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Bookmarks Issue: 
15-Mar-Apr-2005
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John Wilkes Booth and the Lincoln Conspiracies

A-AmericanBrutusOn April 14, 1865, actor John Wilkes Booth burst into Abraham Lincoln’s box at Ford’s Theatre in Washington, DC, and shot and fatally wounded the President. Historians have re-examined the event—and the conspiracy surrounding it—ever since. Kauffman, a political historian who has studied the assassination for more than 30 years, did plenty of hands-on research; he re-enacted Booth’s leap, slept in Booth’s home, and burned down a Civil War-era tobacco shed like the one where Booth met his fiery end. Beyond that, Kauffman developed a database program that revealed "new relationships among the plotters, unnoticed patterns in Booth’s behavior, and a fresh significance to events I once considered unimportant." American Brutus sheds new light on a familiar story while dispelling myths that have lingered for 140 years.
Random House. 528 pages. $29.95. ISBN: 037550785X

Bloomberg News Service 4 of 5 Stars
"In this crisp work of narrative, Kauffman corrects the record. … Like many assassins, Booth led perhaps too rich an interior life. In American Brutus, Kauffman captures it perfectly." Joe Mysak

Boston Globe 4 of 5 Stars
"Kauffman tells his story with vigor and skill. … [His ] conclusions are controversial and likely to be the subjects of endless debates among Civil War historians, but there can be no doubt that he has done a superb work of research and analysis." David Herbert Donald

San Francisco Chronicle 4 of 5 Stars
"Kauffman’s often minute-by-minute account of the night of [Lincoln’s assassination] and its confused aftermath is a wonder of modern scholarship, and his tracing of the histories and motivations of the oddball group of men who followed Booth down the this path to destruction is first-rate. … [Booth] managed to weave a web of confusion that almost 150 years later has been fully unraveled only by Kauffman’s patient scholarship." Paul Leary

St. Louis Post-Dispatch 4 of 5 Stars
"[The book] is a well-told story of America’s most famous tragedy, related in a manner that gives fresh meaning to each part of it. Along the way, Kauffman challenges a number of conspiracy theories, but his main purpose is to provide an accurate, compelling account of the assassination and its aftermath." Myron A. Marty

Los Angeles Times 3.5 of 5 Stars
"[The author] makes a good case for considering his book the last word on the nearly 140-year-old crime. … Kauffman does little to expand our understanding of Booth’s character and motivation, but he provides some glimpses …" Anthony Day

New York Times 3.5 of 5 Stars
"Booth’s scheme, as this book intricately reconstructs it, involved a much more careful long-range calculation than has previously been acknowledged. … Mr. Kauffman seriously challenges conventional wisdom." Janet Maslin

Oregonian 2.5 of 5 Stars
"[Kauffman] seems determined to tell readers everything he has learned about the Lincoln conspiracies in 30 years of study. … The jumble of individuals and information that American Brutus ultimately becomes will probably leave many readers confused and exasperated." David Reinhard

Critical Summary

Calling Kauffman’s research "comprehensive" or "exhaustive" would be an understatement; the author appears to know more about the conspiracy surrounding Lincoln’s assassination than anyone else alive today. That knowledge, combined with his computer-generated timeline, allowed him to write what The New York Times describes as "a forensically precise" account. But this is no dry, scholarly volume. Kauffman’s storytelling skill engages readers even though most already know the basics of the case; his ability to build suspense and weave in surprising new revelations keeps them turning the pages. That’s undoubtedly why American Brutus wound up on many reviewers’ best-books lists for 2004, and why historians will likely debate its conclusions for many years to come.