Before bin Laden, there was Booth

Published:

By Carleton L. West

The vast manhunt on today for Osama bin Laden is proving more than troublesome. The years are mounting since 9/11 and hes still at large despite a reward approaching $30 million and a virtual army of hunters armed to the teeth with the latest in technology and fire burning in their bellies. I dont know the Las Vegas line on this, but if theres any hope of success, its in the historic record of big-time manhunts. It favors capture.

Thats going back to ruthless gangsters of the 1930s through Adolph Eichmann after World War II to modern-day fugitives like Eric Rudolph, the 1996 Olympics bomber, and the more current Saddam Hussein. On the other hand, those hunts didnt involve a vast stronghold of forbidding mountainous caves and fierce tribal loyalties that are protecting bin Laden. Its industrial strength frustrating to U.S. officials.

Meanwhile, theres another manhunt in the news of a far different nature and of a time long ago. It was for the man who assassinated Abraham Lincoln. A little more than two weeks April 14 will mark the 141st anniversary of the murder of the nations 16th president.

The news is Manhunt: The 12-Day Chase for Lincolns Killer, a book just out by James Swanson. Before you roll your eyes with oh no, not another Lincoln book! consider this: Its making literary rounds as a solidly researched work that provides in a gripping story line things about the assassination and the search for the killer weve long forgotten or more importantly, never knew. Thats why the best-seller lists make it the most popular book on history today.

Most can remember from high school history that John Wilkes Booth shot Lincoln at the Ford Theater in Washington and broke his leg leaping over the balcony to make his escape. Its no test of memory that he was shot to death later in a barn. No slight or insult intended here, but thats probably the extent of what most remember.

Butfading or gone from memory is that there was a much more darker plot than killing Lincoln. There was a conspiracy to assassinate Secretary of State Henry Seward and Vice President Andrew Johnson. Indeed, even before that was hatched, there was a plan organized by Booth to kidnap Lincoln as a ploy to re-energize the Souths sagging war effort.

Serious students of Lincolns assassination probably recall the play he attended that night at Fords. But who can remember the moment Booth fired the fatal shot from a .44 Derringer into his brain? It was the line you sockdologizing old mantrap in My American Cousin that Booth a celebrity actor and student of theater knew would provoke laughter to muffle the gunshot. And while were dealing with the serious, heres a pop quiz: What did Booth shout to the audience on stage as he was fleeing? (Hint: Its a state motto.)

For really interesting, theres the stuff about Booths ego as an actor one of the best of his times and self-proclaimed patriot of the South and that, even on a hell-bent flight for his life, he wanted to read the reviews of the murder, thinking, as Swanson writes, the critics would rate his performance as fine, or well done.

Booth got none of that. Newspapers condemned him. But the fact that Booth, a federal cavalry breathing down his neck with a rope, wanted to read about himself in the newspapers says a lot about the man and his twisted mind.

Swansons Manhunt deals with just what the title says, the 12 days following the assassination. It takes readers through Washington, D.C.s streets, to Marylands swamps and Virginias woodlands as Booth and a conspirator make their frantic bid for freedom in what was becoming the old Confederacy. Swansons eye for detail and the compelling narrative make it hard to lay aside.

Especially the final scene at the Virginia tobacco barn. It would be unfair here to reveal Booths last moments and spoil this most enticing of reading adventures. That scene alone is worth the price. No one close to finishing its 400-pages will stop at this point, no matter the hour of night or early morning. Fiction cant touch it. Thus, its no surprise the movie rights have been purchased. Harrison Fords been picked to lead the Booth dragnet. The movie has a tough act to follow.

As for Swanson, a Washington lawyer and Lincoln scholar, heres hoping he takes an interest in bin Ladens fate.

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