In one of the most bizarre circumstances of the Civil War, the Secret Service was established by President Abraham Lincoln, upon recommendation of Treasury Secretary Hugh McCulloch, on April 14, 1865. As you may recall, President Lincoln was shot that same evening at Ford’s Theater by John Wilkes Booth.
The Secret Service actually became operational on July 5, 1865 as “The Secret Service Division of the Department of the Treasury”. Their official duty was to seek out counterfeiters. It was said that approximately one third of all U.S. currency at the time was counterfeit.
President Lincoln went to Ford’s Theater on April 14 in spite of the recommendation of his unofficial and regular bodyguard Ward Hill Lamon that the president not go out of the White House and specifically to not go to the theater. The president had sent Lamon on assignment in Richmond, VA. The president’s “stand in” bodyguard, Metropolitan Police Officer John Park, proved his incompetence by leaving his duty station and disappearing after the president was seated in the box. Parker somehow miraculously avoided prosecution for his failure to guard the president.
In spite of a Congressional inquiry into the circumstances of President Lincoln’s assassination, nothing was done to provide protection for future presidents at the time.
The Secret Service continued to look for counterfeiters right up until 1901, when their duty was changed to protection of the president. Those who are not historians may not know that besides President Lincoln’s assassination, President James A, Garfield (by Charles Guiteau in 1881) and President William McKinley (by Leon Czolgosz in 1901) were assassinated in the interim. Every president, starting with Theodore Roosevelt, has been officially protected by the Secret Service.
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