Josiah's Reviews > Chasing Lincoln's Killer

Chasing Lincoln's Killer by James L. Swanson
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Nov 24, 13

Read from August 02 to 03, 2011

One of my favorite parts of this book came in the acknowledgements section at the end, when author James L. Swanson mentions having spoken before a second-grade class which wrote out for him ahead of time some tips on how to write for younger readers. The suggestion that he remembered best: "Keep in all the blood and gore, but not so much that our parents flip out." It seems that James L. Swanson took this advice to heart, for it is a good description of the finished product that is this book. Chasing Lincoln's Killer is a revamped version of the author's highly successful book Manhunt, which was intended for an adult audience; Chasing Lincoln's Killer is edited for content and clarity with younger readers in mind as its primary audience. The descriptions of the wild twelve-day adventure that began on the night that John Wilkes Booth put a bullet in the head of perhaps the greatest president in the history of our country are sometimes bloody and violent, but true to the advice given by that second-grade class, James L. Swanson doesn't shield the readers from very much of the gore. In fact, this is a book that would be an intense and gripping read for any age group.

What many people don't realize about John Wilkes Booth is that he wasn't just an average person walking in off the street and deciding to attempt an assassination of the president. He was a nationally known stage actor, performing as a lead star in successful plays all across the country. Think of the greatest movie stars of today, the ones that command the most money and media attention, and that's John Wilkes Booth, conspirator to the killing of Abraham Lincoln. It's hard to imagine one of our major contemporary film icons plotting to murder the president, but that really was the situation as it stood during the infamous April of 1865. Keep in mind, also, that movies did not exist in the 1860s, so the regard in which the top stage actors were held by the American public was equivalent to how we view the biggest draws in cinema today. To be a famous actor in that entertainment era was to work live onstage, and people of the time were just as infatuated with the most celebrated acting idols as they are in our current society.

John Wilkes Booth wasn't pleased about the way the vaunted War Between the States had gone; the Confederacy was done for, the Emancipation Proclamation was taking effect everywhere, and the strong political ideals of the south were beginning to crumble. Booth saw the unpopular President Lincoln as the main culprit behind all that had happened, but he believed that if the man who had signed the Emancipation Proclamation were to be eliminated from the scene, such a development could possibly reverse all of the bad that had befallen the south in recent times. Maybe the Confederacy could even be revived, and slavery re-instituted, and life could go back to a semblance of what it had been before the Civil War. Booth was no military man, but he certainly had deep pockets and important connections because of his acting career, and it would be very difficult to stop him from successfully carrying out his plans if he were of a serious mind to take the life of the president.

The previous failure of an intricate plot designed by John Wilkes Booth to kidnap Lincoln had gone entirely unnoticed by the government, but Booth was determined to make good this time around. His new plan was well-constructed and thought through carefully, almost theatrical in its nature and fairly certain to get the job done. Booth himself would be the one to carry out the execution, sneaking into Ford's Theatre where he had often starred on stage in the past, and making his way under cover of darkness into Lincoln's presidential box where he would be sitting to watch the night's play. Gaining access to the area behind the seats reserved for Lincoln wouldn't be a difficult task for Booth; after all, he was closely familiar with the layout of the theater, and would have no trouble using his knowledge of the ins and outs of the building's structure to help himself maneuver into a spot where he would have a clean shot at the president. He would carry out his own brand of "justice" using a Deringer pistol, which would only allow time for one shot at his target. If he failed to drop Lincoln with the first bullet, then he also had a knife with which to finish the job, and there wasn't much of a chance that he was going to miss with that weapon.

With the aid of several co-conspirators, all went as expected for John Wilkes Booth on the tragic night of April 14, 1965. He shocked everyone present in the theater as he brazenly shot the president in the back of the head and then narrowly escaped capture, fleeing from Ford's Theatre on a hobbled leg as a result of a break to his fibula that he sustained while leaping out of the president's box. Booth now had only a short time before the entire city of Washington, D.C. would be up in arms and looking for him, and there was no way for him to try to blend in and hide under cover of anonymity with a famous face like his. He rode on horseback away from the theater as quickly as he could go, just ahead of the tidal wave of news about the president's assassination, desperate to keep the advantage of the people's ignorance on his side while he could still travel through areas where no one knew what had happened. People weren't looking to stop a man for no reason from ostensibly just heading on his way home, especially not a famous one like John Wilkes Booth. Booth milked the situation for all it was worth in the first critical hours after he shot Lincoln, hoping to get as far away from Ford's Theatre as possible before the inevitable manhunt began.

A fact of history that usually escapes notice when one speaks of the death of Abraham Lincoln is that the president of the United States wasn't the only man targeted by John Wilkes Booth and his Confederate cronies on that day. While Booth prepared to prematurely bring the curtain down on the life of Honest Abe, an ex-soldier for the rebels, Lewis Powell, was gaining entry to the home of William H. Seward, Lincoln's Secretary of State who is best known today for making the land purchase that added the Alaska Territory to the holdings of the U.S. Seward had recently been involved in a serious carriage accident that had injured him very badly, and he was recovering at home with his family and a few guards in attendance on the night that Booth and his associates struck. Lewis Powell, a man of incredibly strong physique and a burning determination to end the life of Seward, tried to access the bedroom where the secretary was resting by pretending to be a messenger bringing important medecine. That deception didn't exactly work, but it bought him enough time to at least get into the three-story house and have a quick look around. When Seward's daughter inadvertently tipped Powell off as to the specific room where her father was stationed in the house, Powell attacked, going at everyone who tried to stop him with a big, dangerous knife. He gruesomely slashed Seward and stabbed several others as well before escaping, but his work had not been as complete as Booth's. Seward remained alive, though in even worse condition than he had been before. He had been horribly sliced up and blood was splashed everywhere, and his guards and the members of his family had not been spared in the attack. Powell managed to slip away into the night, for the moment unnoticed and untracked.

The third assassination planned by John Wilkes Booth and his men for that evening was intended for the person of the vice-president, Andrew Johnson. Johnson was in his hotel on the night of April 14, without security, and the idea was for George Atzerodt to knock on the door of his room and shoot him when he opened it. It appears that Atzerodt couldn't bring himself to go through with his part of the plan, though, and left the hotel without Johnson even realizing that his life had been at risk.

Unlike most of his co-conspirators, John Wilkes Booth got out of Washington, D.C. quickly, leaving any pursuers far behind by the time they were able to get their bearings and understand the gravity of all that had happened on this night. Lincoln had surprised the doctors by holding on for a few hours after the initial gunshot trauma to his brain, though there was no chance that he could have ever permanently recovered. Despite an older-looking face, the president still had a vital, powerful body, and this was what gave him the strength to resist death for as long as he did. It didn't matter that he was now fifty-six years old; Abraham Lincoln was still the same guy who had done vigorous work as a rail splitter, and played baseball with pure athletic fervor in his younger days. He was still the Abraham Lincoln who had entered the field of politics because he really wanted to change the world for the better, and such a man was not designed to bow out quietly from this life.

Joining John Wilkes Booth as he fled the manhunt that followed the trail of his escape from Ford's Theatre was another of his co-conspirators, David Herold, who had accompanied Lewis Powell on his mission to kill William H. Seward, but refused to do any actual killing. He had followed a similar route to the one taken by Booth, and both crossed over the closed Navy Yard Bridge in hopes of finding freedom the closer they came to Confederate territory. The pair of fugitives proceeded to link up with a long series of acquaintances of the renowned Booth at various points along the trail, asking for assistance before the people being asked could find out about Lincoln's assassination and put two and two together to deduce that the fleeing Booth was probably the killer.

The danger to Booth and Herold continued to mount as government agents swept in a calculated outward radius from Washington, D.C. in pursuit of the man who had murdered the president. The trail of their flight had been erratic, and few of their friends were eager to help the police in their search, but Booth was hindered significantly by his broken leg in his ability to outrun the feds. The injury prevented him from riding on a horse for very long or at high speeds, and he knew that he would have no chance of getting away if the law ever did catch up to him. David Herold stayed with Booth nevertheless, and the two outlaws worked together to evade capture for as long as they possibly could.

Despite finding a way to cross over the river into previously Confederate Virginia, though, it was only a matter of time before the high number of people that the wanted men were asking for help was bound to catch up with them. At a farmhouse belonging to a Confederate sympathizer who had agreed to house Booth for a night before finding out that he was one of Lincoln's killers, the law caught up to John Wilkes Booth and David Herold. There was no way that Booth could elude this group of trained officers, and he knew that the drama of his escape had drawn to a close, the final sad act in the life of a man who had brought so much happiness to Americans on the stage. Booth was shot and killed, David Herold taken into custody and eventually sentenced to death by hanging, and the twelve-day manhunt for the person who had killed the president of the United States was at an end.

I'm not exactly sure why, but the story surrounding Lincoln's death still lives in the hearts and imaginations of Americans in a way that few other historical events from as far back as that continue to live. It's nigh upon impossible to read the simple message composed by one of the president's most dependable allies, Secretary of War Edward M. Stanton, which states, "Major General Dix, New York: Abraham Lincoln died this morning at 22 minutes after 7 o'clock" and not palpably feel the tremor of that moment's raw emotion down through the years, a moment that rocked our nation to the core and has not faded into any less of a tragedy just because of the passage of time. I think that Abraham Lincoln becomes a personal hero to nearly every American student at a very young age, in a way that only George Washington and Martin Luther King, Jr. can sort of match, and because of this early foundation of heroism, we view Abraham Lincoln with a certain amount of awe for our entire lives. Even when we grow older, our admiration for Abraham Lincoln doesn't fade at all, because he really was a person of such amazing integrity. In spite of the nightmares that he faced in his personal life, he never did anything that would stain his reputation before the masses and make us think less of the historical giant that our early schooldays painted him to be.

There really is no happy ending to a book like this, is there? It was only fair that Lincoln's killer be brought to account for his actions, but look at the mess that he left behind. Mary Todd Lincoln was already constantly on the edge of psychological breakdown before this point, owing to the death of her beloved son Willie, and the retribution meted out against John Wilkes Booth didn't make it any easier for her to have her husband suddenly gone, too. Even after all of the criminal trials had been processed and the transgressors sentenced, there just was no making a positive out of this horrible experience. America had lost the man that many consider to have been the greatest leader ever produced by our nation, and bad feelings between the North and South would continue to boil for many more years; in fact, one could make the assertion that the root issues at play in 1865 are the same ones that still work to separate us today. I'd imagine that there was sort of an empty feeling when all of the co-conspirators had finally been caught; at least when they were still at large there was a tangible goal for everybody to focus on, but when the search was finished, people just had to get back to their lives and try to return to something resembling normality. But our country had been changed forever, and "normality" just wasn't ever the same without the heroic figure of Lincoln to guide us true.

James L. Swanson does an excellent job with this story. He turns all of the players into real people with emotions and understandable motives, and lets us identify closely even with John Wilkes Booth and his horde of vigilante Confederate avengers. I learned a lot about the bigger scenario behind Lincoln's assassination by reading this book, especially about the concurrent events of the assassination attempts on William H. Seward and Andrew Johnson. It's never easy to make a nonfiction story that happened long ago and the details of which are so widely known feel truly suspenseful, but James L. Swanson impressively achieves the effect of suspense in Chasing Lincoln's Killer. This is one of the most insightful books of history that I've ever read, and I would give it my full and earnest recommendation, along with a rating of three and a half stars.
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