Visitors’ Book Listings at the Niagara Falls Museum ~ June through November 1864
By Barry Sheehy
The following was written by Mr. Sheehy as part of his research for the book City of Secrets: Montreal and the Confederate Secret Service. Mr. Sheehy also provided an excerpt from this book in our 2016 edition of Circa magazine.
The handwritten ledgers from Barnett’s Niagara Falls Museum, 59 books in all, cover more than a century and a half of Canadian history from the 1830s to well into the 20th century. This is a priceless font of historical information and the recent acquisition of the collection by the Niagara Falls History Museum is a boon to historians everywhere. In completing my next book, City of Secrets, about Confederate operations in Montreal during the American Civil War, I have used the ledgers for June through November 1864 to identify historical characters who appear to be in both Montreal and Niagara. In some cases, the Barnett register helped confirm the presence in Canada of important historical figures such as super-banker Jay Cooke and Edwin Stanton’s telegraph operator and confidant, Thomas T. Eckert. These were important finds.
As in Montreal’s St. Lawrence Hall, Barnett’s Museum ledgers show an eclectic mix of guests including American politicians, government officials, bankers, spies, and Confederate operatives. Just as at St. Lawrence Hall, there is evidence of considerable obfuscation using altered initials, middle names as surnames, daughters and wives registering for fathers and husbands, and false points of departure. It’s clear, nevertheless, that many of the historical characters who are present at St. Lawrence Hall in 1864 are also found in the Barnett Visitors’ Books.
There is also evidence of cryptic messages attached to some registrations, although further research is required to decipher their meaning. For example, on 11 Oct 1864, for the registration of E. E. Singleton (last name obscured), the point of departure appears to be instructions that say “Go H 26 (last word obscured).” Charles Van Gordon’s registration has a cloud with 29 inside it. William S. Adams, Jr., headed for Troy NY, adds to his registration a pyramid and an elaborate O. There is some reference to the suspension bridge or symbols indicating the bridge. There is a cryptic message in the margin on 25 Aug 1864 that is mostly illegible except for the word “downfall.”
On 30 Aug, Mrs. Lowe writes in the margin “Stay by bridge (last word illegible)”.
On 9 Sep, J. D. Whitney includes after his signature the Greek letters O A X. This was probably the symbol for the anti-Lincoln Sons of Liberty or Knights of the Golden Circle; both groups were committed to the establishment of a North West Confederacy.1 They worked in close cooperation with the Confederate Secret Service. All in all, these secret signals are intriguing but largely indecipherable, yet the messages were clearly left for someone to read.
In searching through the Museum Register from June through November 1864, a number of names appear in the museum guest book that also turn up in Montreal at St. Lawrence Hall. There are probably many more to be discovered but the existing list is impressive and historically significant. As at St. Lawrence Hall, we find senior Confederates mixing with American politicians, bankers, and members of the War Department.
[Among a long list of bankers, Radical Republicans, entrepreneurs, Confederate operatives and spies listed from both the Niagara Falls Museum and St. Lawrence Hall registers are included the following:]
James Ashley: Radical Republican, in Niagara in early September. Ashley’s wife Emma registers at the Museum on 4 Aug 1864. An H. Ashley registers a month later 4 Sep 1864. Ashley was a fierce opponent of Abraham Lincoln and played a major role in efforts to impeach Andrew Johnson.
Lafayette Baker: Federal Secret Service Chief appeared to be at the Museum several times, including 22 Jun 1864.
C.W. and L.D. Beale from Washington, DC were members of the Confederate Sanitary Commission. They raised money by selling cotton and used the funds to buy blankets and other necessities for Confederate POW’s. It was suggested by some that they were not above lining their own pockets in the course of their duties.
Dr. Luke Blackburn, a senior Confederate stationed in Montreal, appears to have been in the Niagara area in early August. His daughter, Miss L. Blackburn, registers at the Museum 11 Aug 1864. He registers earlier as Jn Blackburn from Toronto 25 May 1864. Blackburn checks into St. Lawrence Hall with John Wilkes Booth and National Detective Police (NDP) detective Walter Pollack. The latter was NDP [Federal Secret Services] chief Lafayette Baker’s brother-in-law. He too turns up in the Museum Guest Book.
Captain John Castleman, Confederate operative, is at the museum 1 Jul 1864. [Castleman had raised the idea of sacking Northern towns soon after fleeing from Chicago at the end of August. He had moved south into Indiana with the intention of burning and destroying federal depots. Thompson, however, expressed the fear that raids on public buildings would implicate the commissioners and put them in an awkward situation with Canadian authorities. In spite of his misgivings, he wrote to Castleman with his approval of the plans, adding that he would take pleasure in helping in any way he could. (Mayers P 103)]
Jay Cooke, Civil War super banker, is represented by his family which registers 22 June. Cooke was close to his family and it is unlikely they were vacationing at Niagara Falls without him. On June 26th, a J. Cooke arrives at St. Lawrence Hall from “N Falls, US.” This may indicate the family was staying at the Cataract House on the U.S. side of the falls. Cooke appears again in Montreal at SLH in October when John Wilkes Booth was at SLH. Cooke found the time to visit Canada in the summer of 1864 but ignored two invitations from President Lincoln to visit him at the White House. That summer represented the nadir of Lincoln’s Presidency. He was experiencing one setback after another on the battlefield. Casualties had reached sickening levels and a new draft of 500,000 men was called for to fill the ranks. Lincoln himself predicted his defeat in November. His invitations to Cooke went unanswered. Not even an explanation was provided. The affront was clearly intentional.
Sam Davis, Confederate Operative, is in the guest book 14 July. [While carrying a request from Senior Confederate Commissioner in Canada Jacob Thompson to the War Department for enlistment papers of St. Albans raiders, Davis was captured and sentenced to death as a spy.] Thompson wrote directly to Lincoln explaining that Davis was a courier but not a spy. Lincoln commuted the sentence.
T.T. Eckert. This is an important find. Eckert was the head of the War Department’s Telegraph operations and worked directly for Secretary of War Edwin Stanton. He appears to visit both Niagara and Montreal in the summer of 1864. In Montreal, Eckert uses the initials G.G. or T.T., 27 Jul 1864 at SLH. A few days earlier on 22 Jul 1864, he registers as T.T. or Y.F. Eckert from Cincinnati, Ohio. In any case, the Eckert signatures in both cases are identical and both claim Ohio as the point of departure, and we know that Eckert was originally from Ohio. He is travelling with his son Master Thomas (T. Eckert) which makes the ID almost certain.
Through robber baron Jay Gould (also in Montreal in July 1864), Eckert would one day become chief of Western Union. On the night of Lincoln’s assassination, the President asked Edwin Stanton if Eckert, a powerful man, could accompany him to Ford’s Theatre as an unofficial body guard. Stanton refused stating rudely that Eckert was too busy. Lincoln then asked Eckert himself but received the same answer. Despite his apparent workload Eckert went home that night as usual. He was there when the news of Lincoln’s assassination reached him. The signatures in SLH and Barnett’s Museum are a good match with Eckert’s surviving autographs.
William Finney was an active member of the Confederate Secret Service who divided his time between Halifax and Montreal. He and his cohort Benjamin Ficklin, helped found the Pony Express. They also purchased the famous Confederate blockade runner Giraffe, later renamed Robert E. Lee. Finney was involved with blockade running and efforts to capture northern POW camps. Ficklin became involved with Confederate Beverley Tucker’s cotton-for-contraband schemes. In this, Ficklin worked for Brown Brothers Bank of London and New York. He was captured in Washington the day after Lincoln’s assassination but was released at the intercession of former Congressman and Washington power broker Orville Browning, who was likewise involved in cotton trading.
A.J. Holt: Joseph Holt was the Chief JAG prosecutor of the Lincoln Conspirators. Registered 17 Sep from Buffalo. Holt is found registered at SLH twice accompanied by powerful Republicans.
James Pallon/Pallen, from Montreal, 7 Oct 1864, almost certainly Dr. M. Pallen, a senior member of the Confederate Secret Service in Montreal.
Jacob Thompson: Senior Confederate Commissioner in Canada, appears in the guest book several times including 1 Jul 1864. He checked in with J.C. (Jeremiah) Black who was a backdoor peace representative sent to Canada by Secretary of War Edwin Stanton in the summer of 1864. On 7 Oct 1864, he signs in as R.H. Thompson from Liverpool; he used this same registration at SLH. Note he registered at the museum next to James Pallen who is almost certainly Dr. M. Pallen, senior Confederate from Montreal. J. Black is back at the museum on 17 Jul 1864. On 18 Aug, R. Thompson [and E. Mordecai] register as being from the CSA. A third party inserts the word “Rebel” into the registration.
Bennett Young, leader of the St. Albans Raid, along with a number of his raiders, turned up at the Barnett Museum 4 Jul, 3 Aug 1864. Raider Doty 20, 22 Jun, 1 Jul; Raider Deveny 20 Jun; Raider Hutchinson 23 Jun; Raider Price 13 Sep; Raider Swager 10 Oct 1864. [Young was from Kentucky, where he had acquired a fierce thirst for revenge against the Union after a raid on his hometown. He shared Castleman’s desire to destroy Northern towns and joined with many of the Kentucky cavaliers who ended up in Toronto. He had been commissioned as a lieutenant in the Confederate Army by Secretary of War James Seddon and was ordered to Canada to report in secret service to Clay rather than Thompson. His specific instructions were to collect Confederate soldiers who had escaped from Northern prisons and to “execute such enterprises as may be indicated to you” (Mayers p.101) Clay sent him back to Seddon in Richmond where his strategy for raiding Northern towns was explained; he received instructions to carry out the raids, specifically naming Burlington and St. Albans, Vermont, as targets. (Mayers 102)]
The Americans at the museum seem a touch more cautious than those registering at St. Lawrence Hall and more likely to obfuscate signatures. This may have been because Niagara was closer to the U.S. and subject to greater surveillance.
As in Montreal the names in Barnett’s Museum registers point to regular proximity, if not outright interaction, between the Confederate Secret Service and key American politicians, government officials, and bankers. The evidence certainly points to considerable corruption in the U.S. war effort by 1864. In addition, opposition to Lincoln appears to be deeper, better organized, and more vociferous than is acknowledged in today’s mainstream American Civil War narrative.
Notes 1 North West Conspiracy trial P2, 29 O.A.K. or O.A.X.– probable symbol for Sons of Liberty, See https://archive.org/stream/trialsfortreason00pitma/trialsfortreason00pitma_ djvu.txt (Accessed May 2016.)
Touch Tour: Museum Collection Behind-the-Scenes
Winter Film Series: Newshounds on Screen – Journalism at Stake
J4BL Book Club
Winter Film Series: Newshounds on Screen – Journalism at Stake