Tuesday, June 27, 2006

Manhunt

First off, get your mind out of the gutter. This is not about the gay male hook-up website. I am referring to the book I am currently reading, Manhunt: The 12-Day Chase for Lincoln's Killer by James L. Swanson. This book was an airport purchase; I bought it at Midway in Chicago on my flight home two weeks ago. It tells the story of John Wilkes Booth and David Herold's escape from Washington, DC and into Virginia following Booth's successful assassination of Abraham Lincoln in 1865.

Being the history buff I am, I have read quite a bit about Lincoln, specifically about this 12-day period and even the weeks leading up to it. But in this account, the author introduces me to a few people I had not known of previously, and he is also one of the few historians to actually place blame on Mary Surratt, the boarding house owner where Booth visited to plot a kidnapping that eventually turned into murder, and Dr. Samuel Mudd, the Maryland physician who set Booth's broken leg due to his leap to the stage from Lincoln's balcony seat. Most historians have sympathized with Surratt and Mudd, saying they were just in the wrong places at the wrong times. But Mr. Swanson so convincingly lists the reasons why Surratt and Mudd would have willingly helped the murderer that I now believe they were guilty of aiding and abetting.

I had visited Mudd's house in Maryland (the Surratt Boarding House in DC is now a restaurant in Chinatown) - indeed I had even, one Sunday, followed the route Booth took during this flee from DC on April 15th, 141 years ago (except I did it by car - not on horseback). At Mudd's house, I saw the porch Booth walked upon, the bed he lay in, the windows he would peer out of, and the small hill he would have ridden towards in his quest for asylum in the Confederate state of Virginia. There were times standing in the house, and on the grounds, that I actually got chills.

I really have to wonder what it is about the night of April 15, 1865, and the days that bookend that night, that interest me beyond just fascination. This one event changed everything about America. Had Lincoln lived, how quickly would the South have joined back with the North to make one Union again? How would posterity have viewed Lincoln himself, as he was not well thought of while living and only martyred at death? And would other presidents (Garfield, McKinley, Kennedy) have been assasinated while in office had Booth not fired the first shot, literally?

There are few dates in our country's history that would forever define America and dictate how America would grow as a nation.


All of these dates instigated a manhunt for one reason or another. For me, learning about my country is like learning about my family tree. In order to know who we are, we need to know about those who came before us. To understand why we do what we do, we need to remember those who did it first. History is destined to repeat itself. And there will, unfortunately, be other manhunts in the future. And if the purpose of learning history is for history's sake, I hope that there will be more James Swansons out there so that we never forget.