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Review: In search of Lincoln's assassin

'Manhunt' an excellent, exciting work

By L.D. Meagher



  • By James. L. Swanson
  • William Morrow
  • Non-fiction
  • 464 pages

    John Wilkes Booth
    Abraham Lincoln

    (CNN) -- The assassination of Abraham Lincoln is one of those historic events about which Americans believe they know a great deal. Yet a great deal of what most Americans "know" is wrong.

    The common perception is that John Wilkes Booth, a failed actor, suffered a mental breakdown over the imminent Union victory in the Civil War and in a fit of madness struck out at Lincoln, the recently re-elected U.S. president. Virtually every element of that perception is simply false.

    If it did nothing else, "Manhunt: The Twelve-Day Chase for Lincoln's Killer" by James L. Swanson would be worth reading for the way it smashes the popular idea that Booth was the consummate "lone nut."

    Swanson makes it abundantly clear in the opening pages that Booth -- not only not a "failed actor," but a celebrity of the first magnitude and member of America's most prominent theatrical family (imagine if a Barrymore or a Fonda had killed a president, and you get an idea for how astonishing Booth's participation was) -- was anything but alone. Indeed, the Lincoln assassination is the only presidential murder proven in court to be the result of a conspiracy.

    Booth's plan -- desperate to be sure, and unfathomably evil, but by no means insane -- was to decapitate the entire U.S. government with a single blow. Lincoln was not the only target that night. Alas, he was the only victim who met the fate Booth and his cohorts intended.

    Getting away

    "Manhunt" is a richly researched and vividly written account of the crime and its immediate aftermath. It is difficult to believe, from a 21st-century perspective, that a man could walk into a crowded theater, shoot the President of the United States in the head, and get away. But that is precisely what Booth did.

    Swanson chronicles how the killer's escape -- nearly as much as the magnitude of his crime -- ignited public anger and placed enormous pressure on the federal government to find him. Despite the best efforts of Secretary of War Edwin Stanton, who seized control of the investigation even before Lincoln died, Booth not only got out of Ford's Theatre alive; he got out of Washington and made tracks for what remained of the Confederacy.

    Swanson draws heavily on contemporary accounts, including the wildly inflated and inflammatory reporting of the 19th-century American press, to follow Booth on his escape route into the Maryland countryside and, eventually, across the Potomac River. He also follows the pursuers -- the Army troops trying to pick up the assassin's trail and the detectives who desperately searched for clues.

    Neither side exactly covered itself in glory. Booth, hampered by a broken leg, learned the hard way he would not receive a hero's welcome from other Confederate sympathizers. And the Army wasted several days chasing false leads.

    "Manhunt" infuses the historical events with a sense of adventure. It takes the reader down dusty roads and into teeming swamps in the company of soldiers and scoundrels alike.

    Swanson illuminates the characters of his story -- Booth and his co-conspirators, Stanton and his minions, Dr. Samuel Mudd and less well remembered supporting players -- with a wealth of personal detail usually found in fiction. He binds them to his narrative, which gallops along at the pace of a page-turning thriller. And even at the end, when the story barrels toward its well-known climax, the author ratchets up the tension of the final showdown in a Virginia tobacco barn.

    "Manhunt" is first-rate storytelling that also manages to inform and enlighten us about a signal event in American history. book reviewer L.D. Meagher is a Senior Writer at CNN Headline News and co-author of "The Curse of Cain," a novel about the Lincoln assassination.

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