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David A. Schwinghammer

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John Wilkes Booth (book review)
By David A. Schwinghammer
Last edited: Friday, July 03, 2009
Posted: Friday, July 03, 2009

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Much of what we know about the Lincoln assassination is misrepresentation.

AMERICAN BRUTUS starts with the assassination of Lincoln. Kauffman quotes just about everybody who was at Ford's theater when it happened: audience members, stage hands, actors etc. Then he moves to the initial investigations and the several law enforcement officers and detectives who were on the trail of the killers. It's hard to keep everybody straight.

Not until Chapter Five do we get a glimpse of Booth's background. His father was also an actor and seemed to get along well with the "rented" slaves he kept. Junius Booth Sr. had no problem with negroes eating at the same table. Kauffman suggests that military school may have had something to do with Booth's attitude toward blacks.

Kauffman hypothesizes that Booth saw himself as a Brutus character. According to Booth, Lincoln was a tyrant, like Julius Caesar, who had trampled on the Constitution. In the picture section, we see John Wilkes acting with his brothers in Julius Caesar, although he played Mark Antony to Edwin's Brutus. Kauffman says John Wilkes played many such characters throughout his career.

There are several other illuminating hypotheses in AMERICAN BRUTUS. One would be that Booth tried to implicate anyone he talked to about the plot, plus several other innocent bystanders. He shows how Dr. Mudd was "set up" by Booth and Surratt. He also shows how Booth tried to do this with Vice President Johnson by leaving him a note prior to the assassination.

Kauffman also works hard at exploding several misconceptions about the assassination. Secretary of War Edwin Stanton is shown taking charge after Lincoln was shot. Far from hating Lincoln, he was genuinely fond of the president. Also, John Wilkes Booth did not break his leg when he jumped from Lincoln's box. Kauffman shows that this notion came from the journal Booth kept during his flight, which was packed with other deliberate fabrications. Most surprising for me, I guess, was Kauffman's portrayal of Lewis Thornton Powell. The myth has it that Powell was insane, but Kauffman shows that Powell's lawyer used an insanity defense during the trail, which may have given historians a wrong idea; Powell was a member of Mosby's Rangers prior to the assassination and faced death bravely.

The trial segment was kind of dull. Eight people were tried by a military tribunal, including a woman. The prosecution did not have to furnish all of the evidence it found to the various defense attorneys. Some of the testimony was faked. Yet, four of the defendants were sentenced to life imprisonment and were eventually pardoned by President Johnson as he left office.

For me, the Coda was the most interesting part of the book as the reader gets to find out what happened to all of the principals later on in life. Henry Rathbone, for instance, who accompanied Lincoln and his wife to the play, never fully recovered from his stabbing and eventually murdered his wife.

Tons of footnotes with occasional commentary within. I'm still reading them.

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