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150 years after the Lincoln assassination nightmare

When Shakespearean actor John Wilkes Booth burst into the presidential box at Ford’s Theater and fatally wounded Abraham Lincoln with a single gunshot to the head, he committed what most people in the Western world considered the greatest crime of the 19th century.

Until then, assassinations were reserved for monarchs, despots and their families. Why assassinate a freely elected president in a Republican state? Not only was the president chosen by the people, he could be tossed out at term’s end. This crime was made worse by its coming just as Northern cities were celebrating the successful conclusion of the Civil War.

Since that first assassination of an American president, three others, plus numerous failed attempts, have blackened our history. Even today, the leader of the free world is not safe from an over-zealous ideologue or a common crackpot.

With the 150th anniversary of the nightmare of the Lincoln assassination just weeks away, Civil War historians have scoured for new angles for books and articles on this defining event in our nation’s history. Here are four notable ones.

• The Madman and the Assassin by Scott Martelle; Chicago Review Press, 244 pages ($26.95)

The most bizarre by far is Scott Martelle’s little biography of the man who killed assassin Booth.

That’s right. Not another biography of Booth, but the story of a sickly, scurvy-ridden and mentally disturbed Union Army sergeant who shot Booth at close range and later claimed the hand of God had steered the white-hot projectile to its target.

The name of the man nearly lost to history is Boston Corbett, a naturalized American citizen from England. Author Martelle is making a career of little-known historic figures. His last book was a delightful little work on the American ambassador to France who dug up John Paul Jones’ bones from under a Parisian laundry.

Writing the biography of Thomas (Boston) Corbett is made difficult because so little is recorded of Corbett’s life beyond some scattered letters, Army records, and official documents like pension filings and incarceration records. Thus much of the book deals with Booth’s dastardly deed and his 11 days as a fugitive.

One would think a lot would have been written about the man who killed the infamous Booth, but with a small fortune in reward money dangling out there for the capture of Booth, dead or alive, the commanding officers and federal detectives tended to downplay – if not ignore – Corbett’s role in favor of their own. Only a pittance of the $100,000 ever found its way to Corbett.

And the eccentric Corbett didn’t help his cause. He was described by a superior officer as “the most troublesome man in my company.” He once spent time in the military lockup for accusing his drill sergeant of repeatedly taking the Lord’s name in vain during drill, an accusation the drill sergeant apparently did not deny.

Corbett was not a professional soldier. He was a New York City street preacher and religious fanatic who had mutilated himself for life in order to escape the temptations of the flesh. His occupation was a “hatter” as in “mad as a hatter.” It seems there was a good deal of handling of mercury in the making of silk hats. Thus the adage, which seems to have fit Corbett to a “T”.

A man who suffered from paranoia, Corbett became convinced after he killed Booth that Confederate agents were following him to wreak their vengeance. The delusional Corbett eventually was committed to a mental institution in Kansas, where he led revivalist services until he saw a chance to steal a pony and escape into the prairie. He was last seen by friends boarding a train south and never was heard from again. Embarrassed officials, after searching at length for the semi-celebrity, decided Corbett must have died in a disastrous wildfire in Hinckley, Minn., an unlikely occurrence, but one impossible to disprove. Martelle doubts it. But it was a convenient way to close the official book on this nonentity.

• President Lincoln Assassinated!!; compiled and Introduced by Harold Holzer; Library of America, 446 pages ($29.95)

In “President Lincoln Assassinated!!” noted historian and prolific author Harold Holzer has stitched together an impressive anthology of the writings, memorials and official testimony in such a way that the story of the assassination is told in the words of Lincoln’s contemporaries.

It is almost eerie to read the recollections of eyewitnesses whose few words in a diary or offhand remark to a federal commission, have been transformed over the years into the huge body of history and fiction surrounding Lincoln’s assassination.

The most poignant and touching memorial is the one delivered by Frederick Douglass, the Afro-American newspaper publisher from New York who at times strongly supported, and at other times was highly critical of Lincoln.

Reprinted here is the complete text of Douglass’ speech at Cooper Union in New York to a mostly black audience less than two months after the assassination.

Of all the tributes – there were thousands, only a fraction of which are included in this volume – none can match Douglass’ for its astuteness and its depth of historical insight, given that he lacked the distance of time. Few in his day saw the Civil War and the assassination with Douglass’ clarity. And few see it with such perspicuity today.

Professor Holzer believes this is the first time Douglass’ Cooper Union address has been printed in full. It is almost worth the price of the book to read and reread the 16 pages – just a little more than 7,000 words – written by a man who could define so succinctly and unambiguously the root causes of the war he called inevitable, and the assassination that so shocked the nation.

• Lincoln’s Body: A Cultural History by Richard Wightman Fox; Norton; 416 pages ($28.95)

“Lincoln’s Body” is a finely crafted and beautifully written extended metaphor in which the life and death of Lincoln become the symbolic essence of the ebb and flow of the American republic.

Academic historian Richard Wightman Fox traces the cult of Abraham Lincoln that began immediately after his death and took on the aura of religious martyrdom. American leaders have used and misused Lincoln’s words, often real and sometimes apocryphal, until the reality and the myth have become indistinguishable.

Fox compares the idealized 16th president to the idealized American republic. He traces the progression of Lincoln, the hero of the Union, to Lincoln, the staunch defender of human rights, despite the president’s slow and agonizing path to the fount of abolition.

Sadly, the extended metaphor begins to break down when we reach the mid-20th century and the Lincoln detractors, notably fiction writer and self-proclaimed historian Gore Vidal.

Finally, the metaphor is derailed when Fox, the social historian, appears to buy into the 21st century electronic media heresy that entertainment and reality are one in the same. He treats the Disneyland Lincoln, the Lincoln of Steven Spielberg and the Lincoln of “Saturday Night Live” as if they are the true measures of the man, instead of the often highly successful artistic invention of the profit-driven world of make-believe.

• The Cause of All Nations by Don H. Doyle; Basic Books, 382 pages ($29.99)

Southern historian and university professor Don Doyle takes the worldview of the American Civil War and its greatest tragedy, the assassination of Lincoln. To Doyle, it was a question much larger than whether the United States would survive its first century intact.

Lincoln was prescient, in Doyle’s view, when he said at Gettysburg that quelling the Southern rebellion was essential to assuring “that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.”

In the government halls of Europe, as well as in the remaining American colonial possessions, the argument raged: Was the so-called “American question” the death throes of the republican movement born of the Enlightenment or could it survive the trauma of internal rebellion?

And worse, wasn’t the assassination of its elected leader just the natural consequence of democracy – anarchy? Many European monarchs not-so-secretly hoped the Civil War would end in the disintegration of the grand experiment called the United States.

For the serious history buff, Doyle’s book provides a fresh look at the American tragedy, and adds the needed perspective of just where the Atlantic community stood on the rebellion within the American republic.

If this critic could secure just one of these books for a permanent library, it would be the Holzer anthology, filled with the color and the eloquence surrounding the death of Lincoln. But for the sheer pleasure of reading, he would choose Martelle’s “The Madman” for its crisp and lively telling of the story of the assassination and subsequent killing of the assassin.

Edward Cuddihy is a retired Buffalo News managing editor.