Matthew B. Gilmore
Note: this is the first in a continuing set of posts on important books (new and old) for those studying Washington DC history.
A well-written, engaging book, recounting the life of John Wilkes Booth full of useful (but not overwhelming) detail. The concluding section including Booth’s death does strays a bit into the novelistic (one “character” feels tears on his cheeks, a bat flies out when Booth opens the door to the barn where he will die). The loving details told of his earlier life do make the conspiracy section seem a little bit rushed. As the North crushes Southern resistance and the war nears its end Booth’s Hamlet-esque struggle to decide what action to take (if any) against Lincoln dominates the rest of the book. The conspiracy itself and Booth’s life during the months up to its conclusion feel sketchy, due in part to lacunae in the historical evidence. The story of Booth’s relationship with his fiancée(?) Lucy Hale is but lightly covered–an intriguing story indeed–the daughter of an abolitionist Senator engaged to a man who bitterly hated Lincoln. But one comes away from the book, if not understanding Booth, with a rich picture of the life he lead and something of the motives and demons which drove him.
The only previous biography of Booth was by George Alfred Townsend in 1865: The life, crime, and capture of John Wilkes Booth, with a full sketch of the conspiracy of which he was the leader, and the pursuit, trail and execution of his accomplices (Google books copy).
For more on the assassination plot itself Edward Steers “Blood on the Moon” is suggested. Reviewed here: https://networks.h-net.org/node/9997/reviews/10642/turner-steers-blood-moon-assassination-abraham-lincoln