Inside the Hunt for Booth

Posted April 21, 2008 at 4:17pm

James Swanson’s love of Abraham Lincoln began at an early age, when he received a framed copy of a newspaper front page from April 1865.

“I guess you could say I’ve been researching it my whole life,” he said of his book “Manhunt: The 12-Day Chase for Lincoln’s Killer.”

Swanson, who spoke in the Senate on Friday as part of National Library Week, noted that because he had only the front page, he was never able to read the article on Lincoln’s assassination after the jump. This made him curious about how it ended — so curious that he began reading many books about the former president and visiting historical sites related to him. Because Swanson lived in Illinois, Lincoln history was abundant.

Over time, Swanson accumulated a collection of Lincoln memorabilia that includes a lock of the former president’s hair and a swath of the dress worn by actress Laura Keene to Ford’s Theatre on April 14, 1865, the date of the assassination.

In 2001, Swanson penned his first book, “Lincoln’s Assassins: Their Trial and Execution,” with Daniel R. Weinberg. He then decided to dive into “Manhunt,” a book specifically about the search for assassin John Wilkes Booth. It took him about two years to write, he said, and the research process included many visits to stops on the escape route such as the Mudd House in Waldorf, Md., and Mary Surratt’s Tavern in Clinton, Md.

Swanson said he made every effort to make the book read like a novel rather than a textbook, primarily by telling the story in chronological order to hold readers in suspense.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) introduced Swanson to a packed committee room on Friday, all the while praising “Manhunt.”

“I want you to understand … that it’s as compelling, exciting and interesting as any book of history,” Reid said. “I couldn’t put it down. Read this book. You travel, for 12 days, everywhere that man went.” Reid added that he couldn’t wait to see the film version of the story, which is being developed by HBO.

During his lecture, Swanson debunked many of the myths surrounding the assassination, such as one urban legend that then- Secretary of War Edwin Stanton plotted the president’s murder. He also made it clear to the audience that Dr. Mudd, who set Booth’s broken ankle after the assassination and later claimed ignorance to his patient’s identity, was guilty and had met the actor on several occasions.

He was “certainly not” innocent, Swanson said. “Dr. Mudd knew Booth. … They’d met in Washington, D.C.” The author said he thinks it is dangerous when people begin changing the facts of history over time.

He also spoke extensively about how Booth has been romanticized in ways that John F. Kennedy assassin Lee Harvey Oswald and Martin Luther King Jr. assassin James Earl Ray have not. For instance, banners displaying Booth’s picture often hang on 10th Street Northwest leading up to Ford’s Theatre. There would never be photos of Oswald hanging near the grassy knoll in Dallas, Swanson said.

Despite all of his research on Lincoln, Swanson has not grown tired of the topic. The author’s next book will pick up where “Manhunt” left off. It will tell the tales of Lincoln’s funeral train, the burning of Richmond, Va., and Jefferson Davis, president of the Confederacy during the Civil War.