In revisiting this atmosphere, Mr. Kauffman brings a weird whiff of method acting to the biographer's role. "It was an interactive affair and required personal involvement," says the writer, who participated in the burial of one last assassination artifact (a conspirator's skull, accidentally found in the Smithsonian) and has been giving guided bus tours of Booth's escape route for nearly 20 years. Whether or not it was essential for him to have followed Booth's path so closely ("I've even burned down a tobacco barn like the one in which Booth was trapped"), his attachment to this material is palpable. And it yields a riveting, newly immediate view of a nation in turmoil.
The New York Times
Kauffman, an independent Lincoln assassination scholar, offers a beautifully written, exhaustive and well-reasoned reassessment of John Wilkes Booth and the murder of America's 16th president. The story Kauffman tells, though highly familiar, is also byzantine enough to still capture our attention. More importantly, Kauffman puts a new spin on well-worn data, adding a riveting reinterpretation that paints Booth as a ruthless player of complex games: a darkly brilliant manipulator of people, not all of whom realized what they were a part of until after Lincoln lay dead. Booth reveled in creating false impressions and planting strategic misinformation. One example involves Dr. Samuel Mudd, who set Booth's fractured leg before learning of the assassination and then, frightened for his life, made the mistake of denying knowing the actor. Years later, Gen. David Hunter-ranking member of the military commission that tried and sentenced Mudd to prison-commented: "The Court never believed that Dr. Mudd knew anything about Booth's designs. Booth made him a tool as he had done others." Kauffman's Booth is, in the end, a crazed but skilled puppetmaster who, as part of his endgame, needed to make sure that most of his puppets joined him in martyrdom for the Confederate cause. "Booth immortalized himself by staging one of history's greatest dramas," Kauffman writes. "In the process, he accomplished what every actor aspires to do: he made us all wonder where the play ended and reality began." Photos not seen by PW. (On sale Nov. 2) Copyright 2004 Reed Business Information.
Kauffman, a longtime student of the Lincoln assassination, brings together a mass of evidence on the murder conspiracy and its aftermath to provide the fullest and best day-by-day reconstruction of that fateful April time and revealing vignettes of the principals in the story. Kauffman too readily dismisses or ignores recent fine work by William Hanchett and others, but he does make a telling case that Booth and his small band of coconspirators acted on their own account rather than as agents of the Confederacy. By putting Booth and disaffected Marylanders center stage in the conspiracy, Kauffman pulls down the curtain on the many extravagant claims of a supposed vast intrigue that included some of Lincoln's cabinet and even his vice president. Kauffman's common sense in that regard repays the reader and compensates for some of his own extravagant claims to originality in argument. A vivid and often compelling narrative recommended for large public and academic libraries. [See Prepub Alert, LJ 7/04.] Randall M. Miller, Saint Joseph's Univ., Philadelphia Copyright 2004 Reed Business Information.
Ulysses S. Grant was supposed to be in attendance that fateful night at Ford's Theatre. He managed to be absent. Hmm . . . Conspiracy-minded readers raised on Oliver Stone and Art Bell might have a field day with Grant's absence. Lincoln-assassination scholar Kauffman doesn't enter Grant into the suspects' gallery, but he makes clear that the killing of the president was far from the work of a lone gunman: on the night of April 14, 1865, when Lincoln was killed, his secretary of state was attacked at his home nearby, and "investigation revealed that other men had also been targeted: the vice president, secretary of war, and general in chief of the army." Add rumors of insurrectionist plots to bomb ports and ships at sea and to poison New York's water supply, and you have all the makings of a terrorist scare that wouldn't be out of place today. Underemployed actor John Wilkes Booth was, of course, central to the plot; as Kauffman writes, when he began this work he was inclined to think of the killer as "a tragic figure, torn between competing ideals and led by hubris and emotion to commit one of history's greatest blunders," but he ended up sure that Booth "was a manipulator, not a pawn." So winning was Booth that he managed to steer secret agents, secessionist sympathizers, and even a few shadowy northerners into a long-nursed plot that evolved from kidnapping the president to doing away with him, period. Kauffman turns up some interesting suspects and fellow travelers, and he complicates an already complex plot by unveiling the workings of a war profiteering ring that involved Confederate officials' infiltrating a "cotton and tobacco trade that had been going on with the Lincolnadministration's blessing," which "was supposed to stimulate the Northern economy while encouraging Southern planters and merchants to reestablish their ties to the Union." The plot thickens, and by the point that Booth and accomplices escape easily from a Washington supposedly under martial law, the reader will gasp at the abundance of villains and the extent of their crimes. History as page-turner: a fascinating inquest.
Advance praise for American Brutus
“In this definitive reinvestigation of the Lincoln assassination, Michael Kauffman has at long last captured the real John Wilkes Booth. Writing with confidence and clarity, Kauffman masterfully cuts through the thicket of conflicting rumors, false stories, and wrong assumptions, that have corrupted many earlier studies. American Brutus is simply the most comprehensive and credible account ever published about the Lincoln assassination. By unmasking Booth’s real motivation while meticulously stripping away a century of accumulated folklore, Kauffman unlocks the mystery of why Lincoln was killed.”
–GERALD POSNER, author of Case Closed and Why America Slept
“In this gripping, often surprising reexamination of America’s most notorious crime, Michael W. Kauffman rescues the Lincoln assassination from the historical waxworks. Combining exhaustive research, computer technology, and a compulsively readable style, Kauffman clears away more than a century of misconceptions. This Booth is a greater actor, and a more cunning monster, than we ever imagined.”
–RICHARD NORTON SMITH, executive director, Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum
From the Hardcover edition.