Chasing Lincoln’s Killer by James L. Swanson

Chasing Lincoln's Killer by James Swanson

Information

Goodreads: Chasing Lincoln’s Killer
Series: None
Source:
Library
Published:
2009

Official Summary

Based on rare archival material, obscure trial manuscripts, and interviews with relatives of the conspirators and the manhunters, CHASING LINCOLN’S KILLER is a fast-paced thriller about the pursuit and capture of John Wilkes Booth: a wild twelve-day chase through the streets of Washington, D.C., across the swamps of Maryland, and into the forests of Virginia.

“This story is true. All the characters are real and were alive during the great manhunt of April 1865. Their words are authentic and come from original sources: letters, manuscripts, trial transcripts, newspapers, government reports, pamphlets, books and other documents. What happened in Washington, D.C., that spring, and in the swamps and rivers, forests and fields of Maryland and Virginia during the next twelve days, is far too incredible to have been made up.”

So begins this fast-paced thriller that tells the story of the pursuit and capture of John Wilkes Booth and gives a day-by-day account of the wild chase to find this killer and his accomplices. Based on James Swanson’s bestselling adult book MANHUNT: THE 12-DAY CHASE FOR LINCOLN’S KILLER, this young people’s version is an accessible look at the assassination of a president, and shows readers Abraham Lincoln the man, the father, the husband, the friend, and how his death impacted those closest to him.

Star Divider

Review

I admit I was expecting more from this book, based on the glowing reviews. I know little about the assassination of Abraham Lincoln, other than that it happened at Ford’s Theatre, and that John Wilkes Booth escaped into Maryland and was subsequently shot and killed in a barn in Virginia. Chasing Lincoln’s Killer, however, did not noticeably improve my understanding of the manhunt. It draws the chase in broad strokes, mainly tracing where Booth went and whom he met, but without providing many of the little details that might make history come alive. Chasing Lincoln’s Killer is a serviceable first read, for those new to the tale, but readers truly interested in the matter will want to check out other books that might bring out the nuances of history more clearly.

Perhaps the lack of details is a result of the story adapted for children or maybe there simply is not as much historical evidence about the chase as one might want. Either way, once the the Booth departs from Washington, D. C. and into Maryland, the story loses much of its impetus. The author seems concerned mainly with tracing Booth’s path from one safe house to another, but the characters he meets do not get extensive background treatment, nor does the historical moment. What were the lives of these Marylanders like before and after they encountered Booth during his escape? What was happening back in Washington? What was the mood of the nation? What was the mood of Booth’s family, including the reaction of his famous brother, the actor (and Unionist) Edwin Booth? Readers receive only a glimpse.

And the nuances of the history seem to be lost in this telling, as well. Intrigued by what I had read in Chasing Lincoln’s Killer, I did a short internet search for Booth. Simply reading a few online articles informed me that the history may not be as straightforward as Swanson presents it. In his version, for instance, Boston Corbett shoots Booth inside the barn, says he did it to defend his men, is court-martialed for disobeying orders, but ultimately let go. He eventually goes mad and disappears from history. Wikipedia adds to this story, noting that eyewitnesses disputed Corbett’s account that Booth had been reaching for his gun; some even expressed doubt that Corbett had been the one to shoot Booth. Additionally, Corbett does exhibit unusual behavior and eventually disappear from history, but it is believed he settled in Minnesota where he perished in the Great Hinkley Fire (though this cannot be confirmed). These are small details and probably not pertinent to the overall account of what happened. It may even be that historians do not doubt that Corbett was the one to kill Booth, and so perhaps some may not feel the need to note that eyewitnesses were not entirely sure who made the shot. And yet, these little details, and the messiness they represent, are what make history interesting.

The writing style, too, leaves something to be desired. Perhaps in an attempt to sound dramatic, the book often repeats itself on the sentence level. So, for instance, the author might inform readers of something to the effect that actress Laura Keene wanted to make history that night by being present at Lincoln’s death. But then the book will say that same thing two more times, in slightly different ways. One would think that, being condensed from a longer work, this book would not need to repeat itself for content. And this does nothing for the story except make for an awkward reading experience.

Part of me suspects that this book has received so much attention mainly because of the subject matter. Lincoln’s death continues to grip, and haunt, the nation. A book about his killer would certainly be of interest to many, especially considering that there have been several conspiracy theories over the years, suggesting Booth did not really die in a barn that April night. However, Chasing Lincoln’s Killer is really a surface-level treatment of the history, presenting the basic facts, but not really situating the events in the historical and political context, or even offering any historical analysis. The book is a good place to start, but curious readers will want to keep learning more.

3 Stars