John Wilkes Booth and the Lincoln Conspiracies
By Michael W. Kauffman. Random House. 508 pp. $29.95
The assassination of Abraham Lincoln, like that of John F. Kennedy, has spawned an astonishing literature, if "literature" is the word for most of it. There are two important differences: While the identity of each assassin is known, Lee Harvey Oswald's alliances and connections (if any) remain considerably murkier than John Wilkes Booth's; and while the Oswald controversy has had a mere four decades in which to fester, the Booth debate has gone on for fully a century longer, producing more books, scholarly papers, articles and just plain screeds than anyone could possibly assimilate.
Anyone, that is, except Michael W. Kauffman. He has been studying Lincoln generally and the assassination specifically for 30 years, and he appears to know the subject better than anyone else now alive. A resident of Southern Maryland (to which Booth fled after the shooting in Ford's Theater), he knows the territory so intimately that he gives bus tours of the twisted path Booth followed in his attempt to elude his pursuers, and he has frequently discussed the assassination on television broadcasts. More important to the book at hand, he devised a "database program" that enabled him "to organize and sort this data by hundreds of different criteria." He writes:
"The event-based system I devised was far different from the statistical models used by most historians, and it may actually be unique in the way it applies technology to the study of historical developments. Most important, it works. It brought to the fore new relationships among the plotters, unnoticed patterns in Booth's behavior, and a fresh significance to events I once considered unimportant. All this has given me a clearer picture of the Booth conspiracy -- including events no writer had previously noticed. . . . I got a sense of how much work and money went into the plot. I noticed how carefully choreographed the scheme really was. But most surprising of all, I learned how Booth managed to organize and run a dangerous plot -- undetected -- in the face of unprecedented government paranoia."
All this to attempt to solve what Kauffman calls "the real mystery of the case," namely: "How could this lover of nature, this gentle poet who touched so many hearts, who frolicked on the floor with his nieces and nephews, and who practiced sign language in order to converse with a deaf poetess -- how could this man be the embodiment of evil, and the perpetrator of such a cold-blooded crime?" He was one of the most famous and successful actors of his day, a member of a prominent theatrical family, handsome and successful with women, well rewarded for his labors if not actually wealthy. As a boy growing up in Maryland, he had been known for a sunny disposition: "Don't let us be sad," he told his sister. "Life is so short -- and the world is so beautiful. Just to breathe is delicious."
Yet this same man not merely murdered the president of the United States but conspired to that end for months, coldly and carefully, with a scheme that Kauffman lays out in detail so meticulous that at times his account is literally minute-by-minute. The most basic details of the story are known to almost all adult Americans, up to and including Booth's undignified end in a burning Virginia barn, so there is no doubting the outcome of Kauffman's story. Yet he manages to make a mystery of it after all, and out of respect for that, certain things will not be disclosed in this review.
In any event, to my mind his most impressive accomplishment is not the computer-generated timeline he is able to construct (impressive though that most assuredly is) but his depiction and analysis of Booth himself. "I once thought of Booth as a tragic figure," he writes in his introduction, "torn between competing ideals and led by hubris and emotion to commit one of history's greatest blunders. He was a traitor and a patriot; a villain to some and a hero to others. But there was more to Booth behind his carefully constructed wall of lies. He was more cunning and complex than I had ever imagined. He wasn't just caught in the middle; he worked his way there, playing one side against the other and taking full advantage of their mutual distrust. He was a manipulator, not a pawn."
In the shaping of John Wilkes Booth and the conspiracy he engineered any number of influences were at play, including his father's tangled amatory affairs and his rivalry with his brother Edwin. Kauffman places particular emphasis on his residence in Maryland, "a place of divided loyalties, where the phrase 'brother against brother' was often literally true" and where martial law, imposed by the federal government in 1861, "made opposition to Abraham Lincoln as strong there as it was in any state below it," an "atmosphere [that] nurtured the Lincoln conspiracy."
Booth considered himself a passionate Southerner, as did many other Marylanders, and he vehemently supported slavery. Kauffman also emphasizes the influence of his theatrical training: "To an actor, deception can become second nature, and for Booth lies were a vital means to an end. He lied to friends, to his conspirators, and to potential witnesses. He came to depend on the confusion and the false impressions his words had wrought."
Originally the plan was "to capture the administration's top officials -- Lincoln included -- and carry them off to Richmond." The group of about half a dozen would intercept Lincoln en route between the White House and the Soldiers' Home, to which he often escaped for relaxation. Then Booth switched to a "ridiculous scenario" involving abducting the president from his box at Ford's Theater, lowering him to the stage, and whisking him away to Ol' Dixie. Whether this was "just a blind for assassination" will never be known for certain, but this may well have been the case. By April 13 the plan was set. Booth would kill Lincoln at the theater, Lewis Powell would kill Secretary of State William H. Seward in his house, and two other conspirators would murder Vice President Andrew Johnson at his hotel.
Only Booth succeeded, the following night at Ford's; Powell wounded Seward and others seriously, but they survived; the attack on Johnson never was made. It was a weird bunch of men who followed Booth down this path to certain capture and execution, and at first glance it's difficult to see why they did. All supported the South and slavery, but none with Booth's fanatical zeal. By and large they don't seem to have been especially bright, and almost all of them, Booth included, did a lot of very hard drinking. Basically they were a bunch of losers, malcontents and ne'er-do-wells, people who couldn't manage to organize anything, much less a conspiracy against the president of the United States and his highest associates.
Part of the explanation is simple and obvious: Booth was charismatic and famous. To be allowed to march in his retinue was an honor, as these guys saw it, and they were prepared to do pretty much whatever it took to stay there. But what Kauffman argues most convincingly is that Booth, diabolically clever if ever the cliché had any meaning, maneuvered them into a trap. He devised "a strategy for neutralizing potential witnesses before they had a chance to hurt them," so he labored "to create and preserve the evidence that would intertwine their fates with his own." He played a "shell game," the purpose of which was "to confuse potential witnesses." He created total confusion in everyone's mind, for example, about the various horses to be used the night of the attacks. The conspirators "all used the public livery, and all shared their horses with Booth. Each transaction was witnessed by a stableman, and each helped establish the intimacy that existed among these men. Thus, public stables gave Booth something to hold over his conspirators. Knowing this, none could expose the plot without implicating himself."
In mid-March, Booth led his band in an attempt to kidnap Lincoln that did not come off, an incident that "has gone down in history as a failed attempt" but that was, Kauffman argues, a triumph for Booth because it bound those who accompanied him to the plot: "By lying in wait for the president, they had each committed a crime, and arguably an act of treason. . . . their 'kidnap attempt' had been witnessed by many people. . . . Now each was responsible for anything that resulted from that plot, even if he quit."
In every sense except one, the plot was a complete failure. Apart from killing Lincoln, Booth achieved none of his objectives. The Confederacy did not rise from defeat to fight on. "Posterity," which he felt certain "will justify me," execrated him. The Union held firm. Above all, the man whom he so despised was immortalized and beatified by his own act. Though we now well understand that it is Lincoln's life for which his country stands in eternal gratitude, it was his death that made him near-universally beloved among Americans, many of whom had been his enemies only hours earlier. The irony of that would have been lost on John Wilkes Booth.
Jonathan Yardley's e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.