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Manhunt: The 12-Day Chase for Lincoln's Killer

Our American Stories / Lee Habeeb
The Truth Network Radio
April 18, 2024 3:02 am

Manhunt: The 12-Day Chase for Lincoln's Killer

Our American Stories / Lee Habeeb

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April 18, 2024 3:02 am

On this episode of Our American Stories, our storyteller is James Swanson, the NYT Bestseller of Manhunt: The 12-Day Chase for Lincoln’s Killer

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AT&T. This podcast is a podcast that gives you the seven most important and interesting stories, and we always try to save room for something fun. You get it all in about seven minutes or less. I'm Hannah Jewell.

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Now just $89 during spring Black Friday at the Home Depot. How doers get more done. This is Our American Stories, and we've told the story of Abraham Lincoln's assassination. We're now going to look at the aftermath of Lincoln's assassination. Our storyteller is James Swanson, the author of Manhunt, the 12-day chase for Lincoln's killer. Swanson begins by showing with us how he came to write his New York Times bestseller.

I really came to this story by chance. I was born in Chicago on Lincoln's birthday, February 12th. And when I was a small boy, my parents began giving me Lincoln comic books, those old classics illustrated, and crayon books about Lincoln and the Civil War, and trinkets from the Lincoln sites. And when I got a little older, books that I could actually read.

My real interest, and I guess I'd say my obsession with this story, began when I was 10 years old. And that's when my grandmother, Elizabeth, who was a veteran of the old Chicago tabloid newspaper scene, sadly now long gone, gave me a framed engraving, which you might think is an unusual gift for a child. It was an engraving of John Wilkes Booth's Derringer pistol, the one he had used to kill Abraham Lincoln. And framed with that engraving was part of a clipping from the Chicago Tribune from the morning of April 15th, 1865, the morning that Lincoln died.

He was shot Good Friday the night before and lingered on until the morning. And I remember reading that vividly. And in those days, the headlines were not the broad horizontal headline across the page, but rather the left column was devoted to headlines. And then there was a series of descending headlines in that left column. So it began with the breaking news. The president shot.

And as each edition came out later in the day, more headlines would be added. The president shot, is dying, not expected to live. Secretary of Seward stabbed to death in his bed.

Of course, that was wrong. It was an early false report that Seward had died, that his sons had been murdered along with him. And I got to a midpoint in the story, and someone had taken a scissors and clipped it just when I was reading the line and ran out the back door and, and I must have read that clipping 100 times when I was a boy. And I remember saying to myself, I want to read the rest of this story.

And that's how it began. I really wrote the book that I always wanted to read, but no one else had written. Which might sound odd because there were over 15,000 books about Abraham Lincoln. Probably even more.

No one has ever done the complete bibliography. And of those 15,000 or so books, at least 1,000 are related somehow to his end of days. One would think with all the Lincoln studies out there, there'd be 100 books like this, or 10, but there wasn't one, so that really gave me incentive to do it.

So, I'd ask this question. Who was Abraham Lincoln on the morning of April 14th, 1865? And who was John Wilkes Booth? It was probably the happiest day of Lincoln's life.

It was certainly the happiest week. He had won the war. Lee had surrendered. Richmond fell on April 3rd.

Lee surrendered on April 9th. Lincoln gave his last speech from the White House grounds the evening of April 11th. And on April 13th, Washington celebrated with the grand illumination of the city. Probably the most beautiful night in the history of Washington.

Fireworks, flares, lamps, illuminations of all kind, bonfires. One of the papers said that the Capitol dome was so beautiful that it looked like a second moon had descended upon the earth as a sign of God's favor for the union and for the victory. Lincoln met with his son that morning back from the war.

He had been on Lee's staff. Then he met with his cabinet, and General Grant was a rare visitor for that meeting. And Lincoln told his assembled cabinet, I had that strange dream again last night.

And Gideon Wells, the Secretary of the Navy, said, well, what was that? And Lincoln said that he was at the head of a mysterious vessel moving towards a distant shore, and he was alone. And Lincoln said, whenever I've had that dream, and I've had it many times during this war, something of the utmost importance has happened.

I'm convinced that something of major significance is about to happen. The meeting broke up, and Lincoln took his wife Mary on a carriage ride through the streets of Washington. He wanted to be alone with her and talk. During that ride, he had told her they had been very unhappy ever since the death of their son Willie in the White House in 1862. 600,000 dead, Union and Confederate, was a crushing burden on Lincoln.

And the Lincolns had grown apart during the war for many reasons. And he told Mary, we must be happy again. He told her that they might go back to Illinois and he could practice law when his second term ended in 1869. He wanted to go to the Pacific Ocean, he told her. He wanted to go to California, but he reminded her again, we must be happy again. She wrote shortly after this ride that I've never seen him so happy. In fact, I told him, you alarm me because you've not been this happy since just before the death of our son Willie.

That night they decided to go to the play Our American Cousin to seek release from the exhilaration of victory. So that's who Lincoln was on that day. It was his week and his day of triumph. He had a rough start in office, but he learned how to command generals, how to build armies, how to articulate his goals to the American people.

And he had done what he promised he would do. He won that war and he destroyed slavery. So who was Booth that morning? 26 years old, one of the most popular actors in America, exceedingly handsome, athletic.

Women and men would stop in the street to watch him as he passed. Generous, vain, funny, egomaniacal, politically motivated to be a lover of the south, of secession, a supporter of slavery. He once said slavery is the best thing that ever happened to the black man. He was standing below the White House window on April 11th when Lincoln gave his last speech. And when Lincoln talked about giving blacks the right to vote, Booth turned to a Confederate and said, that's the last speech he'll ever give.

Now we'll put him through. He didn't even need fame to gain access to Lincoln's office in the White House. Any one of us could have gone to the Lincoln White House, walked in the front door, approached the office suites and tell one of his two or three male secretaries, I want to see the president. Often you'd be told, well he's busy now, sit on that bench over there.

It might take a couple hours. You would be admitted to the presence of the sitting president without being searched, without being identified. There were no methods of identifying people then.

There were no driver's license, no photo IDs. And Lincoln would regularly place himself in the presence of strangers unknown to him. Booth could have walked in. Lincoln had seen Booth perform. Lincoln would have been happy to receive Booth. Lincoln loved reading Shakespeare to friends. He corresponded with other actors. Booth could have gained easy access to the White House and slaughtered Lincoln at his desk.

We'll never know why. Certainly Booth was building himself up to a climax to strike against Lincoln. He was fantasizing about it.

He began drinking more heavily. Maybe he wasn't ready psychologically to kill until later. I don't know why Booth didn't do it.

Part of it perhaps. Maybe he wanted to kill Lincoln before an audience and really stage that performance. The theater was actually a great way to do it and escape because the theater audience was trapped in front of the orchestra. And when Booth got on stage, he was closer to the back escape route than the audience was. And in fact, only one man out of 1,500 people in the theater even stood up to pursue Booth.

So it was counter-intuitively smart to kill him in the theater and have his horse waiting in the back. We'll never know why, but it was a shocking lack of security. Lincoln eschewed security. The Secretary of War tried to have him have more. A hundred death threats were found in Lincoln's desk after he was assassinated. He was almost assassinated in Baltimore on his way to Washington on the inaugural journey in 1861. It's almost as though, even in a civil war that killed 600,000 people, it was unimaginable that the president could be assassinated. No sitting president had ever before been attacked.

And it was just beyond, strangely, beyond people's imagination I think at the time. He had even stalked Lincoln at the second inaugural. He was within 50 feet of the president looking down on him while he read that magnificent with malice toward none with charity for all speech. And getting drunk at a bar shortly after that, he pounded his fist on the table and said to a friend, what an excellent chance I had to kill the president on Inauguration Day.

He was almost as close to me as you are now. And you've been listening to James Swanson, author of Manhunt, the 12-day chase for Lincoln's killer. And my goodness, what insight here, thinking about that day in Lincoln's life on April 15th and that day in John Wilkes Booth's life. And on a stage, I have no doubt, after having read this book, and I love this book by the way, go to Amazon and pick it up.

It is well worth reading. You won't put it down, actually. He wanted to do it in the theater. That's a great act of wood.

He wanted to stage his final performance. When we come back, more of this remarkable story, the story of Lincoln's assassination and its aftermath here on Our American Stories. There's a lot happening these days, but I have just the thing to get you up to speed on what matters without taking too much of your time. The Seven from the Washington Post is a podcast that gives you the seven most important and interesting stories, and we always try to save room for something fun. You get it all in about seven minutes or less. I'm Hannah Jewell. I'll get you caught up with the seven every weekday.

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Upfaithmfamily.com. And we return to our American stories and to James Swanson, author of Manhunt, the 12-day chase for Lincoln's killer. Let's pick up where we last left off. Booth needed a catalyst, though. And that came when he visited Ford's Theatre midday to pick up his mail and someone said, Lincoln is coming tonight. And that's the trigger that set off the imaginary clock counting down in Booth's mind. He knew he would have eight or nine hours to reassemble his conspirators. He had gathered them earlier several months before to kidnap Abraham Lincoln during the war and hold him hostage as a master stroke during the war, but that plan didn't work out. Booth wanted to do this because he hated Lincoln. Lincoln was really an American Caesar to John Wilkes Booth. He wanted to punish Lincoln the tyrant. He hoped to change history. And of course, he wanted eternal fame.

He had it in his lifetime, but he wanted to be immortalized as a southern and ultimately an American patriot. So he had just enough time to assemble his co-conspirators, get his guns, his supplies, his horses, send certain messages to people whose help he needed. And just as the Lincolns were riding to Ford's Theatre in their carriage with their theatre guests, John Wilkes Booth called the final meeting of his conspirators at 8 p.m. at a hotel two blocks from Ford's Theatre. And that's the first moment he told them, we strike tonight.

I shall kill Lincoln alone. He turned to another conspirator, Lewis Powell, and the ex-Confederate soldier said, you will go to the home of the Secretary of State, guided by David Herold, one of our other conspirators, and you will murder him in his bed. He's been in a terrible carriage accident. He's helpless. He can't move. Go in and kill him. He told George Atzerod, a German immigrant, you will go to the hotel of the Vice President where he is unguarded. You will knock on his door, and you will kill him when he answers the door with a knife attack or pistol fire.

They broke up the meeting, and that was the last time the group of conspirators ever met together again in full. You all know the rest of the story of what Melville called that bloody, awful night. And I won't rehearse the facts of the assassination except to say Booth performed it to the hilt.

He really created a new kind of art form, which I've called in the book performance assassination. He wanted to escape. It wasn't a suicide mission, but he wanted to be seen and celebrated. When he crept to the President's box and shot Lincoln and jumped to the stage of Ford's Theater, he wasn't wearing a disguise. He hadn't shaved his mustache.

He did nothing to conceal himself. He turned to the audience and faced them and cried out the state motto of Virginia, six semper tyrannis, thus always to tyrants. Then he cried out, the South is avenged. Then just as he left the stage, he really exulted to himself.

Only a few people heard it. But just before he vanished from sight, he said, I have done it. And he went out the back and got on his horse.

The next 12 days is really a wonderful story of missed chances, of luck, and of irony. Booth was riding ahead of the news. He made his way out of Washington. And he was able to survive because he had planned the route in advance. He knew many of the people he would visit along the way, including the notorious Dr. Samuel Mudd, who certainly should have been executed for his involvement with the Booth plotters.

He encountered Confederate women secret agents and their teenage daughters, young Confederate soldiers 19 and 20 years old who swore they would help him, former slave owners, even some ex-slaves who helped him and guide him, a wonderful man named Thomas Jones who was a Confederate river agent who had ferried hundreds of people across the Potomac River and helped Booth and David Harold Cross after hiding them in a pine thicket for several days. Booth went the wrong way on the river. He lost two days of time.

He injured his leg when he jumped from Ford's Theater and he had a wasted day at Dr. Mudd's. The pursuers, and there were several thousand of them, didn't know where Booth was. And they could only travel on horseback or by steamboat.

So it's really an incredible story of essentially one man on a horse or in a wagon or in a rowboat with one companion trying to outrun several thousand pursuers who had access to trains, steamboats, horses, and the telegraph. I do point out that if Booth had not been injured and had a few pieces of bad luck, I think he could have escaped. He could have made it into the Deep South where some counties had never seen a Union soldier. He could have made it into Mexico, which was his plan. And he might have even escaped to Europe.

Ultimately I think he would have been caught there like John Surratt, one of his conspirators who did flee to Canada, fled to Italy, joined the Pope's army, but was recognized two years later and brought back to America for trial. One thing that I enjoyed most about doing the book was meeting a number of incredible characters that I knew very little about at the beginning. And I'll just name a few of them and then tell you how I think Booth did get away with this. There's Fanny Seward, the wonderful daughter of Secretary of State Seward, who valiantly helped battle against the powerful assassin Lewis Powell, who stabbed her brothers, who stabbed the U.S. Army nurse, who almost stabbed her to death. And her firsthand recollections, which she recorded in her diary, are a vivid, wonderful, moving, horrifying, shocking account of the Seward attack. Sadly, she died shortly after the assassination. She would have been a wonderful writer. Another character, Laura Kean, the actress who was on stage and ran up to the box and cradled Lincoln's head in her lap and his blood stained her dress.

I have quite a different take on Laura Kean. She's portrayed quite heroically in all the other books on the Lincoln assassination, but I reveal some interesting things about her, and I invite you to reconsider her actions and what she did and said. And one of my other favorite characters who added great insights into Booth's psychology, his state of mind, his early years, is his sister, Asia Booth. She wrote a secret book about her brother, which was not published until years later, but she began writing it in the 1870s.

And she did something, which I'm going to read a brief passage from now, that leads really to my final point about how Booth got away with this. She saw that her brother was going to become famous, and she tried to influence it in the way we remember him. And to her, Lincoln and her brother were paired tragic figures brought together mysteriously by history, and this is what she said. Her brother, and I'm quoting now, saved his country from a king, but he created for her a martyr.

He set the stamp of greatness on an epoch of history and gave all he had to build this enduring monument to his foe. The South avenged the wrongs inflicted by the North. A life inexpressibly dear was sacrificed wildly for what its possessor deemed best.

The life best beloved by the North was dashed madly out when most triumphant. Let the blood of both cement the indissoluble union of our country. Do you see what she's done? She's almost saying her brother is like a historically necessary figure like Judas.

There can be no Good Friday without Judas' betrayal. Somehow there can become no reunion of the country without the murder committed by her brother. Booth's body was returned to the family four years later. It had been buried secretly and parts were moved as souvenirs.

But Vice President Johnson succeeded to the presidency, and he pardoned the surviving conspirators, and he released from the grave those that had been executed. You've been listening to James Swanson, the author of Manhunt, the 12-day chase for Lincoln's killer. And I would urge you to go to Amazon and pick up the book.

I promise you, you will not put it down. It's a heck of a story. And in this man's eyes, in John Booth's eyes, he's the hero. And he thinks in the end that he did something great and good and virtuous. And that's what's so interesting about this story. And that's what's so interesting about the nature of man, the nature of sin.

And this is why the book is so compelling. When we come back, we're going to continue with this remarkable story. And again, the man who watched Lincoln's assassination is something we did, too.

Go to alamericanstories.com. You'll get Lincoln's assassination through the eyes of the superintendent of D.C.'s police department at the time, played by one of the great reenactors in all of America, the Ford Theater's reenactor. He did that for us, especially here on Our American Stories. When we come back, more with James Swanson, the author of Manhunt, here on Our American Stories. There's a lot happening these days, but I have just the thing to get you up to speed on what matters without taking too much of your time. The Seven from The Washington Post is a podcast that gives you the seven most important and interesting stories, and we always try to save room for something fun. You get it all in about seven minutes or less. I'm Hannah Jewell. I'll get you caught up with The Seven every weekday.

So follow The Seven right now. Now at goodandbeautiful.com. The good and the beautiful. Bringing home a love of learning.

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Upfaithandfamily.com. And we continue here with our American stories and with the author James Swanson. The book Manhunt, the 12-day chase for Lincoln's killer. And now we return to James Swanson and the story of John Wilkes Booth and, to date, the biggest manhunt in American history. One of the most remarkable things I found in researching this book was what Asia Booth said about his grave. And it really made me aware of the memory of Booth and how we need to challenge it, I think.

This is what she said. That no epitaph marks his grave and there's no stone. He's buried in the Booth family plot. And her book closes with this graveside elegy. But, granting that he died in vain, he gave his all on earth, youth, beauty, manhood, a great human love, the certainty of excellence in his profession, a powerful brain, the strength of an athlete, health and great wealth for his cause. This man was noble in life. He periled his immortal soul and he was brave in death. Already his hidden remains are given Christian burial and strangers have piled his grave with flowers. So runs the world away. That was one of the most shocking things I'd read in the tens of thousands of pages that I read researching this book.

And, in a way, she's right. And here's how I think Booth has gotten away with it in American memory. We don't think of John Wilkes Booth the way we think of our other assassins, Lee Harvey Oswald, James Earl Ray, cipher men of no accomplishment that we revile for what they've done. Booth has his own monument. It's called Ford's Theater in Washington, D.C. All his artifacts are in the basement museum there.

His diary, as if awaiting a final entry, is open for us to see. The pistol he used to kill Lincoln, which children, over a million of them, visit a year and marvel at. The photos of his girlfriends in his pockets. Near Ford's Theater, there are street banners with his photograph blown up to massive size, directing tourists to Ford's Theater.

I would pose this question. Would you go to Dallas, Texas, to find Lee Harvey Oswald banners near the Book Depository? Would you go to Memphis and find James Earl Ray banners? Somehow, Booth has been drained by modern culture of his dangerousness, of his evil nature, the fact that he was a killer, a racist. He murdered our greatest president. And yet, we think of him in an almost antiquarian way. We think of him as the tragic young actor who threw away his life and his talent for a cause that was wrong.

And I don't think we condemn him the way most Americans did in 1865. I think this is partly because Booth performed this so well. And he's almost tricked us into believing this isn't quite real. It's a play. He performed the assassination. He performed his escape. He performed wonderfully an impromptu play on the 12th night in the middle of the night when the soldiers surrounded him at the Garrett barn and engaged him in dialogue and repartee and set the barn on fire. Those were the footlights of the stage.

And he knew that was his last performance for the American theater. There's a couple other examples of how I think Booth has gotten away with this. If you go to the new Abraham Lincoln Museum in Springfield, the theater is dressed to appear just as it did on the night of April 14th, 1865. The state box is festooned with flags and the framed engraving of George Washington that hangs from the front of the box is the actual one that witnessed Booth's leap to the stage. You can follow Booth's steps up the curving staircase, retrace his path to the box, enter the vestibule and recreate his view of Lincoln's rocking chair. You can sit in the audience and while listening to a National Park Service historian lecture on the assassination, you can stare up at the box and imagine Booth suspended momentarily in midair at the apex of his leap. John Wilkes Booth would have loved it. An entire museum, one of the most popular in America, devoted to his crime.

I must have fame, he once exhorted himself, fame. In the main rotunda, figures of the great Frederick Douglass, of Grant and Sherman, of Tablow, the entire Lincoln family, and who was looking at them? With hate-filled eyes, a life-size wax figure of John Wilkes Booth.

In the gift shop, I found for sale to children toy Derringer pistols. It was unbelievable. And I would say again, would you find wax figures of Oswald at the Kennedy Library in Boston, wax figures of James Earl Ray at the King Center in Atlanta, or standing outside the Lorraine Motel, or replicas of Oswald's Mannlicher-Coquana rifle for sale to our children? I think not. Booth was so avid that before he killed Lincoln the night of the 14th, he wrote his own op-ed to be published in the papers the next day so that the American people could read why he killed Lincoln. He worked hard on it. He sealed it in an envelope. He handed it to an actor friend and said, I may have to leave town rather quickly, and I might not be coming back.

And if I don't come back, will you deliver this to the national intelligence editor the next day? That man was so terrified that he had possession of that letter, that he destroyed it, and it was never published. Later, he purported to reconstruct the letter, but I note in my book that I don't believe his reconstruction of the letter because his attempt to reconstruct the letter is based on a memo that Booth wrote that was discovered in his sister's safe after the assassination. So I think this actor, John Matthews, made up the letter and didn't really remember it. He just sort of paraphrased a known Booth document. The only thing he remembered about that letter, which I do believe, it was signed by Booth, and then he signed his co-conspirator's names. Matthews was adamant that the others signed it, but we don't know what the content was.

But based on other Booth documents, we can guess. He was crushed, and he records this in his memo book during the escape. He was crushed that that op-ed was not published. Then, when he was hiding in that pine thicket for five days and four nights, being cared for by Thomas Jones, the Confederate agent who brought him food, Booth also implored him, bring me the newspapers.

We're not certain what all the issues were, but based on the distribution of Confederate mail, we know that the Confederates had access to certain Northern papers pretty quickly. And if Booth had read any of them, he would have read how he had been damned for this loathsome act. And he was crushed to read his reviews. It really took the wind out of his sails while he was hiding in this pine thicket. He couldn't move. At one point, Union cavalry came within 200 yards of his hiding place. And he just had to sit there and wait and read what the North thought of him.

It was his lowest point in the escape when he saw that his own article had not been published and when he read the newspaper editorials condemning him. With respect to what would have happened if Lincoln survived, it's the great unanswered question of the Lincoln assassination. Who knows? Maybe Lincoln's death made it easier for the Republicans to pass the 13th, 14th, and 15th Amendments.

I don't know. Maybe Radical Republicans would have found Lincoln too lenient. After all, he just wanted them to go home to their farms. Lincoln didn't want to put any of the Confederate leadership on trial, not even Jefferson Davis himself.

He didn't want to try any of the generals for treason. He wanted to have an easy peace for the South and bring the country together. That's why he asked the band at the White House to play Dixie a few days before he died.

He did that as a symbol. It's our song now. It's not the Southern song. It's not the Rebel song.

It's an American song. Maybe we would have done to him what the people of England did to the man I'm convinced saved them from Nazi invasion. When Churchill was no longer needed, out. Of course, Lincoln would have retained office. He couldn't have been ousted from the presidency. I'm convinced that somehow, and maybe this is just a hope of mine, that Lincoln's generosity, his magnificent insights into human nature and human psychology, his wonderful ability to speak and write and communicate, would have somehow made post-war life better for the freed slaves. In the end of the book, I want to make sure that you don't sympathize with John Wilkes Booth.

There's a temptation to do it because he had a side that was charismatic, that was mesmerizing. You spend 12 days with him in my book. Really, I put you in the saddle with him side by side so that you meet everyone he met along the way and experience everything he did. But Booth is not the hero of my book, certainly not. The hero of the book, and my hero, is Abraham Lincoln. And even though Lincoln leaves the scene in the first quarter of the book, I hope that you'll find that you find his memory and his presence and legacy to linger throughout the book. And that by the time you get to the end, when I finish with Booth, you'll agree with me that he's not a folk hero. He's not an antiquarian curiosity.

He was a racist, a murderer, and he killed one of the greatest of all Americans. And you've been listening to James Swanson and what a story he tells. By all means, pick up Manhunt, the 12-day chase for Lincoln's killer. There's so much more there. He just skims the surface here in this piece of storytelling. Great job, as always, by Greg Hengler, finding the story, bringing it to the air, editing up the piece. A great story, a tragic story.

James Swanson, Manhunt, the story of the chase for Lincoln's killer, here on Our American Stories. Hey, everyone, this is Jodie Sweetin from the podcast How Rude, Tanneritos. I've been needing a quick getaway with my family, and the 2024 Hyundai Santa Fe is the perfect vehicle to take us there. It has standard third row seating, but it's not the only one. It's the only one. It's the only one. It has standard third row seating, but it's not the only one.

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No wonder it was one of the most streamed TV series in 2023. So, my dear friends, dive into the warmth of Heartland and let Upfaith & Family be your go-to service for all things uplifting. There are faith movies, comedies, romances, and series for the whole family to enjoy. Start your free trial today. Go to upfaithmfamily.com for your free trial. Upfaithmfamily.com
Whisper: medium.en / 2024-04-18 04:41:37 / 2024-04-18 04:56:14 / 15

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