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Sunday, December 21, 2008

MANHUNT-You Know the Ending, but You're Caught Up in the Suspense

Manhunt, the 12-Day Chase for Lincoln’s Killer, a New York Times Bestseller by James L. Swanson is a moment-by-moment account of the spectacular hunt for John Wilkes Booth following his audacious assassination—the first presidential assassination—of Abraham Lincoln. This non-fiction, thoroughly researched account reads as exciting as fiction, and amazingly the reader, who already knows how it all ends, sits in suspenseful anticipation! This history is an exciting and entertaining read.

I particularly wanted to read this book since I learned from our Charleston, SC visit in October that Lincoln had been invited to attend a re-dedication ceremony at Ft. Sumter on April 14, 1865 but declined. He went to the theater instead. Had he accepted, the history of our country would have been altered.

Swanson secures our interest by reminding us of Lincoln’s second inauguration on March 4, 1865 at which time John Wilkes Booth, consumed with hatred, was in the crowd. Fast forward to April 3, 1965 when Richmond fell, and Booth saw his time to act against Lincoln quickly disappearing. A previous kidnapping plot evolves into assassination.

From this point, Swanson keeps his reader in blow-by-blow touch with the movements and emotions of this historical drama, and he is able to build the suspense as Booth collects his co-conspirators, prepares his plans, executes them, and daringly escapes. He eludes search parties for 12 days, and the account is fascinating.

As Booth had hoped to kill the entire cabinet and the Vice President as well as the President, we follow those plans through Booth's co-conspirators' actions. Sometimes the details are graphic and in the book’s epilogue are accompanied by photographs of the aftermath—for instance the disfiguring knife wounds on Secretary of State William Seward. We follow Secretary of War Edwin Stanton’s uncompromising search for everyone connected with Lincoln’s assassination as well as with the botched assassination attempts. We follow his suspension of laws, his belief in quick and final justice, and his attempts to prevent John Wilkes Booth any inkling of fame.

Equally and sometimes even more intriguing are the never-changing human reactions: the actress who wants history to remember her and cradles Lincoln's head in her lap so he will bleed all over her soon-to-be famous gown, the surreptitious cutting of a lock of his hair as a relic, the attempts to move Lincoln so that he will not be remembered as dying on the floor of a theater, Booth's overwhelming desire to see newspapers so he can read the “reviews” of his deed, etc.

This human element gives Manhunt its power and brings history and the people involved alive. In fact, Booth’s “celebrity” is so contemporary and his audacity so self-righteous that one can easily see some of today’s stars--Sean Penn, Jane Fonda or Michael Moore, who use their celebrity to embrace enemies like Fidel Castro and Hugo Chavez, transported back to the 1800s. It is the unchanging human nature that sends chills as one reads the account of this manhunt. The greed for the reward money when the manhunt is over astounds. Even Andrew Johnson’s presidential commutation of sentences seems incredible though very contemporary.

Revisionist history is not new. Swanson, in his epilogue, traces the care with which Booth’s image has systematically been altered over the years, and in restoring Washington DC’s Ford’s Theater (after many less prestigious reincarnations), the tours detail Booth’s path to the President’s box—a box in which no President who attends the theater sits.

This IS a vacation book. It amazes, clarifies, and unless you’re a Civil War scholar, I’m sure it will answer questions you never thought you had. The biggest problem might be trying to put it down.

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