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How spiritualism linked the Lincolns and the Booths

This engraving published by Currier & Ives in 1865 depicts John Wilkes Booth shooting President Abraham Lincoln at Ford's Theatre as the president and his wife, Mary, were watching a comedy with their friends Major Henry Rathbone and Clara Harris. (Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division)
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If, as Wallace Stegner declared, national parks are America’s best idea, spiritualism is probably our strangest. The spiritualist movement — that hash of table-rapping, seances, ectoplasm-sightings and purported messages from the dear departed — originated one night in 1848 when Maggie and Kate Fox, two bored sisters in Upstate New York, hit upon a way to bamboozle the rest of the family: by snapping their double-jointed toes and attributing the noise to ghosts. Years later, Maggie publicly confessed it was all a hoax, but in the meantime the girls’ tomfoolery had evolved into an international para-religion whose practitioners peddled illusory comfort to millions of adherents, many of whom refused to accept Maggie’s disavowal.

Among the clans that believed or at least dabbled in spiritualism were the Lincolns and the Booths, who became forever linked by what happened at Ford’s Theatre on April 14, 1865. The details of this spectral overlap between the two families are the subject of historian Terry Alford’s entertaining new book, “In the Houses of Their Dead: The Lincolns, the Booths, and the Spirits.”

The Lincolns need little by way of introduction, although we should keep in mind that the bereavements suffered by first lady Mary Todd Lincoln — three sons taken by illness and her husband assassinated in her presence — left her especially keen to hear from the dead. The Booths warrant a closer look.

The patriarch of that family of actors was Junius Brutus Booth, an alcoholic whose departures from sanity included trying to kill a close friend in what Alford calls “a midnight attack with an andiron,” and enlisting his wife in an effort to reanimate a beloved horse by “wrap[ping] herself in a sheet and [lying] on the horse’s remains while he marched around her with a gun, reading from a book.” The nag stayed dead.

Papa Booth’s bizarre behavior took a toll on his children. His handsome son Edwin, for example, fared well on the stage but was ashamed of his poor education and emotionally distant from one and all. The even handsomer son John Wilkes had star power but felt cursed with bad luck. “In Columbus, Georgia,” Alford writes, “he was accidentally shot in the thigh by his manager. In Montgomery, Alabama, he was threatened for opinions considered too Northern. In Albany, New York, he was threatened for opinions considered too Southern. He fell on his stage dagger, slicing the muscle under his right arm. Then he was stabbed in the forehead by an actress whose affections he trifled.” John became obsessed with Abraham Lincoln and aspired to be a Confederate version of John Brown, whose violent actions had led to his becoming a martyr to the anti-slavery cause.

John Wilkes had little truck with spiritualism, but Edwin once patronized none other than Maggie Fox before she turned against her own brainchild. Edwin heard raps galore on the occasion and was sure he’d felt a disembodied tug on one of his trouser legs. In one of a host of coincidences noted by Alford, Edwin once saved the life of the Lincolns’ son Robert without knowing who the kid was. Edwin would surely have come to the rescue in any event, though — he voted for Abraham Lincoln in the 1864 election and was horrified by his brother John’s monstrous crime.

All of which is quite entertaining but a bit perplexing. Alford, a professor emeritus at Northern Virginia Community College who has also written a biography of John Wilkes Booth, offers no thesis to unify the sundry interactions, coincidences and ironies of his material. In his telling, spiritualism gained enough traction to appeal to two quite different American families — but so what? Would John Wilkes Booth have refrained from murdering Lincoln if the young Fox sisters had kept their toes quiet on that seminal night in rural New York? It’s hard to see why.

“In the Houses of Their Dead” is nonetheless worth reading for its wealth of Ripley’s Believe It or Not characters and their foibles. Take, for example, the medium Charles J. Colchester, who gave private performances for the Lincolns, got drunk with John Wilkes Booth, and acted in a play at Ford’s Theatre during the interlude between Abraham Lincoln’s reelection and his assassination in the same venue. In a bravura paragraph, Alford tells how Colchester managed to convince patrons he could read messages written on pieces of paper rolled up into pellets and left unopened.

Whatever its relevance, that passage can stand as a fascinating exposé of a supposedly gifted medium as nothing more than a sleight-of-hand artist.

Dennis Drabelle, a former contributing editor of Book World, is working on a book about the romance of Arctic explorer Elisha Kent Kane and medium Maggie Fox.

In the Houses of Their Dead

The Lincolns, the Booths, and the Spirits

By Terry Alford

Liveright. 298 pp. $27.95

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