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The Vain Assassin

John Wilkes Booth had 12 days to live.

By 4.24.06

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Manhunt: The 12-Day Chase for Lincoln's Killer
by James Swanson
(William Morrow, 448 pages, $26.95)

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.

The contextualization goes far beyond character sketches, however. Swanson ably illustrates the very real, pervasive fear in the aftermath of Booth's act that without Lincoln to oversee the final days of a still smoldering Civil War -- not every Confederate Army unit disbanded at Lee's surrender -- the "conflict might degenerate into a brutal guerrilla war that might take years to win." The worry was real enough to prompt Ulysses S. Grant to order the arrest of all paroled Confederate officers and surgeons, only to back down when one of his aides pointed out that such a move might re-open hostilities. Likewise, Secretary of War Edwin Stanton was relieved when the assassination was not followed by a Confederate Army marching on Washington, D.C.

That probably disappointed Booth as much as it relieved Stanton. Instead of the South rising again, Swanson writes, "Booth witnessed the first draft of history transform Abraham Lincoln from a controversial and often unpopular war leader into America's secular saint." Suspected Booth sympathizers were murdered in the street by roving mobs. No one seemed to shed any tears as the Old Capitol Prison filled to the brim with a few real but mostly imagined co-conspirators. Wesley Severs, a U.S. Marine stationed in Illinois, reflected the sentiments of many when he wrote to his mother that he would like to "take a pair of shears" to Booth "and cut him in pieces as you would cut a piece of cloth." Lest Severs's mother believe he had gone soft, the Marine added, "Then I would dig out his eyes and then pour in boiling hot oil," before signing off, "your affectionate son."

OF COURSE, THE CHARACTER who maintains center stage throughout Manhunt is Booth. The portrait that emerges is of a man who treated his last days on earth as the last act of a great dramatic tragedy, going so far as to invoke Richard III and Macbeth in his descriptions of his predicament. From the moment of the assassination, he was playing the part, leaping to the stage, breaking his leg in an unscripted moment, and shouting to the baffled audience, "Sic simper tyrannis [Thus always to tyrants]. The South is avenged!" Booth could not for the life of him understand why the rest of the world failed to see it that same way. Hiding in a pine thicket reading newspapers Jones smuggles him, Booth whines with dismay at the insistence of newspaper columnists from both north and south of the Mason-Dixon Line on seeing the assassination as something less than a grandiose act. "I think I have done well, though I am abandoned, with the curse of Cain upon me," Booth woefully scribbles in his makeshift diary when life on the lam and a lack of critical acclaim begin to depress him. "When if the world knew my heart, one blow would have made me great, though I did desire no greatness."

That last is a crock, obviously. Those who do not seek greatness would not care what the world outside thought. On this point it's particularly instructive to note Booth's last words as he lay dying: Booth asked to see his hands and whispered, "Useless, useless." How outsized must your sense of personal greatness be to strike down a President of the United States at the apex of his power and determine the impact and implications of such a dastardly deed were inconsequential?

If the actor-turned-assassin is watching this world from somewhere out there in perdition, however, he must take some small consolation that in the already planned film version of this book starring Harrison Ford, James Swanson is on record saying he believes Johnny Depp would make a great John Wilkes Booth. The drama has outlived him. What else could a self-absorbed, preening actor ask for?

Shawn Macomber, a Boston-based writer, is a frequent contributor to The American Spectator. This article appeared in the April 2006 issue of The American Spectator. To subscribe, click here.

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