Grandmother's gift inspires a lifelong fascination
by James L. Swanson
Unfortunately the clipping was incomplete, so when I was a child, I could read only part of the story. The article described the pistol attack on the president, Booth's leap to the stage at Ford's Theatre, the vicious knifing of Secretary of State Seward, and Booth's escape across the stage and race to the back door leading out to the alley and then . . . nothing. Someone had cut off the rest of the story so the clipping would fit within the frame!I must have read that article hundreds of times over the next few years. I remember vividly one night when I read that clipping over and over and thought, I want to read the rest of the story. Little did I know that one day, I would write about that story in not one, but a series of books devoted to the end of the Civil War, Lincoln's last days and his assassination and its unforgettable impact on American history and myth. And so it was my grandmother's gift a priceless relic that still hangs on my wall that triggered my lifelong obsession with the Lincoln assassination and inspired me to write Manhunt: The 12-Day Chase for Lincoln's Killer and Lincoln's Assassins: Their Trial and Execution. One of the most thrilling things I did as part of the research for my books was to acquire an entire run of rare, original issues of the Chicago Tribune about 100 newspapers from the end of the Civil War through the death of Lincoln and the trial of the conspirators. Whenever I look at them I am overcome with fond memories of my grandmother Elizabeth. When I grew older and learned more about Lincoln, I began collecting at a more advanced level books from the Civil War, newspapers, posters announcing the death of Lincoln, original prints and photographs and more. In high school, instead of buying a used car, I purchased one of the rare original reward posters offering a $100,000 reward for the Lincoln assassins. Once I got to college, I studied the assassination of Lincoln, and his era, ever more seriously. I was a student of John Hope Franklin at the University of Chicago and took his wonderful courses on the Civil War era and on the history of the American South. Manhunt and Lincoln's Assassins are the result of a lifetime of study, plus several years of intensive research and writing. I've assembled a reference library of several thousand books, relics, documents and illustrations covering Abraham Lincoln, the presidency, the Civil War and 19th-century American history. Much of what I needed for Manhunt and Lincoln's Assassins was already sitting on my shelves. I just needed to open these books and read them again. I also consulted my extensive collection of Civil War newspapers. Having so many priceless sources in my home library allowed me to work all day and then deep into the night my favorite time for research and writing. Public libraries close at night. My library was open 24 hours a day. These primary sources were absolutely essential. I could not have written the books without my collection of original materials.
I've tried to share many of these pieces in Lincoln's Assassins, a book I consider the pictorial companion to Manhunt. Lincoln's Assassins contains almost 300 color plates of the rare objects that have inspired my research, including the first publication ever of the entire series of Alexander Gardner's notorious and haunting photographs of the hanging of the Lincoln conspirators. The book is a scrapbook that I hope will transport readers back to the saddest days in American history.
Of course, there are a number of wonderful relics that I haven't discovered. Number one is Sergeant Boston Corbett's pistol the one he used to shoot and kill John Wilkes Booth. It was a prize relic, even at the time. Collectors offered Corbett up to $1,000 for the pistol. He refused, but soon enough it was stolen from him, and it's now been lost to history. The person who took it surely must have known its value, but I imagine that as it passed from hand to hand, and generation to generation, its history and importance have been lost. I'm betting that somewhere out there, a collector owns the revolver used to kill John Wilkes Booth and he doesn't even know he has it. And then there are the Booth autopsy photos that vanished within days of his death.
For me, the manhunt for Booth and the trial and execution of his conspirators continues. I'm still researching the topic, and I'm still hoping to discover other relics, letters, documents, or photographs that have been lost for more than a century, and that I can use in my next book about the thrilling manhunt for Jefferson Davis and the astounding, nationwide funeral events for Abraham Lincoln. This is the most alluring thing about writing history. The story never really ends, and you never know what amazing thing you might discover tomorrow.
<i>James L. Swanson is a legal scholar with the Heritage Foundation in Washington, D.C. Manhunt, his account of the search for John Wilkes Booth and his conspirators, spent 13 weeks on the</i> New York Times <i>bestseller list and has 250,000 copies in print. A movie version starring Harrison Ford is currently in pre-production.</i> Lincoln's Assassins, <i>a book co-written in 2001 by Swanson and Daniel R. Weinberg, is being brought back into print this fall in a new edition from William Morrow.</i>