Saturday, December 16, 2006

Book Review: Manhunt

Where IS John Wilkes Booth? That was the question gripping the nation seconds after the dastardly actor publicly executed Abraham Lincoln. In fact, the .44-caliber ball had barely scrambled the Great Emancipator's brain before Booth staged a hasty and, as always, theatric escape. Dropping from Lincoln's box to the stage, the famed tragedian wheeled on the ankle he'd just broken, declared 'death to all tyrants', and hobbled away to a waiting horse. In his wake, the stunned patrons of Ford's Theater could only reel at this unrehearsed climax - for no American audience had ever before witnessed a Presidential hit. This was more than the deranged act of a famous thespian turned slavery sympathizer, this was assassination as performance art.

Of course, the events of April 14th, 1865 are well known to anyone whose eyes have glazed over in history class. What James L. Swanson does in his book Manhunt: The 12 Day Chase for Lincoln's Killer, is follow the erudite actor on his speedy journey South - an unplanned trek into the wilderness in which the crippled and cosmopolitan actor was horribly miscast. Swanson paints a vivid picture of Booth and his accomplice ensconsed in the Pine thickets of Maryland as Union Troops thunder past. Later, we watch as the vain dramatist reads pilfered newspapers and recoils at his disastrous reviews. Instead of propelling him to Secessionist superstardom, his murderous deed earns him the hatred of a nation and forever cements Lincoln's status as beloved martyr and liberator.

With 'Manhunt', Swanson provides illuminating details to a story many of us think we know well, probing not only Booth's distorted psyche but also the motivations of those Southerners who chose to help him elude authorities. In the end of course, the asssassin's fellow rebels turn on him, tiring of his pompous demands and promptly locking him in an old tobacco barn. When the cavalry arrives soon after, the results are a farcical back-and-forth round of 19th century negotiations, followed by an impromptu arson and a fatal shot to the head. Defiant, delusional and debonair to the end, John Wilkes booth died like common rabble nonetheless, a grisly fate far removed from the Southern glory he so envisioned for himself. Read 'Manhunt' for the thrill ride, but also for the hundred and forty year old reminder that truth has always been stranger than fiction.

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