For the Love of Lincoln
Scholar’s Book on Slain President Slated for the Big Screen
To say that James Swanson’s fascination with the world of President Abraham Lincoln borders on obsession would not be far off the mark.
From his Capitol Hill lair near the Supreme Court, the 44-year-old Cato Institute senior fellow in constitutional studies has stockpiled a few thousand books on Lincoln, hundreds of Civil War-era newspapers and several rare African-American historical artifacts, including a 7-foot-tall, 1863 “Men of Color to Arms!” poster written by abolitionist Frederick Douglass in an effort to galvanize black Americans to join the Union Army.
But Swanson’s collection doesn’t end there.
“I’ve got 20 rolls of microfilm of all the documents from the National Archives related to the assassination of Lincoln, the escape, the trial of the conspirators, the manhunt — so essentially my house is my own personal Lincoln library,” Swanson said.
All of which serves him well as he toils to complete “Manhunt: The 12 Day Chase for Lincoln’s Killers,” a nonfiction book on the aftermath of Lincoln’s slaying, considered so hot by industry insiders that its 50-page proposal sparked a bidding war among publishers when it was auctioned in early 2002. And now, with the recent word that Walden Media in conjunction with Disney plans to turn the yet-unfinished work into a major motion picture, the after-hours Lincoln scholar and editor of the Cato Supreme Court Review is poised to see his vision come to life on the silver screen.
“Everybody remembers that Lincoln was killed … by the actor John Wilkes Booth, but I think a lot of people forget that the plot included a plan to assassinate the vice president, … the secretary of state, who was in fact almost stabbed to death in his bed, and also to assassinate General [Ulysses] Grant,” said Swanson, who worked for the Justice Department during the Reagan administration. “I [want] to resurrect that story to tell it in an interesting and exciting way.”
On several levels, Swanson’s absorption with the 16th president appears dictated by kismet.
Born in the Land of Lincoln on the president’s birthday, Swanson became an acolyte at an early age thanks to a grandmother who inundated him with books, pamphlets and newspaper reproductions about Honest Abe.
Among these materials, Swanson credits a Chicago Tribune article dated April 15, 1865 — the day after Lincoln’s death — with piquing his interest in the assassination and subsequent manhunt.
“The reproduction was not the full story. It just cut off the story in mid-story, and I remember as a little kid being incredibly frustrated that I couldn’t read the rest of the story,” recalled Swanson, who recently acquired a set of 100 original Chicago Tribunes, which included the complete April 15 article.
Later, during his college days at the University of Chicago, Swanson studied under the legendary historian and civil rights scholar John Hope Franklin — who, he says, forced him to look beyond “one man and one presidency.” It was Franklin’s influence, Swanson said, “more than anyone,” that “inspired [him] to be a historian and a writer.”
The Siren Call
“Manhunt” will be Swanson’s second book on the Great Emancipator. He earlier co- authored “Lincoln’s Assassins: Their Trial and Execution,” which he describes as “more of a popular culture history of how what happened [in the spring of 1865] was reported to the American people.”
His current work homes in on Lincoln’s murder and the 12-day hunt for Booth and his accomplices.
“It’s also a very timely story, a very disturbing story because I consider it the first terrorist plot against the American government,” Swanson observed.
Walden Media quickly optioned the book after fierce bidding in February 2002, which saw Miramax Books’ Harvey Weinstein lose out to HarperCollins imprint William Morrow for the chance to publish the book. “It was one of the larger narrative nonfiction deals in the past year in publishing,” Swanson’s agent, Richard Abate, said. (In a bizarre twist of fate, Swanson’s editor at William Morrow, Henry Ferris, is related to Edwin Booth, brother of John Wilkes Booth.) But it was not until recently that Disney agreed to partner with Walden Media to produce the film, Swanson said.
Although there’s no word yet on a release date — “Sometimes that could take 10 years; sometimes that could take a year,” noted Swanson — Disney has drafted Mike Rich, who earlier worked on “Finding Forrester” and “The Rookie,” to serve as screenwriter.
The polymath Swanson — who said he plans “to lobby hard to shoot at least part of the movie in Washington” — has already put together an ambitious itinerary for Rich, who will be in Washington this weekend to visit Lincoln assassination sites with the author.
“We’re going to Ford’s Theatre, the Petersen House [where Lincoln died], Mary Surratt’s boarding house in Chinatown … [and] the Surratt tavern in the countryside of Maryland,” Swanson enthused, adding that they’d stop at a few “secret spots [most] tourists don’t know to go” such as the back alley of Ford’s Theatre “to see the door where Booth leapt out to make his escape.”
As the film moves forward, Swanson said he anticipates serving as a historical consultant for the project.
“A lot of the story is in the book, but some of it isn’t,” Swanson said, proceeding to rattle off a litany of questions the film would have to answer.
For example, “How do people behave? How did the crowds dress? How many people stood in front of the death house? How did Mary and Abraham spend their last day together? What did they talk about? How did the crowd cheer when Lincoln entered Ford’s Theatre?”
As for who will play Booth, speculation has run the gamut from Johnny Depp, currently swashbuckling his way through Disney’s “Pirates of the Caribbean: Curse of the Black Pearl,” to the relatively unknown English stage actor Will Kemp, who will star in Universal’s upcoming tale of horror “Van Helsing.” Other names mentioned include: Depp’s “Pirates” co-star Orlando Bloom; Stuart Townsend of “League of Extraordinary Gentlemen”; and Hugh Jackman, the Australian thespian, who played Wolverine in “X-Men.”
“In my view, you almost have to find another John Wilkes Booth — I mean an actor who has both Booth’s charisma and style,” Swanson said, quickly adding that “each of [the names mentioned] have aspects of the Booth look and … persona.”
A member of the advisory committee of the Congressionally mandated Abraham Lincoln Bicentennial Commission, Swanson said that through “Manhunt” and other projects he hopes to help communicate Lincoln’s legacy to the American people.
“We believe this can only elevate the profile of the commission as the bicentennial approaches,” said Michael Bishop, the commission’s executive director.
However, Swanson is not the only member of the advisory committee whose work is marked for Tinseltown. Steven Spielberg and DreamWorks own the rights to presidential historian Doris Kearns Goodwin’s yet-unpublished Lincoln biography. The release of a biopic based on the book, now in development, could potentially coincide with the bicentennial, Bishop said.
Although Swanson is mum as to how much he’ll receive for the film, the entertainment industry tabloid Variety earlier reported that the deal was in the mid-six figures.
“For someone as anonymous as I am, what happened was a really big thing,” Swanson said.
“Manhunt” isn’t the only film project Swanson is involved in, however. The co-author of the 1996 bestseller “Bettie Page: Life of a Pin-up Legend” — a credit conspicuously missing from his Cato biography — Swanson is also co-producing a film on the mysterious 1950s bombshell. Now in development, that film is slated to star Liv Tyler in the title role; in the past, Martin Scorsese has been floated as a possible director.
And while “Manhunt” — the book — isn’t due out until the fall of 2004, Swanson has been burning the candle at both ends in an effort to juggle his responsibilities at the libertarian think tank with his literary endeavors.
“When I come home from Cato, I’m sort of on the eight to midnight shift working on the book,” he said. Despite his unflagging enthusiasm for his subject, Swanson admitted, “Sometimes I’d rather go to sleep than work on a book about Abraham Lincoln.”