I think your misgivings about O’Reilly’s books are valid, not shallow or ignorant. He has a reputation that he has built up over the years and it makes sense to be wary, especially if you are interested in reading about the Lincoln or Kennedy assassinations from a purely historic perspective.
Unfortunately, I can’t answer the question for you because I’ve never actually read O’Reilly’s Killing Lincoln or Killing Kennedy. While I also would have been bothered by the books if they were politically-focused, that’s actually not why I never ended up reading them. Quite frankly, I’ve read a lot of books about the Lincoln and Kennedy assassinations — at least a dozen books each simply about the respective assassinations — so there isn’t a whole lot of new information that I come across. Sure, I appreciate reading how different writers tell the stories, but at this point, I want to spend that time on books that might cover some new ground. Maybe I was being a bit shallow myself, but I basically felt that I wouldn’t be finding anything new or groundbreaking in books that most people bought at Walmart.
Now, to be fair, I have talked to some people who have read O’Reilly’s Killing Lincoln and Killing Kennedy — people whose opinion I value and respect — and they say that they are perfectly good books. The history is supposedly solid, O’Reilly’s politics aren’t an issue, and the storytelling is crisp. O’Reilly is not a dumb guy — he was a history major, used to teach history, and was a “real” journalist before he became a talking head. Not only that, but the books are co-written by Martin Dugard, who is a very, very good historian. Dugard has written numerous books that I have read and really liked, but I would especially recommend The Last Voyage of Columbus: Being the Epic Tale of the Great Captain’s Fourth Adventure, Including Accounts of Mutiny, Shipwreck, and Discovery, Into Africa: The Epic Adventures of Stanley and Livingstone, and The Training Ground: Grant, Lee, Sherman, and Davis in the Mexican War, 1846-1848. O’Reilly can be a jackass on television, but he picked one hell of a historian as a writing partner. That would also lead me to believe that Killing Lincoln and Killing Kennedy are probably worth the read and that O’Reilly likely leaves his politics out of the books in favor of the history and good storytelling.
For the second time in 2013, I have underestimated National Geographic and been pleasantly proven wrong.
Earlier this year, I mentioned that I had no real interest in catching National Geographic’s docudrama, Killing Lincoln, based on Bill O’Reilly and Martin Dugard’s account of Abraham Lincoln’s assassination. Short trailers and my own imagination had led me to believe that the film would be much like the corny productions often found on the History Channel — half-documentary/half-reenactment. Such programs — Mankind: The Story of All of Us immediately comes to mind — end up turning good history into bad drama, and the History Channel’s disappointing efforts over the past few years have nearly ruined the idea that history can still be told well on television.
Still riding the high of Daniel Day-Lewis’s incredible performance as the 16th President in Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln, I hesitated to see National Geographic’s Killing Lincoln. When I finally sat down to watch the film, I expected the worst. I expected America’s Most Wanted-level reenactments and sloppy history. Instead, I found an extremely well-structured effort that felt like a big-time movie. I enjoyed the use of Tom Hanks as the contemporary narrator of a timeless, tragic story — almost a “host” of sorts who provided gravitas while also remaining a subtle presence and allowing the story to tell itself.
Best of all, I enjoyed and was immensely entertained by the delightfully over-the-top performance of Jesse Johnson as John Wilkes Booth. Johnson perfectly portrayed Booth, as the over-the-top, charismatic, moody, brooding character that many described him as in real-life. Considering the fact that Daniel Day-Lewis’s portrayal of Lincoln in Spielberg’s film was one of the greatest acting performances in movie history, I probably come across as crazy for saying this, but I found Jesse Johnson’s Booth every bit as mesmerizing when he was on screen. I had such strong doubts about Killing Lincoln that it took me nearly six months to finally get around to watching it, but I absolutely loved the film once I did.
Despite being proven wrong by National Geographic’s Killing Lincoln, I was once again cynical when I heard that NatGeo had made Killing Kennedy, also based on a book by Bill O’Reilly and Martin Dugard. I think part of the pessimism was due to JFK fatigue. With the 50th anniversary of John F. Kennedy’s assassination approaching this November, we have been inundated with books, articles, television shows, and movies reminiscing about the assassination, remembering JFK, and reopening the endless arguments and debates about who really killed the 35th President in Dallas on November 22, 1963. The interest surrounding the anniversary has been a boon to biographers, but it’s also been a jackpot to the conspiracy theorists who have made careers out of allegations and uncertainty since the day President Kennedy was buried.
Although I was more open to seeing Killing Kennedy than I had originally been about seeing Killing Lincoln, it wasn’t exactly at the top of my list. Over the past three months, I’ve probably received at least 15-20 books from publishers about John F. Kennedy’s political career, Presidency, personal life, legacy, and, of course, his assassination. While JFK has been and always will be a fascinating figure in American history, I’ve felt somewhat overloaded on JFK material lately, and I know that the bulk of JFK coverage is still to come as we get closer to the 50th anniversary of his death on November 22nd.
I also noticed that Rob Lowe was playing President Kennedy in Killing Kennedy, and I thought that was an odd choice. As a longtime fan of The West Wing I enjoyed Rob Lowe as Sam Seaborn, and I’ve been a fan of his other work such as on Parks and Recreation. For some reason, I just couldn’t picture Lowe as JFK, however. I thought back to some other actors who played JFK best — Bruce Greenwood in Thirteen Days, Martin Sheen in the Kennedy miniseries, and Greg Kinnear in The Kennedys (who I thought was fantastic) — and Lowe just didn’t seem like a great fit. Ginnifer Goodwin looked like a solid Jackie, but I once again went into a National Geographic production with low expectations.
Killing Kennedy, following on the heels of Killing Lincoln, taught me to give NatGeo the credit that it deserves. Neither film was a hokey reenactment fest like we might find on the History Channel. Both films spared no expense and seemed to get the history right without sacrificing the entertainment aspect of both productions (well, as “entertaining” as the assassinations of two beloved American Presidents can be). I liked the structure and pacing of Killing Lincoln better — the presence of Hanks as narrator/host and the manner in which he set up the story added more drama — but neither film felt forced. In dramatic depictions of well-known historic events, the filmmakers often feel obligated to squeeze as many little pieces of the story or famous lines of dialogue into the movie. This is most apparent in Oliver Stone’s W. which features a montage of random quotes and vignettes from George W. Bush’s Presidency that fit nowhere else in the body of the film and were seemingly jammed into the movie with a crowbar just to get them in. Killing Kennedy had a few instances alluding to JFK’s womanizing that really had no start or finish and didn’t relate much to the overall story, but most of the film stayed true to the narrative by focusing on Lee Harvey Oswald’s trajectory.
In Killing Lincoln, I was extremely impressed by the electric performance of Jesse Johnson as John Wilkes Booth. In Killing Kennedy, it was the actor that I had doubts about who I was dazzled by. Rob Lowe was magnificent as John F. Kennedy. I imagine that it is incredibly difficult for an actor to play one of the most well-known figures in history, and that it is even tougher when that actor is already well-known himself. As much as I’ve appreciated Lowe’s work in the past, I’ve always thought that he was basically playing himself — his characters never seemed that much different from each other. But Lowe became JFK. If you’re a talented enough mimic, I guess impersonating JFK’s voice isn’t that difficult. But along with the famous Boston accent, Lowe also had Kennedy’s inflection while speaking. He hit the words and carried the vowels in the same manner that Kennedy did. He captured the stilted oratory, along with the change in pitch, that came across in JFK’s televised speeches. And, much like Daniel Day-Lewis did in Lincoln, Lowe moved like John F. Kennedy. Without overdoing it, Lowe replicated the delicate movements that JFK would gingerly make to lessen his back pain. In fact, Lowe didn’t impersonate someone in severe back pain — he impersonated a guy with severe back pain who was pretending that he wasn’t in pain! That’s exactly what Kennedy did! It was perfect! I’ve been asked before about the best portrayals of Presidents in movies — well, I don’t know if an actor has pulled off a better Jack Kennedy than Rob Lowe in Killing Kennedy.
National Geographic is now 2-for-2 with their historic dramas and they also now have a free pass from me. I won’t make the same mistake again and put NatGeo’s original films on the same level as the History Channel’s goofy reenactments. National Geographic did a tremendous job with Killing Lincoln, and have followed it up with a hell of a film in Killing Kennedy. I’ve been proven wrong — twice — and I’m hoping we see some more films of this type from National Geographic. Is it too much to ask for a Killing Garfield or Killing McKinley?
No, there were allegations that the conspiracy involved a lot more Confederates or Southern sympathizers (including Confederate President Jefferson Davis), but there weren’t any suspicions about members of Lincoln’s Administration. Eventually it became clear that the conspiracy was designed and driven by Booth and President Davis wasn’t involved. In fact, Davis realized that Lincoln’s death was devastating to the South and to the upcoming Reconstruction. Among other things, following the assassination Davis said “I certainly have no regard for Mr. Lincoln but there are a great many men of whose end I would much rather have heard than his. I fear it will be disastrous to our people, and I regret it deeply”, “His successor is a worse man”, and, most famously, “Next to the destruction of the Confederacy, the death of Abraham Lincoln was the darkest day the South has ever known.”
As for Booth’s conspiracy, it did work in the result that Lincoln was killed, but it really wasn’t a plan that Booth thought out very well. Although Booth’s plan was to decapitate the federal government by killing Lincoln, Vice President Andrew Johnson, and Secretary of State William H. Seward, I think that the fact that Lincoln died and Johnson survived was far more destructive than if they had both died. Booth was hoping that the assassinations would throw the nation into confusion and threaten the continuity of government, but if Lincoln and Johnson had died, Seward wouldn’t have become President. The order of succession at the time designated the President pro tempore of the United States Senate next in line to the Presidency following the Vice President and would have triggered a special election later that year. If Lincoln and Johnson both died, Senator Lafayette Foster of Connecticut would have become President and a special election would have been held in December 1865. Next in line following Foster would have been the Speaker of the House, Schuyler Colfax. Continuity of government was never threatened and wouldn’t have been even if George Atzerodt had followed through on his mission to kill Vice President Johnson or if Lewis Paine’s brutal attack of Secretary of State Seward was successful (which it nearly was). Had Booth’s targets included Senator Foster and Speaker Colfax, perhaps the conspiracy would have resulted as Booth dreamed it would. But Atzerodt chickened out on the assassination of Andrew Johnson, Seward somehow survived Paine’s stabbing, and Foster and Colfax weren’t on Booth’s radar.
I wasn’t all that interested in seeing Killing Lincoln, but it had nothing to do with the fact that it’s based on a book by Bill O’Reilly. I haven’t read either of O’Reilly’s books on the Lincoln or Kennedy assassinations, but that’s only because his publisher never sent me copies and I have too many other books to read before I go out and buy more. I’ve heard that both books were interesting reads.
The reason I wasn’t all that interested in the film is because any clips that I saw of it reminded me of those goofy History Channel films that are half-documentary/half-reenactment — like Stealing Lincoln’s Body. Plus, it seemed like anything following Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln would be totally overshadowed by that film and the tremendous performance by Daniel Day-Lewis. I almost felt sorry for anybody trying to play Lincoln after what Daniel Day-Lewis did and wasn’t sure if I wanted to see anybody else even attempt it.
But, I finally decided to pick up the DVD of Killing Lincoln to check it out and I was pleasantly surprised! I thought it was really well-done. The pacing of the film is great, I really like the idea of using Tom Hanks as a narrator guiding the story along, it was historically accurate, and the guy who played John Wilkes Booth stole the show. The actor playing Lincoln (Billy Campbell) did his best, but you can’t help but compare him to Day-Lewis and its no contest, of course. Jesse Johnson (John Wilkes Booth) was electric as Lincoln’s assassin — perfectly over-the-top, as Booth should be portrayed — and I truly think he made the film. Plus, it’s not like those History Channel “films” that come across like events from history done Rescue 911-style. The producers obviously put some money into Killing Lincoln and it shows. I didn’t expect much out of it at all, but I really enjoyed the film and definitely recommend it.
Apparently, the April 19, 1865 edition of the New Hampshire Patriot, but I haven’t been able to track it down.
The most complete account of Pierce’s speech that I’ve been able to piece together over the years, mostly thanks to Dr. Wallner’s Franklin Pierce: Martyr for the Union and Roy Franklin Nichols’ Young Hickory of the Granite Hills is that several hundred residents of Concord, New Hampshire showed up on Pierce’s doorstep at about 9:00 PM the night following Lincoln’s death. When Pierce asked “What is your desire?”, the crowd told him, “We wish to hear some words from you on this sad occasion.”
Pierce: “I wish I could address to you words of solace. But that can hardly be done. The magnitude of the calamity, in all its aspects, is overwhelming. If your hearts are oppressed by events more calculated to awaken profound sorrow and regret than any which have hitherto occurred in our history, mine mingles its deepest regrets and sorrows with yours.”
Someone in the crowd accusingly asked “Where is your flag?” because Pierce’s home apparently had no American flag on display, and Pierce was visibly irritated by the demand.
Pierce: “It is not necessary for me to show my devotion for the Stars and Stripes by any special exhibition, or upon the demand of any man or body of men. My ancestors followed it through the Revolution…My brothers followed it in the War of 1812; and I left my family, in the Spring of 1847, among you, to follow its fortunes and maintain it upon a foreign soil [in the Mexican War]. But this you all know. If the period during which I have served our State and country in various situations, commencing more than thirty-five years ago, have left the question of my devotion to the flag, the Constitution, and the Union in doubt, it is too late now to remove it, by any such exhibition as the inquiry suggests. Besides to remove such doubts from minds where they may have been cultivated by a spirit of domination and partisan rancor, if such a thing were possible, would be of no consequence to you, and is certainly of none to me. The malicious questionings would return to reassert their supremacy and pursue the work of injustice…I have never found or felt that violence or passion was ultimately productive of beneficent results.”
With that, the crowd supposedly gave the former President three cheers and Pierce went back to bed. When I finally find the full transcript of Pierce’s speech from that night, I will be sure to share it.
"There is no sure foundation set on blood,
No certain life achieved by another’s death” — William Shakespeare, King John
Shakespeare killed Kings and Princes and lovers and warriors with beauty and artistry. With eternally evocative words as his lethal weapon, the bard snatched literary lives out of pages and off of stages in nearly every play that he penned. Sometimes he killed out of love, sometimes he killed out of hate, sometimes he killed for power or because of weakness or in spite of strength. When Shakespeare killed, however, he did it with purpose and poetry. In Shakespeare’s work, murder wasn’t simply committed — it was composed and performed; and, in the centuries since that work was created, it has been left up to actors to breathe life into scenes of death. A good actor can convince the audience to believe; a great actor can convince himself.
Contrary to what many people believe, John Wilkes Booth was neither the most famous nor the best actor in the United States when he assassinated Abraham Lincoln. Booth’s father, Junius Brutus Booth, was probably the greatest actor in the world when he was at his best and when he stayed sober. Of the three sons (all of illegitimate birth) who followed Booth, who died in 1852, into the theater it was his second-oldest, Edwin, who was the most amazing to watch on stage. Edwin traveled the world and not only played all of the parts made famous by his father, but arguably did it better. An Edwin Booth performance was a mesmerizing experience for an theater-goer, and it made him a very wealthy, well-connected man. Junius Jr. was a talented actor, but never quite had his heart completely in the theater, despite his natural abilities. The youngest of the Booth sons, John Wilkes, was determined to be as great as his father and two brothers, but he lacked the talent that seemed instinctive with his father and inherited by his older brothers.
John Wilkes Booth’s determination and ambition, however, drove him to do things on stage that other actors wouldn’t risk. While he wasn’t the most famous or most talented actor in America, John Wilkes was widely considered the most handsome, and women swooned over his appearance, buying stereograph pictures and anything that captured the young actor’s brooding appearance. If John Wilkes couldn’t measure up to his father or his brother’s when reciting his lines, his physicality captivated crowds. Uniquely athletic, Booth would take tremendous risks, performing stunts that stunned audiences and helped hide any defects in his acting ability.
If John Wilkes didn’t play the roles as well as Edwin did, he tackled them with unparalleled energy and was certainly one of the most well-known names in entertainment by the 1860’s. Booth played a multitude of roles, but the role that he felt suited him best — the role that inspired him in so many ways — was that of Brutus in Julius Caesar. Booth saw Brutus in the same light as Marc Antony did in the closing lines of Shakespeare’s masterpiece — a patriot who risked everything to bring down a tyrant, and, as Antony said, “was the noblest Roman of them all”.
The Booths were from Maryland originally, a border state during the Civil War, but the two most visible members of the family — Edwin and John Wilkes — seemed to come from different worlds. Edwin was a Unionist who lived in New York and was a friend to Presidents, Northern politicians, Union soldiers, and captains of industry. John Wilkes was an avowed secessionist and Southern sympathizer. When John Brown was hanged in Virginia in 1858, Booth dressed as a member of a Richmond militia group in order to get a front row seat at the abolitionist’s execution. When the war started in 1861, John Wilkes was open about his support for the states which seceded and formed the Confederate State of America, and his vociferous opinions landed him in trouble in some of the Northern cities that he performed in.
The relationship between Edwin and John Wilkes was never strong, and the younger brother nursed a deep jealousy for the more acclaimed (and more wealthy) Edwin. Their opposing beliefs about the Civil War further endangered their relationship and, at one point, Edwin kicked John Wilkes out of his home in New York when John Wilkes insulted President Abraham Lincoln and praised the Confederacy. At some point, John Wilkes went from a sympathizer to an activist. Booth smuggled medicine to the Southern states and may have been involved in deeper operations as a member of the Confederate Secret Service. Booth’s fame and active career in the theater was helpful, as he was able to travel throughout the country with relative ease.
One thing that is clear about John Wilkes Booth is that he absolutely hated Abraham Lincoln.
The Booths were no strangers to Lincoln. More than anything else, Lincoln loved the theater, particularly Shakespeare, which he often read out loud to guests at the White House. Lincoln had seen Edwin Booth on numerous occasions, and on November 9, 1863 — 10 days before he traveled to Pennsylvania to deliver the Gettysburg Address — the President watched John Wilkes Booth as Raphael in The Marble Heart at Ford’s Theatre, several blocks from the White House. Lincoln was impressed by Booth’s performance, but one of Lincoln’s companions that night, Mary Clay, daughter of Lincoln’s Minister to Russia, remembered a portentous moment. On several occasions, Booth — playing a villain — uttered his lines with anger while seemingly shaking his finger at President Lincoln. Mary Clay recalls saying to the President, “Mr. Lincoln, he looks as if he meant that for you.” Lincoln responded, “Well, he does look pretty sharp at me, doesn’t he?” Booth reportedly refused an invitation to meet the President after the performance, but after Lincoln’s young son, Tad, watched in awe as Booth energetically performed in another play, the future assassin gave the President’s son a rose.
A performance that Lincoln certainly would have enjoyed seeing took place on November 25, 1864 in Edwin Booth’s Winter Garden Theatre in New York City. In a special benefit, the three sons of Junius Brutus Booth performed together for the first and only time. Edwin, Junius Jr., and John Wilkes teamed up to perform Julius Caesar, with the goal of raising money for a statue of William Shakespeare — a statue that can be found in Central Park today. While Edwin took the plum role of Brutus and Junius Jr. played Cassius, John Wilkes played the role that would become most unlikely in hindsight: Marc Antony. During the performance by the Booth brothers, Confederate agents set fire to buildings around New York City, including one next to Edwin’s theatre. After a momentary panic in the building, the audience was calmed down and the show went on. John Wilkes Booth had few acting roles left in his career, but by this point, he had decided that his final role would be Brutus.
By the time of the Winter Garden Theatre benefit featuring the Booth brothers, John Wilkes had already been conspiring to kidnap Abraham Lincoln in order to trade the President for a significant amount of Confederate soldiers in Union POW camps. Often meeting with his fellow conspirators such as Lewis Powell, John Surratt, David Herold, George Azterodt, Samuel Arnold, and Michael O’Laughlen at Mary Surratt’s boarding house in Washington, D.C. When Lincoln was sworn in for his second term on March 4, 1865, Booth and some of his conspirators were in the crowd and can be seen in a photo of the Inaugural stand at the Capitol as Lincoln gave his Inaugural Address. Over the next two weeks, the conspirators looked for an opportunity to kidnap the President and hopefully turn the tide for the Confederacy.
On March 17, 1865, Booth and his gang planned to launch their operation when President Lincoln traveled to the Campbell Hospital on the outskirts of the nation’s capital. Unfortunately for Booth, Lincoln’s plans changed and the abduction plot fell through. The next night, Booth gave his final acting performance, as Duke Pescara in The Apostate, at Ford’s Theatre.
"I have no words;
My voice is in my sword” — William Shakespeare, Macbeth
Everything changed for John Wilkes Booth on April 9, 1865, as news reached Washington that Confederate General Robert E. Lee had surrendered his Army of Northern Virginia to Union General Ulysses S. Grant at Appomattox Court House, Virginia. Two nights later, Booth was in a crowd celebrating at the White House and became enraged when he heard President Lincoln suggest in an extemporaneous speech that blacks would be given the right to vote. That fury multiplied when Lincoln said, “I have always thought ‘Dixie’ one of the best tunes I have ever heard. Our adversaries over the way attempted to appropriate it, but I insisted yesterday that we fairly captured it…I know request the band to favor me with its performance…[for] it is good to show the rebels that with us they will be free to hear it again.” Booth took Lincoln’s words as an almost personal affront. The abduction plan was off the table, but Booth instantly realized that he would kill Lincoln. In his mind, he would be Brutus slaying the tyrant Caesar.
We know what happened next. Shakespeare killed with beauty and poetry — deadly, 400-year-old lines that elicit timeless emotions. There was no beauty in what happened at Ford’s Theatre on April 14, 1865. President Lincoln sat in his box watching Our American Cousin. Booth slipped into the theatre — his famous face a passport for entry. The actor crept into the room behind the President. The crowd laughed at a line delivered on stage and a shot rang out. A .44 caliber lead ball slammed into the back of Lincoln’s head. Skull fragments carried by the the bullet sliced through the President’s brain. Lincoln slumped forward, almost certainly brain dead already. Booth brandished a dagger and slashed Lincoln’s guest in the Presidential box, Major Henry Rathbone, and performed one last leap on to the stage — one last acrobatic move to stun an audience. However, in an unusual move for Booth, he stumbled, caught a leg in the flags draped in front of Lincoln’s box, and landed awkwardly. Booth’s tibula cracked and he limped off the stage, dragging his broken leg behind him. With fire in his eyes, the youngest member of the Booth acting family turned to the crowd, and with one last act of stagecraft yelled “Sic Semper Tyrannis!”. The line wasn’t part of a play; it was Virginia’s state motto and it meant “Thus Always To Tyrants”. Some witnesses remember hearing Booth add, “The South is avenged!”.
Lincoln was carried across the street and his 6’4” frame was laid diagonally on a bed in William A. Petersen’s boarding house. The powerfully-built President survived longer than most humans would survive a point-blank gunshot wound to the back of the head — even with today’s medical advancements. At 7:22 AM on April 15, 1865, Lincoln stopped breathing, and Secretary of War Edwin Stanton uttered the famous words, “Now, he belongs to the ages.”
Over the next 10 days, John Wilkes Booth rode through the war-torn countryside of Maryland and Virginia. Shooting pain from his broken leg made every step and every breath excruciating, even after the injury was set by Dr. Samuel Mudd. With his fellow conspirator David Herold, Booth hid from the biggest manhunt in American History, as bloodthirsty Union troops, many just back from the battlefields of the Civil War, chased the man who killed the President that guided them through that crisis.
For 26-year-old John Wilkes Booth, there was a deeper pain. It wasn’t just the broken leg or the hunger or the exhaustion of evading an entire army. It wasn’t the lifelong envy of his more successful older brother, or the fact that his fellow conspirators failed in their assignments as Booth accomplished his. For Booth, who idolized Brutus and saw himself as the Southern, if not American version of Caesar’s assassin, the pain was due to the fact that he wasn’t being celebrated for removing a “tyrant”. John Wilkes Booth was used to seeing his name on posters that advertised his appearance, but now, his name was on wanted posters offering a $100,000 reward for his capture. Even the South mourned the loss of Lincoln, who looked forward to a gentle reconciliation and reconstruction with the former Confederate States. Booth’s assassination wasn’t seen as a heroic act against a raging tyrant. Jefferson Davis, the President of the Confederate States of America that Booth so deeply supported would later say that “Next to the destruction of the Confederacy, the death of Abraham Lincoln was the darkest day the South has ever known.”
Instead of Brutus, Booth was seen as one of the murderers of the the Scottish king Duncan, who told Macbeth:
"I am one, my liege,
Whom the vile blows and buffets of the world
Hath so incens’d that I am reckless what
I do to spite the world”
"Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage” — William Shakespeare, Macbeth
In his final days, as he was being hunted down in the woods of Virginia, and before he was cornered in a burning barn and shot to death, Booth came to the bitter realization that the assassination didn’t lead him to the glory he had always sought. As always, though, John Wilkes Booth felt that it wasn’t his fault — that it was the world that let him down. On the run, before he was killed, Booth scrawled a few lines in a diary that was found on him when the Union troops finally caught up to him on April 26, 1865:
"Until today nothing was ever thought of sacrificing to our country’s wrongs. For six months we had worked to capture, but our cause being almost lost, something decisive and great must be done. But its failure was owing to others, who did not strike for their country with a heart. I struck boldly, and not as the papers say. I walked with a firm step through a thousand of his friends, was stopped, but pushed on. A colonel was at his side. I shouted Sic semper before I fired. In jumping broke my leg. I passed all his pickets, rode sixty miles that night with the bone of my leg tearing the flesh at every jump. I can never repent it, though we hated to kill. Our country owed all her troubles to him, and God simply made me the instrument of his punishment. The country is not what it was. This forced Union is not what I have loved. I care not what becomes of me. I have no desire to outlive my country. The night before the deed I wrote a long article and left it for one of the editors of the National Intelligencer, in which I fully set forth our reasons for our proceedings…
After being hunted like a dog through swamps, woods, and last night being chased by gunboats till I was forced to return wet, cold, and starving, with every man’s hand against me, I am here in despair. And why? For doing what Brutus was honored for? What made Tell a hero? And yet I, for striking down a greater tyrant than they ever knew, am looked upon as a common cutthroat. My action was purer than either of theirs. One hoped to be great himself. The other had not only his country’s but his own, wrongs to avenge. I hoped for no gain. I knew no private wrong. I struck for my country and that alone. A country that groaned beneath this tyranny, and prayed for this end, and yet now behold the cold hands they extend to me. God cannot pardon me if I have done wrong. Yet I cannot see my wrong except in serving a degenerate people. The little, the very little, I left behind to clear my name, the Government will not allow to be printed. So ends all. For my country I have given up all that makes life sweet and holy, brought misery upon my family, and am sure there is no pardon in the Heaven for me, since man condemns me so…
Tonight I will once more try the river with the intent to cross. Thought I have a greater desire and almost a mind to return to Washington, and in a measure clear my name — which I feel I can do. I do not repent the blow I struck. I may before my God, but not to man. I think I have done well. Though I am abandoned, with the curse of Cain upon me, when, if the world knew my heart, that one blow would have made me great, though I did desire no greatness. Tonight I try to escape these bloodhounds once more. Who, who can read his fate? God’s will be done. I have too great a soul to die like a criminal…”
"O villain, villain, smiling, damned villain!" — William Shakespeare, Hamlet
Cornered in a barn on Pat Garrett’s tobacco farm in Port Royal, Virginia, John Wilkes Booth refused to surrender to the Union troops who had been hunting him for twelve days, even after the soldiers set fire to the barn and Booth’s co-conspirator, David Herold, gave himself up. Limping around in the burning barn, a bullet fired by a Union soldier sliced through Booth’s neck, paralyzing the assassin. Soldiers dragged him from the barn, but the wound was mortal. In the moments before he died, Booth asked to see his own hands because the bullet through his spinal cord had robbed him of the ability to move on his own. When a soldier lifted Booth’s hands to his face, the 26-year-old actor who killed Abraham Lincoln mumbled his final words: “Useless! Useless!”
I can’t wait for this. The trial of Mary Surratt is a very interesting story. There have been a lot of questions about her involvement in the Lincoln Assassination conspiracy, but it’s pretty clear that she knew enough about what was going on and who was deeply involved that she was definitely guilty and her execution was certainly warranted.
I definitely believe that there would have been some difficulty if Lincoln had not been assassinated, but Andrew Johnson was the worst President possible for newly freed blacks after the Civil War because he was a vicious racist who hated African-Americans just a little less than he hated the Southerners who formed the Confederacy.
Lincoln would have done a better job of uniting the country and ensuring some sort of solid policy for the blacks of the South who had just been unshackled from slavery. Domestic terrorism like the KKK certainly would have formed anyway, and there would have been widespread unrest and violence. Lincoln might have needed to get tough with Southern resistance, but he would have done so with some leniency and worked to help the blacks in the meantime. Andrew Johnson was harsh to the Southerners with no magnanimity, and was equally fierce with the African-Americans.
It’s difficult to say whether Lincoln would have ran for a third term. His popularity might not have been as sky-high in 1868 as it was in the days following his assassination. Lincoln also would have been 60 years old at the time of a third inauguration, was already exhausted by the Civil War, and talked frequently about retiring and traveling the world, perhaps even moving to California after his term. Lincoln was also enough of a traditionalist that I would sincerely doubt he would want to be the one to break George Washington’s two-term precedent. The only reason I don’t give a definitive answer is because Lincoln had a burning, ceaseless ambition, and it’s impossible to say whether he could have found the strength to give up the power he had won.
Booth had died onstage dozens of times in Richard III, Hamlet, and Shakespeare’s other great tragedies, but tonight he was not playacting. He wanted to go down fighting, not hang like a petty thief. “I have too great a soul to die like a criminal,” he wrote in his diary a few nights before. “Oh may he, may he spare me that and let me die bravely.” For Booth, this was his final and greatest performance, not just for the small audience of soldiers at the improvised theatre of Garrett’s farm, but also for history.
He had already perpetrated the most flamboyant public murder in American history. Indeed, Booth had not only committed murder, he had performed it, fully staged before a packed house. At Ford’s Theatre, Booth broke the fourth wall between artist and audience by creating a new, dark art — performance assassination.
— A great passage about John Wilkes Booth from James L. Swanson’s book, “Manhunt: The 12-Day Chase for Lincoln’s Killer”.