Books: Manhunt: The 12-Day Chase for Lincoln's Killer
Tuesday, February 14, 2006; 2:00 PM
James L. Swanson , author was online Tuesday, Feb. 14, at 2 p.m. ET to discuss the historical thriller which recreates an hour-by-hour account of the search for presidential assassin John Wilkes Booth.
Actor Harrison Ford has signed on to portray the novel's lead character, Colonel Conger, a celebrated Civil War hero, dedicated to solve the mystery behind the assassination and uncover a plot that threatens to plunge the nation back into war.
Manhunt follows the New York Calvary and the movie (which will star Harrison Ford in the lead role of Col. Conger, a Civil War hero who leads the New York Cavalry in search for the assassin).
A transcript follows.
James L. Swanson: Glad to be here and I'm happy to take all of your questions.
Harrisburg, Pa.: I haven't read your book but am looking forward to getting it and reading it. What documents survive that provide for an hour-by-hour account of the manhunt for Lincoln's assassin? How trustworthy are these documents, and to what degree did you have to deduce from unclear information what happened?
James L. Swanson: The major sources are trial transcripts, letters from the participants, period newspapers, legal affidavits, pamphlets, magazine articles and books, many of them written by participants in the drama of the assassination and the manhunt. In addition, I consulted over 20 rolls of microfilm, thousands of pages, from the National Archives.
Some of the sources are clear and unchallenged. Others such as the various accounts by the soldiers at Booth's capture and death were inconsistent with each other and I had to use my best judgment and other evidence to identify the most reliable accounts.
Philadelphia, Pa.: Does the book look into how the Booth family was divided on the subject of Lincoln? Booth's brother was also a famous actor who not only attended Lincoln's inaugural but, with great ultimate irony, saved Lincoln's son when he ran in front of a train. Historians relished finding the thank-you letter from Lincoln. Has anyone found documents on how John Wilkes Booth wrote about Lincoln?
James L. Swanson: Yes, Booth wrote about Lincoln in a secret political manifesto that was discovered in his sister's vault in her home in Philadelphia. Also, Booth spoke of hate for Lincoln in many private conversations with family members, friends and fellow actors.
To answer your first question, yes, I do mention that Edwin Booth was a Union Loyalist and not a supporter of the Confederacy. He hated what his brother had done but couldn't not bear to hate his brother.
New York City: Who was the swamp fox? And what happened to him after Booth was captured? Was he arrested? Did he ever write a book?
James L. Swanson: If you are talking about Thomas Jones, the Confederate agent and River Ghost who helped Booth cross the Potomac, he kept his secret for almost 20 years. Then he gave an interview, and later he wrote his own book about how he helped Booth escape.
New York City: Who was most experienced manhunter? How was the money divided up
James L. Swanson: The most experienced manhunters included several detectives summoned from the New York City Police Department. Also, Provost Marshall James McPhail of Baltimore, was a key and experienced Union operative.
The $100,000 reward was paid in full to a few dozen of the manhunters. In the book I break down man-by-man who was paid what sum.
Arlington, Va.: Usually when I read a book on a topic, I like to read one or two other books afterwards to get a different perspective. Can you recommend some other recent Lincoln assassination books that helped you in preparing and researching your book or that you think give additional perspective?
James L. Swanson: I suggest "Blood on the Moon" by Edward Steers Jr., the leading contemporary historian of the assassination. I also recommend Jay Winik's "April 1865."
Boston, Mass.: I read your book over the weekend, it is a narrative wonder ... how did you keep all those characters in play? How long did it take to sketch out how the narrative would rule out
James L. Swanson: Outlining the book was the hardest part in writing it. There were so many facts and there was so much information that the challenge was not having enough material for the book but deciding how to prioritize the material and how to choose in what order to tell the story. In the end, I try to tell the story as much as possible in real time as the events actually unfolded. And so the chronology of the assassination and manhunt helped me decide at which point in the book each of the characters would emerge.
Arlington, Va.: I am sorry I have not had the chance to read your book. A high school friend of mine was a descendant of the infamous Dr. Mudd. I wonder if your research turned up any new insight on his guilt/innocence.
James L. Swanson: I devote a lot of the book to exploring the myths and the truth about Dr. Samuel Mudd. He was not the innocent country physician he claimed to be. Mudd claimed that he had never met Booth before and that he did not recognize him on the night of the assassination when Booth came to his door for medical treatment.
In fact, they had met on several prior occasions. Booth had spent a night in Dr. Mudd's home, and Confederate agents had given Mudd's name to Booth. Mudd was lucky that he was not hanged for his role in helping the assassin.
I am convinced that Mudd was part of Booth's earlier plot to kidnap Abraham Lincoln.
Arlington, Va.: Was Booth's goal solely revenge, or did he hope to restore Civil War sentiments and start the conflict again? It seems like peace was somewhat tenuous when this happened.
James L. Swanson: I think Booth had three motives. A desire for vengeance against Lincoln, a lust for personal fame and glory, in the hope that he might inspire the South to fight on. Even though Lee had surrendered, the war wasn't over yet.
Munich, Germany: Are there any examples in your book about manhunters who lost the trail and created havoc in unsuspecting and innocent lives?
James L. Swanson: Yes. Many men were arrested because they looked like Booth. Some were imprisoned for days. Many innocent people, including the Ford brothers who owned the theater, were imprisoned for weeks. All told, more than 100 innocent people were arrested during the manhunt, and one of them was actually convicted of being one of Booth's conspirators.
Alexandria, Va.: How did you find out that they wanted to make a movie out of this? How much input do you have in assuring historical accuracy during the filming? Also, based on what you know of the Colonel, what do you think of the casting of Harrison Ford?
James L. Swanson: The movie hasn't been made yet. The film company found out about my book when I received the contract to write it.
I'm thrilled that Harrison Ford is set to star in it and I'm eager to see who will play John Wilkes Booth. The film is being produced by Walden, the company that produced the "Chronicles of Narnia" film and I am convinced that they have a passion for the historical truth of this story. I'm hoping that the film will be made later this year.
Annapolis, Md.: Is it true that Booth broke his leg in jumping to the stage before exiting into an alley to a waiting horse? Did this injury in any way aid their ability to find him or slow down his escape?
James L. Swanson: Yes, Booth did fracture a bone in his lower leg when he landed on the stage. It was not a crippling injury however and he was able to escape through the theater's back door and mount his horse waiting in the alley. This injury did slow Booth down and forced him to waste hours at Dr. Mudd's farm.
In the days ahead, as the injury grew more painful, it continued to slow the progress of his escape.
Arlington, Va.: What is your background and how did you latch on to this fascinating topic? Are you an academic? a Civil War buff? writer?
I look forward to the movie project.
James L. Swanson: I am a lifelong Lincoln buff, not a professor. I got interested in the story by collecting books and articles and memorabilia about Lincoln from an early age. I co-authored another book about Lincoln called "Lincoln's Assassins: Their Trial and Execution." That book explains what happened after the manhunt was over.
Washington, D.C.: Any information on how Booth was treated when captured? Was there any mistreatment based on his being on the Confederate side of the war? Obviously those hunting him were recent war veterans.
James L. Swanson: Once Booth was shot and he was dragged out of the burning barn, he was treated well. The officers spoke to him kindly, gave him water, and tried to make him comfortable on the front porch of the Garrett farmhouse. They also tried to shield his eyes from the bright, rising sun. They would have preferred to have taken Booth alive, so he could answer questions about the assassination and the conspiracy.
The major indignity that Booth suffered was having his pockets searched while he was helpless but still alive. This search, and what the soldiers found on Booth's body, is a major scene in the book.
Alexandria, Va.: You mentioned that you are a lifelong history buff. Can you comment on Lincoln's reported nervous breakdowns before his presidency? With deaths in his family (notably his son) he experienced a great deal of tragedy. Despite the way he is remembered as a successful president, he had a hard road politically before that as well.
James L. Swanson: I agree that at times Lincoln was a melancholy man. But I do think that reports about his "depression" and alleged "breakdowns" have been exaggerated, especially in the last few years.
Fairfax, Va.: Are you going to have much input for the film? I was just wondering if we will see JWB portrayed as a blackguard villain or tragic, would-be hero.
James L. Swanson: The film company has been great about consulting me about the assassination and the manhunt. They have also studied my book carefully and have called me in for a number of meetings to discuss the film. I am confident that they will do a fantastic job.
Washington, D.C.: Was Booth immediately identified as himself after the shooting, or did they have to verify his identity before beginning the search? What became of those that helped him? Thank you for answering questions.
James L. Swanson: Booth identified himself immediately after the assassination by leaping to the stage and facing an audience of more than 1,500 people. Many in the audience recognized him at once, and so did the actors in the play. Booth wanted to be known as Lincoln's assassin.
Eight of his conspirators were put on trial soon after the assassination and four were hanged and the rest were sentenced to prison. Many of those who helped Booth were never punished at all.
Ocala, Fla.: Did anyone get a reward for capturing JWB?
James L. Swanson: Yes. All 26 men of the 16th New York Cavalry received a share of the $100,000 reward and the three detectives and officers who led them were also paid. In addition, a number of other people also received reward money. In the book, I list the name of every person who received reward money and exactly how much they were paid. [Mentioned earlier]
James L. Swanson: Thanks for joining the chat today. You can learn more about the book by going to www.jameslswanson.com.
I've just listened to the audiobook narrated by John Boy Walton, Richard Thomas, and I just want to say he's done a mesmerizing job of narrating the book.
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