A few weeks my ago wife and I attended a matinée showing of the movie, “Lincoln”. In his film, Steven Spielberg chose to focus on Lincoln’s effort to get Congress to approve the Thirteenth amendment to the Constitution outlawing slavery. Spielberg based his movie, in part, on Doris Kearns Goodwin’s book about Lincoln’s relationship with the men he chose to be his cabinet, Team of Rivals. The movie naturally ends with John Wilkes Booth murdering Lincoln, albeit off screen.
The film and the 150th anniversary of the American civil war has renewed interest in the 16th president of the United States and his death. For example, Fox News host Bill O’Reilly’s Killing Lincoln has been a New York Times best seller for 73 weeks at this writing. The less than favorable reviews (mostly based on the accuracy of information) have not kept O’Reilly fans from clamoring for this book either in bookstores or libraries. Truth be told, for readers who are not concerned about historical accuracy, the book should be an enjoyable read.
Two Lincoln scholars, James Swanson and Anthony Pitch, have researched the Lincoln assassination and produced a number of accurate yet readable books. Swanson has been the most productive: Manhunt: The Twelve Day Chase for Lincoln’s Killer and Bloody Crimes: The Chase for Jefferson Davis and the Pageant of Abraham Lincoln’s Corpse. Pitch’s book is “They Have Killed Papa Dead!“. John Wilkes Booth’s successful murder of Abraham Lincoln was not the first time someone tried kill him; in fact, an assassination attempt was before Lincoln took the oath of office and the Civil War got underway, as described in Daniel Stashower’s The Hour of Peril
Of course Lincoln was not only the president of the United State to be murdered while in office. The two other presidential assassinations, which took place within 36 years after the end of the Civil War, had nothing to the after effects of that conflict; although both James A. Garfield and William McKinley had fought for the Union.
Garfield met his end in 1881 through a combination of damage from a bullet, from a delusional, disgruntled government worker, and what the author of Destiny of the Republic, Candice Millard, pictures as an incompetent medical team that put the president through hell, before being responsible for his death. Millard suggests Garfield did not need to die. Had he been cared for by doctors following the proper medical protocols at the time, he would have survived.
Scott Miller sets the assassination of William McKinley, 30 years later, in the turbulent times at the turn of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. In The President and the Assassin, Miller makes clear the killing of an American president was the result of a world-wide radical movement. The murder of Mckinley was politically motivated by a foreign born anarchist who thought he was supporting the global anarchist cause. Nine days after Leon Czolgosz shot the president, the bullet that tore through his stomach did its job; an infection set in, despite the efforts his doctors, causing McKinley to die.
The United States had to wait over sixty years to witness another president struck down by an assassin’s bullet in 1963. Bill O’Reilly’s Killing Kennedy is on the NY Times Best Seller list just ahead of Killing Lincoln. Being 2013 is the fifty anniversary of the Kennedy assassination, I suspect new entries to the library of volumes about JFK’s murder will be forthcoming. The literary world has already gotten a picture of Kennedy’s death from LBJ’s point of view in Robert Caro’s Passage of Power.