Monday, February 9, 2015

"The Day Lincoln Was Shot" by Jim Bishop (1955)

Abraham Lincoln was born on February 12, 1809. My reading of this book, and the resultant review you see here, are both coincidental to the occasion. But it does lend more of a relevance to the narrative when reading it.

I chose this book from the “stacks” in the library precisely because it is an older book, and as such it was written in closer proximity to the event. The author was writing at a time when these events were less than a century past, and there were a few people still living that had been alive when it occurred. They may have just been children at the time, but they would have remembered the events and the stories told by their parents and relatives.

Over the years the stories have changed. Prior to about 1970 most accounts agreed that Booth uttered his famous “Sic Semper Tyrannus!” as he leapt to the stage from the private box where he had just shot the President and stabbed Major Rathbone. But the contemporary accounts of the time tell a different story. That is, the individual eyewitness accounts. But history on this night would be written by one man; Edwin Stanton, Secretary of War.

Booth said two things after shooting Lincoln. The first was “Sic Semper Tyrannus!”; which was the motto of the State of Virginia, and also “The South has been avenged!” It was after saying these two things that he hung from the ledge of the box and dropped to the stage, breaking his ankle when his foot caught on the bunting draping the President’s box. But, I have to admit, the leap is a great flourish and Booth would no doubt be proud of this added highlight; true or false.

In 1954 and 1955 Mr. Bishop spent 6 months retracing the steps of the assassin and his co-conspirators, traveling from Maine and Canada to Virginia, reading all the old newspaper articles he could find and visiting the locations which were involved.

One of the strangest aspects of his research was in finding that news of the Presidents assassination was on the street the day of the assassination; as far away as Maine and almost 10 hours before he was killed. Even at a time when telegraph was the quickest means of communication, this still does not explain how the reports were so accurate as to name the theater, when at the time the President was himself still unsure of his plans. Remember that Mrs. Surratt’s son John was just then shuttling papers back and forth between Canada and the Confederate government in Virginia.

But this book is not given over to conspiracy theories. Rather, it is more concerned with an hour by hour description of what each of the participants were doing from about 7 AM on Friday April 14, 1865 until the President succumbed to his wound at 22 minutes past 7 AM the following morning. It is of interest to note that had Booth not killed Lincoln on Good Friday the late President might not have gained such stature as a martyr. In a way Booth helped bestow that honor on the man he claimed to loathe.

Each chapter of the book explores not only the events of that hour, but also the prior history of how the events led there. This is as an exciting account of the night Lincoln was shot as you will find. Robert Redford’s film; “The Conspirators”; was a fine film, but it relied on the “smooth” version of events. There is something lacking in the film which Mr. Bishop has captured so well within these pages; the confusion of the night as Booth was getting away.

One example of the contemporary inaccuracies which found it's way into the movie is the scene in Secretary of State Seward's room. The room was in complete darkness. Due to extreme amount of noise made by Lewis Paine as he attempted to shoot, and finally stab the Secretary's son at the top of the stairs, his daughter had extinguished all the lights in the room at the time and even tried to hold the door back when Paine attempted to enter. As a matter of fact he wound up struggling in the dark with two persons, one of whom was the daughter. 

As the streets of Washington filled with throngs of people on foot; and some in carriages; Booth stuck fairly to the script he had planned to make his escape over the bridge at the Navy Yard. That bridge was closed to traffic at 9PM nightly; and so no one really thought that Booth had gone that way. After all, the sentries were there to stop anyone trying to leave or enter the city. But, with the war just about over; General Johnston’s troops had not yet surrendered; the sentries were lax and allowed two of the assassins to pass over the bridge and on toward Surrattsville and the Surratt Tavern where there were guns and binoculars awaiting them.

The book has a sense of immediacy about it which can only come from the careful pacing of the author, as he lets you in on each piece of information as it happens over the course of the night. And even though you know the story; indeed the author references the outcome in several places; the reader is still held captive to the narrative.

Jim Bishop wrote a syndicated column for about 6 years between 1957 and 1963. In 1964 he released ''A Day in the Life of President Kennedy,'' which he had just finished 10 days before the assassination in Dallas. The book had been approved by JFK without revisions. However, Jackie Kennedy asked for 60 minor changes after his death and prior to publication; all of which the author acceded to. 

Mr. Bishop later wrote “The Day Kennedy Was Shot”, which was first released in 1968. TV personality Bill O’Reilly has had a successful run of books about the Lincoln and JFK assassinations, and I’ve even read them. They add nothing to the stories and in some places are very reminiscent of the style which Jim Bishop used in writing his books on the same subjects; only several decades earlier than Mr. O’Reilly. That’s why I like to roam “the stacks” at the library. A lot of “new” things can be found there.

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