Dramatic to the end: The final days of John Wilkes Booth

Review History

March 19, 2006|By JANET MASLIN | JANET MASLIN,NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

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

James L. Swanson

William Morrow / 448 pages / $26.95

On May 24, 1865, less than a month after the death of John Wilkes Booth, a publisher issued a book called The Assassinator. It was a fictionalized account of Booth's assassination of President Abraham Lincoln and the beginning of a historians' cottage industry that is still going strong.

Nearly 141 years later, the body of literature about Lincoln's death is immense and seemingly exhaustive. Yet James L. Swanson's Manhunt has found a reasonably new angle.

This sprawling narrative is a storyteller's nightmare. Many minor accomplices and unwitting dupes figured in Booth's plan (originally a plot to kidnap the president), both before and after the terrible deed. And although Lincoln's history defies brevity, Booth's story as part of the era's pre-eminent family of American actors is complicated, too. Booth was the son of the tragedian Junius Brutus Booth, who had jokingly threatened to kill President Andrew Jackson.

John Wilkes Booth's motives and maneuvers received a much more penetrating analysis in Michael W. Kauffman's American Brutus, published a year ago. Swanson's version does not surpass that account's insight or acuity. But he has successfully streamlined the assassination's aftermath into an action-adventure version of these events. He makes Manhunt very accessible and infuses it with high drama.

In the process of churning up excitement, Swanson must shape and simplify some of the events he describes. But he knows his turf, however glibly he sometimes traverses it. Manhunt is vigorous and clear without sacrificing accuracy (though without pursuing it too strenuously either).

Swanson renders Booth larger than life in language that has with a present-day ring: "Twenty-six years old, impossibly vain, preening, emotionally flamboyant, possessed of raw talent and splendid elan, and a star member of this celebrated theatrical family - the Barrymores of their day - John Wilkes Booth was willing to throw away fame, wealth and promise for his cause."

Many historians have delivered the blow-by-blow accounts of what happened on April 14, when Booth shot the president at Ford's Theatre in Washington during what he knew would be a noisy moment in the comedy Our American Cousin. And many have bogged down in the particulars. But Swanson vigorously crosscuts through the day, from the escalating intrigue around Ford's Theatre, over to the mayhem at the home of Secretary of State William Seward (who survived a savage attack by one of Booth's young acolytes, Lewis Powell), through the bleak overnight vigil that followed (Lincoln died at 7:22 the next morning).

With every small detail of these events already subject to microscopic scrutiny, Swanson more often chooses to emphasize the big picture. He describes a mood of sudden postwar panic. As the book makes clear, a nation celebrating the apparent end of the Civil War was plunged into uncertainty about whether the fight had resumed and about whether Washington was under attack by renewed Confederate forces. The slow dissemination of news is the aspect of this story that will most startle readers today.

Booth spent much of his 12-day flight hidden in a pine thicket in Maryland, waiting to slip across the Potomac and perhaps disappear into a welcoming Deep South. In light of that becalmed interval, Swanson has to work doubly hard to keep his book moving. But he relies on lively foreshadowing, on emphasizing turns of fate that would later emerge as decisive, and on stressing the theatricality of Booth's behavior.

Just as Booth did, the book saves its heavy ammunition for a final showdown. It describes the fraught standoff between Booth (aided until almost the end of his journey by his worshipful young accomplice, David Herold), and the cavalry forces that amassed at the Garrett farm in Virginia, near the Rappahannock River.

This late part of the book becomes sheer stagecraft. For Booth, trapped in a tobacco barn, writes Swanson, "this was his final and greatest performance, not just for the small audience of soldiers at the improvised theater of Garrett's farm, but also for history." When Booth is finally wounded and weakened, "the great, theatrical, tenor voice that once projected beyond the proscenium arch and filled the halls of Washington, Philadelphia, New York, Boston, Chicago, St. Louis, Baltimore and Richmond had been hushed and could no longer be heard past the first row."

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