Compelling narrative of John Wilkes Booth’s desperate final days, from the co-author of Lincoln’s Assassins: Their Trial and Execution (2001).
Instead of the comprehensive treatment of the Lincoln conspiracy offered by Michael W. Kauffman in American Brutus (2004), Swanson focuses closely on the 12 days between the fateful pistol shot in Ford’s Theater and the cornering and killing of the crippled, charismatic Booth in a Virginia tobacco barn. Relying on primary-source documents, and displaying all the avidity and single-mindedness of Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton, the manhunt’s director, the author identifies and limns all the chief pursuers and those who wittingly or unwittingly aided the fugitives. He traces the flight and capture of Booth’s accomplices, notably Lewis Powell (Seward’s attacker), Mary Surratt and George Atzerodt, who aborted his own portion of the conspiracy plan to kill Vice President Andrew Johnson. Swanson skillfully marshals the evidence against Dr. Samuel Mudd, viewed by some historians as blameless, and firmly establishes the doctor’s willing collaboration. But star billing here goes to Booth, just as he would have wished. A succession of fortuitous breaks and aid from Confederate sympathizers enabled the actor, accompanied by faithful acolyte David Herold, to avoid detection for almost two weeks, enough time for the magnetic mastermind to reflect on his deed, to read the immediate newspaper reviews of his “production” and to almost stage-manage his own death. By killing Lincoln, Booth believed that he’d avenged the South against her foremost tormentor. Instead, he ensured his own infamy and turned a much-criticized president into Father Abraham, a secular American saint.
A meticulous account of crime and capture makes a distinguished and worthy addition to the legend Americans can’t seem to read enough about.