President Lincoln’s Assassination
Library of Congress
Reference Number: LC-USZ62-2073
Michael W. Kaufman, American Brutus: John Wilkes Booth and the Lincoln Conspiracies
(Random House, 2004)
The assassination of Abraham Lincoln was a horrific end to a horrific war. It has also provided nearly endless speculation about what really happened and who really was behind the plot to kill the president. The speculation has been matched by a stream of books about the roles of conspirators and alleged non-conspirators. The assassination also provides endless variations on the blame game as authors examine responsibility for the murder. Even President Lincoln’s wife gets blamed . “If Mary’s rude outbursts had not occurred, the Grants likely would have accepted, and Grant would have had a large military guard for protection. Lincoln might not have been assassinated that night at Ford’s Theatre,” wrote Lincoln scholar Donald Winkler.1
Particular attention has been paid to the innocence or guilt of Mary Surratt, at whose boarding house many conspiracy meetings were held, and Dr. Samuel A. Mudd, who treated Booth’s broken leg during his escape attempt. Political historian Michael W. Kaufman focuses specifically on Lincoln’s assassin, John Wilkes Booth, in American Brutus.
The actor lived a dramatic life, culminating in a dramatic murder and nearly as dramatic death. Kaufman paints a relatively sympathetic portrait, but one whose image changed in the course of Kaufman’s three decades of research on the assassination. “I once thought of Booth as a tragic figure, torn between competing ideals and led by hubris and emotion to commit one of history’s greatest blunders. He was a traitor and a patriot; a villain to some and a hero to others. But there was more to booth behind his carefully constructed wall of lies. He was more cunning and complex than I had ever imagined. He wasn’t just caught in the middle; he worked his way there, playing one side against the other and taking full advantage of their mutual distrust. He was a manipulator, not a pawn.”2
There was considerable concern among those close to Lincoln about his security at the end of the Civil War. U.S. Marshal Ward Hill Lamon and Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton were especially worried. But despite their concerns, writes Kaufman, “Booth managed to organize and run a dangerous plot – undetected – in the face of unprecedented government paranoia.”3
Kaufman’s approach has been finding facts rather than grinding theoretical axes. “I have presented the case as it developed in 1865,” he writes. “Though I have occasionally resorted to more recent recollections to fill in the blanks, I have avoided using any quote, fact, anecdote that is incompatible with the earliest sources.” He utilizes this approaches in delving into Booth’s motivation: “While many people assumed that hidden forces were behind the assassination, others speculated that Booth had acted on his own. The reason: he wanted to immortalize himself. Within days of the shooting, newspapers began to report that an anonymous source had once heard Booth talk about killing the president. Asked why he would do such a thing, he had quoted a couplet from the Colley Cibber version of Richard III:
The daring youth that fired the Ephesian dome
Outlives in fame the pious fool that reared it.4
According to Kaufman, “The story spread quickly, and it became the basis of the most popular explanation for Lincoln’s killing. But it has the character of a modern urban legend. Though it sounded authoritative, its original source has never been identified.”5
Kaufman narrates the activities of Booth, his co-conspirators and the President, who had agreed to attend a performance of “An American Cousin” at Ford’s Theater on Good Friday. There were plenty of reasons not to go -including the refusal of the intended guest of honor, Ulysses S. Grant, to attend.
White House bodyguard William Crook was given the night off after walking President Lincoln back from the War Department early in the evening. Guard John Parker and footman Charles Forbes were on duty that night but neither was too diligent in his duties – preferring to watch the play or get a drink to watch the door to the Presidents’ box. Crook later blamed Parker for the murder. Had Parker “done his duty, I believe President Lincoln would not have been murdered by Booth,” wrote William Crook. “It was the custom for the guard who accompanied the President to the theatre to remain in the little passageway outside the box – that passageway through which Booth entered. Mr. Buckingham, who was the doorkeeper at Ford’s Theatre, remembers that a chair was placed there for the guard on the evening of the 14th. Whether Parker occupied it at all I do not know – Mr. Buckingham is of the impression that he did. If he did, he left it almost immediately; for he confessed to me the next day that he went to a seat at the front of the first gallery, so that he could see the play. The door of the President’s box was shut; probably Mr. Lincoln never knew that the guard had left his post.”6
The security on such occasions was minimal. Army Sergeant Smith Stimmel later wrote: “The only person [other than Parker] that could have protected him in the theater the night of his assassination was a civilian who was employed at the White House, known as the carriage footman. When the President went out with his family, and sometimes with invited guests, to places of entertainment, this footman would go along and ride on the seat with the driver. When they reached their destination, he would hop down and render such assistance as a handy man could.”7
Certainly, Lincoln’s security was sloppy on the night of the assassination. But Kauffman downplays the security normally available to the President. He wrote that “Abraham Lincoln had no bodyguards in the modern sense. It was the messenger Charles Forbes who had allowed Booth into the box, and consequently Mrs. Lincoln held Forbes responsible for the president’s death. To deflect the blame, Forbes filed a formal complaint against a White House guard, patrolman John F. Parker, and charged him with leaving his post outside the president’s box to have a drink. Parker was tried and acquitted.”8
In hindsight, many theories were advanced about what had happened before the actual murder. For example, a few days after President Lincoln’s assassination, presidential appointee Benjamin French claimed to have prevented an earlier murder attempt on at the President’s Inauguration on March 4: “As the procession was passing through the Rotunda toward the Eastern portico a man jumped from the crowd into it behind the President. I saw him, and told Westfall, one of my Policemen, to order him out. He took him by the arm and stopped him, when he began to wrangle and show fight. I went up to him face to face, and told him he must go back. He said he had a right there, and looked very fierce & angry that we would not let him go one, and asserted his right so strenuously, that I thought he was a new member of the House whom I did not know and said to Westfall ‘let him go.’ While were thus engaged endeavoring to get this person back in the crowd, the president passed on, and I presume had reached the stand before we left the man. Neither of us thought any more of the matter until since the assassination, when a gentleman told Westfall that Booth was in the crowd that day, and broke into the line and he saw a police man hold of him keeping him back. W[estfall] then came to me and asked me if I remembered the circumstance. I told him I did, and should know the man again were I to see him. A day or two afterward he brought me a photograph of Booth, and I recognized it at once as the face of the man with whom we had the trouble. He gave me such a fiendish state as I was pushing him back, that I took particular notice of him and fixed his face in my mind, and I think I cannot be mistaken. My theory is that he meant to rush up behind the President and assassinate him, and in the confusion escape into the crowd again, and get away. But by stopping him as we did, the President got out of his reach. All this is mere surmise, but the man was in earnest, and had some errand, or he would not have so energetically sought to go forward….’”9
Soldiers, doctors and theater personnel descended on the presidential box after Booth leaped from it to the theater stage and escaped. It was decided to move the dying President across the street to a rooming house. There was plenty of off-stage drama at Petersen House where high ranking officials assembled over the next few hours and the official investigation was organized.
James Tanner, a clerk in the War Department who had learned shorthand after he lost in his from a war injury, was attending the theater at Grover’s that night. Tanner, who lost both feet at the Second Battle of Bull Run, lived next door and was recruited to transcribe Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton’s orders. He finished transcribing his notes shortly before President Lincoln died “and passed back into the room where the president lay. There were gathered all those whose names I have mentioned and many others – about twenty-or twenty-five in all, I should judge. The bed had been pulled out from the corner and owing to the stature of Mr. Lincoln, he lay diagonally on his back. He had been utterly unconscious from the instant the bullet plowed into his brain. His stertorous breathing subsided a couple of minutes after seven o’clock. From then to the end only the gentle rise and fall of his bosom gave indication that life remained.
The surgeon general was near the head of the bed, sometimes sitting on the edge thereof, his finger on the pulse of the dying man. Occasionally he put his ear down to catch the lessening beats of heart. Mr. Lincoln’s pastor. The Reverend Doctor Gurley, stood a little to the left of the bed. Mr. Stanton sat in a chair near the foot on the left, where the pictures place Andrew Johnson. I stood quite near the head of the bed and from that position had full view of Mr. Stanton across the president’s body. At my right Robert Lincoln sobbed on the shoulder of Charles Sumner.
Stanton’s gaze was fixed intently on the countenance of his dying chief. He had, as I said, been a man of steel throughout the night but as I looked at his face across the corner of the bed and saw the twitching of the muscles I knew that it was only by a powerful effort that he restrained himself.
The first indication that the dreaded end had come was at twenty-two minutes past seven when the surgeon general gently crossed the pulseless hands of Lincoln across the motionless breast and rose to his feet.”10
Booth biographer Michael W. Kauffman wrote: “The Reverend Dr. Gurley cleared his throat and stepped up to the bed, saying, ‘Let us pray.’ As the minister began his prayer, James Tanner quietly reached into his pocket for a pencil. In his haste, he broke off the point. The prayer went unrecorded.”11 Kauffman wrote: “It was not until after the Cabinet left that a detail of six men took charge of the remains, placing them in a rough wooden coffin and carrying them back out the narrow hallway and down the winding steps. An ambulance waited in front of the house. As the body was loaded into it, the crowd closed in for a final glimpse of their martyred leader. Then they embarked on a slow, mournful, rain-drenched procession to the White House.”12
The rest of Kaufman’s book meticulously details Booth’s complicated escape from the city and death after Union soldiers surrounded him in a barn they set afire. It ends with the trial and execution of the alleged co-conspirators. Kaufman is much more equivocal about the guilt of Dr. Samuel Mudd than some other recent assassination authors – especially Edwin A. Steers, who believes that Mudd was clearly implicated in the murder conspiracy.
David Herbert Donald, “Why Lincoln Died,” Boston Globe, November 21, 2004. Lincoln biographer David H. Donald writes: “Kauffman has been studying the Lincoln assassination for more than 30 years. He has searched every possible archive for letters, diaries, and other papers about Booth and his fellow conspirators, and he has located numerous documents still in private hands. He has intimate knowledge of all the places in Washington connected with the plot — like Ford’s Theatre, where the president was shot; the Petersen house, where Lincoln died; the home of Secretary of State William H. Seward, who was attacked at the same time as the president; and Mary Surratt’s house, where, according to President Andrew Johnson, the plot was hatched. For years Kauffman has expertly conducted guided tours of the escape route that Booth followed in southern Maryland, and he knows every inch of these country roads. He is unwilling to rely on belated or hearsay evidence. To settle a controversy over just how long it took to burn the Virginia tobacco shed where Booth was finally cornered, Kauffman, with the help of some Civil War re-en-actors, ‘burned down a genuine Civil War-era tobacco barn.’ It is hard to think that there is anything about the Lincoln assassination plot that he does not know.”
More on the Author
Michael Kaufman is a political historian.
- H. Donald Winkler, The Women in Lincoln’s Life, p. 220.
- Michael W. Kaufman, American Brutus: John Wilkes Booth and the Lincoln Conspiracies, p. xiv.
- Michael W. Kaufman, American Brutus: John Wilkes Booth and the Lincoln Conspiracies, p. xiv.
- Michael W. Kaufman, American Brutus: John Wilkes Booth and the Lincoln Conspiracies, p. xiii,245.
- Michael W. Kauffman, American Brutus: John Wilkes Booth and the Lincoln Conspiracies, pp. 245-246.
- Margarita Spalding Gerry, editor, Through Five Administrations: Reminiscences of Colonel William H. Crook, pp. 73-74.
- Smith Stimmel, Personal Reminiscences of Abraham Lincoln, pp. 89-90.
- Michael W. Kauffman, American Brutus: John Wilkes Booth and the Lincoln Conspiracies, p. 393.
- Library of Congress, Manuscript Division, http://memory.loc.gov/cgi-bin/query/r?ammen/pin@field(NUMBER+pin2205)),
- William Barton, The Life of Abraham Lincoln, Volume II, p. 479.
- Michael W. Kauffman, American Brutus: John Wilkes Booth and the Lincoln Conspiracies, p. 79.
- Michael W. Kauffman, American Brutus: John Wilkes Booth and the Lincoln Conspiracies, p. 240.