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On the trail of an assassin


The 12-Day Chase For Lincoln's Killer

By James L. Swanson

Morrow, $29.95, 464 pp


Actor John Wilkes Booth was strikingly handsome and could turn on the charm at will. He had a giant ego, loved the ladies and passionately hated President Abraham Lincoln for the war against the South and emancipating America's slaves.

James Swanson, a lawyer and a Lincoln scholar, writes a meticulously detailed account of Booth's assassination of Lincoln and what the actor-turned-assassin did in the days after the shooting. Swanson's prose never soars, but his narrative is filled with the telling details wrought of good research. Those details recreate a time in our history that echoes poignantly for anyone who lived through the assassinations 100 years later of John F. Kennedy, his brother Bobby and Martin Luther King Jr.

Booth never fought for his beloved Confederates. Instead, he plotted with a group of Southern sympathizers to kidnap Lincoln and carry him into deepest Dixie. Then a chance encounter informed him that Lincoln would be attending a play on that very day, April 14, 1865, at Ford's Theatre.

Booth enlisted three kidnap plotters to kill Secretary of State William Seward and Vice President Andrew Johnson that same night. He converted the kidnapping scheme to an escape plan, which proved wise, as it helped him elude Union troops for almost two weeks. All but one plotter chickened out: Lewis Powell savagely attacked Seward (who survived) with a knife and escaped, for a time.

The first half of Swanson's book recounts the dramatic events leading up to the manhunt, and he fleshes out the story to help readers relate. For instance, a president's public image mattered in 1865, too. Lincoln was shot attending the theater on Good Friday. Even as he lay dying, critics castigated him for such nonreligious activity on the holy day. The people attending Lincoln instinctively knew that he could not be allowed to die in a tawdry theatrical setting, but taking him back to White House was too risky in his condition. The first thought was to move Lincoln to a saloon next door, but that was ruled unsavory. Lincoln ended up at a nearby boarding house.

Short of the Civil War itself, which had not quite ended even though Robert E. Lee had surrendered, Lincoln's assassination was the worst trauma the country's psyche had experienced, precipitating deep mourning. Riots were frequent. Several people who openly expressed jubilation at Lincoln's death were killed. The government rounded up and jailed dozens of people, often without much cause.

Swanson has a disconcerting habit of adding words like "fortunately" when recounting something helpful turning up to aid Booth's escape. And he spends too much time trying to get inside Booth's head, going all romantic about the actor's happy youthful times with a younger sister named Asia. The factual narrative feels authentic, but these intuitive passages ring false.

With help from Confederate sympathizers, Booth first hid out in the Maryland woods before a Confederate spy led him and companion David Herald across the Potomac River into Virginia. His odyssey ended April 26, 1865, when the two fugitives, holed up in a barn, were surrounded by Union troops. Booth would not surrender and was shot to death. Herald, Powell and two co-conspirators were hanged.

The true hero in Swanson's view is Secretary of War Edwin Stanton, a former Lincoln rival turned loyal supporter. Stanton takes charge after the assassination - overseeing the manhunt, planning Lincoln's funeral and running the government while a newly sworn-in but shell-shocked President Johnson was incapable of acting. Such coolheadedness makes you hopeful that wise and strong leaders can steady the course in times of chaos.

Kathleen Krog is a reviewer for the Miami Herald, where this review first appeared. It was distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.