IN HIS RECENT BOOK, Heritage Foundation legal scholar James Swanson relates the all-true adventures of a famous actor endowed with an unquenchable hatred for Republicans and a fervent belief that the sitting president is an illegitimate, constitutional rights-trampling tyrant.
These days it would be easier to list the modern actors who fail to fit such a description, since most purveyors of the profession seem to slide that supposed caricature on as easily as a frumpy old threadbare sweater. Still, don’t go searching for Swanson’s book in the “Performing Arts” section of Borders. The actor in question is not Sean Penn or Tim Robbins or George Clooney. No, Swanson is a historian, not a pulp biographer, and his subject is none other than the Big Fish of Republican president-hating thespians, John Wilkes Booth.
Deprived of such contemporary tools of dissent as the press junket and a login name at The Huffington Post, Booth ended up using his wealth and reputation (think Alec Baldwin with a moustache and the ability to pull off Shakespeare) to draw together a group of star-struck ne’er-do-wells for a decapitation strike on the leadership of the federal government. In Manhunt: The 12-Day Chase for Lincoln’s Killer Swanson deftly peels back the hitherto mostly hidden layers of this complex moment in our nation’s history with panache, verve, and a compelling command of narrative and suspense, meticulously detailing the plot and the aftermath as what it was: a complete debacle on every level save the one which counted: Booth’s murder of Abraham Lincoln a mere five days after Robert E. Lee surrendered the Army of Northern Virginia.
Booth’s deed has immortalized him in an eternal spotlight. Despite the oafishly simplistic sound-bite version of the Lincoln assassination most of us learned in school, however, this success was the exception, not the rule. As it turns out, the same conspiratorial cast of characters had gathered under the auspices of another Booth plan the year before. “Beginning in 1864, the last full year of the Civil War, the young star had marshaled his cash, celebrity and connections in service of a bold plan,” Swanson relates. “He hatched a harebrained scheme to kidnap President Lincoln, spirit him to Richmond, hold him as a hostage for the Confederacy, and turn the tide of the war.”
Were it not for Lincoln’s last minute visit to the Ford Theater on April 14, 1865, Booth probably would have licked his wounds over his beloved South’s loss, eventually dropping the spy and dagger routine and getting on with his life of riches, mistresses, and fawning audiences. As fate would have it, the 16th president chose to spend his first downtime in four years at an establishment Booth frequented both as guest and performer; a place, in other words, where Booth’s puttering and preparations for ill ends would warrant no suspicion whatsoever and where temptation to act on his still flaring anger was great.
SWANSON PAINTS THE SCENE at the Ford Theater brilliantly and vividly, yet also delves into the alternately goofball and spectacularly gruesome failures elsewhere that night with refreshing due diligence. George Atzerodt, directed by Booth to kill the unguarded and completely vulnerable Vice President Andrew Johnson in his room at Kirkwood House, instead got whiskey blitzed at the boarding house bar a few floors below and stumbled off into that infamous night without any blood on his hands. Meanwhile, Lewis Powell had enough wits about him to boldly gain access to a convalescent Secretary of State William H. Seward (a carriage accident a few weeks before had nearly killed him) by posing as a pharmacy delivery boy, but so botched the clumsy assassination attempt he only disfigured his prey in a brutal knife-slashing spree before getting into a drawn-out, bloody fight with Seward’s children and caretakers, declaring simply “I’m mad, I’m mad” and fleeing into the night.
Manhunt is full of the small, stranger-than-fiction details that give Swanson’s narrative the ring of truth. For example, Booth timed his shot to coincide with the biggest laugh during Our American Cousin, meaning essentially that the last words Lincoln ever heard were, “You sockdologizing old mantrap.” The Jerry Falwell/Pat Robertson contingent of the Civil War-era was hardly more dignified, placing the blame for Lincoln’s assassination on the president himself. He visited a den of sinners (evangelical shorthand for a “theater” in those days) on Good Friday, after all. Booth’s sister Asia embraced this notion, audaciously writing later that the assassination was “the moan of the religious people, the one throb of anguish to hero-worshipers that the president had not gone first to a place of worship or have remained at home on this jubilant occasion.” P.T. Barnum paid a princely sum for the saddle Booth rode in on one leg of his escape.
There’s the bizarre Boston Corbett, the man who on April 26 shot Lincoln’s assassin in a burning barn… and also had just happened to castrate himself a few years previously when he found himself tempted a bit too easily by the opposite sex. And Thomas Jones, an ex-Confederate river blockade runner who thumbed his nose at the $100,000 reward money and risked his meager livelihood out of a sense of duty to the Lost Cause to help ferry Booth from Maryland to Virginia, keeping the story to himself for two decades after the crime before relating it to a journalist for posterity.
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