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AMERICAN BRUTUS by Michael W. Kauffman Kirkus Star

AMERICAN BRUTUS

John Wilkes Booth and the Lincoln Conspiracies

By Michael W. Kauffman

Pub Date: Nov. 2nd, 2004
ISBN: 0-375-50785-X
Publisher: Random House

Ulysses S. Grant was supposed to be in attendance that fateful night at Ford’s Theatre. He managed to be absent. Hmm . . .

Conspiracy-minded readers raised on Oliver Stone and Art Bell might have a field day with Grant’s absence. Lincoln-assassination scholar Kauffman doesn’t enter Grant into the suspects’ gallery, but he makes clear that the killing of the president was far from the work of a lone gunman: on the night of April 14, 1865, when Lincoln was killed, his secretary of state was attacked at his home nearby, and “investigation revealed that other men had also been targeted: the vice president, secretary of war, and general in chief of the army.” Add rumors of insurrectionist plots to bomb ports and ships at sea and to poison New York’s water supply, and you have all the makings of a terrorist scare that wouldn’t be out of place today. Underemployed actor John Wilkes Booth was, of course, central to the plot; as Kauffman writes, when he began this work he was inclined to think of the killer as “a tragic figure, torn between competing ideals and led by hubris and emotion to commit one of history’s greatest blunders,” but he ended up sure that Booth “was a manipulator, not a pawn.” So winning was Booth that he managed to steer secret agents, secessionist sympathizers, and even a few shadowy northerners into a long-nursed plot that evolved from kidnapping the president to doing away with him, period. Kauffman turns up some interesting suspects and fellow travelers, and he complicates an already complex plot by unveiling the workings of a war profiteering ring that involved Confederate officials’ infiltrating a “cotton and tobacco trade that had been going on with the Lincoln administration’s blessing,” which “was supposed to stimulate the Northern economy while encouraging Southern planters and merchants to reestablish their ties to the Union.” The plot thickens, and by the point that Booth and accomplices escape easily from a Washington supposedly under martial law, the reader will gasp at the abundance of villains and the extent of their crimes.

History as page-turner: a fascinating inquest.