Archives of a Manhunt

Posted February 25, 2009 at 4:44pm

Nearly every museum in town has rolled out some sort of Abraham Lincoln exhibit in celebration of the Great Emancipator’s bicentennial. The Newseum went another route: Rather than display portraits of Lincoln or his famed top hat, the museum chose to focus on the 16th president’s assassin, John Wilkes Booth.

Last week the museum opened the exhibit “Manhunt: Chasing Lincoln’s Killers,” based on James Swanson’s best-seller, “Manhunt: The 12-

Day Chase for Lincoln’s Killer.” The exhibit features 40 objects from Swanson’s personal collection, which has never been displayed to the public before.

“I hope that the exhibit transports people back in time to the happiest and the saddest week in American history,” Swanson said. “I hope that the exhibit makes people feel what it was like to be alive in April 1865.”

[IMGCAP(1)]In keeping with the museum’s news theme, much of the focus is placed on the role that the media played during the assassination of Lincoln and the eventual slaying of Booth. The exhibit is peppered with front pages of newspapers with such headlines as: “Murder in the Capital,” “President Lincoln Assassinated in a Theater” and “Death of the President!” Thanks to the transcontinental telegraph, which made its debut in 1861, news of the events at Ford’s Theatre quickly spread across the nation.

“The news swept the country with a speed that would have been impossible before the invention of the transcontinental telegraph,” reads the introduction to the exhibit.

While Swanson supplied the objects, the staff at the Newseum was responsible for creating the exhibit. It not only sheds light on Lincoln’s assassination and the subsequent manhunt through artifacts and excerpts from Swanson’s book, but it also tells the story of this country at the end of the Civil War.

Somewhat strangely, the exhibit is as much about Swanson as it is about Booth. There are photos of the author — one, for instance, shows Swanson as a 10-year-old boy — along with the story of his interest in Lincoln. His love of all things 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,” Swanson told Roll Call last year. He noted that because he had only the front page, he was never able to continue reading 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 the course of his life, Swanson has built a collection that includes posters offering rewards for the capture of Booth, a brick that is believed to be from conspirator Mary Surratt’s prison cell and even a piece of the blood-stained dress that actress Laura Keene wore on the evening Lincoln was shot.

Keene’s dress and a lock of Lincoln’s hair will be displayed for a very brief period beginning on April 14, to mark the day of the assassination.

“Manhunt: Chasing Lincoln’s Killers” runs through Dec. 31.