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

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A fascinating tale of murder, intrigue, and betrayal. A gripping hour-by-hour account told through the eyes of the hunted and the hunters, this is history as you've never read it before.

The murder of Abraham Lincoln set off the greatest manhunt in American history -- the pursuit and capture of John Wilkes Booth. From April 14 to April 26, 1865, the assassin led Union cavalry and detectives on a wild twelve-day chase through the streets of Washington, D.C., across the swamps of Maryland, and into the forests of Virginia, while the nation, still reeling from the just-ended Civil War, watched in horror and sadness.

At the very center of this story is John Wilkes Booth, America's notorious villain. A Confederate sympathizer and a member of a celebrated acting family, Booth threw away his fame and wealth for a chance to avenge the South's defeat. For almost two weeks, he confounded the manhunters, slipping away from their every move and denying them the justice they sought.

Based on rare archival materials, obscure trial transcripts, and Lincoln's own blood relics, Manhunt is a fully documented work and a fascinating tale of murder, intrigue, and betrayal. A gripping hour-by-hour account told through the eyes of the hunted and the hunters, this is history as you've never read it before.

444 pages, Paperback

First published February 6, 2006

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About the author

James L. Swanson

26 books305 followers
James Swanson is the Edgar Award-winning author of the New York Times bestseller Manhunt: The 12-Day Chase for Lincoln's Killer. Swanson has degrees in history from the University of Chicago, where he was a student of John Hope Franklin, and in law from the University of California, Los Angeles.

He has held a number of government and think-tank posts in Washington, D.C., including at the United States Department of Justice. Swanson serves on the advisory council of the Ford's Theatre Society. Born on Lincoln's birthday, he has studied and collected books, documents, photographs, art, and artifacts from Abraham Lincoln's life—and death—since he was ten years old.

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Displaying 1 - 30 of 2,394 reviews
Profile Image for Will Byrnes.
1,290 reviews120k followers
April 14, 2022
After Booth did his thing at Ford’s theater, it took the combined forces of the United States, Virginia, Maryland, private pursuers and even Confederate soldiers to track down Booth and his partner in crime. Swanson gives us a beautifully detailed blow-by-blow of the actions that took place before, during and after the killing. There was material in here that was new to me, namely that the assassination of Lincoln was not the only one planned for the day, or the only one attempted, or that Booth was killed instead of captured, and that there was a group of co-conspirators who were hanged for the offense.

James L. Swanson - image from Googleplay

Of course, as someone who does not know much about the period, it would not take a lot to constitute new material. Still, this was an engaging read, showing multiple sides of many of the characters involved, delving into motivation, looking at seamy as well as heroic sides, tracking the minutiae of the many steps and people involved in Booth’s flight. In telling this tale, the author also provides us with a window on a particular time in American history, what life was like, what the values of the day were.

“One more stain on the old banner,” Booth yelled, conjuring the Confederate flag as he prepared to face his pursuers (The Meserve-Kuhnhardt Collection) - image from Smithsonian

This could certainly make an interesting Hollywood film. I understand that Harrison Ford had an option on it, but that has run out. I do not know if anyone else has picked that option up.

=============================EXTRA STUFF

Links to the author’s Twitter and FB pages

The FB page does not appear to have been updated since 2015

The March 2015 issue of Smithsonian Magazine includes several articles about the assassination. In The Blood Relics, Swanson writes about the moment when he decided to write Manhunt and what items remain from the event.

There are several more articles relating to Lincoln's assassination in this issue

This review is reposted ever year in commemoration of the April 14th assassination of Abraham Lincoln
Profile Image for Jason Koivu.
Author 7 books1,206 followers
June 29, 2016
How the heck did Swanson manage to make this very well-known story so riveting? I mean, everyone knows that (UNNECESSARY SPOILER ALERT MOSTLY JUST FOR THOSE OF YOU WHO HAVE SPENT YOUR LIFE LIVING IN A CAVE---->) President Lincoln was assassinated at Ford's Theater by stage actor John Wilkes Booth.

Everyone with a lick of American history learnin' has heard the story. Most also know that Booth was subsequently caught, and yet Manhunt is genuinely exciting. You have to admire a writer who can enliven dusty old history, like Frankenstein animating a corpse.

Granted the book isn't riveting from start to finish. Sections here or there were drawn out a bit, I suspect in order to add a few more pages to a tale that is essentially straightforward. The actions of the event and those surrounding it are few. There's the evening of the president's assassination as well as that of some of his cabinet members, and then it's just a search for the killer(s) for a few days and finally a quick shoot out. I'm honestly impressed how the author kept the pace up almost through out. I mean, I'm having trouble keeping up the excitement just in this short review!
Profile Image for Caroline .
410 reviews558 followers
April 16, 2022

Countless books have been written about Abraham Lincoln but far fewer about his assassin John Wilkes Booth. As someone who's uncomfortable with books devoted to criminals, I think this is just as well; however, to provide a complete history of Lincoln, Booth can't be ignored entirely. Manhunt is a thorough, carefully researched account of this man, a staunch supporter of the Confederacy who'd been plotting against Lincoln for a long time before finally shooting him on April 14, 1865. (Lincoln died the next day.)

Prior to reading Manhunt, I knew exactly three things about Booth: that he was an actor, that he shot Lincoln in Ford's Theatre while Lincoln watched a play, and that he broke his leg while escaping. He was a cardboard villain, and I didn't realize anyone ever found him fascinating. On that, I was very wrong. As author James L. Swanson said in the acknowledgements:
Special thanks to a Southern friend who, after insisting on anonymity, disclosed her family's secret custom: ever since April 15, 1866--the first anniversary of the murder--they have held their annual cotillion on that day to celebrate the assassination of Abraham Lincoln and to honor their Brutus.
and further, in the afterword:
[Booth's] fame is of a peculiar kind. Booth was reviled as a fiend during the manhunt. The newspaper editorials, letters from private citizens, mob violence, and the treatment of his body are proof enough of that. Yes, in some quarters there were those who hated Lincoln and admired Booth, but the devotees of the cult of “Our Brutus” dared not express public sympathy for the assassin. Then, over time, something changed. Booth became part of American folklore and his image morphed from evil murderer of a president into fascinating antihero--the brooding, misguided, romantic, and tragic assassin. Booth is not celebrated for the murder, but he has in some way been forgiven for it. What else can explain the presence of large street banners, decorated with the assassin’s photo, hanging from lampposts along his F Street escape route, directing tourists to Ford’s Theatre? In comparison, the display of Lee Harvey Oswald banners in Dallas, or James Earl Ray banners in Memphis, would be obscene.
After finishing this book, I have a multi-dimensional understanding of this despicable man and of how people felt (and still feel) about him.

The hunt for Booth was complicated and very frustrating for the manhunters. As he attempted to escape to the deep South, Booth was helped by many Confederate sympathizers, some more willing than others. He had several co-conspirators, and Lincoln wasn't the only political figure plotted against. Booth and his co-conspirators had an ambitious plan that fortunately fell apart.

Swanson's research is impressive, as is to be expected considering he's a Lincoln scholar specifically concentrating on the assassination. As he explains in the afterword, he has been fascinated by this since he was ten years old, when he received what I consider a disturbing but that Swanson calls "unusual," birthday gift from his grandmother: a framed engraving of Booth's Deringer pistol.

Although I admire Swanson's research and detailed account (especially in how he brought to life the fringe characters no one thinks about), I was at times uncomfortable with the tone. Swanson wrote this in the third person, but the understanding is that the reader is (often, but not always) inside Booth's mind; therefore, Lincoln gets labeled a "tyrant," and the Confederacy is viewed as something admirable and the sympathizers who help Booth noble.

All the while, Swanson never implied that Booth's actions should be condemned. That isn't to say that Swanson actually admires the man, but if I didn't know what the author is all about, I could've mistaken this book as a commendation of Booth. At the very least, Manhunt has an underlying sympathy that leads me to believe Swanson feels Booth is more someone people should try to understand than outright condemn. I most definitely disagree. Booth was a madman, a famous, very arrogant actor totally obsessed with fame and with being admired. In murdering Lincoln, he wanted to forever be remembered as a hero who "died for my country." I enjoyed every page of Manhunt, but I also have mixed feelings about it.

For its ability to make Booth and 1865 come alive and the exhaustive detail and Swanson's research, this historical true-crime is, however, deserving of praise and its Edgar Award. It's a page-turner that I'd never have read had it not been recommended to me. I'm tired of being inside Booth's deranged mind, though, and won't seek out more books about him.
Profile Image for Sarah.
Author 11 books330 followers
September 20, 2009
I suggest reading "Manhunt" backwards. That way, when you get to the end, Lincoln hasn't been fatally wounded, Mary Todd hasn’t tottered over into madness and that poor couple of horses haven't been shot and sunk in the swamp.

Seriously though, this account of JW Booth’s capture is worth reading. The drawback is sometimes the writing lays it on too thick. It works effectively at the beginning: the assassination itself, for example, is gripping. And since Booth was an actor, the Shakespearian allusions aren’t necessarily out of place, but it all grows uncomfortably corny as the story goes on. It’s awkward enough when historians and biographers start imagining what people might have been thinking. When they start to dramatize those imagined thoughts, it makes for a real eye-roller.

While Booth and his accomplice were seeking sanctuary on the Easter weekend after the assassination, the author writes – “In the early hours of Black Easter, Booth and Herold sought their salvation, not in church, but at the door of a faithful Confederate. If Cox turned them away, Christ’s dying words on Good Friday’s cross, ‘it is finished,’ would describe their fate.” (Did you groan? I did.) Granted, Booth entertained a grand vision of himself. Still, the author needn’t humor him.
Profile Image for Mariah Roze.
1,015 reviews920 followers
September 9, 2017
I love this author and I'm trying to read every book by him, so of course I needed to read this one and I am so glad I did. James is a fantastic writer that writes for all abilities and understandings.

A fascinating tale of murder, intrigue, and betrayal. A gripping hour-by-hour account told through the eyes of the hunted and the hunters, this is history as you've never read it before.

The murder of Abraham Lincoln set off the greatest manhunt in American history -- the pursuit and capture of John Wilkes Booth. From April 14 to April 26, 1865, the assassin led Union cavalry and detectives on a wild twelve-day chase through the streets of Washington, D.C., across the swamps of Maryland, and into the forests of Virginia, while the nation, still reeling from the just-ended Civil War, watched in horror and sadness.

Lincoln was murdered by John Wilkes Booth, who was an actor. He threw away his fame and wealth for a chance to avenge the South's defeat. For almost two weeks, it turned into a manhunter, because he was always one step ahead of the police.

James used rare archival materials to help him write this book. It was fantastic and I suggest it to everyone!
Profile Image for Tim.
129 reviews53 followers
March 8, 2022
This book reads like a well-paced murder mystery novel. It was fun to read and I gobbled it up quickly.

The book does not really give much background historical information, as it says laser focused on the story of the assassination (including the attempts on the lives of the Secretary of State and Vice President) and the 12-day chase of the perpetrators. This was probably the right decision, as it kept the book fast paced with dramatic intensity throughout. But there were a lot of things mentioned in passing I was curious to get more details on.

I didn’t get a great sense of what exactly would motivate Booth to sacrifice his successful career and comfortable life. It’s difficult to imagine what it would be like today if someone of comparable fame successfully assassinated the President. I didn’t come away from the book feeling like I understood the motivations of Booth and his conspirators, other than in very general terms.

A couple other small things come to mind that piqued my interest as it was mentioned in the book but wasn’t discussed in depth. There was an aborted kidnapping attempt that Booth and others tried prior to the Ford’s Theater assassination that I wanted to hear more about. Also, mob violence erupted in various spots after the assassination, where people who celebrated Lincoln’s death, or were suspected of being involved, were subjected to brutal vigilante justice, including murders.

But I’d much rather read a book where I was interested the whole time, and left hungry for more details, than being bored with something I am slogging through, so I can’t ding the book for not always satisfying my curiosity. I’d recommend this if you want something with the breezy feel of an action story, but about a real historical event.
Profile Image for Marialyce (absltmom, yaya).
1,935 reviews723 followers
January 15, 2021
This is a well done exhaustively researched book on the search, capture, and of course the ultimate death of some who conspired together to assassinate President Lincoln.

John Wilkes Booth, the infamous assassin was able to elude the searchers for twelve days, broken leg and all with the assistance of some sympathizers, (Dr Mudd, Mary Surratt, Michael O’Laughlen, Edman Spangler and Samuel Arnold) as well as an accomplice, David Herold. Booth evaded over a thousand Union troops and detectives to escape the confines of Washington DC and contrary to popular belief escaped into Southern Maryland. It was at Dr Mudd's home that they were finally able to ascertain that Booth and Herold had been there in Maryland instead of going to Baltimore, by finding a boot of Booth's. At that point Secretary of War, Stanton also ordered all Union ships to patrol the Potomac south of Washington. Added to the hunt was the offer of a $100,000 reward an unheard of sum at that time. The intensive hunt was on.

This book is a history lover's delight. It had practically hour by hour details of all that transpired. In the end Booth and Herold were found hiding in a farm in Virginia owned by Richard Garrett. The barn was set on fire and while Herold surrendered, Booth was shot dead by Sgt. Boston Corbett.

The trial for the rest was held swiftly and punishment was doled out. Of the eight defendants, Powell, Herold and Atzerodt were fully entrenched in the conspiracy and were sentenced to death along with Mary Suratt, earning her the distinction of being the first woman put to death by a federal court. Her son, John, escaped but was eventually caught in Egypt was tried but released because of insufficient evidence. Arnold and Mudd received life sentences; O’Laughlen and Spangler got a six-year prison term. Arnold, Mudd and Spangler were eventually pardoned by President Johnson.
The team of Powell, Herold, Atzerodt and Suratt were executed by hanging. Swift justice was served.
8 reviews2 followers
September 17, 2008
This was positively Shakespearean. Not in the poetry, but in the sheer drama of it. The plotting, the conspiracy, the murder. Swanson does a terrific job of cobbling together a stunningly complete and compelling narrative of Booth's time on the lam while armies hunted for him, all from interviews with the subjects, court transcripts, newspaper accounts, and other books written by those involved at at the time. He reveals the roots of Booth's motivation, and his ego, along with that of his co-conspirators and those who hunted them all. Just a great yarn here.

Just before I finished it, I was in Washington, DC, and while I'd never much thought of it before, this time I couldn't resist a walk up 10th Street to Ford's Theater, where Lincoln was shot. It was closed for renovations. But just across the street is the narrow home where Lincoln was taken just after he was shot to avoid the ignominy of dying in such an immoral venue as a theater, and on Good Friday at that. The room where Father Abraham died was about the size of the newsroom cubicle I share with my editor.

One final observation. One of the subtler revelations of this book is the intimacy of Washington in Lincoln's time. In Swanson's description, it was like a small town where everyone knew everyone and could approach anyone. Only some of the residents happened to be the President, the Secretary of State, the Vice President, the Secretary of War. People would call to Lincoln from the White House lawn, and he would open a window and give a quick speech. All that stands in stark contrast to the barricades on Pennsylvania Avenue today.

Of course, it was what happened to Lincoln that spoiled that small town intimacy, and all the trust that went with it.
Profile Image for Gerry.
Author 43 books91 followers
April 7, 2021
I had always known since schooldays that John Wilkes Booth had assassinated President Abraham Lincoln but I had no idea of the background and the follow-up to his action.

'Manhunt' most certainly clears that little matter up for it is a stupendous account of the 12-day chase for the killer as well as setting the scene for the deed and giving later detail about what happened to the various key locations in the story.

Once begun it is difficult to put down, for the action rolls on and on without let up, so much so that it reads like a thriller with something startling on page after page.

James L Swanson has captured the characters admirably, covers the geography superbly and the action intensely. Booth made a thrilling retreat from Ford's Theatre and then had some narrow escapes before he finally made it to Virginia where he thought that he would be safe ... how wrong he was.

As the author says in one of his notes, which are not too intense and do lend themselves to being read at the back of the book, it is not an encyclopedia of the assassination but it is certainly a dramatic account of the events of 14 to 26 April 1865 on an hour by hour, day by day basis. Thoroughly recommended.
Profile Image for Cheryl.
962 reviews100 followers
November 24, 2009
In an account that reads like fiction, James Swanson reveals the detailed planning carried out by John Wilkes Booth before Lincoln's assassination, the events which occurred at Ford's Theatre, and the escape made by Booth and his accomplices after the attack. For tweleve days authorities searched for Booth before finally capturing him. If you thought you knew all about Lincoln's assassination, think again! This book is hard to put down as the reader learns about what really happened in the days preceding Lincoln's assassination and what happened in its aftermath.
Profile Image for Brian.
679 reviews323 followers
February 20, 2016
“Manhunt: The 12-Day Chase for Lincoln’s Killer” is a book that has been on my radar since it was published and I finally got around to reading it. I can easily say that it was an excellent read and well worth the time.
The author, James L. Swanson, writes in a very easy going colloquial style. In fact, there are times in the text where the writing seems a little too simplistic, but those are just fleeting moments. Mr. Swanson is very good at creating moments of tension and high drama. This is all the more remarkable because the story he is telling is so well known. The moment of Lincoln’s assassination and Booth’s death in the Garrett barn are two of the best examples of these kinds of moments in a text filled with such scenes.
This text is well researched and documented (extensive bibliography and Notes sections). I read a lot on the Civil War and have for years and there were many many things about the assassination and its aftermath that I had never come across before. I love when that happens!
“Manhunt” is as accessible and thorough an account of Abraham Lincoln’s assassination as is currently available and I highly recommend it. I will be picking up Swanson’s sequel to this text, “Bloody Crimes”, very soon.
Profile Image for Dan.
1,076 reviews52 followers
January 13, 2018
Manhunt is a dramatic but factually accurate and well rendered non fictional account of John Wilkes Booth’s flight following Lincoln’s assassination.

While the book is impeccably researched and stays true to its detailed coverage of Booth and his young assistant, it does struggle to maintain consistent threads on the other co-conspirators. For example there was quite a bit of coverage on the simultaneous assassination attempt of Secretary of State Seward but we heard little about Powell in the latter half of the book even though he was at large.

Secondly I think it would have been best to subdivide and label the chapters pertaining to the different assassins’ narratives. At times it was confusing trying to follow the flights of five different assassins.

Finally. as far as criticisms, the book could have used more than a short epilogue on the subsequent trials and execution of the co-conspirators and why some were not prosecuted, executed etc.

Above all, the literary quality in Manhunt is quite good, hardly a given for a non-fiction writer, while the history itself provides all the drama a writer could ask for. This book is similar to Hellhound, the story of the manhunt for James Earl Ray, MLK’s assassin. I would give the nod to Hellhound as the better book but Manhunt is still worth reading.

Profile Image for Tom.
197 reviews39 followers
July 28, 2022
Manhunt: The 12-Day Chase for Lincoln's Killer tells the story of John Wilkes Booth's assassination of Abraham Lincoln at Ford's Theatre and Booth's subsequent flight from justice. As related by James L. Swanson, this is a story of extreme drama, full of all manner of twists and suspense, taking on such an epic tone that it seems unbelievable that all its action (save the eventual fates of Booth's co-conspirators) occurs within the span of two weeks. If it lacks the elements of Booth and Lincoln biography that would make it a completist's wet dream, the book is nonetheless an essential read on the events of April 1865.

I've always thought of Booth as one of the great idiots of history, and while Manhunt hasn't disabused me of that notion, it does do a great job of humanising the wannabe-Brutus and properly contextualising his actions in the climate of post-slavery white supremacist hysteria. Swanson can't decipher the meaning of Booth's final words - "Useless! Useless! - but his exhaustive-yet-enthralling treatment of the doomed actor's post-assassination odyssey in miniature does capitalize them. Booth succeeded in killing Lincoln only to die a worse death and fail in his ultimate mission. Southern blacks got the vote (for a time) and emancipation was affirmed, Booth's bullet be damned. He was pretty useless, indeed, but he makes for a great antagonist in an excellent book.
Profile Image for JD Carruthers.
28 reviews
November 18, 2012
I was impressed by James Swanson's book, Manhunt: the 12-Day Chase for Lincoln's Killer, but unfortunately not favorably so. To begin, Swanson treats his subject in such light and casual detail that any serious student of history or anyone with an academic interest in Lincoln's assassination would be poorly served to waste time with this book. Swanson's intended audience is strictly the retail public.

Swanson begins his book with "a note to the reader" in which he makes the claim, "This story is true" and that all the words in quotation marks are taken from original sources. A careful reading of the text exposes this bold claim as a dubious piece of obfuscation. For example, on page 29 Swanson quotes the text of a letter given by John Wilkes Booth to an actor friend John Matthews (the text of the letter appears in italics). However, later in the text (pages 148-149) Swanson relates how Matthews panics after the assassination and he burns the letter from Booth. In the notes Swanson admits that the letter he quotes was not the original (since it was destroyed) but rather a recreation based on Matthew's recollection and based in part on the manifesto in Booth's diary. I suppose one might argue that since the letter appears in italics and not within quotes, it is subject to a greater degree of license, but that logic really falls flat in this reviewer's estimation. Swanson ruins his credibility as a writer by failing to make clear in the text that this letter is not an original but rather a recreation. Furthermore, there is no conceivable reason for glossing over this important detail except to make the story somehow more dramatic. Swanson should take note that this story does not need his added drama.

There are several uses of literary devices that range from inappropriate to downright offensive. Swanson has the lamentable habit of attributing to characters in his story motives that he cannot possibly substantiate. Consider the contrasting motives of women attending the deaths of Lincoln and Booth respectively. On page 84 actress Laura Keene is described as a brazen opportunist who ruthlessly insinuates her way into the presidential box for the sole reason of achieving some kind of fame for being a part of history. In all due fairness, no one could really speculate on what Laura Keene's motives were except Miss Keene herself. The book's end notes do not indicate Laura Keene ever claimed that she was a self serving opportunist, and it is unlikely that she would have even if it were the truth. It appears that for whatever reason, Swanson does not like Laura Keene and has decided to portray her in a pejorative light. On the other hand, Lucinda Holloway who ministered to the mortally wounded Booth on the porch of the Garrett farm receives favorable treatment. When she procures a lock of hair from the corpse of the murderer, Swanson denies that she is "craven relic hunter who lusted morbidly, like so many others, for bloody souvenirs of the great crime". One might ask why she is not to be considered a morbid relic hunter. Instead, Swanson portrays Lucinda Holloway as a tragic and romantic heroine, giving comfort to the misguided assassin in his last moments. Swanson seems perfectly comfortable with his portrayal of Holloway as a romantic heroine even when in the next paragraph she interferes with the investigation by stealing the dead actor's field glasses. It appears that in Swanson's estimation, bringing a pitcher of water to the side of an assassinated president is opportunistic, but stealing property from a dead murderer and tampering with evidence is a romantic adventure. This reviewer considers that the author has no factual basis upon which to base these characterizations, and that furthermore it represents a distorted view of moral values.

And speaking of distorted moral values, this reviewer was disturbed by Swanson's obvious and inappropriate infatuated sympathy with the murderer John Wilkes Booth. On several occasions, Swanson draws parallels between John Wilkes Booth and Jesus Christ. For example, he repeatedly refers to Willie Jett as a "Judas". Also, on page 336 when Booth is shot and captured, David Herold attempts to maintain Booth's alias by insisting his name is Boyd and Swanson characterizes the ruse as "In captivity, the assassin's disciple denied him thrice". A few pages later on 341 the wounded Booth is on the porch of the Garrett house and is thirsty. Swanson writes, "As strangers at Golgotha did for Christ on Good Friday's cross, Lucinda answered his plea..." In this reviewer's humble estimation, Booth as a murderer has little in common with Jesus who was not a murderer, and drawing parallels between the two is patently absurd and even offensive. This is not literary license; it is more like literary licentiousness.

While reading this book I made notes of a number of other shortcomings in the text, such as on page 320 where Swanson describes Booth holding his pistols in his hands and then contradicts himself a paragraph later by writing that he is reaching for his holstered pistols. Or in the epilogue where Swanson suggests that Booth has been forgiven for murdering the most popular president in U.S. history. Suffice it to say that a complete catalog of all the lamentable characteristics of this book is not included in this review.

The most appropriate way to describe this book is to quote Booth's last words: "useless, useless". Swanson's preference for florid melodrama and casual disregard for accuracy in detail ruins the book for any serious student of Lincoln history. And his obvious sympathy for the murderer rather than his victims is likely to leave an unfavorable impression for the casual reader seeking an introduction to the subject. There are already two excellent books on the subject that should appeal to all audiences, serious academic and casually curious. These are Blood on the Moon by Edwin Steers, and American Brutus by Michael Kaufmann. To say that Manhunt is superfluous under the circumstances would be too much of a kindness.
Profile Image for Michelle.
4 reviews
May 16, 2012
I enjoyed the book and learned ever so much more about that point in our history than I ever did in school. I appreciate the accounts were taken from primary sources, newspapers and other research - for that reason I have more confidence in the intrepretation by Swanson. I certainly recomend it for people who learned a light version of the events, like myself, and have a curiosity as to what could drive a person to assassinate a president.
Profile Image for Will Hubbard.
58 reviews1 follower
November 2, 2017
One of my favorite non-fiction reads of all time. Thrilling and full of surprising facts about the events and characters involved.
Profile Image for Sara the Librarian.
739 reviews317 followers
October 22, 2016
It probably goes without saying by now that any time I delve into historical non-fiction the first thing that occurs to me is how little I know about my own country's history. It's never exactly sold to your average American school kid as anything other than the dry memorization of dates and the odd recitation of speeches like the Gettysburg Address. I mean my god we called it "Social Studies" when I was in school.

I wish we'd read things like Manhunt: The 12-Day Chase for Lincoln's Killer when I was a kid because I guarantee I would have had A's across the board. History doesn't just come alive the way James Swanson writes it, it jumps up and grabs you and throws you smack into the middle of an America still drowning in the chaos of civil war, just barely beginning to rise up from the mire and rebuild only to be thrown into turmoil once again with the assassination of President Lincoln.

We're all pretty familiar with "sic semper tyrannis" and some of us even know the stories of men and women lining the railroad tracks for miles to see Lincoln's funeral train ride past but the story of those frantic hours and days following the assassination when the depth of the conspiracy to topple Lincoln's government was yet unknown and Booth was nowhere to be found isn't the sort of thing commonly found in history books.

Swanson takes the reader through a concise, dramatic retelling of the titular 12 days following the assassination during which Booth attempted to cross into the more sympathetic deep south, the manhunt that comprised literally thousands of people determined to find him, and the men and women who found themselves suddenly becoming part of history when Booth sought their help.

This really is an amazing book. I had to read it for a book club and was fully prepared to be bored out of my mind. There are fewer better surprises then being thoroughly entertained by a book you were sure you'd hate.

I'd be remiss if I didn't mention that Swanson has a tendency toward the dramatic which is somewhat fitting given his subject but "humanizing" historical subjects goes a long way toward making them, well, human. This is absolutely the first time I've ever considered John Wilkes Booth as anything other than a footnote or a character in a musical. This poor, melodramatic, misguided, miserable mad man really thought he'd be a hero lauded through the ages as the man who brought down America's own Caesar. Swanson clearly sympathizes with Booth's situation and with that of his compatriots who, however misguided, certainly seemed to feel justified in what they were doing. You get a sense of how the "southern code" and "death before dishonor" really were a way of life for these people rather than Hallmark card sentiments. I can't say I understand aiding and abetting the dude who shot Lincoln but I get why some of these people thought it was the right thing to do.

This is a book about the hunt for Lincoln's killer so its understandable that Swanson doesn't really get into the why's and wherefore's that led up to the assassination or really even what went into the conspiracy that bound all these people together still I couldn't help wanting a little more of a sense of how these men and women were bound to each other on a personal level. We learn, for instance, every tiny detail of the attack on Secretary Seward but we never really learn what drew Lewis Powell into Booth's plot or what was behind the ferocious violence with which he attempted to carry out his role.

And its heavy on the dramatic interpretation as I've said. There are plenty of "surely Booth must have felt the cold breath of death blowing toward him as the cavalry edged ever closer" moments where Swanson takes more than his share of creative license and goes a bit bonkers with the adjectives.

But books like this are the only way we get to see what may have happened at these civilization altering moments in history that are otherwise left to dusty textbooks and poorly executed reenactments on the History Channel. I can deal with a little flowery prose if it means I get to hide in the woods with Booth while enraged Union troops hungry for his blood scour the countryside or pace the halls in Washington D.C. with Secretary Stanton while he pours ever ounce of himself into bringing Lincoln's killers to justice and end the war his president died for.

Swanson took me there, to that time, with those men and women who shaped the course of our country without ever knowing they were doing it. And for that I say, well done sir, well done.
Profile Image for Tara .
429 reviews46 followers
February 7, 2019
I don't consider myself a Civil War buff by any stretch of the imagination, but I've had this book in my TBR list for years, and I am trying to incorporate long-standing books into my rotation rather than just new, flashy titles. I was very pleasantly surprised by this book, and I found it engaging and suspenseful, which is not always easily accomplished with a non-fiction story that is also substantive. The story picks up shortly before Lincoln's assassination, and follows both the hunters and prey as they attempt to catch and not be caught respectively. The book does a well-balanced job of portraying Booth as neither a hero nor a villain, but as a flawed, self-absorbed man who strongly believed in his principles and his "mission". Even when you know the outcome, there is part of you that somehow hopes things will turn out differently (maybe they will be able to save Lincoln!)
For those of you who don't think you like non-fiction, you will still like this book.
Profile Image for Christopher.
645 reviews209 followers
February 6, 2015
There's something magical about a book that is so thoroughly and meticulously researched, yet reads effortlessly and with great entertainment value. It's so easy to make history feel stuffy and dry, but this book is far from it. This is the illuminated kind of nonfiction, aiming more for portraying life than delivering data into the reader's head. Perhaps not for history buffs, but more for people like me, who got solid Bs in history class because text books are so much less interesting than collections of Fox Trot comic strips.

Somewhere in the middle of the chase, when Booth and his accomplices were encountering some travails in their lam, I had to reexamine my morals. I love the story of a fugitive, and I found myself rooting for Booth. Uh oh. Did I just wish that the murderer of one of the only presidents of the United States with a respectable beard would get off free of scot? One of only five bearded presidents?! (Now, that's not to diminish his other incredible accomplishments, not the least of which is the abolition of slavery. Their are myriad reasons he was one of the best presidents this country has seen. But that beard!, not an ostentatious or pretentious one, just the beard of a man of simple pleasures, a man who realizes there are better things to do than to start one's day with the infliction of razor burn. Such a man does not deserve death at the hand of a coward.)

The point is, I'm not on Booth's side. The other point is, this book is written in such an engaging way that you might get confused about that, if only for a moment, and forget that this is indeed something that happened in the real world. It's simply too intriguing to be history.
Profile Image for Carol Storm.
Author 28 books181 followers
February 26, 2021
I was halfway through this before I thought to post a review. It is amazing! I loved Fortune's Fool, the biography of John Wilkes Booth. But this book is really everything they say it is and more. It's a crime thriller, an adventure story, and an amazing portrait of America in the Civil War era. The one thing I can't describe is how well James L. Swanson writes. There's a passage where one of Booth's followers is cornered, and holding a pickaxe. Swanson describes exactly how much damage he could have done before he was overpowered, and he has you hanging on every word. It's like Stephen Hunter at his best!
Profile Image for Michael .
543 reviews4 followers
April 25, 2021
In the age of social media we are instantly transported to a conflict within minutes. A mass shooting, a rebellion in a foreign country, Tiger Woods accident, hurricanes, tornadoes, sports records that are broken, it is endless visual stream of media pictures and videos describing events that occur in our world. In 1865 social media was in its infancy. With the help of Matthew Brady and his camera the world would find out about Abe Lincoln's assassination. Better yet the world would also find out who killed Abe Lincoln's assassinator John Wilkes Booth. His name is glossed over in many high school textbooks because it was not important. Do you know who it was? All the world cared about was who assassinated President Lincoln and when he was going to be caught and dealt with. I make a note of this because Matthew Brady is just one of many characters in this book that James Swanson describes in a very detailed account of the murder of Abraham Lincoln and its aftermath and we will deal with this John Wilkes Booth assassinator at the end of this review. What is important is the book itself.

What sets Swanson's book apart is that his focus is on a 12-day period which he carefully constructs what made Booth want to kill the President, the people he brought into his plan, the excellent escape plan he had and the stupid mistakes he made during it. The 12-days he is on the run many people will help him and betray him when he is finally is caught by the government.

I enjoyed reading this book. It is a very detailed account of the murder of Abraham Lincoln and its aftermath. It was history written in an entertaining, suspenseful way. The author's naming of every historical character that was involved in the assassination is at times tedious and you will read more history than you need on this event but the narrative moves at a good pace, drawing the reader into the story of that faithful and tragic event.

I always thought I knew the story of Abraham Lincoln's assassination and the hunt of John Wilkes Booth. What I found out after reading this book was to find out how much I didn't know. Oh I must confess also that Matthew Brady helped me to. His picture of Boston Corbett help me to put to rest who actually killed John Wilkes Booth and put this book in its context. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Boston_...
1 review
March 1, 2008
Read this book for a fascinating glimpse into the mid-19th century, not for the writing. The author uses first-hand accounts, trial testimony etc. to re-construct some events leading up to Lincoln's assassination and then, mostly, the manhunt for John Wilkes Booth and his co-conspirators. (Did you even know there were co-conspirators?) It includes many long quotations from correspondence, diary entries, witness statements etc., all of which I greatly enjoyed reading. The author's own writing left much to be desired. All in all, a quick read and I recommend it.
Profile Image for Richard.
210 reviews41 followers
January 24, 2015
This book solidly succeeds in the genre of works that promise to be of compelling reading to the non-history-minded reader while being based on solid historical research. James L. Swanson, a historian and attorney in Washington D.C., shows his knowledge of everything Abraham Lincoln. He provides a new twist to the subject of Lincoln's assassination and aftermath in a field which is jammed to the rafters with Civil War/Lincoln books.

Swanson's twist in writing of this period of national distress is his use of a style akin to that of a crime reporter. He doesn't sensationalize as much as he uses a narrative style designed to keep the story moving and the reader engrossed in finding out how events unfold to the ultimate conclusion, when Lincoln's assassins were brought to justice. The title, "Manhunt", says it all. This is as compelling a chase story as "The Fugitive," only it's over a hundred years earlier, and based on real events. It is no secret that the book no sooner took its place on the best-seller list than speculation began spreading about who would play the parts of the characters in a movie based on it. It was rumored the main pursuer of the criminals would be played by, guess who, Harrison Ford. Even Swanson has joined in, with his wish to have Johnny Depp play John Wilkes Booth.

Making the pursuit of the killers of Abraham Lincoln the focus of the book places Booth in the central role. Swanson provides biographical background on Booth, as the upcoming popular actor son of the century's most famous actor, Junius Brutus Booth. John Wilkes was a southern sympathiser during the Civil War. He spent time plotting grand crimes against the federal government while he toured the country as an actor. He used his considerable persuasive skills to enlist a group of co-conspirators who would meet in Virginia, Maryland and the District of Columbia. A meeting location was Mary Surratt's tavern, and one of Booth's confidants was her son, John. Booth hatched a wild plan during 1864, while the Civil War raged, to kidnap President Lincoln and deliver him to the Confederate government, in an effort to demoralize the North and possibly end the war.

That plan never reached fruition, but Booth's hatred to the North and toward Lincoln only intensified, reaching its climax at the end of hostilities in the spring of 1865. General Robert E. Lee had surrendered Confederate forces and the South's capital of Richmond had been captured. It was only a matter of time until Southern President Jefferson Davis and his cabinet were captured, and the war would be over. Public displays of triumph and relief of the end of the war were being held throughout the North, while southerners were left to think about their fate. Booth had already decided. He would decapitate the leadership of the federal government by killing the Secretary of State, William Seward; Vice President Andrew Johnson; and the President.

Booth's plan, audacious as it was, succeeded in its most important element and only failed to succeed due to his associates' lack of ability to perform their tasks. You have to admit that Booth almost couldn't ignore devising some sort of assassination plan, what with his hatreds, and the president's publicized desire to attend the popular Laura Keene play at Ford's Theater in Washington. Booth knew every inch of the theater and was known and trusted by its staff as a great actor who had performed there. The assassins' plans were to simultaneously kill the vice president at his hotel and the secretary of state at his home, where he was recuperating after a serious carriage accident, while Booth stole into the almost unguarded private box of Lincoln at Ford's. George Atzerodt lost his nerve and didn't attack Johnson, while Lewis Powell bluffed himself into Seward's home and savagely attacked him. Seward miraculously survived his wounds but Booth was successful in shooting a bullet into the back of Lincoln's head and seriously injuring an army major in his box with a knife before escaping the theater.

There is so much that happened after the attacks, and Swanson is up to the task of keeping us glued to the pages as Booth slipped out of a Washington still guarded by military sentries and made a run on horseback, with his young associate David Herold toward Virginia. The conspirators would spend time living in a pine thicket while arranging with sympathizers to cross the Potomac River into Virginia.

Swanson relates many details of how this story only gets more interesting with age. There is the injured Booth, running sometimes ahead of the slow-moving news of the day, hoping to open a newspaper describing him as a hero; the great American tragedy of Lincoln, unconsious but struggling for an entire night in a bed while slowly dying; the Secretary of War, Edwin Stanton, who spent every minute of that night by Lincoln's side, while, already, using his considerable wartime powers to commandeer all of the available resources of the U.S. government to hunt down the killers; the southerners, who knowingly or unknowingly aided Booth until he arrived at the farm of the Garrett's, who were unaware of what he had done; Booth's defiant refusal to surrender inside a corn crib at the Garrett farm that had been set on fire by pursuing soldiers, and his being shot, against orders, by a soldier named Boston Corbett; the life-long lasting celebrity status of Corbett for shooting Booth; Booth's night-long death watch on the Garrett porch, mirroring the ordeal he had put Lincoln through less than two weeks previous.

It's possible that Booth could have been captured alive there, (Herold did surrender), but he knew by then he was in the last act of his own tragedy. Stanton's dragnet later captured all of the conspirators. They were found guilty for their association with Booth in a military tribunal. One of the most interesting scenes of Swanson's to me was the dispatching of Major General Winfield Scott Hancock, a true hero of the Civil War, to the Old Arsenal Penitentiary with the death sentences of Lewis Powell, Mary Surratt, David Herold and George Atzerodt.

The spirit of revenge against anyone remotely associated with Booth led to the arrests of numerous other people. Farmer Garrett himself was thrown in prison. Also jailed, for a time, was Ford's owner, John T. Ford. He was released after thirty-nine days, but Stanton ordered his theater confiscated and its interior gutted. The marvelous restoration of Ford's Theater in the 1960's meticulously reproduces the theater's appearance from the night Lincoln was killed. It had been used for years as a government office building (Ford was reimbursed for the building by the government in 1866). Unbelievably, the excessive load of tons of government office equipment caused all of the floors to collapse during 1893, killing twenty-two workers and injuring scores more.

The most publicized case of alleged collateral guilt by association with Booth concerns the case of Dr. Samuel Mudd. Booth arrived at the Mudd farm with Herold while in flight from the assassination. Mudd set Booth's broken leg and arranged for a local carpenter to build a set of crutches; both fugitives rested at the Mudd home over night and left the following day. Mudd was later arrested, tried and convicted of conspiracy for aiding Lincoln's conspirators. Mudd narrowly missed receiving a sentence of hanging, and instead was sentenced to life in prison. He served his sentence at Fort Jefferson in the Gulf of Mexico, near the Florida Keys. His heroic efforts of saving inmates and staff of the prison during a yellow fever epidemic in 1867, taking over the prison's medical responsibilities from the dead prison's doctor, won him release from confinement by President Andrew Johnson in 1869.

Mudd's grandson, Dr. Richard Mudd, has spent decades trying to prove Mudd's innocence and obtain a presidential pardon for him. The Mudd family's position was reflected in a 1980 movie, "The Ordeal of Dr. Mudd", starring Dennis Weaver in what I believe was the best performance of his career. The viewpoint portrayed was of a doctor who followed his professional ethics in setting a leg of a person in need, without being told how the injury occurred. Dr. Mudd's predicament was very moving but, in Swanson's opinion, a little too disingenuous. Swanson points out that Mudd had had contact with Booth in December, 1864, in Bryantown Maryland, near the Mudd farm, when the Lincoln kidnap plot was being hatched. He also met with Booth a month later in Washington. Investigators who followed up on Booth's activities prior to the assassination found out about these meetings. Mudd gave a sworn statement admitting his November meeting, without admitting any ulterior motive, and omitting his December meeting with Booth. Just as damning was Mudd's failure to notify authorities in Maryland of his involvement with Booth after newspapers carrying the assassination news and Booth's identity were being circulated in his town. These deceptions were enough to convict him of conspiracy; Swanson doesn't buy the revisionist version of events from the Mudd family.

We know that Abraham Lincoln was elevated from great leader to folk hero by the manner of his death. Swanson's book sets the record on his killer, Booth, who committed a despicable act and yet became a legendary dramatic figure who continues to captivate readers of history. Many people wish he had never lived, while, Swanson notes, there are those in the South who still celebrate his life. Even the restored theater which commemorates the crime against Lincoln also serves as a Booth museum. Such is history's disdain of neatly wrapped endings.

Profile Image for Kressel Housman.
970 reviews222 followers
June 17, 2013
I read this as a follow-up to Sarah Vowell’s Assassination Vacation, but whereas that was history mixed with humor, this was 100% history that read like a detective/adventure story. I was definitely on the edge of my seat in spots, especially at the end. Earlier in the book, however, I had a more perverse reaction: I found myself actually rooting for John Wilkes Booth to keep evading the manhunters because I didn’t want the book to end. Mostly though, I am thankful to say, I hated him as much as he deserved. A professional actor, he was at least as motivated by the desire for fame and glory as ideology. He actually believed he was doing a service to the country! His own writings are really outrageous!

I highly recommend this book, along with Assassination Vacation for starters. Sarah Vowell will give you the background with some snark thrown in, and this book fills in the details. John Wilkes Booth did not act alone, but constructed a much broader plot to cripple the newly victorious Union. It’s not something I remember learning about in school, but it’s something every American should know. Both books together have been an excellent education, and I’m grateful for it as I don’t think I’m quite up to the 800-page Team of Rivals. Oh, well. There’s always the movie, though.
Profile Image for Andrew Hiller.
Author 5 books24 followers
January 2, 2017
I have to admit I'm a bit stymied as to how to review this book. The tale told is a non fiction, well-researched, dramatic narrative of the hunt for John Wilkes Booth, murderer of Abraham Lincoln. The confusion is based mostly in that the book is well-written, has great details, quotes, and descriptions. It's pacing is more than solid. In fact, the story moves at almost a sprinter's pace. The characterizations are far from wooden and revealed information I wasn't aware of it... and yet, I found myself often distracted, distanced, and in disharmony.

In short, everything is there for me to like the book and there are moments I definitely got into it and yet some equally powerful magnet pulled me away from it. I can't say that I didn't enjoy Manhunt. On the contrary, it was stimulating, but there was something dissonant about it.

Perhaps, it was that by writing large parts of it from Booth's point of view the story it humanized him and his suffering in a way that made me uncomfortable. I did not and I do not want to root for Booth... a man that killed Lincoln for foul reasons... not southern glory, but the bleak ignorance of racism. Yet the book urges this by telling the story through Booth's words, Confederate sympathist and conspirators' words, etc. His escape from justice becomes one that is seen as heroic and at times almost noble. I think that didn't sit well with me. Booth's flight was likely desperate and by using this source material the flight becomes romanticized.

I find nothing about Booth's actions or course noble. His was an attack whose ultimate goal was to keep the black man in bondage. It was about racism and hate. Again, the book doesn't ignore this, in fact, it actively connects Booth to future villainy, lynchings, and other hateful racist branches of the American tree. Moreover, there is an effort throughout the book to straddle the line between how the North and South... or history itself views him.

That may be why the book doesn't sit well with me. I don't buy Booth as either a hero or anti-hero and so the central narrative of his flight kept missing the mark. In reading it, I kept feeling it was like listening to a really pure and beautiful soprano who hits those perfect notes that always give you a headache and make you wince.

I guess in the end what I would say is that this is a very good book, but not a good book for me.
Profile Image for Judy.
1,945 reviews28 followers
August 4, 2011
April 1865 was one of the most momentous months in American history. Richmond fell to Union troops, Jefferson Davis was on the run, the government of the Confederacy collapsed, Lincoln was assassinated, and a 12 day manhunt was launched for his killer, John Wilkes Booth. In Manhunt, James Swanson has written an incredible book taking the reader through the days before the assassination to the capture, killing and burial of Booth, to the trial, imprisonment, and execution of co-conspirators, to the scramble for the reward money that had been offered by the government for Booth's capture. In an hour by hour recreation that is based on archival materials and trial transcripts, Manhunt is told from several perspectives including those hunting for Booth, John Wilkes Booth, Secretary of War Stanton, and others. Even though I knew the story, I was captivated by the narrative and the interactions among the major characters. The author's impatience with some of the major actors in the tale was very evident--for example, he clearly wanted Booth to keep moving South and especially not spend time the second day resting at the farm where he was captured in Virginia. In fact, the author's basic admiration for Booth (but not for the killing of Lincoln) was apparent throughout the book. Also fascinating for me were the secondary characters who were drawn so clearly in the narrative--especially Sgt. Boston Corbett, Major Henry Rathbone, Asia Booth Clarke, Dr. Samuel Mudd, and Fanny Seward. This book is exciting reading and sheds new light on the assassination of Abraham Lincoln and the search for his killer.
Profile Image for Tom Stamper.
578 reviews25 followers
May 12, 2022
Manhunt's chief virtue is that there is suspense throughout Booth's flee from the authorities although we already know the ending or we think we do. I had heard the same version in so many accounts that I was surprised by all that I didn't know.

James Swanson does an excellent job of giving life to the tertiary characters, the people that were only names in many other accounts. There is a nice sequence where conspirator Lewis Powell is trying to assassinate William Seward and we get to know Seward's kids and his servant while they all try to fight off the killer. In many versions of the Lincoln assassination you learn no more than Seward was attacked in his sickbed without an explanation of why he was even bedridden to begin with.

There is a lot more here on Dr. Mudd. The narrative when I was a kid was Dr. Mudd was an innocent bystander who was punished by a vengeful jury because someone had to pay. The story is a lot more complicated than that and those complications make a great subplot.

There is insight as to how Booth's famous pro-Union family took the events. We get an explanation as to what caused Booth to break his leg when jumping to the stage. Maybe more importantly we get into the head of Booth and better understand what he hoped for from the killing and how he died knowing that his actions found condemnation rather than the adulation he sought.

If all history was written in a compelling manner as Mr. Swanson delivers here then people would read a lot more history. I plan to read a lot more Swanson.
Profile Image for Fawn.
32 reviews2 followers
January 5, 2020
This is a very compelling account of the murder of Abraham Lincoln and the chase for John Wilkes Booth that followed. It's told in a back and forth way, which leaves you with cliffhangers at each chapter's end, in the style of many a good thriller-type mystery. Although you know the outcome of the attempted assassinations, Swanson somehow still has you on the edge of your seat. This would be a good book for anyone interested in history but not entirely accustomed to reading it straight up. The book is thoroughly researched, with interesting tidbits. The cast of characters is fantastic, and their actions speak for Swanson's extensive knowledge of them psychologically. Booth is a ridiculously interesting villain, and the book spends most of it's time close to him, revealing the intimacies of his life on the run, and the downfall of the killer, including his reaction to his abandonment by his beloved south. Although Swanson does a good job in delivering the accounts impartially, it's lovely to get to the just desserts at the end. This book is a must read, highly recommended.
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