Michael Kauffman – American Brutus: John Wilkes Booth and the Lincoln Conspiracies

In addition to Rafuse’s book about McClellan, this book ended up in my house more by chance than out of interest. In all honesty, I’m more interested in discussion of how Lincoln’s death affected Reconstruction policies, but this is not on the agenda.

What Kauffman did accomplish was a strong offering of pop history with meticulous research and detail that ultimately falls short of what he set out to achieve.

In starting out the book, Kauffman claims to have used software to create a methodical chronology of Booth’s wheelings and dealings in the years leading up to April 14. He also states that a number of assassination conspiracy theories are based on false evidence or entirely groundless altogether. The reader thus expects that these theories would be dealt with in the narrative.

That reader, like I, would be wrong. Kauffman starts with the assassination itself, then works backward through a sort of biography of Booth back through the assassination and into the manhunt, ending with the trial and the aftermath of each role player. Outside of referencing conspiracy theories (particularly the Stanton involvement theory) and dismissing them out of hand, the title is rather misleading.

Kauffman’s narrative closely parallels the common interpretation of the assassination and the following 2 weeks in terms of its backbone. Booth’s initial plot to kidnap Lincoln is too difficult to accomplish and thus Booth intends to kill him, lucking into the Ford Theater scenario. After Booth shoots Lincoln and flees the city, Stanton steps in to fill the power void in the interim, and the intense manhunt eventually corners Booth in a tobacco barn, where he is mortally wounded by Corbett.

There are a number of strong suits in the book. Though Kauffman doesn’t really delve into his own opinion of Booth’s motives and mentality, he is able to refute a number of once considered motives and mentalities, and eventually Kauffman seems to determine that the actor in Booth (and his knowledge of certain roles and parts) played the lead role in determining Booth’s course of action. Kauffman does a good job of discussing the trial and its misconceptions, especially given how little of the book is devoted to it. Most notably, Kauffman’s narrative amply demonstrates how Booth is both cunning and over the top in creating the conspiracy web. Kauffman concludes that Booth “accomplished what every actor aspires to do: he made us all wonder where the play ended and reality began.”

Though the book purports to burst the bubbles of various myths, it doesn’t touch upon them all that intensely. But for pop history, which this clearly is, it does have a wealth of research and discussion on it. Anyone not terribly familiar with the assassination of Lincoln itself who might be looking for a 300 page crash course on the assassination plot should probably read this. For a serious scholar of the assassination, extensive endnotes (and author commentary) help as well. If you’re more interested in how the assassination affected politics or the end of the war, look elsewhere.

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