Six weeks after 9/11, I found myself in Washington DC on a last-minute invitation from a friend who was visiting his daughter who was an intern at the White House. With all the security concerns at the time, visiting the White House was impossible as was the Capitol and a great many other attractions in the city. One place that was on my list and was open was the Ford’s Theatre and Peterson House, the respective sites of President Lincoln’s assassination and his death. Having long respected Lincoln as the “second father” of our country, I truly enjoyed the interpretive museum that is at the theatre. But across the street at Peterson House a greater experience awaited. It was a very cold and rainy day and there were no visitors coming in and so it was that I was able to talk to the guide who was a virtual encyclopedia of “Lincolnalia” for a couple of hours straight. He was utterly fascinating and definitely had his take on how and who might have been behind America’s first assassination of one of its presidents.
Equally fascinating is Bill O’Reilly’s Killing Lincoln which, in my opinion, demonstrates that the commander-in-chief of the Union was the last official casualty in the Civil War. That the assassination was in reality a conspiracy (as opposed to JFK’s which is merely supposed) and part of a coordinated effort to take out the VP and Secretary of State (those who would succeed Lincoln if he died in office) at the same time is well-documented and well-known. What I had a hard time wrapping my mind around was how accessible the POTUS was prior to Lincoln’s assassination. That people could just come into the White House without an appointment or sleep on the floor the night before so they might be able to get his attention in the morning when he passed down the hall is astounding. But the expectation of the time was that the President be a man of the people, which in part meant actually accessible to the people. That Abraham Lincoln’s body guard was in the tavern next to Ford’s theatre at the same time as John Wilkes Booth who had come in to drink while he waited for the right time in the play (Ten o’clock) is one of several ironic details that O’Reilly brings out in this book. Many years ago I had read another book about the assassination that led me to conclude that Secretary of War Stanton was more than just a little involved, but the book never addressed it. This one stops short of fully implicating Stanton as the man behind the plot, but certainly doesn’t hesitate to point out that he certainly seemed to have either inside information about the conspiracy or a preternatural intuition about who to look for and where to look.
Another detail I found fascinating in Killing Lincoln was that the Lincolns chose to go see a comedy that night called Our American Cousin. John Wilkes Booth actually attended the troupe’s mid-day rehearsal to find one of the best laugh lines in act two just to maximize the moment of distraction for him to carry out his “performance”. Something else that is amazing is that Booth had always planned his getaway route to be via jumping from the Presidents box to the stage and that he had successfully done such feats on the stage from even greater heights. But the new flag that was hung as bunting in front of the Presidential box was just slightly larger and that small difference caused Booth’s spur to catch and throw him off balance and thus break his leg when he landed. He got away initially, but his injuries slowed down his escape which in turn led to his capture.
The Lincoln assassination had reverberations for the entire nation. Lincoln’s post-Civil War policy was reunion not retribution with the Confederacy. Unfortunately, his successor Andrew Johnson moved in the direction of punishing the South which only caused the national wounds to further fester. John Wilkes Booth, didn’t help matters either. He thought killing Lincoln would be considered a heroic act of war, but instead found himself regarded as a merciless killer. Most people are aware that Mrs. Lincoln suffered the effects of this trauma the rest of her life but so did Union officer Henry Rathbone and his fiancé Clara Harris who attended the theatre that night with the Lincolns. Rathbone over time became mentally unstable from the trauma and his perceived inability to protect Mr. Lincoln. Eventually Major Rathbone went mad and killed his wife and children and ended up dying in an insane asylum.
Following Lincoln, the POTUS has been slowly and inexorably accompanied with more and more bodily protection and less and less accessibility to the public. While there is less danger of assassination, the creation of the "bubble" has become its own insoluble problem. It is a sad reality, that Lincoln, who said “the ballot is stronger than the bullet”, was the first to prove with his own life that this is not always the case. Sometimes bullets commit the evil of undoing our ballots Get the book for a long weekend as once you start reading, you’ll be unable to put it down.