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The truth about Booth

Just got back a few days ago from a weekend in Washington, D.C. I had little time for sightseeing, but I made it a priority to visit Ford's Theatre, scene of Lincoln's assassination—an event that has fascinated me since I first learned about it in childhood.

The timing couldn't have been better, as I had just finished reading the book American Brutus by Michael W. Kauffman—perhaps the best-researched account of how John Wilkes Booth conducted the assassination conspiracy. Here are a few paragraphs from the introduction:

Misdirection was Booth's secret weapon. It was not only a form of life insurance, but it helped him place attention just where he wanted it. Through lies and false insinuations, he crafted the impression that his conspiracy against Lincoln was larger than it actually was. He did this to boost his credibility, to confuse potential witnesses, to prod his cohorts into action, and to entrap anyone who might potentially betray his trust.

It seems clever in retrospect, but it wasn’t hard to do. He told friends he was heading for New York when he was actually going to Washington. He claimed to have struck it rich in the oil business, though he never made a cent. He implied he was working with Confederate agents, but his only contacts were personal. He stretched the facts at every phase of the plot. On stage or off, he was always an actor.

Kauffman's book goes on to describe Booth's machinations in considerable detail, working from statements his co-conspirators gave during the investigation and trials that followed Lincoln's assassination. According to Kauffman, Booth never gathered his cronies together at once or in the same place; some of them never even met each other. What he said about the nature and purpose of the plot depended on which conspirator he was talking to, so any two of them might have conflicting information. He succeeded at keeping most of them in the dark most of the time, and conducted many of his meetings right under the nose of a War Department clerk, Louis J. Weichmann, who had no idea what was going on.

Disclaimer: Any resemblance between the tactics of John Wilkes Booth as described by Kauffman and the tactics of individuals described in other posts on this blog is purely coincidental.

P.S. I think I'll add Sarah Vowell's Assassination Vacation to my reading list.


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