Writer sheds light on mind of an assassin

September 18, 2005|By Cassandra A. Fortin | Cassandra A. Fortin,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

As a teenager, Michael Kauffman voraciously read books about the assassination of Abraham Lincoln, becoming a budding authority on the topic at an early age.

As new books came out, however, Kauffman was dismayed by the paucity of fresh information, particularly on John Wilkes Booth. A central question that became the focus of Kauffman's intense curiosity - why Booth plotted to kill Lincoln - went perpetually unanswered.

Thus Kauffman embarked on an investigation that would span 30 years and require countless hours at the National Archives, interviews of relatives of the accused, weekly visits to the Booth family's Harford County home, and the retracing of Booth's steps before and after the crime.

His efforts culminated in his 2004 book, American Brutus: John Wilkes Booth and the Lincoln Conspiracies, published by Random House.

Because of Booth's ties to Bel Air and the growing reputation of the book, the Historical Society of Harford County has invited Kauffman to be the guest speaker at 7 p.m. Friday at its annual dinner.

Less than a year after publication, historians consider Kauffman's work one of the most scholarly and detailed sources on the assassination and its perpetrator.

"This book will be `the book' for years to come on John Wilkes Booth," said Jim Chrismer, a John Carroll High School history teacher and a member of the county historical society's board. "Nothing even comes close to it in my mind."

The 509-page work explains in exacting detail the events of April 14, 1865. Kauffman corrects misconceptions and delves into the reasons Booth wanted to kill the 16th president.

The 49-year-old Kauffman made his first attempt at writing the book when he penned about 200 pages at age 14. He didn't like what he'd written but concluded that, to continue, he needed resources that weren't available to him. He set the project aside, vowing to complete it some day.

At age 18, he took a job with the FBI in Washington. That's where he got his first big break. One of the first people he met was John McHale, a top FBI official, who had married into the family of Dr. Samuel Mudd, one of the men accused in the conspiracy to murder Lincoln. McHale introduced Kauffman to a Washington-area group called Booth's Buffs that researched the assassination as a hobby.

It was through that group that Kauffman met Howard and Dorothy Fox, who owned Tudor Hall, the former Booth family home in Bel Air.

Kauffman became friends with the Foxes and spent more than 400 nights at the Booth estate, during downtime from his job as a television production technician.

He met many people during his weekend stays at Tudor Hall, including actress Dixie Carter and her husband, actor Hal Holbrook, who were interested in learning more about the Booths' stage careers. Booth, his father, Junius, and brother Edwin were all actors. Edwin Booth was the best-known American stage actor of his time.

Carter's and Holbrook's interest sparked in Kauffman an even deeper interest in the preservation of the history of the stage actors in the Booth family. As a result, Kauffman tried to help the Foxes raise money to restore the property.

But there were obstacles to the effort.

"There were local politicians and officials who told us they didn't care if the place burned to the ground," Kauffman said. "They refused to allocate money to do anything that they thought would memorialize the Booth legacy."

Kauffman continued his research, an 11,000-page investigation file at the National Archives. Eventually he typed the document into a database on his home computer, which sorted the transcript chronologically, allowing him to retrieve information as he wrote his book.

Long before he completed the book, the Owings resident landed guest appearances on A&E, the History Channel, C-Span and the Learning Channel as a leading authority on the assassination.

Kauffman's book was submitted to Ford's Theater National Historic Site for consideration to be included in its permanent collection of sources. The stringent criteria for selection requires that a book be scholarly, accurate, annotated and based on primary documents.

Rae Emerson, site manager of Ford's Theater, where the assassination occurred, said diversity in theories and ideas also is taken into consideration.

"Only the Bible is more published than books on Lincoln," Emerson said. "So we have to be very selective in what we include. We don't have the space for everything."

Emerson said the goal is to amass a collection of sources that provides multiple viewpoints of what happened.

"When people come here for tours, they have ideas that run the gamut," said Emerson. "We encourage that. We don't tell people one theory is right over the other, we let them form their own opinions."

Endeavoring to chronicle the life of a villain can be an unsettling history undertaking, Emerson said. But to shrink from writing a book because it depicts something negative in history would be a disservice, she said.

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