(Disclosure: A cable channel [not H2] asked me this week if I would be interested in appearing in a show about ancient astronauts, but only as a guest expert. I told them I won’t do it if they plan to make me look like I support ancient aliens.)
So, on to this week’s episode of America Unearthed, S02E12 “Lincoln’s Secret Assassins.”
At least we are all on the same page this week about the racist origins of the claims. You do not get much more racist that planning to build a giant slave empire where a white elite rule over enslaved black people across the Americas.
In the run up to the Civil War, an Ohio man by the name of George W. L. Bickley fabricated a degree in medicine from the University of London and used the fake diploma to secure a position as a quack—or, more specifically, as a professor at the Eclectic Medical Institute, an early forerunner of today’s complementary and alternative medicine movement. There he practiced phrenology and botany, so at least he did no greater harm then the quacks with real degrees. He also wrote a novel, a well-regarded history of the Indian Wars, and a bunch of pseudo-scientific books on medicine. His novel, called Adalaska, was an anti-slavery tome seeking to capitalize on the success of Uncle Tom’s Cabin. This would be a fascinating story on its own, but it’s only the beginning.
Among his other accomplishments was his marriage in 1853 to a wealthy widow and the subsequent use of her money to fund increasingly political activities and international business ventures. As the editor of a journal advocating Manifest Destiny, he argued that the U.S. capital should be removed to the Ozarks, for “the circle of our limits” would in time encompass Mexico and the Caribbean. This is the origin for the later term “The Golden Circle,” as David C. Keehn reported in Knights of the Golden Circle (Louisiana State University Press, 2013). Bickley was associated with the Young America movement, an organization affiliated with the Democratic Party which advocated Jacksonian democracy (including its Indian removal arm) and expansion south and westward.
Bickley also loved secret societies and wanted one of his own. He tried forming a chapter of the Brotherhood of Union, and he joined a lodge of Know-Nothings, as did a teenaged John Wilkes Booth. However, when Bickley’s wife discovered in 1857 that he was trying to steal her assets, he returned to quackery as a vocation and began plotting a new secret society. As Bickley came to realize that there was money to be made from exploiting Southern anxieties over slavery, he quickly abandoned his earlier objections to the “peculiar institution.” He tried wearing a false beard to hide from his creditors but was eventually driven out of Ohio. In short, he was a con artist whose only firm conviction was in the power of the almighty dollar.
While working as an editor, he placed a single star atop a Maltese cross and was inspired. He now had a logo for a new organization, modeled closely on the Brotherhood of Union, which he called the Knights of the Golden Circle, referring to the circle of land surrounding the Caribbean that would be his imagined Southern Empire. He convinced the Order of the Lone Star to join its fifteen thousand members to his nascent group, which took the Golden Circle name. The OLS had been founded by Cuban-Americans and Southern expansionists to promote U.S. intervention in the Caribbean, in violation of the 1818 Neutrality Act.
The exact machinations of the Knights in their growth phase aren’t particularly relevant; suffice it to say that like most secret societies of the era, it utilized three Mason-like degrees of initiation and had a hierarchy modeled, ultimately, on that of the Freemasons. It was not, however, affiliated with the Masons, though in that era many members would have participated in more than one secret society. This was not due to a widespread conspiracy but rather because before the rise of the labor movement and the modern welfare state, these organizations were a major source of social welfare and an important part of the social safety net.
Keehn concludes that the Knights laid the groundwork for the Confederate Army and helped make secession possible, but then broke down into a confederation of local agitators and a militant core group. He, if I may be so bold, seems to see them as analogous to the Tea Party, if the Tea Party spilled over into open rebellion. His book, however, provides little documentary support for its broad assertions about a massively powerful Golden Circle. Aside from Keehn, most historians feel that the group itself was little more than a collection of dreamers and schemers and its legend attributable to the individual accomplishments of men who happened to be members, reflected back onto the group itself. In this it would not be too different from the way the Masons acquired their own legend of omnipotence.
The Knights faltered with the beginnings of the Civil War. Jefferson Davis had believed that the Knights could offer continuing support for the war effort, but it never materialized. In 1863, the Confederate government called Bickley to service, but he deserted, hiding with his mistress in Tennessee. He tried to flee to Indiana in 1864, but he was accused of being a Confederate spy and was arrested. He died in 1867 as a result of the ill effects of his time in prison. The Knights reorganized as the Order of American Knights in 1863 and the Order of the Sons of Liberty the following year. Its most lasting legacy was to provide an organizational template for the first Ku Klux Klan, one of many similar organizations to emerge from the ruins of the Confederacy.
However, while the Knights had little practical effect on the war effort, Republican politicians found them to be a useful propaganda tool in the North. Secretary of State William Seward denounced ex-President Franklin Pierce, a critic of Lincoln, as a Knight. Pierce denied the charges of treason vociferously and denied even having heard of the Knights. The Lincoln administration and its allies in the press used the threat supposedly posed by the Knights to support Lincoln’s curtailment of civil liberties, including the suspension of the writ of habeas corpus. To oppose Lincoln was to be denounced as a traitor and a Knight.
It was in the context of largely imaginary threat generated by government propaganda that some began to imagine that Lincoln himself was under threat from the Knights. This is the deep background for the unusual letter received by Abraham Lincoln’s correspondence secretary E. D. Neill at the end of 1864. In a letter of November 6, 1864, Alexander Ramsey wrote from St. Paul, Minn. warning that Lincoln was under threat from the Knights Templar—referring to the group within Freemasonry, not the medieval warrior-monks—whom he claimed were planning to assassinate the president:
Shortly after the Nom. of McClellan a gentleman, an old acquaintance of his, temporarily at St Paul and a “Knight templar” in the order of Masons, said to him that Mr Lincoln would be assassinated if elected — to the inquiry “who would do it” he replied “the Knights” My informant is a “Knight templar” himself, and at the time and for a season after supposed the “Knights of the Golden Circle” were meant, but upon reflection he fears his informant meant the “Knight Templars” & if so he fears their detection will be more difficult & begged me to put the Prest. on his guard. (original spelling & punctuation)
Since the 1826 kidnapping of William Morgan by Freemasons, the organization had been on the political outs in the United States, and subject to vigorous denunciation and endless conspiracy theories. An Anti-Masonic Party ran candidates in two presidential elections. Because Andrew Jackson, a Democrat, had been a prominent Mason, Republicans were inclined to lump the Masons in with the Knights of the Golden Circle as supporters of the Democratic Party and the Confederacy. It did not help that one of America’s most prominent Masonic leaders, Sovereign Grand Commander Albert Pike, was a general in the Confederate army. Republicans also accused Confederate president Jefferson Davis of being a Freemason as well, but Davis denied the accusation.
Then in April of 1865 John Wilkes Booth assassinated Abraham Lincoln. A government investigation uncovered a conspiracy, and eight members of that conspiracy were tried and convicted. Soon after a book called The Great Conspiracy: A Book of Absorbing Interest appeared, describing the events surrounding the assassination. The anonymous author asserted that John Wilkes Booth had been initiated into the Knights of the Golden Circle in Baltimore in 1860 and that he swore an oath on the blood of Christ to give his life in service of the Knights. While some of the text of the oath may be fictitious, historians are divided on whether Booth was in fact a member of the Knights. (Keehn believes he was.) So much of the relevant material is tainted with propaganda; one of the early conspiracy books, The Suppressed Truth about the Assassination of Abraham Lincoln (1922) for example, concocted a vast conspiracy by which the conspirators were all Knights but also fallen Protestants who “were wholly papalized,” since the hated Catholic Church was supposedly conspiring with Jefferson Davis and the Knights.
From this giant mess was born the conspiracy theory that the Knights of the Golden Circle recruited Albert Pike to procure and protect a hoard of Confederate gold by moving it through Masonic channels after the end of the Civil War. You’ll recognize this as the plot of the Disney movie National Treasure: Book of Secrets (2007), where the treasure is in fact the ancient (and mythical) lost city of gold sought by the Conquistadors. (That lost city helped spawn the mistaken belief that the Aztec had colonized Arizona, but that’s a different episode…) Disney, in case you have forgotten, is a 50% owner of A+E Networks, the parent of H2, and the movie franchise also lent its name to another H2 series, America’s Book of Secrets. Others speculate that the treasure was really that of the assassinated Maximilian, Emperor of Mexico, the Habsburg archduke placed upon a shaky throne due to Napoleon III’s scheming.
As prominent Freemasons have repeatedly demonstrated, there remains not a trace of factual or documentary evidence for a lost treasure/Freemason scenario. It is entirely a fantasy concocted by modern conspiracy theorists. I can’t even debunk it because there is absolutely no documentary evidence whatsoever. But from this, according to Arthur Goldwag’s Cults, Conspiracies, and Secret Societies, treasure-hunters and conspiracy theorists have spun an elaborate story that the entire Civil War was the result of a conspiracy initiated by the original Knights Templar and fulfilled by the Illuminati and international Jewry. Pike himself helped set off such speculation in an April 16, 1868 Memphis Daily Appeal editorial when he argued that a “secret association” of some kind would be essential for safeguarding the rights of white citizens in the Reconstruction South. Although many later took this to mean the KKK or the Knights of the Golden Circle, Pike specifically wrote that the KKK was ineffective for his purposes: “...we would unite every white man in the South, who is opposed to negro suffrage, into one great Order of Southern Brotherhood […] whose very existence should be concealed from all but its members. That has been the resort of the oppressed in all ages. To resort to it is a right given by God...” Pike also stated at one time that he would quit Masonry if it ever allowed African Americans to join.
To all of this is appended a further conspiracy whereby Jesse James was also a Knight and was in receipt of either Confederate treasure or Maximilian’s treasure, and used it to fake his own death. The Knights of the Golden Circle allegation was previously explored by the History Channel in 2009. Even Keehn, the historian granting the broadest influence to the Knights, finds this claim ridiculous. James was eleven when the Knights were founded, and he was sixteen when the original group reorganized. The conspiracy rests on the assumption—without evidence—that the Knights continued to exist underground after the fall of the Confederacy, something belied by its own gradual and public dissolution during the war years.
It emerges, as best I can tell, from a pair of strange texts: a 1975 book called Jesse James Was One of His Names by Del Schrade and Jesse James III and a privately-printed conspiracy theory called The New Spoilers by Norma Cox, also published in the Hollow Earth Insider around 1994. The 1975 book’s co-author, Jesse James III, was actually Orvus Lee Houk, who claimed to be the grandson of an old man named J. Frank Dalton who had become notorious for pretending to be century-old Jesse James between 1948 and his death in 1951. He was probably the same Frank Dalton who claimed in 1936 to have been a witness to the aftermath of the death of Jesse James and who had written at the time “Jesse James was killed by Bob Ford on the 3rd of April, 1882, in St. Joseph, Mo., there were too many people who knew him well and came to identify him for there to be any possible doubt, so that is that.” The 1975 book was written to support Dalton’s late in life claims, though DNA testing of the body buried in James’s grave in 1999 showed that the outlaw had died in 1882. In the book, the authors said Dalton claimed that James was one of the leaders of the Knights after the war, along with Cole Younger and Jefferson Davis, that the group had a spy network stretching across the continent and to England, and that the Knights had launched the KKK as a “military police” group. Conveniently, Dalton was made to claim, the Knights sealed their records in 1916, so nothing could ever be proved. But Dalton said John Wilkes Booth was not a member of the group, but a low-level affiliate, and was not acting on Knightly orders. Instead, he was rescued by the Knights so he couldn’t spill their secrets.
Cox’s work asserts that Albert Pike, Jesse James, and Jefferson Davis were not just leaders but among the twelve founders of the Golden Circle. It is through Pike that the Freemasons enter the conspiracy and tie together the modern version of the James-Knights-Treasure story. Cox, if you should be interested, was a disabled housewife who considered herself psychic. She was also a hollow earth theorist who also believed that the sun was hollow. She wrote another book (actually a compilation of her newsletters) called The Holy Land above and Below in which, and I sincerely wish I were making this up, evil pagan-god aliens who live under the earth and in outer space are conspiring to hide the truth about history from white Americans. These truths include the fact that the Jews worship the sun, Hitler lived out his days comfortably beneath Antarctica, and the Statue of Liberty is an alien radio transmission tower. She was deeply interested in conspiracies and Confederate hate groups because “here in the United States the White Christian is targeted for extinction,” as she wrote. Oh, and the Jews are fakers who usurped the proper position of the Aryans as God’s Chosen people: “…the Aryan is the genius, the inventors of all of the tools representing progress; the fact that, except for the Jew’s inherent cunning, and his unexcelled cleverness in manipulating money, the Aryan is his superior in every way, and the fact that the Gentile-Aryan is the chosen of the Creator, and not the Jew.”
It gets worse from there: She had a whole pagan-biblical world philosophy, culminating in the glorious reign of Hitler over the world before the return of Apollo-Jesus. And she penned many, many more tracts on the same themes.
Conspiracy literature cites Cox (mostly in online sources) and the explicators of Dalton (more often in print) as evidence that Jesse James was involved in the removal of Confederate treasure, but I think you can see that the sources for this conspiracy are a bit less than ideal. David Icke includes the burgeoning legend in his Biggest Secret (1999), complete with Albert Pike as mastermind, and Warren Getler and Bob Brewer essentially adopt the Dalton version wholesale and claim that the Knights of the Golden Circle were pulling the strings of the KKK and Freemasonry in their book on the hunt for Confederate treasure, Rebel Gold (2003), also published as Shadow of the Sentinel, which includes the Jesse James conspiracy at face value, and asserts that not only did the Knights kill Lincoln, they had elected him, too, as a pretext for secession! They also came to include Albert Pike as a potential connection to Masonry. Their book forms the template for the investigation Scott Wolter undertakes. Reviewers of the time noted that the authors simply accepted Civil War propaganda at face value with nary a critical thought. Hmm... Sounds familiar!
Oh well. The title sequence rolls and we see Scott Wolter driving down a foggy road. He arrives at the home of John DeSalvo, who collects Lincoln memorabilia. Although he is presented as a competent Lincoln researcher, he is actually a fringe theorist who believes in Enochian magic and various goofy theories about the Great Pyramid. He hosts a fringe history radio show and started a pyramid research group to bypass “traditional academic journals,” which are, of course, suppressing the truth about magic, angels, and pyramids.
Wolter is shocked to discover that there was a wider conspiracy to kill government officials along with Lincoln, a fact that is actual and established history—and the whole reason for the trials of the conspirators that followed the assassination. The two men seem to think that it is news to discover that other people were involved, something that the Federal government investigated and documented in 1865. Once again, Wolter presents his own ignorance (real or feigned) as evidence that there is a suppression of history. These claims were all put forward, adjudicated, and investigated in the 1860s. The Knights of the Golden Circle claim emerged in the 1860s, was revived in the 1920s and the 1970s before reemerging around 2000. It is so completely not news that it’s laughable that America Unearthed would purposely want us to think that its host is completely ignorant of the subjects he chooses to investigate, even at the most basic level of research.
DeSalvo attributes the conspiracy to the Knights of the Golden Circle, and Wolter fails to explain what the group really was, parroting fringe history ideas about grisly blood rites and continental spy networks drawn mostly from Northern propaganda during the war years. This is shallow even for America Unearthed. A moment’s research in real history books rather than goofball fringe literature would show how unfounded these ideas are.
In Washington, D.C., Wolter confronts Mark Stout of the International Spy Museum and demands to see “evidence” before we cut to the first commercial break.
After the break Stout, a former CIA officer, shows Wolter a cypher key that Booth had in his possession at the time of the assassination. It was probably a Confederate code, Stout says, and he demonstrates how it works to Wolter. Stout then shows Wolter evidence of the “Northwest Conspiracy,” a Confederate sabotage ring run out of Canada, who had as a member, Stout says, Jesse James. However, this appears to be another fringe claim, not appearing in standard biographies of the outlaw. The teenaged James was a Confederate guerilla, however, though not a high ranking one. I doubt many teenagers were.
After another break, Wolter returns to the idea that he had no idea that there was a conspiracy to kill Lincoln, and he discusses “gruesome” rituals of the Knights of the Golden Circle, which he says—laughably—involved kneeling on a human corpse. So did they have (by America Unearthed’s count) 500,000 corpses, or did they have only one per “castle” (lodge)? This is just Northern propaganda, from The Great Conspiracy.
Moving to a “secret” meeting site, also in Washington, Wolter meets Warren Getler of Rebel Gold fame! As mentioned above, he’s another credulous researcher who accepts Northern propaganda at face value—specifically mentioning the book The Great Conspiracy, which I discussed above, a piece of utter propaganda, as obvious as any I’ve ever read. He falsely links Sen. John C. Calhoun to the Knights of the Golden Circle—Calhoun was never a member; he was dead eight years before the Knights were founded. Worse, he calls Jesse James a field commander of the Knights—a claim based entirely on Dalton, the imposter from 1948! The men travel to Judiciary Square to view the statue of Albert Pike. As you can tell from the background information I wrote ahead of time, I am psychic and can predict this show’s dumb ideas with uncanny accuracy. The show, however, fails to acknowledge that any of the fellows involved with the alleged conspiracy were acting out of virulent racism in the postwar years (see the editorial Pike wrote, quoted above). Instead, we get idiocy about sacred geometry being used to lay out hiding places for Confederate gold in service of a new Confederacy—supposedly hundreds of millions of dollars’ worth.
Getler asserts that the Knights of the Golden Circle still exist, and as we go to commercial I received the best news ever: Next week is the “season finale” of America Unearthed! SWEET FREEDOM! I would go mad if I had to do this for twenty-six straight weeks. They must be dividing the twenty-six episode order into two thirteen-episode seasons. Sadly, though, that means that this season failed to build toward a climax like last season did, confining itself to mostly low-level lunacy until this episode. We didn’t even get a swing back around for another attempt to find the Ark of the Covenant as Wolter had promised back in the premiere that we would. As the break ends, Scott Wolter’s sponsor, Duluth Trading, runs an ad that promises that its underwear won’t “stink.” That’s about right for this show.
After the break we get another recap as Wolter sputters at Getler’s ridiculous and unfounded claim that a Knights of the Golden Circle “legacy organization” still exists “for some purpose that’s way bigger than most people can conceive of.” The two men are pretty sure it has something to do with the New World Order, and Wolter speculates that the New World Order he failed to find evidence for back in episode 2 is really the Knights of the Golden Circle. He asserts that the Georgia Guide Stones may have been tied to the Knights of the Golden Circle, funded by Confederate gold. Getler asserts that dark forces have accosted him personally—he should join Robert Temple, who thinks the CIA and world hypnotists are trying to get him. I am again dumbfounded that neither of these idiots makes even a passing mention to the foundational goal of the Knights, instituting permanent white supremacy throughout a “Golden Circle” of slave-holding territories, institutionalizing slavery forever.
How can you talk about the Civil War and secret societies without even a moment’s thought (until the last minutes of the show) to the issue of slavery, the fundamental principle that caused secession in the first place and was the acknowledged reason for being of the Knights of the Golden Circle? This vast conspiracy somehow dumped all of its ideology in favor of, what, exactly? A vague effort at population control? How does that represent a “KGC principle”? Or do they have ideas about which people to kill?
Wolter travels to Brownwood, Texas to look for “treasure and the truth” at a supposed Knights of the Golden Circle treasure site to talk to a laconic fellow who hear more about the alleged survival of the Knights of the Golden Circle, for which no documentary evidence exists. This centers on a man named Henry Ford, whom the leathery man suggests was really Jesse James. He can join the list of the many pretenders. There were dozens of them.
This takes us to another commercial without a single verifiable fact in support of this conspiracy. Once again we are asked to accept the impossible on the word of a “researcher” who says things that are demonstrably untrue—like the ghost of John C. Calhoun taking part in KGC affairs eight years after his death. But in the world of America Unearthed facts don’t matter because truth is a function of the goodness of one’s soul. If you are fringe researcher fighting the good fight against mainstream history, you are one of the heroes, and your ideas are therefore true.
Following the hour’s last break, we return to Texas where Wolter plans to use ground-penetrating radar to look for underground tunnels supposedly built by Jesse James to hide Knightly gold. In the last minute of the show he tells us that he didn’t bother to actually try to find the gold, and didn’t show us the results of the radar survey. What a joke.
Wolter moves on to the Eagle Pass, Texas city hall to look for material about J. O. Shelby—a Confederate soldier who just happens to be related to Don Shelby, the idiot who thinks that Meriwether Lewis was murdered to cover up Templar land claims. Don Shelby has no evidence that J. O. was a Knight, but he thinks he must have been just because the Knights were so powerful and Don seems to want to associate himself with greatness, even the greatness of an organization devoted to hemispheric white supremacy, which is only mentioned once in passing in the last four minutes of the show. What exactly does he think the “Golden Circle” was supposed to be? Ah, finally, they decide to tell us, right at the end of the hour. They then move right on past slavery and talk about the nobility and greatness of the Confederate soldiers.
Shelby says you “have to admire” the KGC, and Wolter nods in agreement. The two seem confused about the facts of the KGC and that the Golden Circle was supposed to come into the Union to forestall a Civil War, not as a back up plan, to add more slave states, starting with Cuba. By revising the timeline, they promote the idea that the KGC continued to exist after the war—against all documentary evidence. This, in turn, plays into the conspiracy mindset but makes a mockery of history. I’m still baffled why I’m supposed to admire a racist group that wanted to create a transcontinental slave empire.
So where are these modern Knights? Wolter didn’t bother to even go looking for a single one. And what of Lincoln’s assassination? That’s forgotten among the lust for gold. Once again, the writing lets down the episode, failing to provide a solid through-line or a coherent narrative, dropping plot threads and giving so little background that viewers coming to the show without background in the subject have no choice but to agree with Wolter for lack of facts. Perhaps that’s all part of the plan.
The Knights of the Golden Circle and the New World Order share one thing in common: They don’t exist but can easily stand in for the Freemasons, whose members supposedly populate both groups. They allow conspiracy theorists to accuse the Masons of all manner of gruesome crimes, dastardly conspiracies, and bloody rites without ever crossing the line into libel. By attributing the claims to non-existent groups, the claims become the Holy Grail of cable television—consequence free conspiracy-mongering, with no risk of lawsuits or litigation.