army into Mexico. One of the militiamen he was assigned to oversee was his ex-son-in-law Jefferson Davis.
Americans grew tired of the corrupt slave politicians by the end of the Mexican War. To restore integrity to their nation, they put Zachary Taylor, the general who stood up to Polk, into the White House as America’s second Whig (after Harrison). A cousin of James Madison, Taylor rose up through the U.S. Army ranks on his own merits. So while he was a slaveholder himself, Taylor made certain he was the last one to occupy the Executive Mansion. He admitted all of California into the Union without slavery, virtually guaranteeing the end of the “peculiar institution” electorally.
The fire of ambition still raged inside the “Cast Iron Man”. His last stand against progressive history produced what Jim Crow historians later called the Great Triumvirate: the so-called greatest collection of speeches ever delivered on Capitol Hill. It is true Senators John C. Calhoun, Henry Clay, and Daniel Webster lectured. Yet that two to one lineup, for slavery, distorts the true numbers at the time, which were actually three to two against slavery because Senators William Seward and John Hale gave equally powerful speeches that were not acknowledged.
The California battle boiled down to the principled and defiant Taylor and the last stand by Calhoun, who was dying of tuberculosis. Calhoun was so near death that Virginia slave politician John Mason, author of the odious Fugitive Slave Act, was given the “great honor” of delivering Calhoun’s final speech. When Calhoun died days later, an even “greater honor” of serving as the Grand Master of Calhoun’s funeral in Charleston, South Carolina was handed to his protégé Jefferson Davis.
Senator Davis returned to Washington, D.C. in early May of 1850 and demanded his ex-father-in-law compromise with slave politicians on California. In early June, Davis threatened to lead a cabal of southern states out of the Union if President Taylor refused to compromise. In late June, recognizing Taylor had won, Davis plotted to invade Cuba for a slave state to offset California. When Taylor found out about the conspiracy in the first days of July, he promised to hang everyone involved.
12-ZACHARY TAYLOR | 13-MILLARD FILLMORE
“Let it rise,” were Taylor’s last words to the American people on July 4, 1850. The words referred to free California statehood, which flew through the U.S. Senate, and the Washington Monument, which Taylor dedicated to the Golden State that fateful day. Then Taylor fell fatally ill, the result, according to U.S. history textbooks, of eating bad cherries. Never mentioned is the fact that Davis attended to President Taylor’s bedside during the five long days it took “Old Rough and Ready” to die.
Fearing a civil war, and perhaps his mortality, Taylor’s terrified vice president, unlucky 13th President Millard Fillmore, reversed course. He compromised with the slave politicians, which resulted in the Fugitive Slave Act. That sprung Harriet Beecher Stowe into action penning the 19th century’s bestselling book (besides the Bible). Joking, Abraham Lincoln later credited Uncle Tom’s Cabin (1851) with bringing about the Civil War. Yet the criminal truly responsible was quietly forced out of the U.S. Senate while Stowe wrote.
Davis returned to Mississippi where he ran unsuccessfully for governor. Refusing to quit, or forbidden to do by his older brother Joseph, who owned one of the South’s largest plantations, the Davis brothers schemed with a distant family relation from Massachusetts and devised a plan to put their own man inside the White House. The “Dough Face” (pro-slavery politician from the North) they selected was New Hampshire Democrat Franklin Pierce. Rumored to be a Mexican War drinking buddy of Davis, Pierce campaigned with Caleb Cushing in New England while the Davis brothers canvased the South. Thanks to a slippery campaign biography written by his college classmate Nathaniel Hawthorne, Pierce emerged from obscurity in the Democratic Convention to win the Election of 1852.
The inexperienced Pierce chose Rufus King, an established Alabama Democrat, as his running mate. However, King fell fatally ill only days after Pierce was inaugurated the 14th President. Pierce followed the precedent of “His Accidency” and did not bother to fill King’s shoes. Instead, Pierce relied on Davis for advice. Following in Calhoun’s footsteps, the latter became the head of the Department of War, where Pierce gave him power. At one point, Secretary of War Davis controlled 1/3 of the budget of the Federal government.
14-FRANKLIN PIERCE | 15-JAMES BUCHANAN
The collapse of the American economy, plus a bloody civil war in Kansas, doomed any chance of a second term for Pierce. Looking to return to prosperity and peace in the Election of 1856, Americans replaced their neophyte “Dough Face” with the most experienced Democrat at the time: Pennsylvania politician James Buchanan. Members of the Pierce cabinet, including Davis, were preparing to vacate the White House when president-elect Buchanan arrived in Washington, D.C. and was promptly poisoned. Dozens died from the same strange illness, including a member of Buchanan’s family.
Today U.S. history textbooks claim the “National Hotel Disease” was the result of bad plumbing at the establishment where the president-elect stayed. But back then the front page of the New York [Daily] Times called the poisonings a “failed attempt at mass murder designed to elevate a president by succession.” Reporters from other newspapers suggested arsenic was sprinkled into refined sugar bowls, which primarily affected Northern drinkers because Southerners used pulverized sugar in their tea. Dye summarizes those reports: “about 38 died from the effects of the poison, but not a single southern man was affected.”
It sounds like Hollywood fiction. Yet Buchanan was so convinced the poisonings were part of a plot to elevate his vice president, John Breckinridge, a friend and classmate of outgoing Secretary of War Jefferson Davis, that he refused to speak to the Kentuckian for two years. Breckinridge was so excluded from White House affairs he returned home and served from there; if scheming with Buchanan’s treasonous Interior Secretary Jacob Thompson from Mississippi, plotting Treasury Secretary Howell Cobb from Georgia, and thieving War Secretary John Floyd from Virginia could be called public service.
Vice President Breckinridge resigned from the U.S. government when Abraham Lincoln won the Election of 1860 by a huge margin. He joined Davis, who became America’s only confederate president two weeks before the 16th President took office. Four years later, five days after U.S. Grant and Robert E. Lee declared peace following the death of 400,000 U.S. soldiers and 300,000 conspirators, Breckinridge, acting as a confederate secretary of war for Davis, passed along orders to Kentucky spy George Nicholas Sanders, who readied Booth for the Lincoln assassination from his Montreal hotel.
16-ABRAHAM LINCOLN | 17-ANDREW JOHNSON
That finding was the determination of the U.S. Conspiracy Court convened to convict Booth’s collaborators, all of whom were hung. Yet before the U.S. Conspiracy Court could prosecute the conspirators behind Booth, the Tennessee Democrat that Republicans added to Lincoln’s ticket in order to win the Election of 1864 replaced Lincoln’s Attorney General James Speed with his own man. First, Henry Stanbery freed Davis on bail, deporting him to Canada. Then he resigned to defend the 17th President from impeachment, preventing his removal by one (possibly spurious) vote. Thus Andrew Johnson was able to pardon the Davis insiders before he left office, the same suspects who went on to bring back Jim Crow.
To conclude, Dye’s history, which is more or less correct, or as factual as one might expect given Dye was self-taught and writing during the height of the Civil War with limited access to sources, presents a damning circumstantial case for how Calhoun and Davis were serial murderers. Which is to say, and there is no easy way to say this, they were all but certainly behind the unexpected demise of James Monroe (1831), William Harrison (1841), Zachary Taylor (1850), and Abraham Lincoln (1865) and they made attempts on the lives of Andrew Jackson (1836) and James Buchanan (1857).
These are stunning charges. Yet when Dye made them, they barely caused a stir. After the murder of Lincoln, the conspiracy of Jefferson Davis was obvious to everyone. For that reason, Dye’s reputation did not suffer from his “Great Conspiracy” book. On the contrary, his public stature grew larger. Indeed, leaders of the Republican Party were so impressed by Dye they asked him to write their campaign biography for Ulysses S. Grant. Dye’s profile went through 10 editions and played a key role in helping Grant become America’s 18th President.
Just in the nick of time, too. Thanks to Johnson, things looked dire for the post-Civil War United States. The “Rock on the Beach” who stood firm against the Davis confederacy under Lincoln, U.S. Secretary of War Edwin Stanton, had to lock himself inside his War Department office with a loaded pistol to prevent conspirators from stealing or destroying military intelligence (the reason why Johnson was impeached). Having beaten the confederacy, Grant defeated conspiracy again by becoming the 18th President, completing Reconstruction, and snuffing out the Ku Klux Klan.
Feeling better with Grant in the White House, Dye celebrated with Humanity: Its Fountain and Stream (1870). Again printed from his own press, the book was Dye’s attempt to synthesize the history of mankind from the Roman slave kings to America’s Ulysses. Dye postulated man was originally red in color; also that the black and white races emerged as variations as humans dispersed across the globe. It would not find traction with woke historians today: Exhibit E for the unreliable Dye. He also adopted the pseudonym “Deacon” and there is no evidence Dye was ordained for the ministry: Exhibit F. Dye may have used it to market books, but more likely Dye referenced the literal meaning of deacon (“through the dust”) as in the dirt kicked up by a humble servant devoted to God.
America was celebrating its centennial when Dye moved home to Philadelphia in 1876. Dye ran his detecting business out of a building located at 1338 Chestnut Street, which stood directly across from the nation’s second oldest mint and just down the road from “Ye Old Mint” (the first). Expanding into coin encyclopedias, Dye gave examples of “good presidents” made from gold, silver, and copper (precious medals of the ancients); also “bad presidents” made from lead (some bearing the face of Davis). As late as 1880, papers described Dye as a “Treasury expert in immediate communication with the Secret Service bureau at Washington”; also “What he says is reliable!”
The 1880 U.S. Census shows Dye living in a townhouse between the Schuylkill River and Girard College (close to the “Rocky Steps” at the Philadelphia Art Museum today). The enumerator says 58-year old Dye was home with his 33-year old second wife Emma living with Emma’s mother plus four children from Emma’s first marriage (ages 4, 9, 11, and 18). The 11-year old worked as a clerk in his stepfather’s “Publishing Office.” Fittingly, when Dye passed away less than a year later on the Sabbath, his family buried him in nearby Mount Vernon Cemetery.
John Smith Dye was a successful businessman and author of important books. All evidence in existence (besides Exhibits A-E above) says Dye was a patriot.
(Top)–History of the Plots and Crimes of the Great Conspiracy (1865:1868)