Tuesday, May 19, 2015

Assassin's Escape Route Dud

The other night, we watched a show on Travel Channel that I was initially excited to see.  Going along with the 150th Anniversary of the Lincoln Assassination, an episode of Time Traveling with Brian UngerLincoln's Killer on the Run, was pitched as:
Brian takes locals back to Washington, DC, at the end of the Civil War to follow the escape route of President Lincoln's assassin, John Wilkes Booth. They hide in a pine thicket, row across the Potomac River, and visit a special group of tennis courts.

The show was only 30 minutes and I initially wondered how they were going to fit a visit to all the places (at least 12 by my count) on Booth and David Herold's (an accomplice) escape route in that short amount of time.  So I eagerly tuned in.  At first I was happy to see that the show began in Baptist Alley, the space behind Ford's Theater where the escape route truly started.

But from there, the tour jumped to Rich Hill, the home of Samuel Cox, which would be Stop #4 if all 12 stops were included.  Admittedly, it was nice to see Rich Hill up close as it is completely off-limits to the public.  But by making this the next stop, the show completely bypassed several rather crucial stops in the escape route:
  1. The 11th Street Bridge. This passageway from DC to Maryland was completely off-limits to the public and guarded by the military.  However, Booth being the consummate actor, somehow managed to smoothly and calmly talk his way across it, despite having just shot the president, jumped to the Ford's Theater stage from the president's theater box and ridden at top speed through the city.
  2. The Surratt Tavern. Booth and Herold stopped here to pick up supplies that had been stored there earlier that day at the request of Mary Surratt.
  3. The home of Dr. Samuel Mudd.  Dr. Mudd was the physician who set Booth's broken leg, which happened either when Booth jumped to the stage or possibly when his horse fell on him during the escape).  There was and continues to be much debate over whether Mudd knew or recognized Booth during the visit.   
Three rather significant stops.  

From Rich Hill, the show then took us to the Potomac Crossing (accurate), discussed the failed first attempt at such and how a 2nd successful attempt was made a few days later (again, accurate), but then the show took us to Peyton House, veering past Booth and Herold's stop at Cleydael and the home of William Lucas.  I thought this was strange, considering the story behind both places.  Cleydael was the stately home of Dr. Richard Stuart, a confederate signal agent from whom Booth expected total support.  Booth thought wrong.  Instead, Stuart sent the men to spend the night at the cabin home of William Lucas, a black man.  Showing his racist sole, Booth made Lucas and his family sleep outside in the dirt so that he and Herold could have the cabin to themselves.

Eventually, the show brings us to the Garrett Farm, the final spot in the escape route, where Booth was gunned down in a burning tobacco barn.  The farm and barn are long since gone so there was really nothing to show.  But the show did take us inside Fort McNair to the site of the conspirators hanging following the trial.  It's the only spot on the trail that I've not been to personally, so I found that to be interesting.

I looked forward to this show and was disappointed.  It missed many opportunities to share the whole truth about the escape, as well as the country's attitude about what Booth had done.  Booth thought he would be praised a hero in the south, but was met with rejection and abandonment just about everywhere he went.  The show didn't really convey that.

Perhaps it's a lot to ask for a 30-minute show.  I liked the show and I think Brian Unger is a fun host (I realy liked him on How The States Got Their Shapes on the History Channel).  But I suggest reading My American Odyssey to learn more about this 12-day event.  It's really quite fascinating.