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Showing 1-4 of 4 reviews(1 star). Show all reviews
on April 3, 2009
I was impressed by James Swanson's book, Manhunt: the 12-Day Chase for Lincoln's Killer, but unfortunately not favorably so. To begin, Swanson treats his subject in such light and casual detail that any serious student of history or anyone with an academic interest in Lincoln's assassination would be poorly served to waste time with this book. Swanson's intended audience is strictly the retail public.

Swanson begins his book with "a note to the reader" in which he makes the claim, "This story is true" and that all the words in quotation marks are taken from original sources. A careful reading of the text exposes this bold claim as a dubious piece of obfuscation. For example, on page 29 Swanson quotes the text of a letter given by John Wilkes Booth to an actor friend John Matthews (the text of the letter appears in italics). However, later in the text (pages 148-149) Swanson relates how Matthews panics after the assassination and he burns the letter from Booth. In the notes Swanson admits that the letter he quotes was not the original (since it was destroyed) but rather a recreation based on Matthew's recollection and based in part on the manifesto in Booth's diary. I suppose one might argue that since the letter appears in italics and not within quotes, it is subject to a greater degree of license, but that logic really falls flat in this reviewer's estimation. Swanson ruins his credibility as a writer by failing to make clear in the text that this letter is not an original but rather a recreation. Furthermore, there is no conceivable reason for glossing over this important detail except to make the story somehow more dramatic. Swanson should take note that this story does not need his added drama.

There are several uses of literary devices that range from inappropriate to downright offensive. Swanson has the lamentable habit of attributing to characters in his story motives that he cannot possibly substantiate. Consider the contrasting motives of women attending the deaths of Lincoln and Booth respectively. On page 84 actress Laura Keene is described as a brazen opportunist who ruthlessly insinuates her way into the presidential box for the sole reason of achieving some kind of fame for being a part of history. In all due fairness, no one could really speculate on what Laura Keene's motives were except Miss Keene herself. The book's end notes do not indicate Laura Keene ever claimed that she was a self serving opportunist, and it is unlikely that she would have even if it were the truth. It appears that for whatever reason, Swanson does not like Laura Keene and has decided to portray her in a pejorative light. On the other hand, Lucinda Holloway who ministered to the mortally wounded Booth on the porch of the Garrett farm receives favorable treatment. When she procures a lock of hair from the corpse of the murderer, Swanson denies that she is "craven relic hunter who lusted morbidly, like so many others, for bloody souvenirs of the great crime". One might ask why she is not to be considered a morbid relic hunter. Instead, Swanson portrays Lucinda Holloway as a tragic and romantic heroine, giving comfort to the misguided assassin in his last moments. Swanson seems perfectly comfortable with his portrayal of Holloway as a romantic heroine even when in the next paragraph she interferes with the investigation by stealing the dead actor's field glasses. It appears that in Swanson's estimation, bringing a pitcher of water to the side of an assassinated president is opportunistic, but stealing property from a dead murderer and tampering with evidence is a romantic adventure. This reviewer considers that the author has no factual basis upon which to base these characterizations, and that furthermore it represents a distorted view of moral values.

And speaking of distorted moral values, this reviewer was disturbed by Swanson's obvious and inappropriate infatuated sympathy with the murderer John Wilkes Booth. On several occasions, Swanson draws parallels between John Wilkes Booth and Jesus Christ. For example, he repeatedly refers to Willie Jett as a "Judas". Also, on page 336 when Booth is shot and captured, David Herold attempts to maintain Booth's alias by insisting his name is Boyd and Swanson characterizes the ruse as "In captivity, the assassin's disciple denied him thrice". A few pages later on 341 the wounded Booth is on the porch of the Garrett house and is thirsty. Swanson writes, "As strangers at Golgotha did for Christ on Good Friday's cross, Lucinda answered his plea..." In this reviewer's humble estimation, Booth as a murderer has little in common with Jesus who was not a murderer, and drawing parallels between the two is patently absurd and even offensive. This is not literary license; it is more like literary licentiousness.

While reading this book I made notes of a number of other shortcomings in the text, such as on page 320 where Swanson describes Booth holding his pistols in his hands and then contradicts himself a paragraph later by writing that he is reaching for his holstered pistols. Or in the epilogue where Swanson suggests that Booth has been forgiven for murdering the most popular president in U.S. history. Suffice it to say that a complete catalog of all the lamentable characteristics of this book is not included in this review.

The most appropriate way to describe this book is to quote Booth's last words: "useless, useless". Swanson's preference for florid melodrama and casual disregard for accuracy in detail ruins the book for any serious student of Lincoln history. And his obvious sympathy for the murderer rather than his victims is likely to leave an unfavorable impression for the casual reader seeking an introduction to the subject. There are already two excellent books on the subject that should appeal to all audiences, serious academic and casually curious. These are Blood on the Moon by Edwin Steers, and American Brutus by Michael Kaufmann. To say that Manhunt is superfluous under the circumstances would be too much of a kindness.
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on February 24, 2006
This is sort of the History Channel-version of the Lincoln assassination, dumbed-down to the lowest common denominator. Two other excellent and well-regarded books on the Lincoln assassination have come out in the past couple of years (Blood on the Moon [definitive version] and the excellent American Brutus). Why anyone would read this Reader's Digest version of these events is beyond me. It reads like a movie screenplay and once I found out the movie was already in the works it explained why this book is so fluffy.
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on January 14, 2013
I thought it would be interesting to read about Booth, but it turned out to be a real drag, and I got rid of the book after half way through. -Dave Chiddix
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on April 20, 2006
this book is so poorly written, it will bring tears to your eyes. bar none, the very worst civil war book i have ever read. the only reason i gave it 1 star was that 0 stars is not available.
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