Sometime between 12:30pm and 2pm on April 14, 1865, John Wilkes Booth was in the right place at the right time to receive a piece of news that would change the course of history forever. While picking up his mail at Ford’s Theater, he heard the news that President Abraham Lincoln and his wife would be attending a play there that evening. This seemingly trivial piece of news galvanized Booth, a famous actor with Southern sympathies who was embittered and angry at the end of the Civil War, to plot the simultaneous assassinations of the President, the Vice President, and the Secretary of State that evening.
Fortunately, Booth’s plans went awry and Lincoln was the only one of the three targeted men who died that night. George Atzerodt, who was to assassinate Vice President Andrew Johnson in his hotel room, chickened out at the last minute, and Lewis Powell met with some logistical difficulties when he attempted to break into the sickroom of Secretary William Seward. Seward was recovering from a head injury sustained earlier in the week, and was surrounded by family members and nurses at his home. Powell had to fight his way past them both on his way into the sickroom and on his way back out, inflicting only facial injuries on Seward.
The assassination of Lincoln is only the beginning of James L Swanson’s fascinating book, Manhunt, which chronicles the hours leading up to the assassination, the deed itself, and the twelve days following, as Booth and his co-conspirators flee the authorities. Booth was barely able to escape Washington that night, having broken his left leg in the jump from the President’s box to the stage at Ford’s Theater, and conning his way across the lone bridge out of Washington, which closed after dark. Feeling he would meet with more support for his dastardly deed in the newly humbled South, he and co-conspirator David Herold ventured down dark country roads into Maryland and Virginia, while his less-lucky co-conspirators Atzerodt and Powell were picked up by the police in Washington.
Unfortunately for Booth, he did not meet with the support he expected from Southerners. Many of the people he was directed to for help reacted with horror at the thought of harboring a fugitive assassin, regardless of whether or not they agreed with his ideology. It didn’t help Booth’s case that the government put a price on his head and that of his co-conspirators, and threatened with jail time or death anyone who helped them in any way. No one wanted to be connected with Booth. Expecting Southern hospitality, Booth was shocked when he was often thrown out of houses or outright refused him entry. He spent most of his fugitive twelve days in severe pain, sleeping on the ground in the woods with his left leg in a makeshift splint. He had to depend on the good will of those who agreed to help him for safety and scraps of food or information.
Although he did not meet with much help during his escape, Booth for a time had the authorities spinning in the wind. The trail ran cold from the time he left Washington almost until the day he was captured. Inaccurate reports of Booth sightings flooded into the office of Edwin Stanton, the Secretary of War, who had control of the manhunt. People who were Booth lookalikes (and even those who just sort of looked like him) were arrested and/or harrassed by the public. While hiding out with Herold in a pine thicket near the house of a Confederate sympathizer for six days of the twelve, Booth completely dropped off the map as far as the authorities were concerned, even though at one point a guard of soldiers passed very close by. Until Thomas Jones, the man who helped Booth and Herold during those six days in the thicket and ultimately got them a boat to get into Virginia, told his story of the so-called “lost days” in 1883, no one knew where Booth was during that time. It was not until Booth’s unlucky meeting with several Confederate soldiers once he crossed over into Virginia, one of whom later positively identified Booth to the hunters, that the army finally got a bead on his whereabouts. Once this occurred, Booth and Herold were located at Garrett’s Farm the same day. Although Herold turned himself in, Booth stubbornly refused to be taken alive. The barn he was hiding out in was lit on fire, and as Booth prepared to shoot his way out of the barn, he was shot accidentally in the neck by one of the soldiers. Paralyzed from the neck down, Booth died three hours later.
Swanson doesn’t spend much time on the trial that convicted Herold, Atzerodt, Powell and Mary Surratt to death by hanging on July 7, 1865, possibly because he has co-written an entire other book on the subject (Lincoln’s Assassins: Their Trial and Execution). His moment-by-breath-held-moment accounting of the assassination itself will, I promise you, take care of what little nails you have left if you’re a nail biter. I missed that same trip-wire tension as the hunters raced for Garrett’s Farm; it was almost as if Swanson ran out of steam. The book was still phenomenally well-written and was not the dry history tome it could have been. I would recommend it if you enjoy true crime and history rolled together.