By Michael F. Bishop,
who is former executive director of the Abraham Lincoln Bicentennial Commission
Thursday, February 12, 2009
"THEY HAVE KILLED PAPA DEAD!"
The Road to Ford's Theatre, Abraham Lincoln's Murder, and the Rage for Vengeance
By Anthony S. Pitch
Steerforth. 493 pp. $29.95
At the height of his powers and the peak of his fame, President Abraham Lincoln was shot by an assassin while watching a play at Ford's Theatre. That same April night, Secretary of State William Seward was viciously attacked in his home on Lafayette Square, and Vice President Andrew Johnson was targeted at his hotel. Seward and Johnson survived this plot to decapitate the government; the president died the next morning in the back room of a boardinghouse. His assailant, actor John Wilkes Booth, led pursuers for a dozen days through Maryland and Virginia before being killed.
This tragic event, the melancholy coda of every Lincoln biography, was for years a subject for the conspiracy-minded. Was it a papal plot? Was Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton secretly behind it? But in recent years, Lincoln's murder has received serious, scholarly attention. Edward Steers Jr. in "Blood on the Moon" and Michael W. Kauffman in "American Brutus" have produced exhaustive studies of the assassination and its aftermath. In "Manhunt," James L. Swanson fashioned the tale into a best-selling nonfiction thriller. The death of Lincoln, in short, has been nearly as popular a subject as his life.
The most recent chronicle is "They Have Killed Papa Dead!," by Anthony S. Pitch, a writer, Washington tour guide and industrious researcher. It may be a stretch to claim, as Pitch does, that his book "bulges with new finds," but his archival labors have unearthed some interesting tidbits. They include Mary Lincoln's inexplicable purchase of about $1,000 of mourning goods a month before the assassination. One of her confidants subsequently wrote to a family member: "What do you suppose possessed her to do it! Please keep that fact in your own house." But having whetted our conspiratorial appetites, Pitch lets the matter drop; it could be that Mary's purchases were just another example of her compulsive shopping.
The most compelling new details are in Pitch's chilling account of Booth's proximity to the president during Lincoln's second inauguration ceremony. As Lincoln and his entourage crossed the Capitol rotunda and stepped out on the East Portico, the actor rushed toward him, only to be restrained by Benjamin Brown French, a prominent official who described the incident in a letter written soon after the assassination. We do not know if Booth was armed or whether he seriously contemplated an attack on the president before the vast throng of onlookers. It no doubt would have appealed to his dramatic instincts, but there would have been no escape, and martyrdom was not his goal. Perhaps he was overcome with emotion at the sight of a man he so despised. In any event, Booth was quickly released, and the inauguration proceeded without incident; Lincoln was killed six weeks later.
Pitch flourishes his discoveries with evident pride, and though they do not alter the outline of a now-familiar story, "They Have Killed Papa Dead!" is a worthy contribution to the vast literature on Lincoln. All who write about the life and death of the 16th president face the challenge of originality, and Pitch by necessity covers old ground, but like any good tour guide he excitedly points out sights along the way. His prose is almost tactile in its evocation of place: We are told that at the Willard Hotel, patrons were served "left-overs from other people's plates," that the area around the Smithsonian was "a favored stalking ground for predatory ruffians" and that Lincoln delivered his second inaugural address "beside a table wrought of surplus iron from the new dome above the Capitol." (The table is on display at the Capitol Visitor Center.) Antiquarians will delight in the illustrations, including a mid-19th-century aerial view of downtown Washington and a sketch of cattle grazing around the stump of the unfinished Washington Monument.
Pitch's title is from young Tad Lincoln's reported lament upon returning to the White House that terrible night, and it reminds us that the president's murder was a personal tragedy as well as a public catastrophe. His family, still grieving the death of 11-year-old Willie Lincoln three years before, lost a husband and father. By the time Mary Lincoln vacated the White House weeks later, her sad spiral into madness was well advanced.
Sadder still, the country was deprived of Lincoln's political sensitivity and rhetorical gifts. The task of reconstruction, which Lincoln considered "the greatest question ever presented to practical statesmanship," fell into the hands of the crude and boorish Andrew Johnson.
Today is the 200th anniversary of the birth of Abraham Lincoln. Throughout the Union he saved, from the California he dreamed of seeing to the capital, where he gave his greatest speech, his life and triumphs will be remembered. But on 10th Street in Washington, the scene of Walt Whitman's "moody, tearful night," Ford's Theatre stands as a silent witness to our terrible loss.
More reviews of books on Lincoln will appear in Sunday's Book World.