One book on Lincoln’s assassination you should avoid

13 05 2008

OK, I’m not in a snarky mood, but since I wrote last week about the five books on Lincoln’s assassination that you should have, today I’ve decided to write on one you should avoid.

I’m fully aware there is more than one that should be avoided, but the one I’m writing about today outclasses them all. Be prepared, because at 3,248 words, this is the longest post I’ve ever written.

Gresham’s Law states that bad money drives out good money. In terms of Lincoln’s assassination, it means that the bad books often drives out or obscures the good (a point made by William Hanchett in the Lincoln Murder Conspiracies).

James Swanson’s Manhunt fits that category to a “T”. When the book first came out, I had a friend who couldn’t understand why I was so angry about it. I wrote a review so he could find out. Here, in a somewhat altered form, is why you should avoid this book.

James Swanson is a talented writer, although his prose sometimes borders (and many times completely somersaults into) the purple. Manhunt has sold several hundred thousand copies and has appeared on several bestseller lists. Whether it belonged there is open to doubt.

Vocational and avocational historians have waged war for years as to who is the most qualified to write history. When Herbert Baxter Adams introduced the seminar at Johns Hopkins University at the end of the 1870s, professional historians sought to displace such popularizers as Edward Gibbons and Francis Parkman in the public mind. Adams and those university-trained historians who followed have consistently railed against popular histories which flout the rules of rigorous scholarship.

While there is certainly nothing wrong with popular history–indeed its creation should be cultivated and nourished–academics are correct to point out that popular history which mocks the rules of scholarship always results in bad history. The story is told based on the available evidence, of which the greater part must be primary and not secondary. Where direct primary evidence is unavailable, generalizations can be made with ancillary material, but it is done with caution, not recklessness. Nothing is invented! Scenes are not contrived, and, to rework an old newspaper saw, the facts do get in the way of a good story. Finally, and most critically, all sources are cited in notes which gives readers the opportunity to read those sources for themselves.

When Swanson sticks to what’s known, even if the details can be debated, his writing style breathes life into those findings in a way other writers can only envy. Unfortunately, when his eye for the dramatic gets the best of him, as it often does in Manhunt, Swanson provides academic critics with more ammunition.

While Swanson’s book is the first to focus solely on the hunt for John Wilkes Booth and his conspirators, he breaks no new ground here. Most of his sources have been deeply mined by previous scholars who focused on the broad picture of Lincoln’s assassination, many of whom Swanson relies heavily on (and gives credit to). While Swanson uses Thomas Jones’ account of Booth’s escape effectively, his obvious admiration for the Confederate courier and “river ghost” is misplaced. Not wanting to go to the point of making Booth the anti-hero that any riveting drama needs, Jones serves Swanson well as Booth’s stand-in. While Jones’ account of how he helped Booth does indeed raise the dramatic level evident throughout the book, Swanson ignores that but for Jones, Booth could have been captured before he crossed the Potomac. In Swanson’s hands, Jones is a dashing and dramatic rogue, but in the real world Jones was first and foremost a criminal who should have been executed with Lewis Paine, Mary Surratt, David Herold and George Atzerodt. Read the rest of this entry »


Five books on Lincoln’s assassination you should have

6 05 2008

What I originally believed to be a head cold has turned into a serious case of allergies, which is weird because in 44 years, I can’t remember a time when I suffered like I am now. I took some medicine about an hour ago and it’s starting to kick in, so I guess technically I’m writing under the influence (although I doubt it will make either the allergies or my writing any better).

Be that as it may, I wanted to write this week about five books you should have concerning Lincoln’s assassination. These five represent what I believe to be the best currently available. Someday, when I’m in a snarky mood, I’ll tell you which ones to avoid.

These are in alphabetical order.

American Brutus by Michael Kauffman — Mike Kauffman has taken a lifetime of interest in Lincoln’s assassination and an uncanny ability to ferret out the smallest detail and turned it into one of the best books ever written about the crime. No detail is too small to escape Mike’s attention. This man even once burned down a tobacco barn to see how long it would have taken for the type that John Wilkes Booth was cornered in to be destroyed. The most controversial part of Mike’s work concerns his theory that Booth consciously attempted to draw people into his web of conspiracy so that if they ever had to implicate him, they would be implicating themselves. American Brutus will stand for a long time as the go-to book on Lincoln’s murder.

Beware the People Weeping by Thomas Reed Turner — Based on his doctoral dissertation, Beware the People Weeping was written by Turner in 1982 and was one of the first books on Lincoln’s assassination to be written from a scholarly perspective. In this tour de force, Turner studies reaction throughout various sectors of society concerning Lincoln’s assassination, including the south, from the pulpit and the controversies surrounding the trial of the conspirators. This work is far better than Turner’s later attempt to write a small, single-volume history on Lincoln’s assassination.

Blood on the Moon by Edward J. Steers Jr. — Was Dr. Samuel Mudd just an innocent country doctor who was simply following his Hippocratic oath when a stranger knocked on his door after suffering a broken leg? Or did he know the man who came to his house after shooting the 16th president? Steers argues in this magnificent work that Mudd not only knew who Booth was, but that they had met at least twice before Lincoln’s murder. Steers, whose background is in molecular genetics, is a careful and serious researcher and historian. If I had room for just two books on my shelf, they would be Kauffman’s and Steer’s.

The Great American Myth by George S. Bryan — Although written in 1940 (on the flyleaf of my copy, it shows the price at $3.75), this book was one of the first to attempt to counter the type of history written by Otto Eisenschiml, who had published Why Was Lincoln Murdered three years earlier. The books was based on newspaper and primary manuscript sources as well as numerous secondary source materials. It was updated and reissued in 1990 with an introduction by William Hanchett.

The Lincoln Murder Conspiracies by William Hanchett — This was also one of the first books written by a university professor, first published in 1983. Hanchett destroys some cherished myths concerning Lincoln’s assassination but much of his venom is directed toward Eisenschiml, who is mercilessly raked over the literary coals by Hanchett. I’ve often said that anyone who wants to read Eisenschiml should be sure they have Hanchett’s book next to them.

While there are several other books out there, none, in my opinion, match the quality you will find in these works. They are readily available and should find a place in your library as soon as possible.

Just who is Everton J. Conger…

17 03 2008

Everton J. Conger, circa 1862

…and why does he merit study?

It seems for the past 12 years I’ve answered that question. Most people, even those with some knowledge of Lincoln, have never heard of the non-descript dentist from Ohio who assured his place in history for helping capture John Wilkes Booth.
I first became acquainted with Conger when I worked for the Carmi (Ill.) Times newspaper. From 1869 to 1880 Conger lived in this small southern Illinois community where he had a brother and where his parents spent their final years.

At this point in my life, I had pretty much abandoned studying history. To be sure, I read a great deal, but that passivity proved to be less than satisfying. A constant companion in my head in those days was the nagging voice that kept telling me if I was ever to become a historian, I had to do something other than read about it.

But what to write about?

That question was answered when I was interviewing an artistic couple who had bought the home of Everton’s brother, Chauncey. I saw a painting of Chauncey in the upstairs hallway and immediately I wondered to myself, who was this man?
In reading about Chauncey in a local history, I came across the story of his older brother and the fact that he had played a role in the capture of Booth.

Often, I drove past the home which Everton was said to have built with part of the proceeds of the $15,000 reward he received (much of which he lost in a bad investment), but the story never really resonated with me. Looking for information on Everton, I became disenchanted. The only story I could find was written by a local historian which was fine, but very sparsely detailed.

I had found my project.

Two years later I wrote a 15,000 word, five-part series for the newspaper which only scratched the surface of just who Everton J. Conger was. I decided then it was time to write a biography.
The project floundered over the next few years as the daily details of life intruded. It wasn’t until 2006, after being interviewed for the National Geographic Channel’s documentary “The Hunt For Lincoln’s Assassin” that I fully committed myself to finishing the story.

If Conger hadn’t been involved with the capture of Booth, his life, however interesting it may be, probably wouldn’t merit a biography. But that is one of the problems (albeit understandable) with the study of history. A story has to be “big” and it has to have broad appeal before it’s considered worthy of telling.
Given how academic historians have failed in telling the story of Lincoln’s murder, it shouldn’t be surprising that Conger’s story was lost. But in fairness, even with the intense interest with Lincoln’s murder among the general public, most people have no idea who Everton Conger was.

I hope to change that.

Even without the capture of Booth, Conger lived an interesting life. Born in 1834 to a Presbyterian missionary and his wife, Conger served with distinction during the Civil War as a cavalry officer, first with the Third West Virginia Cavalry and then with the First District of Columbia Cavalry, where he had de facto command since the colonel of the regiment, Lafayette Baker, was in Washington on detached service with the War Department.
Wounded twice (and once left for dead overnight in the frigid October cold), Conger persevered both as a soldier and later as a civilian.
After the war, when he moved to southern Illinois, Conger studied law in Chauncey’s law office. In 1880, he was appointed to the territorial supreme court of Montana by an old friend, President Rutherford B. Hayes, whom Conger had known when he was a dentist in Fremont, Ohio.
In 1883 he was suspended from the bench due to a political dispute. His opponents exploited his addiction to alcohol and morphine (which he digested in large quantities because of his war wounds) as well as his affection for gambling.
Although cleared of wrong-doing, Conger wasn’t reappointed to the bench. He spent the rest of his life either as a prosecutor in Montana or trying to work a ranch. He died in 1918 after suffering a massive stroke brought on by the death of his beloved daughter, Daisy.
From time to time, I will present various aspects of Conger’s life here, but in order not to suck the energy out of my book, it will be done so sparingly.

I hope I can prove to you that obscurity isn’t the same as unimportance.