YOU MAY BE surprised to hear that movies are a lot older than most people think, dating back to the time of Abraham Lincoln. In excavations at the site of the new Baltimore baseball stadium, workmen have found a film that tells of an astonishing conspiracy.
Scholars have identified it as the earliest known film. It was produced by one Oliver Pebble, who is said to be the creator of an art form known as the "dock-you-drama." It's a talkie with the title of "ABE," and it tells the story of an amazing conspiracy behind President Lincoln's assassination.
In "ABE," Mr. Lincoln is not killed by a single bullet fired by John Wilkes Booth, as the Stanton Commission, an investigative panel appointed just after the assassination, reported. Mr. Pebble's dock-you-drama shows that Booth, an out-of-work actor who has drifted from job to job for several years, doesn't shoot anybody. The deed is the work of an elaborate conspiracy of disgruntled Confederate generals, tricky Northern politicians led by J. Edgar Vacuum, unscrupulous journalists and a band of early communists.
Booth is simply their patsy. He is paid a bundle of Confederate cash to jump off the balcony of Ford's Theater in Washington, shout "Sic semper tyrannis!" (thus always to tyrants) and disappear (on horseback) into the night.
The plot goes awry when Booth gets tangled in the curtain and breaks his leg. But the conspirators have a fallback position. They trace Booth and his dimwitted pal, David Herold, to the office of Dr. Samuel Mudd, the Maryland physician who set his leg, and then trail them to a barn in nearby Virginia. The chase makes an exciting scene.
Mudd, who is played by the grandfather of 20th-century actor Walter Brennan, comes a cropper in Mr. Pebble's dock-you-drama. He winds up accused of being an accessory after the fact, and a military court sends him off to prison.
Meanwhile, Booth, who is played by the devilishly handsome Kevin E. Lee, is trapped in the barn, along with David Herold. The troops set the barn afire, and Herold surrenders. A shot rings out. Then the troops find a body in the barn. The Stanton Commission identifies it as Booth's. The body is buried in Washington and later transported to Maryland, where it lies today, not too far from the excavation site.
The chairman of the commission, which is appointed by President Johnson (Andrew, that is), is Edwin M. Stanton, President Lincoln's secretary of war. The part is played by Edwin Booth himself, John Wilkes' brother and the most famous actor of the time. "ABE" doesn't tell us right out whether Edwin is part of the conspiracy.
Anyway, it's clear that Mr. Pebble doesn't like Mr. Stanton but that he loves President Lincoln. Kevin E. Lee delivers an impassioned speech telling us that if Mr. Lincoln had been allowed to live, the South would have been forgiven immediately, and the reunited United States would have instantly become the leader of a new world order.
No one knows whose body was discovered in the barn. Mr. Pebble tells us, though, that Booth escaped to Russia, changed his name to Grigori Rasputin and became a favorite of the czarina.
I don't know what will happen now that the Lincoln assassination conspiracy has been brought to light, but it's almost certain that Oliver Pebble will be hailed as a Great American.
Oh, yes, one other point. About Dr. Mudd. And this is a true story. He always insisted on his innocence, but he went to his death never exonerated by the Army. His grandson, who lives in Maryland today, is still trying to have his name cleared.
J. Herbert Altschull teaches in the Johns Hopkins University Writing Seminars.