The gruesome murder of American president Abraham Lincoln kicked off one of the greatest manhunts in the history of American – starts with a 12-day hot pursuit that culminates in the capture of John Wilkes Booth. John Wilkes Booth, the assassin, led Union cavalry and detectives on a wild, 12-day chase, from April 14 to the 26, 1865, through the boulevards of Washington, D.C., across the marshes of Maryland, and even into the thick jungles of Virginia, while the nation, still lurching from the Civil War, watched this wild chase in dreadfulness and wretchedness.
Once America’s notorious villain, John Wilkes Booth is at the very center of the Manhunt. John Wilkes Booth was one of the frustrated Confederate sympathizers, and belonged to a celebrated acting family, he given away his family repute and wealth, and taken the ‘holy’ task to avenge the South’s defeat. John Wilkes Booth confused and mystified the man-hunters for almost two weeks, always slipping away from their clutches and prevented them the justice they were seeking.
Primarily based on exceptional annals of history, an incomprehensible court record, James L. Swanson’s Manhunt is an exhaustive portrayal of documentation work. It is not like the history books, though, it is a mesmerizing recount of murder, conspiracy, and disloyalty – fascinating hour-by-hour, day-by-day account narrated through the perspective of both the hunted and the hunters.
In Manhunt: The 12-Day Chase for Lincoln’s Killer, Swanson begins with the end of Lincoln and then unfurls this confounding event to show readers why Booth did what he did, what he endured as the nation sought his capture, and how he inextricably influenced our perceptions of the achievements and humanity of America’s favorite president.
The day Abraham Lincoln visited Ford’s Theater was perhaps the happiest of his presidency. The Civil War had just ended. He had preserved the union and outlawed slavery. He was inspired to rekindle his flagging marriage. And then a single shot into his brain through the back of his head abruptly ended his jubilant consciousness. It forever marked April 14, 1865, with the blood of the Great Emancipator. Lincoln never knew what happened to him. His last conscious action on earth was to laugh. His body remained alive until the next morning, but his final thoughts were likely responding to the punch line just uttered by an actor onstage. (Jeff, 2006)
By contrast, John Wilkes Booth was hunted for 12 days after the assassination. He was in misery, suffering the leg he broke after jumping from Lincoln’s box to the stage of Ford’s Theater. He was starving. He feared for his life and his reputation. The majority of his escape was spent hiding outdoors, subject to the unforgiving elements, ravenous ticks and mosquitoes, and aggravating setbacks that prevented him from crossing the Potomac until nine intense days after the assassination. When his pursuers finally located him, he was also shot in the head. But he spent two to three hours in further conscious agony until he died: The bullet severed his spinal chord and, unable to move, he lay in his own blood as the life faded out of him. One of the country’s best-known actors—a strikingly handsome son of the nation’s premiere acting family—Booth had been showered in his life with the comforts and indulgences of extreme fame. He was pompous and pampered. But he died in physical torment, defeat, and humiliation, surrounded by the soldiers of the president-tyrant he had despised and murdered. (Jeff, 2006)
Lincoln’s and Booth’s deaths are the pillars of Manhunt. Swanson carefully and compellingly constructs these defining events, and he re-creates the two weeks in 1865 that span them. He populates the story with interesting facts and resurrects the cast of characters who lived it and were unutterably changed by it.
The appeal of this history is evident and marked by Manhunt’s climb into the top ten of the New York Times Best Sellers list, where many Lincoln biographies, such as the recent Team of Rivals, ascend. However, Swanson’s greatest success is his ability to enthrall his readers with the retelling of an event that has already been told ad infinitim.
Swanson takes readers back to the split second when Booth’s bullet pierced Lincoln’s skull. He then expands outward from that time and place to encompass Booth and his conspirators, Lincoln’s compatriots, and the cavalry corps and detectives who tracked the assassin. Swanson’s focus is on the chase, and he adeptly documents the way it played out—both factually and emotionally. The resulting narrative sometimes dazzles, sometimes surprises, and sometimes saddens the reader. (Jeff, 2006)
At times, Swanson is redundant with certain facts and details, as if concerned that the reader might miss his point. He’s probably merely being careful, but this technique is noticeable and somewhat irritating—eliciting occasional “Didn’t you just tell me that?” reader reactions.
More important, however, is the author’s negligent treatment of Mary Todd Lincoln, who is barely fleshed out before the assassination and nearly forgotten thereafter. Swanson might account for this by explaining that the book is about the hunt for Booth and those who were actively involved. But to leave readers wondering whether Mary was invested in the search for her husband’s killer or was influenced by its outcome is unfortunate and, frankly, rather peculiar.
Despite these minor criticisms, Manhunt is riveting and revealing. This book combines the depth and respectability of a well-documented history with the pacing and intrigue of a thriller. It also embodies the emotional resonance of a timeless fiction, except its significance is deepened by the ongoing understanding that this heart-wrenching story is true. For instance, Swanson’s restrained, minute-by-minute depiction of the moment of Lincoln’s death intimately connects readers with that reality. It is a scene rendered with a moving, this-really-happened impact. In Swanson’s hands, the tragedy is more tangible and the loss is more profound. It is a history haunted by Booth’s prophetic final words: “Useless, useless.”
Swanson’s decision to not “cite sources for each and every fact in the book” is also troubling. His excuse is that it “would have resulted in an exceedingly voluminous section of notes that would overburden most readers.” This begs an obvious question. How have other writers of popular history produced solid works with detailed citations, yet not overburden their intended audience? In John Adams, David McCullough has over 1,760 notes in 44 single spaced pages. His sources were, in the main, primary, which he lists in his exhaustive bibliography. Swanson hasn’t overburdened his supposedly harried readers–he has done them a disservice. (Jeff, 2006)
Swanson has failed to do. With his poetic writing ability and love for the subject, Swanson could have taken the study of the Lincoln assassination to a higher level, and could have produced a book that would have helped to counter the accusations made against popular writers of history by the academic crowd. He could have brought a little more respect to those who toil in the archives without benefit of a doctorate.
Instead, what he has done is to produce a highly readable but flawed piece of work that one hope will soon be forgotten. But given William Hanchett’s prescient statement that a kind of Gresham’s law has operated in the books about Lincoln’s murder–those that are sensationalistic and bad stick in the public mind and drive out those that are good–it’s doubtful that will happen. Not a bad read, but on the other hand, not really something to take seriously. All the fanfare about Swanson, and his take on the events of the assassination were helped out by the fact that he is a known Washington, DC insider, and got considerable publicity from that angle. (Jeff, 2006)
Jeff, J. (2006), Manhunt Stalks and Surveys Lincoln’s Assassin, Book Reviews,
Best Books, BookBlog.com. Retrieved on March 13 from