Lafayette Baker was born on 13th October, 1826. The family moved to Michigan but Baker left home in 1848 and did a variety of different jobs in the West. In 1856 he joined the Vigilance Command that cleaned up San Francisco following the Californian Gold Rush. During this period he was involved in several lynchings.
On the outbreak of the American Civil War Baker managed to gain an interview with General Winfield Scott. Baker told Scott he had lived in Richmond and proposed that he be sent to that city, now the capital of the Confederacy, to gather military information for the Union Army. Scott agreed to the proposal and he was sent to Virginia to spy on General Pierre T. Beauregard and and his forces in Virginia.
The plan was for Baker to pose as photographer who wanted to take pictures of the leaders of the Confederate Army. However, on 11th July, 1861, Baker was arrested by the Union Army at Alexandria, Virginia, as a Confederate spy. Baker was in danger of being executed as a spy until General Winfield Scott intervened to gain his freedom.
Baker eventually reached the Confederacy but he was quickly arrested by an army patrol. According to Baker, he was interviewed by President Jefferson Davis and Pierre T. Beauregard and after providing information about Union troop movements, positions of heavy gun emplacements and locations where ammunition and goods were stored, he was released. Baker took with him a photograph of Beauregard that he used to help him enter Confederate Army military camps.
In Fredricksburg Baker was once again arrested as a Union Army spy. Convinced that he was about to be executed, Baker managed to use a small knife that he had hidden in his shoe, to free two loose bars in his cell.
When Baker returned to WashingtonGeneral Winfield Scott was so impressed with his information he made him a captain and put him in charge of his intelligence service. Scott told the story of Baker's adventures to several members of Abraham Lincoln's government. When Edwin M. Stanton Secretary of War, heard the story he recruited Baker as his replacement for Allan Pinkerton, head of the Union Intelligence Service. Baker was given the job as head of the National Detective Police (NDP), an undercover, anti-subversive, spy organization.
One of his successes was the capture of the Confederate spy, Belle Boyd. Later Baker was accused of conducting a brutal interrogation and despite the inhuman treatment Boyd refused to confess and she was released in 1863.
In 1863 Baker raised a battalion of cavalry called the 1st District of Columbia Cavalry. This unit was used against John S. Mosby and his Partisan Rangers. However, they were unable to hunt him down and his raiders continued to create problems for the Union Army until the end of the war.
Baker was also suspected of being guilty of corruption. He went after people making profits from illegal business activities. It was claimed he arrested and jailed those who refused to share their illegal gains with him. Baker was eventually caught tapping telegraph lines between Nashville and the office of Edwin M. Stanton. Baker was demoted and sent to New York and placed under the control of Charles Dan., the Assistant Secretary of War.
On the assassination of Abraham Lincoln Baker was summoned by Edwin M. Stanton to Washington with the telegraphic appeal: "Come here immediately and see if you can find the murderer of the President." Baker arrived on 16th April and his first act was to send his agents into Maryland to pick up what information they could about the people involved in the assassination.
Within two days Baker had arrested Mary Surratt, Lewis Paine, George Atzerodt and Edman Spangler. He also had the names of the fellow conspirators, John Wilkes Booth and David Herold. When Baker's agents discovered had crossed the Potomac near Mathias Point on 22nd April, he sent Lieutenant Edward P. Doherty and twenty-five men from the Sixteenth New York Cavalry to capture them.
On 26th April, Doherty and his men caught up with John Wilkes Booth and David Herold on a farm owned by Richard Garrett. Doherty ordered the men to surrender. Herold came out of the barn but Booth refused and so the barn was set on fire. While this was happening one of the soldiers, Sergeant Boston Corbett, found a large crack in the barn and was able to shoot Booth in the back. His body was dragged from the barn and after being searched the soldiers recovered his leather bound diary. The bullet had punctured his spinal cord and he died in great agony two hours later.
Booth's diary was handed to Baker who later passed it onto Edwin M. Stanton. Baker was rewarded for his success by being promoted to brigadier general and receiving a substantial portion of the $100,000 reward.
Baker was dismissed as head of the secret service on 8th February, 1866. Baker claimed that President Andrew Johnson had demanded his removal after he discovered that his agents were spying on him. Baker admitted the charge but argued he was acting under instructions from the Secretary of war, Edwin M. Stanton.
In January, 1867, Baker published his book, History of the Secret Service. In the book Baker described his role in the capture of the conspirators. He also revealled that a dairy had been taken from John Wilkes Booth when he had been shot.
This information about Booth's diary resulted in Baker being called before a Congress committee looking into the assassination of Abraham Lincoln. Edwin M. Stanton and the War Department was forced to hand over Booth's diary. When shown the diary by the committee, Baker claimed that someone had "cut out eighteen leaves" When called before the committee, Stanton denied being the person responsible for removing the pages.
Speculation grew that the missing pages included the names of people who had financed the conspiracy against Abraham Lincoln. It later transpired that John Wilkes Booth had received a large amount of money from a New York based firm to which Edwin M. Stanton had connections.
After his appearance before the Congress committee Baker became convinced that a secret cabal was intent of murdering him. He was found dead at his home in Philadelphia on 3rd July, 1868. Officially Lafayette Baker died of meningitis but the authors of the book, The Lincoln Conspiracy (1977), claim that he was murdered by his brother-in-law, Walter Pollack, a detective at the War Department.