Tuesday, September 27, 2011

The Assassination of Abraham Lincoln

It’s been 146 years since John Wilkes Booth walked into a theater and shot Abraham Lincoln in the head. But our collective interest in that event has not dimmed. Consider a few details from that fateful night—Booth had only a few hours to plan the assassination; Lincoln had recurring dreams and premonitions about his death; Booth knew the play so well that he could anticipate the crowds’ laughter to cover the sound of the shot. And then there’s the remarkable cast of supporting characters—Mary Surratt (the first woman in American history to be executed by the federal government), Secretary of State William Seward (who survived a near-fatal assault by another assassin at the exact moment Booth was killing Lincoln), and Robert Lincoln (Abe’s son who would be at hand to witness two more presidential shootings). It’s no wonder we’re still fascinated by the assassination of Abraham Lincoln.

Lincoln Shot: A President Remembered by Barry Denenberg, illustrated by Christopher H. Bing, 2008, Feiwel and Friends Books (Nonfiction/ Children’s Picture Book/ Biography).

Purporting to be a commemorative edition of the (fictional) 1866 National News, published on the one-year anniversary of Abraham Lincoln’s death, this striking (and large—it’s nearly two feet tall) picture book combines history with the art of book design to present an object that is both a pleasure to read and a wealth of information. Faux-contemporary articles narrate the events at Ford’s Theater; cover the hunt for Booth and the conspirators’ trial; and provide biographies of Lincoln, his family, and his generals. Photographs, posters, maps, and original artwork by Christopher H. Bing—combined with yellowed pages, old-fashioned type, and advertisements from the era—complete the illusion that we’re reading an antique 19th century newspaper documenting the crime that changed the nation. And it’s an illusion readers are more than willing to buy into, given that its creators have gone to such lengths to make it so authentic and so engrossing.

Lincoln’s Assassins: Their Trial and Execution—An Illustrated History by James L. Swanson and Daniel R. Weinberg, 2006, William Morrow Books (Nonfiction/ Civil War History).

The assassination is not just the story of John Wilkes Booth and Abraham Lincoln. Sure, we know dramatic details like Booth’s theatrical leap to the stage after the shooting, but this illustrated history gathers all the lesser-known but no less compelling facts of the case—Booth’s numerous schemes and failed plans before his final successful murder attempt, the extensive network of Confederate spies and sympathizers that Booth relied on, Booth’s dramatic escape and capture, and the trial and execution of the men (and woman) who aided him. The story is conveyed through detailed summaries written by two men who are assassination experts. Reproductions of newspapers articles and illustrations cover nearly every page, and the haunting faces of Booth’s accomplices stare out from their post-capture portraits. It’s a bit morbidly fascinating, but this astonishing collection of images provides one of the most accurate, intelligent, and comprehensive looks at the Lincoln assassination.

Manhunt: The 12-Day Chase for Lincoln’s Killer by James L. Swanson, 2006, William Morrow Books (Nonfiction/ Civil War History).

James L. Swanson, co-author of Lincoln’s Assassins, here focuses on the events immediately after Lincoln’s murder. An angry, bitter, South-sympathizing Booth stumbles across an unforeseen opportunity, acts on it, and flees into the night. The next twelve days will shock a nation still reeling from the barely-ended Civil War. Manhunt becomes a gripping page-turner as Booth literally breaks a leg during his dramatic leap to the stage, cons his way across the bridge to Maryland, hides in the woods for days with his naïve accomplice David Herold, and makes a desperate bid for safety in the Deep South. Booth’s obsessions and hatreds, his deep-seated desire for fame and notoriety, his immense ego—not to mention his ill-luck and miserable mistakes—take center stage here, and the results are compelling. Swanson picks up where Manhunt leaves off with Bloody Crimes: The Chase for Jefferson Davis and the Death Pageant for Lincoln’s Corpse.

The Assassin’s Accomplice: Mary Surratt and the Plot to Kill Abraham Lincoln by Kate Clifford Larson, 2008, Basic Books (Nonfiction/ Biography/ Civil War History).

One of the most compelling characters in the story of the Lincoln assassination is Mary Surratt, the only female conspirator and the first woman executed by the federal government. Mary was the mother of John Surratt, one of Booth’s most infamous accomplices. Booth was a constant visitor at the Surratt boarding house in Washington, D.C.—he even visited Mary the day of the murder. In short, the Surratt home was the center of operations for the assassination conspiracy. When Mary was inevitably arrested (her Southern sympathies were no secret), the public was shocked that a gentlewoman could be involved so directly in such a deplorable plot. When Mary was sentenced to death, the nation was outraged that their government could be so harsh to a mere woman. The Assassin’s Accomplice reveals Mary Surratt as a strong-willed woman who made no qualms about what she believed—and who paid for those beliefs with her life.

The Murder of Abraham Lincoln: A Chronicle of 62 Days in the Life of the American Republic, March 4-May 4, 1865 written and illustrated by Rick Geary, 2005, NBM ComicsLit (Comics/ Nonfiction Graphic Novel).

What better way to learn about the assassination of Abraham Lincoln than through the artistic stylings of a comic book from a series called A Treasury of Victorian Murder? Author and illustrator Rick Geary begins on March 4th, 1865 (the date of Lincoln’s second inauguration) and doesn’t let up until the President’s body is laid to rest on May 4th. Geary’s dialogue adds flare to the already-inherent drama of the events, his maps of places and buildings are immensely helpful in getting a sense of the action, and the particulars of the time period are rendered with a carefulness that speaks of thorough research and attention to detail. The story unfolds seamlessly as page after page of Geary’s rich black-and-white illustrations (reminiscent of 19th century newspaper engravings) flow by. Plus it’s just fun to see Honest Abe and the villainous Booth done up as cartoons, complete with stovepipe hat and twirling mustache.

Assassination Vacation by Sarah Vowell, 2005, Simon and Schuster Books (History Writing/ Travel Writing).

Sarah Vowell loves a good assassination—so much so that she goes on a cross-country vacation to visit the sights associated with three presidential murders: James A. Garfield, shot by deluded Charles Guiteau in 1881; William McKinley, shot by anarchist Leon Czolgosz in 1901; and of course good old honest Abe Lincoln, shot by John Wilkes Booth back in 1865. Vowell’s obsession with the Lincoln assassination takes up quite a bit of this delightfully oddball book. It is here that we find out about Robert Lincoln (aka “Jinxy McDeath”) and his penchant for being nearby when presidents were killed. We also learn where Lincoln’s brain ended up and that Vowel has a crush on the actor who played John Wilkes Booth in the off-Broadway musical Assassins. Quirky, witty, and endlessly enjoyable, Assassination Vacation supplies everything you ever wanted to know about the Lincoln assassination but didn’t even know you wanted to ask.

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