- The Washington Times - Friday, November 12, 2004

Writing a book about the Lincoln assassination is a daunting challenge for any author. Surely, this particular lode must be mined out by now. From 1865 onward, there have been hundreds, possibly thousands, of books on the subject, such as the recent “Blood on the Moon” by Edward Steers Jr. Even so, Michael W. Kauffman’s “American Brutus: John Wilkes Booth and the Lincoln Conspiracies” makes a fresh addition to any history buff’s collection.

As he makes plain in his introduction, Mr. Kauffman is deeply fascinated with his subject, even developing a computer program to help sort out the mountains of evidence. He writes of following the Booth escape route, of staying more than 400 nights at the Booth family home and even of having done a jump onto the Ford’s Theatre stage. Unlike Booth, he didn’t break any bones.

This reviewer has read extensively on the Lincoln assassination, but Mr. Kauffman’s book still had plenty of revelations in it. For example, in addition to the eight defendants put on trial by the government, Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton tried unsuccessfully to add a ninth — Horace Greeley, editor of the New York Tribune. Stanton believed that Greeley’s editorials were encouraging would-be assassins to attack him, too. The book has hundreds of historical nuggets such as these, long neglected or overlooked by others.

Mr. Kauffman also leavens his story with occasional flashes of humor. For example, John Lloyd, the tavern keeper who testified against Mary Surratt, was “a huge man, who didn’t care much for strenuous activities, such as standing up.” Or, when one lady refused to help Booth in his escape, the author suggests that “maybe it was the assault on the senses that one gets from a man who has lived in the wild for more than a week.”

One characteristic of assassination scholarship is the wide variety of interpretations for almost any part of the story. Should any writer offer his opinion on a given point, a host of other scholars will insist it is flat-out wrong. To mention one of the most well-known disputes, did Dr. Samuel Mudd recognize his old acquaintance Booth when the latter came to the doctor’s house that night seeking help for his broken leg? Some historians insist that he must have.

By contrast, Mr. Kauffman comes down fairly strongly on Mudd’s side, pointing out that Mudd had not seen Booth in months and was less likely to recognize his surprise visitor in the wee hours of the morning. Also, while recuperating in bed, Booth lay facing the wall, so the doctor had little chance to recognize him. All the same, when giving such interpretations, the book is never didactic about it, and it provides plenty of data for those who want to pursue such disagreements further.

One of the more disquieting possibilities “American Brutus” raises is that Booth may have had other people working for him besides those who were caught. Let it be said at once that the author does not peddle the shopworn notion that the plot was really cooked up by Stanton. Rather, he proposes that the evidence was never systematically examined or even gathered in one place, as it was scattered about in War Department files. If so, there may be undiscovered stories for future historians.

Another big draw for the book will be the sources listed in the back. There are nearly a hundred pages of such references for those who might want to do some research of their own. In addition to a list of books and pamphlets, there are court and congressional records, manuscript collections and papers at the National Archives, named and numbered for easy access.

“American Brutus” will rank as a major work on the assassination for some time. No doubt it will encourage a new crop of books by writers with other opinions, according to the usual pattern.

John Lockwood is a Washington writer.

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