Monday, 1 September 2014

A Treasury of Victorian Murder: The Murder of Abraham Lincoln Review (Rick Geary)


On April 14, 1865 Abraham Lincoln, along with his wife and some guests, went to Ford's Theatre in New York to see the play Our American Cousin and was shot in the head by John Wilkes Booth, an actor and Confederate. Booth shouted "Sic Semper Tyrannis" or "Thus Always to Tyrants" after leaping from the balcony, breaking his foot in the jump, and escaping. Lincoln died shortly after and a few days later Booth was found and shot by Federal Marshals. 

That was all I knew of the most famous assassination in 19th century history before I read this book (I’m British so that’s allowed!). What I found out was fascinating. Booth's assassination was part of a larger conspiracy where other members of Lincoln's administration would be murdered that night, such as Andrew Johnson the Vice President (and later of course President when his assassination attempt was thwarted) and William Seward, the Secretary of State. 

Though the men sent to kill William Seward got in, they only managed to cut the man's face before being hauled off. Seward survived while his assassin fled only to be caught later. The man who was charged with murdering Andrew Johnson lost his nerve and went from bar to bar drinking instead. Later he too was caught and all of the conspirators were hanged. 

I was amazed at the lack of security given to Lincoln. Nowadays we see Presidents and heads of state having phalanxes of bodyguards, snipers on rooftops, armed motorcades and choppers. Lincoln was receiving death threats daily and had only a single bodyguard! Not only that but on the night of the murder his bodyguard was at the bar drinking instead of guarding the President! 

I always imagined Booth sneaking into Lincoln's balcony secretly and then shooting him but apparently all Booth had to do was show his ID to Lincoln's PA, a man called Forbes who sat on a chair outside the balcony, to say he was an actor at the theatre (which he was) and then wait. 

Booth chose the moment in the play when a joke is uttered that gets a big laugh and then took out his single shot Derringer and shot Lincoln. It's amazing that after this, he leapt down, broke his leg, and STILL managed to get away! The freakin’ theatre had no security either!

Rick Geary also mentions how Booth earlier in the day had ridden right up to General Grant's carriage and stared in, twice, at Grant and his wife, before riding off. Nobody at this time - nobody! - had thought that needing any security might be necessary. It's astonishing how at such a turbulent time, such an important figure like Lincoln could be quite so cavalier in his lack of self protection. 

Geary once again produces a mesmerising true crime book that’s well-written that contains a mounting sense of dread and tension despite the reader knowing what is going to happen, drawn with a high level of detail and skill. The Murder of Abraham Lincoln is a brilliant addition to his Treasury of Victorian Murder series and a fantastic read.

A Treasury of Victorian Murder: The Murder of Abraham Lincoln

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