It is a tale as familiar as our history primers: A deranged actor, John Wilkes Booth, killed Abraham Lincoln in Ford's Theatre, escaped on foot, and eluded capture for twelve days until he met his fiery end in a Virginia tobacco barn. In the national hysteria that followed, eight others were arrested and tried; four of those were executed, four imprisoned. Therein lie all the classic elements of a great thriller. But the untold tale is even more fascinating.
Now, in American Brutus, Michael W. Kauffman, one of the foremost Lincoln assassination authorities, takes familiar history to a deeper level, offering an unprecedented, authoritative account of the Lincoln murder conspiracy. Working from a staggering array of archival sources and new research, Kauffman sheds new light on the background and motives of John Wilkes Booth, the mechanics of his plot to topple the Union government, and the trials and fates of the conspirators.
Piece by piece, Kauffman explains and corrects common misperceptions and analyzes the political motivation behind Booth's plan to unseat Lincoln, in whom the assassin saw a treacherous autocrat, "an American Caesar." In preparing his study, Kauffman spared no effort getting at the truth: He even lived in Booth's house, and re-created key parts of Booth's escape. Thanks to Kauffman's discoveries, readers will have a new understanding of this defining event in our nation's history, and they will come to see how public sentiment about Booth at the time of the assassination and ever since has made an accurate account of his actions and motives next to impossible-until now.
In nearly 140 years there has been an overwhelming body of literature on the Lincoln assassination, much of it incomplete and oftentimes contradictory. In American Brutus, Kauffman finally makes sense of an incident whose causes and effects reverberate to this day. Provocative, absorbing, utterly cogent, at times controversial, this will become the definitive text on a watershed event in American history.
Kauffman, an independent Lincoln assassination scholar, offers a beautifully written, exhaustive and well-reasoned reassessment of John Wilkes Booth and the murder of America's 16th president. The story Kauffman tells, though highly familiar, is also byzantine enough to still capture our attention. More importantly, Kauffman puts a new spin on well-worn data, adding a riveting reinterpretation that paints Booth as a ruthless player of complex games: a darkly brilliant manipulator of people, not all of whom realized what they were a part of until after Lincoln lay dead. Booth reveled in creating false impressions and planting strategic misinformation. One example involves Dr. Samuel Mudd, who set Booth's fractured leg before learning of the assassination and then, frightened for his life, made the mistake of denying knowing the actor. Years later, Gen. David Hunter--ranking member of the military commission that tried and sentenced Mudd to prison--commented: "The Court never believed that Dr. Mudd knew anything about Booth's designs. Booth made him a tool as he had done others." Kauffman's Booth is, in the end, a crazed but skilled puppetmaster who, as part of his endgame, needed to make sure that most of his puppets joined him in martyrdom for the Confederate cause. "Booth immortalized himself by staging one of history's greatest dramas," Kauffman writes. "In the process, he accomplished what every actor aspires to do: he made us all wonder where the play ended and reality began."
-- PUBLISHERS WEEKLY.
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October 17, 2005
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Excerpt from American Brutus by Michael W. Kauffman
Good friday had never been a well-attended night at the theater, but on that evening, the city of Washington was in a partying mood. On Palm Sunday, General Robert E. Lee had surrendered his Virginia troops to General Ulysses S. Grant at the village of Appomattox Court House. Though some forces remained in the field, Lee had been the greatest obstacle on the path to victory. Now that his troops were out of the way, the bloodiest war in America's history would soon be over, and the celebrations had already begun. Four years to the day after its surrender, Fort Sumter was again under the Stars and Stripes. The flag raising there that day was marked with speeches, music, and prayers of thanks. There were prayers in Washington as well, but a lighter, more carefree atmosphere prevailed. There, buildings were "illuminated" with gas jets configured in the shape of stars, eagles, or words such as "peace" and "victory." The city's population, which had ballooned to more than two hundred thousand during the war, had gone crazy. The streets were crawling with silly, drunken revelers--soldiers back from the war, tourists passing through, and all the usual odds and ends--staggering from one bar to another in search of a party and another toast to the military victors. All things considered, maybe this Good Friday 1865 was not such a bad night for the theater after all.
Ford's Theatre, on Tenth Street, was one of Washington's leading establishments. It had all the amenities of a first-rate playhouse. Its owner, John T. Ford, presented the finest talent the American stage had to offer. The audience that turned out this night made up a pretty fair cross section of Washington society: clerks, businessmen, politicians, tourists. And of course, there were soldiers. An ever-present part of life in the capital, they came to Ford's from every camp, fort, and hospital in the area, their dark blue uniforms scattered among the hoopskirts and crinolines. Some wore the light blue of the Veterans' Reserve Corps, whose members once served in the ranks but were no longer suited for combat or strenuous duty. Here, they mingled comfortably with socialites, power brokers, and people from all walks of life. It was a diverse crowd, but nearly everyone had something in common, which explained, in large measure, the need to be in a house of entertainment on such a holy day: these people had been through hell.
One could hardly name an event in recent history that someone in this audience had not witnessed. Here were the veterans of Bull Run, Shiloh, and Gettysburg; the political warriors who shaped the nation; and the commercial giants of the age. One man had survived the horrors of Andersonville prison, and others had just arrived from Appomattox. This was more than just a "large and fashionable audience"; the people who came to Ford's Theatre that night had already been eyewitnesses to history. No doubt they were eager to get back to an ordinary life.
The play was Our American Cousin, a popular British comedy from the 1850s. Its humor was derived from the homespun "Yankeeisms" of Asa Trenchard, a backwoods Vermonter, and the physical eccentricities of Lord Dundreary, a self-important British nobleman. The star was Laura Keene, a London native, whose character, Florence Trenchard, believes that her cousin Asa (played by actor Harry Hawk) has just inherited the family fortune. Florence and her British relatives try to stay in Asa's good graces, but find it difficult to overlook his crass country-boy manners. It is this culture clash that carries the play.