four-stars
Bookmarks Issue: 
22-May-June-2006
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The 12-Day Chase for Lincoln’s Killer

A-ManhuntPity poor John Wilkes Booth, who believed that his assassination of Abraham Lincoln would bring him widespread acclaim. Yet as he leapt from the balcony to escape Ford’s Theatre, breaking his leg on the stage, he became the vilified target of the battle-weary nation’s attention. Coming just days after Lee’s surrender at Appomattox, Booth’s plot to kill the President, Vice President Andrew Johnson, and Secretary of State William Seward was fueled by his loyalty to the Confederacy and ardent support of slavery. Union troops pursued Booth on his southward trek, finally surrounding him in a Virginia tobacco barn. His death ensured his own infamy and preserved the martyred Lincoln as America’s Great Emancipator.
Morrow. 448 pages. $26.95. ISBN: 0060518499

Cleveland Plain Dealer 4 of 5 Stars
"Following Booth’s trail through these 448 pages is akin to galloping on horseback through the dark Maryland countryside. … Stop the presses for a while and savor both a ripping story and a cautionary tale." Karen R. Long

Entertainment Weekly 4 of 5 Stars
"Swanson’s book does one other thing no textbook ever could: He makes the characters in this great American tragedy actually seem human. Even Booth comes across as viscerally real, especially to anyone familiar with those who still practice his curious profession." Benjamin Svetkey

Wall Street Journal 4 of 5 Stars
"With his tale, Mr. Swanson reminds us that history is ultimately governed not by impersonal economic and social forces but by all the emotions that make up individual human beings— the bigotry and narcissism of a John Wilkes Booth, the affection of an Edwin Stanton for his murdered president." David A. Price

Pittsburgh Post-Gazette 3.5 of 5 Stars
"Swanson, a lawyer, is a long-time student of Booth’s days on the run, immersing himself in the vast material of diaries, newspapers and first-person accounts of the widely reported incident. … Without too much speculation, Swanson has drawn a vivid and compelling portrait of the assassin whose bravado and self-importance were eroded by his increasingly desperate condition." Bob Hoover

USA Today 3.5 of 5 Stars
"Swanson lets Booth’s flawed, flamboyant character push the tale along. The result is a diabolically fascinating Booth, neither a cat’s-paw in a Confederate government plot, as Lincoln’s contemporaries believed, nor the ego-driven loner he often seems when viewed in the light cast by 20th-century assassins such as Lee Harvey Oswald." Richard Willing

Critical Summary

James L. Swanson’s Web site includes a glowing review quotation from Patricia Cornwell. The correlation is apt since critics find this nonfiction account of Booth’s getaway as compelling as the best thrillers. Swanson, a legal scholar with the Cato Institute and a Lincoln historian, knows the assassination inside and out; he’s been studying Lincoln since he was a child, and his previous book (with Daniel R. Weinberg), Lincoln’s Assassins, was a photographic and archival study of Booth and his co-conspirators. With a surfeit of detail at his disposal, Swanson weaves an absorbing tale in unadorned prose that critics greeted with unanimous approval.