American Experience: The Assassination of Abraham Lincoln

I have too great a soul to die like a criminal.

–John Wilkes Booth, April 1865

“I struck for my country and that alone. A country that groaned beneath this tyranny, and prayed for this end, and yet now behold the cold hands they extend to me. God cannot pardon me if I have done wrong. Yet I cannot see my wrong, except in serving a degenerate people.” Crouched in a swamp in Maryland, John Wilkes Booth wrote his final diary entry. He would elude authorities but a few hours longer, being the subject of the “largest manhunt in United States history,” and he would be killed in a shootout at Garrett’s farm on April 26, 1865.

These events are recounted in tonight’s episode of American Experience. The Assassination of Abraham Lincoln tracks the converging paths of the president and his killer, then tracks and draws connections between their last journeys, in the forms of Lincoln’s funeral train route and Booth’s desperate efforts to escape. While their fates are inextricably entwined, the show focuses on the disparities between Lincoln and Booth’s personalities, in particular imagining their different approaches to their own depression and melancholy. Where Lincoln, the great man and America’s first assassinated president, found ways to transcend his profound sadness over the Civil War (“This war is eating my life out; I have a strong impression that I will not live to see its end”) and to focus instead on the “idea” over which it was fought (that idea being the nation’s fundamental commitment to democracy and freedom), Booth, the pathological individual, was consumed by his sense of betrayal and rage, seeing the president as a tyrant who had destroyed a beloved “way of life.”

Narrated by Chris Cooper, The Assassination of Abraham Lincoln deploys the usual sorts of talking heads, identified as “writers” and “historians,” to narrate and comment on what happened, including a step-by-step description of the assassination per se, during which the camera cuts from James L. Swanson to photos of the theater exterior or balcony to Joshua Wolf Shenk or Doris Kearns Goodwin to reenactments of specific events on 14 April: for example, Booth arrives at the theater on a “small bay mare,” which he leaves with a stagehand, and the camera lingers on the young man petting the horse while the shadowy Booth passes in the background, entering the building where he will commit his most heinous act.

Such melodramatic imagery is vaguely illustrative, but also distracting. It also underscores the program’s occasionally sensational treatment of Booth: experiencing an “idyllic, free childhood” in bucolic Bel Air, Maryland, son of famous actor and theater manager Junius Brutus Booth and a celebrated actor in his own right (“the first American actor who had his clothes ripped by fans,” notes Swanson), he was nevertheless troubled, according to Terry Alford, by the “really big burden [of] being a Booth.” This sense of burden led apparently to his efforts to forge an individual identity; during the war, as his brother Edwin aligned himself with the North, John felt dedicated to the South. Edward Steers reports, “He hated abolitionists, he hated the anti slavery movement.” Alford adds that he also had a “fascination with romantic characters, heroic characters in particular,” and so determined to become one. His targeting of Lincoln had to do with the president linking “the cause of black freedom to formation of an American republic,” as historian David Blight puts it, which has in turn made the president into an overwhelmingly romantic figure, a legacy sealed by his assassination.

This sort of history by way of speculative psychology is alternately vivid and superficial, a series of educated guesses (Alford’s suggestion, for instance, that Booth was affected by the fact that his father was named “Brutus” seems a bit of a stretch). It appears that Booth gathered together a group of co-conspirators with hopes of kidnapping Lincoln and holding him to exchange for Confederate prisoners; these included childhood friends as well as fans. When, following Lincoln’s reelection, Booth met again with his co-conspirators and laid out his plan, Swanson pronounces, “They thought he was a madman.” And with that, he was apparently left to his own devices, as he conjured a way to take down “the great tyrant.” Alford observes, “Revenge is not ever a noble motive, but we all understand it is a human motive and sometimes, it overwhelms.”

The program’s more effective storytelling involves archival photos or drawings, especially those depicting the hangings of Booth’s co-conspirators. This documentation, graphic and unsentimental, is of a piece with the era’s famous battlefield photography, and The Assassination of Abraham Lincoln uses it to remember the public’s vehement calls for revenge for Lincoln’s death. (The four condemned prisoners included Mary Surratt, the first woman executed by the U.S. government.) While some Southerners also celebrated the president’s passing (Cooper reads from one woman’s diary, “After all the heaviness and gloom, this blow to our enemy feels like a gleam of light. We have suffered till we feel savage, our hated enemy has met the just reward of his life”), the program focuses on the thousands of citizens who paid homage to the train bearing his body from DC through Philadelphia and New York to Springfield, reversing the route he took to his first inauguration. The photos of this pre-TV display of collective mourning reinforce the legend of Lincoln as visionary leader and martyr.

RATING 5 / 10