Tag Archive | John Wilkes Booth

Book Review: Manhunt

Manhunt: The 12-Day Chase for Lincoln’s Killer, by James L. Swanson

As a fan of our 16th President Abraham Lincoln, I have been wanting to read this book for awhile. It did not disappoint!

Manhunt: The 12-Day Chase for Lincoln's Killer

We are all familiar with the story of our 16th President’s untimely death due to an assassin’s bullet in April 1865.  However, do you know the story of the plan that lead up to it?  A plan to not only assassinate Lincoln, but also to kill Secretary of State William H. Seward and Vice President Andrew Johnson.  It is believed that General Ulysses S. Grant was also a target of the plot, as he was supposed to be attending Ford’s Theatre with the President that evening.

Of course, Lincoln was the only man killed, shot in the Presidential Box at the theatre about 10:15 pm by John Wilkes Booth, who with dramatic flair, jumped to the stage, breaking his leg in the process, and fled.  Booth was well known, so he went into hiding as he attempted to cross the Potomac River and get deeper into Virginia, where Confederates still held territory.

Swanson book documents the plot, the conspirators, and Booth’s flight into Virginia after the assassination.  He uses primary sources to tell the story of where Booth went after he crossed the bridge outside of DC, and why it took twelve long days to pin him down in Garrett’s barn, where the final standoff occurred.  He also weaves in little known stories of the players involved, filling out these important chapters in American history.  Did you know that Laura Keene, the actress in the play that night, made her way into the box after Lincoln was shot, asked and was incredulously granted permission to cradle the dying President’s head in her lap?

For fans of Lincoln, this book fills in some of the gaps of his assassination and the days following, and is not to be missed.

5 stars.

Vet’s Day Weekend 2017: Where Lincoln Died

Day 5, Sunday, November 12, 2017

My last day in Washington D.C., I was going to be heading to someplace that has been on my bucket list for a very long time, and I was really excited.  Hopefully you don’t think this is too morbid though, because I was going to visit Ford’s Theatre and the Petersen Boarding House.  The sites in Washington, DC where Abraham Lincoln was shot by John Wilkes Booth and where he died.  I think anybody who truly admires Lincoln probably wants to see these two sites with their own eyes, so I’m sticking with that…

Admission is free, and you don’t have to have advance tickets, but they are recommended, because the spaces fill up quickly.  The days I was there, they only did the tours (I used the word tour loosely) until about 11 am, because there were rehearsals for a play after that.  Advance tickets only cost $3, which is basically a processing fee for buying them online.  It is worth the small price to have the guaranteed slot!

It is strange to see it up close and in person.  Ford’s Theatre and the Petersen Boarding House have been preserved, but the entire rest of the area around them has been built up with modern buildings.  It is a little like seeing the tiny little house in the animated movie UP, dwarfed by the skyscrapers all around.  After waiting in line for a bit (outside, so be prepared for weather), I was in!

 

Ford’s Theatre Line

The tour takes you up the back stairs into the upper balcony seating area of the theatre, where you have a great view of the stage, and the Presidential Box.  Only Mary’s chair is original in the box, but the theatre has been restored to the way it looked at the time of Lincoln’s assassination with period replicas.  One day, I would love to see a play there.

 

When I say I use the term tour loosely, I mean that the docent basically just answered questions – there wasn’t really any information she presented to the group.  Which is fine for me, since I have read about the assassination and know the players and how it all went down.  If you didn’t know the story, you weren’t going to get it there though.  It was interesting to see where Booth jumped from the box to the stage, and where he exited the stage after breaking his leg.  I was a little disappointed, because the “tour” was supposed to be longer, but they were kind of trying to rush us out of the theatre section because of the upcoming rehearsal. I hung back and waited for everybody to file out and was able to get some good photos after most of the people had gone.  The docents didn’t bother me, even though I was one of the last ones there.

 

Me with the President’s Box

Down in the basement of the theatre, there is a great museum.  It includes artifacts pertaining to Lincoln’s life and family in the aftermath of the assassination, the assassination itself, and the conspirators and the hunt to find them and convict them afterwards.  The museum has the Deringer pistol that Booth used to shoot Lincoln on display.  It was so small – it is hard to imagine such a small implement doing so much damage.  The museum has a lot of good information, so I spend a while there taking it all in.

 

The Deringer pistol used to kill Lincoln

My last stop was the Petersen House.  There isn’t a timed entry here or an issue with rehearsals, so you can visit any time after your theatre tour.  You might have to wait outside for a little while, if there is a line, because the house is very narrow and doesn’t fit that many people.  Like the theatre, not much inside is original, as the originals were sold off as souvenirs after Lincoln’s death.  The original bed that Lincoln died in is now housed in the Chicago History Museum (note to self: visit Chicago History Museum).

 

The Petersen Boarding House

The Ranger did point out where Mary Todd Lincoln sat in the sitting room when she was too upset to stay with Lincoln, and where the men discussed what to do outside of the room.  The small back bedroom is where Lincoln lay, diagonally across the bed, because he was too tall for the bed.  He died there at 7:22 am the next day.  The original bloodstained pillows are in the room.

 

The Petersen house also houses an extensive Lincoln archive; you can tour that too if you are so inclined (I opted not to, as I was getting pretty hungry at that point).  There is a very cool tower of books written about Lincoln in the front room of the archive building. Floor to ceiling Lincoln books, 34 feet in all– this nerd was in heaven!  I was pretty proud of myself, because I had read at least half a dozen of the books included in the tower. I stared at the tower for a bit, thinking to myself, “I’ve read that one, and that one and that one…”

The Tower O’ Lincoln Books

 

On my walk back to the car, I stopped in at Capitol City Brewing Company.  I had a crab cake sandwich and a beer; so good!  You even get a homemade soft pretzel as a starter…

 

Capitol City Brewing Company

 

All in all, I had a really good trip – it was a great long weekend with a good mix of relaxing and sightseeing.  Sadly, it was time to head home, so I made my way back to the Baltimore airport to check in for my flight home.  On the way, I checked out a bit more of D.C. from the car, and saw a bit of Baltimore.  I will have to get back and explore more at some point!  But for now, I boarded the plane and made my way home…  Another wonderful trip had come to an end.

Accidental Airport Selfie – I was taking a pic of the plane hanging above…

The Assassin’s Accomplice: Mary Surratt and the Plot to Kill Abraham Lincoln

My most recent audiobook read was The Assassin’s Accomplice: Mary Surratt and the Plot to Kill Abraham Lincoln, by Kate Clifford Larson.  Published in 2008, it is a comprehensive study of the role Mary Surratt played in the plot to kill President Lincoln.

The Assassin's Accomplice: Mary Surratt and the Plot to Kill Abraham Lincoln

The Assassin’s Accomplice: Mary Surratt and the Plot to Kill Abraham Lincoln

Larson begins her story with her belief that Mary Surratt was innocent of the charges that she was tried, convicted and hanged for.  It is a fair assessment; there certainly are plenty of people who believe that Mary was caught up in the public fervor to swiftly find and punish the guilty parties.  But then, she begins presenting the research, and the evidence stacks up.

Larson methodically presents the case, beginning months prior to the assassination, going over Mary’s role and what she knew, and how her actions convinced investigators of what she knew.  She interweaves the story of Mary’s family life, abusive marriage and eventual life as a widow trying to clear her alcoholic husband’s debts after his unexpected death.  It has the rhythm of a novel, so you are never bored with the numerous records that she introduces and the facts she describes.  She describes Mary in vivid detail for the reader, so you really end up feeling like you know her as a person.

She describes the arrest, the subsequent investigation and interrogations, and the trial of the conspirators before the military tribunal.  She doesn’t glorify either side, pointing out the flaws in both the prosecution’s and defense’s case, and explaining the part that media and public opinion played in the trial.  She detailed the fragile emotional state of both Mary and her daughter Anna, and how it influenced observers both in her favor and against.

She matter of factly describes the shortcomings of Mary’s inexperienced attorneys, and how Mary’s own unwillingness to provide any sort of alternate explanation against the mountain of evidence was critical in sealing her fate.  And of course, one cannot ignore that fact that Mary basically took the fall for her son John Surratt, who undoubtedly had significant knowledge of the plot, but remained hidden after Mary was arrested, tried and executed.  Would the outcome have been different had John come forward to stand before the tribunal?  We will never know.

Larson also describes the execution, making the reader feel that they understood what happened, without making it into a gory scene.  And finally, she examines the debate about Mary’s innocence by firsthand witnesses and her attorneys that continued well into the early 1900s.  The pendulum swung from the public believing in her guilt, to outrage over what was thought to be the execution of an innocent woman.

In the end, Larson has made it clear that the project did not reaffirm her belief in Mary’s innocence, as she expected it would, but led her to a deep understanding of Mary’s guilt and her knowledge of the plan.

Well researched and well written, this book is a must read for anyone who wants to more fully understand a humble, pious woman’s role in the conspiracy to kill the President.