December 13, 2004


The Lincoln Supremacy: John Wilkes Booth assassinated the president. Democracy proved harder to kill. (Allen C. Guelzo, Books & Culture)

Michael W. Kauffman, in his new book on Booth, American Brutus: John Wilkes Booth and the Lincoln Conspiracies, offers Booth as Booth wanted to see himself: a tyrannicide, a noble Roman raising his dagger to strike down a monster, crying (as Booth did) sic semper tyrannis. Kauffman will not allow us to shoo away Booth's shadow with comfortable assurances that J.W.B. was one of life's failures who saw no other path to marquee stardom except by an act of sensational political killing. Kauffman firmly reminds us that Booth was the up-and-coming star of the Booth family, bursting with potential at age 27 to become the greatest Shakespearean of his day and the next matinee idol of the American stage. (Picture Matt Damon as a presidential assassin, and you have a fairly good notion of what it meant for Booth to be Lincoln's assassin.) Even more, Booth was a slow, steady, and careful plotter. While virtually all the rest of the Booth family either sympathized with the North, or else kept their sympathies to themselves, John Wilkes was heart-and-soul a racial bigot and an ideological partisan of the Southern Confederacy—a political system based, as Alexander Stephens so unapologetically put it, on the cornerstone of human slavery.

The conspiracy he wove around Lincoln took Booth the better part of two years, and the conspirators Booth recruited betrayed his cunning eye for specific talent: Lewis Powell, the Confederate soldier, who could break a poker with his bare hands and was cold-blooded enough for any murderous scheme; David Herold, the pharmacist's apprentice, who knew the woods and swamps of the Potomac estuary like the back of his hand; George Atzerodt, a waterman who ferried contraband across the Potomac to the Confederacy; Mary Surratt, who ran the boarding-house on H Street that served as a safe house for Confederate spies; and her son, John Surratt, the Confederate courier who slipped back and forth between Richmond and Montreal on cloak-and-dagger business.

Early in the plot, Booth planned to kidnap Lincoln, and had even waited in ambush two times, only to have some unforeseen circumstance unravel it all. Finally, after the fall of Richmond and the surrender of Robert E. Lee's army, Booth concluded that the blow he must strike was not capture but death. And to the horrified astonishment of the nation, Booth succeeded in walking right into Lincoln's box at Ford's Theater without a person scarcely noticing, shooting the president in front of his wife and two guests, vaulting over the rail of the box to the stage, running out the back stage door, hopping onto his horse, and riding away to rendezvous with Herold. Powell, who had repeatedly cased the Seward house on Lafayette Square, nearly made it two that night, bursting into Seward's bedroom and slashing him within an inch of his life. Like Booth, Powell easily escaped. In fact, every member of Booth's conspiracy rode out of Washington with what amounts to insolent ease.

Once out of Washington, Booth and Herold struck southwards across the Potomac, following the customary rebel courier routes. Booth may have been looking to link up with other conspirators or Confederate secret service agents—to this day, we are not sure how large the Booth conspiracy was—and make his escape toward Mexico. But Booth had not planned on breaking his leg during the escape. Slowed down for days by his injury, he was finally surrounded in a tobacco barn near Port Royal, Virginia, and shot when he refused to give himself up. Herold, Powell, Atzerodt, and Mary Surratt were finally arrested and hanged in July, after a trial by military commission which makes Guantanamo and Abu Ghraib look like a weekend at the shore.

Kauffman is reasonably well-known among the tight circles of Lincoln assassination buffs. He has long been associated with the Surratt Society, and even published a volume of essays culled from the society's journal, the Surratt Courier. This is, however, Kauffman's maiden voyage as a writer of a major book on Booth and the Lincoln assassination. It is certainly an impressive one. American Brutus is heart-poundingly well-written, and the footnotes alone are worth the price of the book, for the sheer entertainment of following Kauffman's path through the enormous mountains of Lincoln-assassination literature.

The problem is, Kauffman is not content with another once-more-over the crepe-hung terrain of Booth and his conspiracy. "While new versions of the story are regularly published, they are never based on the best sources," he asserts in the introduction, settling happily into the accusative case he will employ all too frequently for the next four hundred pages. "None have critiqued the conspiracy trial with 1860s criminal law in mind. None have examined Booth's mental state based exclusively on facts, as opposed to folklore." All of them, in fact, have "failed to take even the most basic steps to sort out the movements of this criminal conspiracy." Those movements are so complex, so artfully orchestrated, that Kauffman is half-way to admiring Booth's cleverness, if not quite his actions. And all this, Kauffman will magisterially set out as though no one has ever done the story justice before.

Alas, though Kauffman blows his trumpets mightily, no walls fall down. His narrative gift, substantial as it is, will not take him further than Lloyd Lewis' Myths After Lincoln (1929); his command of the sources will not over-embarrass George S. Bryan's classic The Great American Myth: The True Story of Lincoln's Murder (1940); and his truculent championing of the unhappy Dr. Samuel Mudd gains no real ground on the case made against Mudd in Edward Steers' painstakingly thorough Blood on the Moon: The Assassination of Abraham Lincoln (2001). Is it really a novelty to discover that Booth was no parts of a madman? Steers made the point quite well that "Booth was fully rational," that he did not need to be the "puppet" of the Confederate secret service to take certain cues from it, and that he and his conspirators were "White Supremacists whose greatest fear was the emancipation of the black man." Have we really proved that because Booth had no overt connections to the Confederate secret service, he was a totally independent agent? Not so long as one of his company was John Surratt.

Besides, Kauffman has howlers of his own to explain.

Even if assassination can somewhat alter the course of the Republic, it's hard to argue that we're better served by insulating our presidents from spontaneous interaction with the public as completely as we now have.

Posted by Orrin Judd at December 13, 2004 4:19 PM

Let us think about the Confederate Werewolves the way we thing about the Ragheads. They were lashing out in a paroxism of hate, rage, and weakness.

We are not looking at a monolithic conspiracy here. Enemies of humanity are not necessarily in communion with one another, they are merely in the service of the one Enemy.

Every servant of Communism was not a disciplined operative of Moscow, and every Islamic hater of the West is not in league with every other: Bin Laden is not the same as Saddam Hussein. Just because they are not part of the same mob family does not mean that we should not smash them wherever they may be found.

Posted by: Lou Gots at December 14, 2004 2:14 PM