American history was changed forever when 151 years ago today, April 14, 1865, Abraham Lincoln became the first president to be struck down by an assassin. History records that John Wilkes Booth fired the fatal shot that felled the 16th president and that eight others were convicted in connection with the assassination, four of whom were hanged. A startling question though has long haunted the Hudson Valley. Could the sinister plot have actually been known by several local residents before the fact.

For the past 151 years, local legends have swirled that people in the Orange County communities of Crawford and Pine Bush were openly discussing the president's murder in the hours and days before Booth pulled the trigger.

In 1977, the book The Lincoln Conspiracy was published which was soon followed by a movie adaptation.  Authors David Balsiger and the late Charles Sellier Jr. wrote on page 152 that on that fateful Good Friday, that a writer for the Middletown based The Whig Press claimed he had been informed that President Lincoln had been shot... at 2:30 in the afternoon. The unnamed writer further claimed that similar reports were circulating in Crawford and Pine Bush before noon that day. Is it possible that some Hudson Valley residents were aware or even involved in the assassination of Abraham Lincoln?

For years stories have been handed down that there were a number of Confederate supporters in Orange County during the Civil War and there was even a report published in the April 18, 1865 edition of The Newburgh Journal that a chapter of the infamous Knights of the Golden Circle existed in the county.  The KGC was an organization of Confederate sympathizers and former soldiers who stole and horded gold in hopes of either restarting the Civil War someday, or establishing an independent nation in Mexico where slavery would be legal. Early members of the KGC are rumored to have included the infamous outlaws Jesse James and Frank James.

Town of Crawford Historical Society President Joanne Keillor confirms having heard the stories of the Lincoln Assassination being "reported earlier in the week" but admits she has no documents or records of these accounts. Keillor also reports that John Wilkes Booth was quite "a matinee idol" in his day and actually performed in Orange County, calling him "the Mel Gibson of his time." And we all know what happened with Mel Gibson.

A post on the "Remembering Newburgh" Facebook page claims that Booth had often been seen at the Newburgh train station.  He may have been traveling to Albany where he performed frequently. The website railsplitter.com published a photograph taken at a Newburgh gallery in the mid 1800s of a man bearing a strong likeness to Booth. The photo was placed up for auction on e-bay for $199. There were no takers. Does the picture prove Booth's presence in Newburgh? Another Facebook poster writes that he had read Booth had been seen meeting with a Confederate secret agent known only as "Coxe" in Newburgh, but admits not seeing any "credible details."

This scenario is intriguing as Booth traveled to Montreal in October 1864, where the Confederate Secret Service was based. According to Andy Blatchford of The Canadian Press (posted to globalnews.com), witnesses claimed to have seen the famous actor meeting with Confederate officials and expressing his contempt for Lincoln. During the past few decades, numerous authors have written books alleging that the Confederate Secret Service was behind the assassination and that Booth was acting on their behalf, contrary to the accepted belief that he was an enraged Southern supporter who deeply hated President Lincoln. The truth is, we will never know for sure unless some lost document or a very old diary turns up in someone's attic or basement, whether or not anyone in the Hudson Valley had prior knowledge or was even involved in the assassination of the man who usually leads the list of most popular American presidents.

Another Hudson Valley connection to President Lincoln is that he had visited the area. The February 1995 issue of the Hudson Valley-based news magazine NOW reported that Lincoln visited the U.S. Military Academy at West Point in 1862, toured a cannon factory in Cold Spring and spent a night at an inn in Highland Falls. Sadly, Abraham Lincoln would make one final trip through the area when his funeral train traveled from Washington D.C., up the Hudson River en route to Springfield, Illinois where he was laid to rest. There are also legends that "the Lincoln Ghost Train" rumbles through the area in the dead of night, but that is another story.