tENTATIVELY, cONVENIENCE's Reviews > American Assassins: The Darker Side of Politics

American Assassins by James W. Clarke
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it was amazing
bookshelves: politics

I have a long review of this under my writing section of my GoodReads profile. It's 4 times too long to appear here. This is just the beginning of it (& the beginning of the end of the even larger "Recommended Reading" article that it's a part of):

And, THAT brings me to the last of the books that I'm going to review here: James W. Clarke's American Assassins - The Darker Side of Politics (gotten for free, by the by, from "The Book Thing of Baltimore, Inc." who you can e-mail @: bookthingbaltimore@hotmail.com). I liked this book, 1st off, because in the Preface it's stated "My research relies as much as possible on primary sources". Anyone familiar with the text-based world has at least a little experience with the way intertextual reference distorts like a game of gossip. A typo in one article becomes a 'fact' in the next to reproduce it; a deliberate lie in one pseudo-quote becomes yet another 'fact' as it's quoted in turn. As such, even these reviews are suspect & the best one can do with them is just judge them by how well they fit into one's own experience. NOTHING in text is FACT, nothing.. BUT, at least "primary sources" are unpolluted by generational distortion.

In his introduction, Clarke scores another point with me as he questions the political rationale of labelling assassins mentally ill: "The substance of the labelling remains the same; that is, these persons are presumed 'sick' and their acts are, in tautological fashion, evidence of that sickness." Addressing this "possible political bias" in relation to the shortcomings of secondary sources, he states:

"[..] another disturbing methodological flaw is apparent: in much of the literature there is scant evidence of any primary research. rather, the references reveal a heavy reliance on secondary sources as well as a kind of incestuous process of citing each other's work to 'document' the same questionable assertions. Many articles written since 1950, for example, have relied on Robert Donovan's very readable but undocumented book, The Assassins, for their facts, rather than on primary sources. And there is a seemingly unquestioning acceptance of earlier interpretations despite the dubious scholarly merits of such interpretations.

In this fashion, Donovan's influential observation that most assassins are 'men suffering from mental disease, who pulled the trigger while in the grip of delusion,' is repeatedly 'confirmed.' Consequently, the circularity continues, with many journalists and psychiatrists incorporating and extending the same inaccurate stereotype."

Given the potential importance of the subject of assassination to politically-minded people such as myself, it was educational to realize how little I'm actually aware of its history - even in the country where I live. John Wilkes Booth, eg, has often been depicted as a 'second-rate' actor "obsessed with achieving fame" - an image I'd never bothered to investigate. This book firmly establishes that "The acclaim denied to so many in the acting profession was well within grasp by his twenty-first year. By the time of his death, some six years later, his reputation as a fine actor and matinee idol was established. Booth's popularity and success were reflected in his income: in 1862, he wrote that he was averaging 650 dollars per week for his performances - an extraordinary sum for that period. At the time of his death, even after he had cut his performances drastically because of his war-related activities, he wrote he was earning 'more than twenty-thousand dollars a year.'"!! He was a very popular & successful actor. The rehistorification of him as anything but is just another way of trying to discredit his political motives so that the president can seem as if only the insane or slavery-supporting could've been against him.

Little remembered now about Lincoln is "his unpopularity in the North, where growing opposition to the war required drastic - some would say dictatorial - executive actions to control the festering and volatile dissent. Lincoln quickly, and on his own initiative, suspended the constitutionally guaranteed writ of habeas corpus and authorized the arbitrary arrest of any suspected opponents of his war policies. In 1863, for example, some 38,000 persons were arrested in the North and imprisoned without trial for suspected anti-war activities. Soon after the first shots were fired at Fort Sumter, he had - without Congressional approval - called up the militia and expanded the size of the regular army. He arbitrarily, and again without congressional approval, transferred some two million dollars to Union agents in New York in stifling the anti-war movement." Now that the Civil War's remembered mainly as an anti-slavery battle, it's difficult for people to understand that it was even more a battle to entrench strong central government - with slavery being a convenient excuse. Hence Booth's "Sic Semper Tyrannis!" shouted after shooting Lincoln - often translated as "Death to Tyrants" but more accurately: "Ever so to Tyrants!".

Booth was part of a conspiracy whose original intent was to kidnap Lincoln - an attempt to do so was foiled by the unexpected - after which a plan to assassinate multiple political figures was formed. Booth was the only one in the group to succeed. Prior to the abduction attempt, Booth left a letter with his brother-in-law to be opened later so that his intentions would be clearly understood. To enable us to understand that Booth was hardly a raving pro-slavery maniac, an excerpt from that is in order:

"[..] Lincoln's policy is only preparing the way to their ["the negro race"'s] total annihilation. The South are not nor have they been fighting for the continuance of slavery. The first battle of Bull Run did away with that idea. The causes since for war have been as noble, and greater far than those that urged our fathers on. Even though we should allow that they were wrong at the beginning of this contest, cruelty and injustice have made the wrong become the right, and they now stand before the wonder and admiration of the world, as a noble band of patriotic heroes. Hereafter reading of their deeds, Thermopylae will be forgotten.

When I aided in the capture and execution of John Brown who was a murderer on our western border, who was fairly tried and convicted before an impartial judge and jury, of treason, and who by the way, has since been made a god, I was proud of my little share in the transaction, for I deemed it my duty, and that I was helping our common country to perform an act of justice. But what was a crime in poor John Brown is now considered by themselves as the greatest and only virtue of the Republican party. Strange transmigration. Vice is to become a virtue, simply because more indulge in it."

While I don't quote the above to try & create the impression that Booth is somehow an unsung hero of anti-slavery (he wasn't), I do think that the quote shows how much more complicated his perception of the Civil War & of the Union's hypocrisy was than might ordinarily be referenced.

The assassin I'm most personally sympathetic to is Leon Czolgosz who murdered William McKinley on September 6, 1901. Czolgosz's explanation, given as his last words, was quite clear: "I killed the President because he was the enemy of the good people - the good working people." As usual, Czolgosz's simple motive was twisted posthumously to be "insane" by a Dr. Sanderson Christieson who wrote:

"Such a monstrous conception and impulse as the wanton murder of the President of the United States, arising in the mind of so insignificant a citizen, without his being either insane or degenerate could be nothing short of a miracle, for the reason that we require like causes to explain like results. To assume that he was sane, is to assume that he did a sane act, i.e., one based upon facts and for a rational purpose. [Emphasis added.]" {by Clarke}

I could almost end this review right there. Such a statement is so obviously idiotic & classist that I almost wish Christieson were alive today so that I could assassinate him. The President is 'significant' but Czolgosz, a poor man, is "insignificant". "Insignificant" & thus disposable. Such was the mindset of Christieson, such was the mindset of McKinley. Because of this mindset, Czolgosz was forced by poverty to shine shoes & sell papers by age 6. By 12 he was forced to quit school & go to work in a factory. Somehow I doubt that McKinley & Christieson had a similar childhood. McKinley was a fat cat, widely announcing that prosperity was everywhere while most workers lived in extreme misery. In fact, if McKinley hadn't been such a fat cat, he might've survived the attack: "His physicians were never able to locate the fatal bullet even after a four-hour search during the autopsy. His doctors claimed that the President's chances for recovery had been seriously limited by his obesity (as had their search for the bullet) and 'a rather low vitality' that was characteristic of his sedentary lifestyle."

The vindictiveness of the state against Czolgosz for daring to resist his reduction to an "insignificant" person by assassinating the spokesperson of those who used & abused him as nothing more than a wage slave is exemplified by this story about Czolgosz's post-execution fate: "When Waldek asked to claim his brother's body for burial, prison authorities denied the request. Instead the body of Leon Czolgosz was lowered casketless into a prison grave bubbling with the contents of 'six barrels of quicklime and a carboy of sulphuric acid.'"

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Reading Progress

Finished Reading
March 3, 2008 – Shelved
March 3, 2008 – Shelved as: politics

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