Manhunt: The 12 day chase for Abraham Lincoln’s killer, by James L. Swanson

Sympathy for the Devil

John Wilkes Booth

John Wilkes Booth

Manhunt, as the subtitle indicates, is an account of the hunt for John Wilkes Booth and the cabal of bitter, reactionary racists who murdered the United States’ greatest president, Lincoln, and tried to kill his Vice President, Andrew Johnson, and his Secretary of State, William Seward.

Swanson succeeds well in his apparent objective of writing a non-fiction thriller based on the hunt for these assassins, and appears to have developed some sympathy for his subjects, presenting in detail their considerable bravery and endurance in the aftermath of the murder. Among the conspirators was Dr Samuel Mudd, who treated Booth when he was on the run. Mudd was imprisoned as a conspirator but he and his family subsequently worked for his exoneration, saying he was only doing his duty as a doctor and had no knowledge of Booth or the conspiracy. John Ford, a Lincolnphile, even immortalised this story in one of his films, The Prisoner of Shark Island.

His name is still ...

His name is still …

Swanson argues however that Mudd was indeed part of the conspiracy and Booth’s encounter with him was no accident, but rather a rendezvous with a known sympathiser. The moral of this part of the story is that you can still say “his name is Mudd” with a clear conscience.

The book illuminates this aspect of the Civil War, often passed over or obscured in other texts by the monumental tragedy of Lincoln’s assassination. Amongst the startling details that Swanson reveals is that Booth obtained access to Lincoln’s presence merely by presenting his card: his brother was a friend of Lincoln and strong supporter of the Union so Booth was also welcomed as a friend.

Overall the book is a sobering reminder to the contemporary world that courage is not the highest of virtues but rather often facilitates some of the worst of human behaviour and can lead to some of the greatest pain and loss.

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