Historian Michael W. Kauffman’s Account of John Wilkes Booth and the Lincoln Conspiracies Makes a Captivating Read
On the evening of Good Friday, April 14, 1865, John Wilkes Booth stared through a boring hole he made in the door to the balcony where Abraham Lincoln sat with his wife and other couple enjoying the play “Our American Cousin.”
Booth, a famous stage actor from a well-established theater family, steeled his nerves and walked unannounced into the balcony. He pressed a .44 caliber single shot derringer against the back of Lincoln’s head and fired. He hissed: “Sic temper tyrannis!” (Latin for “Thus always for tyrants”). Lincoln slumped back in his rocking chair.
Brandishing a knife, Booth slashed the wrist of Major Henry Rathbone and leaped from the balcony railing to the stage below. Turning to look at the audience, Booth lifted the dagger over his head and thundered: “The South shall be free!”
Then Booth darted across the stage, out through the back of Ford’s Theater, and jumped onto the back of his waiting mount. He disappeared down the back alley and into the darkness.
The bullet lodged behind the left eye of the president and killed him at 7:22 a.m., April 15, 1865.
This is how Lincoln, the 16th president of the United States, met his untimely end. The assassination has long been analyzed and debated, but Historian Michael W. Kauffman’s history “American Brutus: John Wilkes Booth and the Lincoln Conspiracies” may be the best account yet of those dark times at the end of the U.S. Civil War.
Kauffman’s painstaking research sorts through the historical records: diary entries, newspaper accounts, letters, court records, and eyewitness accounts – dismissing everything that can’t be validated by more than one source.
What’s left is a dramatic and authoritative account of Booth’s politics and motivations as he launches into a conspiracy to over throw the Union government and try to give the Confederacy one last chance at victory.
The best way to delve into this captivating history is simply to list the fascinating information Kauffman unleashes on his readers:
- One of the enduring myths of the Lincoln assassination is that Booth broke his leg after leaping from the balcony onto the stage and then limped to the rear exit to make his escape. Kauffman explains that originally Booth blamed the broken leg on his horse falling over during his escape, but changed that version to it happening on stage to make his exploit seem more daring and dangerous.
- Major Rathbone, the man slashed by Booth during Lincoln’s murder, later married Clara Harris, who was with him and Lincoln at Ford’s Theater. Rathbone was haunted by the assassination and later murdered Harris and tried to kill himself. He was committed to an insane asylum in Germany where he spent the rest of his life.
- Booth was a master of manipulation and perfected the art of blackmail and guilt by association. He carefully framed each of his conspirators, building up a cache of evidence against them. It helped him keep his conspirators in line and prevent even the weakest willed among them from turning against him.
- Booth originally planned to kidnap the president, but changed his mind a few days before Good Friday because of a speech Lincoln delivered supporting voting rights for freed black slaves. Kauffman argues that Booth may, in fact, just have run out of options with the Civil War coming to an official end. Murder was the only option left.
- Booth assigned himself to kill Lincoln. He sent Lewis Powell, a former Rebel soldier, to murder Secretary of State William H. Seward. Powell stabbed Seward in the face several times, but he survived. George Atzerodt was supposed to kill Vice President Andrew Johnson, but lost his nerve.
- Booth’s elaborate conspiracy stretched through many people and places, but only eight people were tried for being involved in the conspiracy and it’s likely that Dr. Samuel Mudd was innocent. Powell, Atzerodt, David Herold and Mary Surrott were hanged to death for their roles in the conspiracy.
- Booth fled for 12 days after the assassination in the company of Herod. He was shocked at the negative reaction his deed caused, especially in the South. Booth thought of himself as a hero and had a difficult time dealing with the reality that he was a villain. Booth and Herod were finally trapped by Union Calvary in a tobacco barn in Virginia. Booth was shot in the face by Sgt. Boston Corbtett. His last words were: “Useless, useless.”
- Kauffman concludes: “If Booth intended to make himself a modern Brutus, he succeeded too well. Like the assassination of Julius Caesar, the killing of Lincoln did not accomplish the conspirators’ aims. It only martyred the victim, elevating him to secular sainthood and leading ultimately to the disillusionment and death of the assassin.”
Read our Literary Sketch of Ambrose Bierce's "An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge"
Read our 5 Questions About: Shopping
Labels: book review, books, History, John Wilkes Booth, Lincoln, Michael W. Kauffman