John Wilkes Booth is famous, as he wanted to be. But the brand he designed isn’t the one he got. With the death of Lincoln the tyrant, he figured, the north would collapse into anarchy, the confederacy would rise victorious, and he’d be hailed as a savior. All that trouble for nothing. Less than nothing.
Terry Alford’s Fortune’s Fool carefully details Booth’s road to the ignominious act that put him in the history books. Useful knowledge, much of it, though the details bog down the narrative to the point that the narrative bogs down as badly as the assassin’s escape attempt bogs down in the Maryland swamps.
Wilkes, as his colleagues called him, grew up an actor in a family of actors. His father, Junius, was renowned. His older brother, Edwin, was eminently successful. Wilkes was blessed with considerable talent and rising success at the point where he abandoned the stage for conspiracy. He put money in Pennsylvania oil–tales a lot of money to finance such skulduggery–and began plotting against the despotic yankee in the white house.
He was born in the border state of Maryland, which never joined the confederacy, but which seethed with confederate sympathizers. Booth among them. He promised his mother he would never put himself in harm’s way, which was the putuative reason he never joined the army. Late in the war, however, he apparently couldn’t stand it any longer. He never did take up arms as a proper soldier but became an anti-Lincoln conniver instead.
It’s while he tells the part of the story leading up to Booth’s turn toward assassination that Alford’s story becomes rather turgid. He has gathered a considerable body of correspondence and publication testifying to Booth’s good looks and acting talent. The former are universal in praise of his handsome countenance, the latter give mixed reviews of his on-stage proficiency and future prospects. Good enough, but Alford uses dozens of these testimonials when one dozen would have been more than enough. I found myself skipping page after page of accounts of his dark, flashing eyes and wavy hair and convivial personality. Meanwhile, back to the story at hand. . .
Booth’s original idea was to kidnap Lincoln, take him south, and hold him for ransom–money and freedom for rebel POW’s. He went from Montreal, where a considerable number of confederates hung out (who knew?) to New York to Boston and back to Baltimore. The kindapping plot foundered after multiple attempts to pierce Lincoln’s security failed. He then turned to assassination as the tool of the day. Some of hs co-consipirators dropped off at the idea, leaving him with a couple of partners of as doubtful rationality as he himself. Eventually, the plot, which he conceived of as an attack on the entire administration, became virtually a solo act. One man did succeed in stabbing Secretary of War Stanton. The one who was supposed to kill the vice-president chickened out entirely.
When he finally gets down to cases, Alford tells a good story. From Booth’s sneaky approach to the box seat to the famous leap to the stage, the narrative is suspenseful even though we know how it turns out. The details of Booth’s escape into Maryland and Virginia, his disappointment in finding hostility rather than hospitality, his anger at how his act was “misunderstood” all make for an adventurous tale. The story of his capture, his fatal gunshot wound, and the disposition of his remains are a fascinating post-mortem. One particular piece of interest to me was that many who had sympathized with his act in the beginning changed their minds in hindsight. In light of the vicious acts of the Johnson congress’s reconstruction, one person opined, it seemed that Lincoln might have been the best friend the south would have had.
I’m left with a question. Why do we so desperately need demons? Why do we go to such lengths to slay the ones we invent? And whose life do we better by so doing? RIH, John W.