Manhunt: The 12-Day Chase for Lincoln's Killer
By James L. Swanson (New York: William Morrow An Imprint of HarperCollins Publishers, 2006). Pp 448, $26.95, ISBN 0-06-051849-9
Review written for lincolnstudies.com, but may be re-printed with reviewer's consent
Abraham Lincoln was not the only target on that day in April. The conspirators had targeted Secretary of State William Seward, Vice President Andrew Johnson, and General Ulysses S. Grant, but only John Wilkes Booth was able to complete his task. As the country wept, the manhunt began. James L. Swanson has produced a fast-paced, stirring account of the hunt for Lincoln’s assassin.
We follow Booth on the day of the assassination. Richmond had already fallen and Lee had surrendered just five days earlier, but Lincoln’s speech on April 11 proved to be the final straw. As Lincoln floated the idea of black suffrage, Booth promised, “I’ll put him through.” Booth assembled a desperate group of would-be assassins. George Atzerodt and Lewis Powell were to murder the Vice President and Secretary of State, while Booth reserved the biggest trophy for himself.
While the unsuspecting crowd at Ford’s Theater watched Our American Cousin, Booth waited patiently for his cue. And then he heard it…“you sockdologizing old mantrap!” Booth fired his single-shot derringer and leapt from the Presidential box down to the stage, breaking his ankle, shouting, “Sic semper tyrannus!”
As Booth and David Herrold race South toward freedom, Swanson traces a well-worn path traveled many times before, most notably by Edward Steers and Michael W. Kauffman, though Swanson has a remarkable flair for the dramatic, there is no question about it. Dr. Samuel Mudd appears vividly, as do Thomas Jones and the others along the escape route, but Swanson saves the most startling portrait for Booth himself. Booth does not emerge as Brutus to Lincoln’s Caesar as he had dreamed, nor does he quite resemble the villain that others have imagined. Instead, Swanson’s Booth is a tragic figure—confused, desperate, reckless, and doomed.
Assassination aficionados will undoubtedly prefer Blood on the Moon or American Brutus, but that does not detract from what Swanson has done with Manhunt. He has written a fine book that will introduce the Lincoln assassination to scores of readers, who will no doubt want to learn more about one of the most stirring events in American history.
- Emily Johnson, Mankato, Minnesota