The facts of the case are quite simple: on Good Friday 1865 Abraham Lincoln was shot at close range while attending a performance at Ford’s Theatre, Washington DC, he died the next day without regaining consciousness. His assassin, John Wilkes Booth, a famous actor, escaped from the theatre but pursuing troops and detectives caught up with him some days later hiding in a barn in Virginia; Booth was shot dead. At the same time that Booth attacked Lincoln an associate, Lewis Powell, also known as Payne, attacked Secretary of State William H. Seward who was home in bed following a recent accident. Though seriously injured, Seward survived. Powell effectively gave himself up to the authorities, and on July 7 he and three other conspirators, Mrs Surratt, George Atzerodt and David Herold, were hanged; Mrs Surratt was the first woman executed by the federal authorities in American history. Four other supposed conspirators, Dr Samuel Mudd, Michael O’Laughlen, Samuel Arnold and Edman Spangler, were imprisoned on the harsh Dry Tortugas; O’Laughlen died there during a yellow fever outbreak, the other three were eventually pardoned. So much is known to anyone with even a cursory knowledge of American history at the time of the Civil War. But for something which appears so straightforward, the whole Lincoln assassination is shrouded in mystery and confusion. This is in part because Booth himself used smoke and mirrors as a way of binding the conspirators to him (and implicating others who were innocent but possibly dangerous to him); in part because of the outright panic that gripped the government in the hours immediately after the attack; in part because the investigation of the crime and the pursuit of the conspirators was at no point co-ordinated, and in fact several of those involved in the pursuit deliberately created false leads in order to get the better of their rivals; in part because of the fevered atmosphere of the trial, presided over by a Judge Advocat General who deliberately allowed evidence he already knew to be false; and in part because of the plethora of conspiracy theories that have grown up since the assassination, including stories that still crop up today such as the one that Booth survived and eventually died of old age in Texas.
In other words, the moment you start to look at the Lincoln assassination in anything but the very broadest outline, you are looking into a dense fog. American Brutus: John Wilkes Booth and the Lincoln Conspiracies by Michael W. Kauffman (Random House, 2004) is the latest account of the events to see print, and probably the best. There are a number of things you can criticise Kauffman for: he likes to beat his breast and claim that no-one else was clever enough or sensible enough to read the evidence the way he has done. Nevertheless, this is probably as clear, comprehensible and non-hysterical an account of Booth and his fellows as we are ever likely to see. It actually makes sense of all the evidence, and points out where some of the most persistent stories about the assassination have their origins in confused witness statements or deliberate later falsehoods. When Booth leapt from the box onto the stage at Ford’s Theatre, so one of the most persistent legends has it, his spur caught in the bunting around the box, he broke his leg on landing and staggered from the stage with a bone protruding from his boot and blood spurting everywhere. Piecing the evidence together, Kauffman is able to tell us that Booth did indeed catch his spur in the bunting, and did indeed stagger slightly upon landing, but he was not damaged (it is worth noting that the 12 foot drop from the box to the stage would have been undaunting to Booth who had made daredevil leaps one of the features of his theatrical performances). He strode from the stage like an actor confident of where he was (it was the confidence which helped him get away), but broke his leg later when his horse fell. And it was a clean break, a simple fracture, which Dr Mudd was later called upon to treat.
By the end of the book it is clear that Mrs Surratt should probably not have hanged, but it is equally clear that she wasn’t entirely innocent. Mudd, on the other hand, along with O’Laughlen, Arnold and Spangler, do appear to have been innocent, victims of the skillful way that Booth wove an impression of a conspiracy far greater than it actually was. (In American law at the time, anyone accused of being a member of a criminal plot could not testify against his fellow plotters, and the evidence that could be used to convict someone of conspiracy was far less rigorous than it is today, so it made a great deal of sense for Booth to bind people to him in a shadow conspiracy like this.) What is less clear is how a conspiracy to kidnap the president became a conspiracy to kill. The moment Lee surrendered at Appomattox kidnapping became redundant, so it is easy to see how Booth changed his own plans to stage a dramatic moment to rid the world of what he saw as it’s greatest tyrant; but it is not at all clear how he convinced Powell, Herold and Atzerodt of this change.
Nevertheless, this is a wonderful investigation, told in a gripping fashion. Certain charges are forever put to rest, such as the claim that Booth turned to assassination because his acting career was over. In fact Booth was at the height of his powers; he had matinee-idol good looks, an eye-catching and athletic style, a superb voice, and was generally acknowledged as one of the greatest actors of his generation, indeed his only rival in popular acclaim was probably his brother, Edwin. We meet some incredibly colourful characters. Sgt Boston Corbett, the man who actually shot Booth, was a religious fanatic who once cut off his own testicles with a pair of scissors after an encounter with a pair of prostitutes. And there are dramatic moments: one of these days I still intend to write a novel about the day John Wilkes, Edwin and Junius Booth appeared on stage together. It was the only time the three brothers ever performed together, a one-off production of Julius Caesar with John Wilkes as Mark Antony, in New York in November 1864; and it was also the day that a gang of Confederate spies tried to set fire to New York. The building next to the theatre where the Booth’s were performing was one of those that burned, and the play was interrupted by the fire. That is just too good a story to miss.
First published at Livejournal, 19 May 2005.