This is the Abraham Lincoln – John Wilkes Booth assassination book like no other. So many focus on the political complications (with good reason) and the personal animus of Booth. This book traces the parallel lives of Lincoln and the Booth families. From Thomas Lincoln’s farming days in Kentucky and Illinois, to Julius Booth’s role as a patriarch of a theatre dynasty, the reader is confronted with the number of times the families crossed paths.
Spiritualism was a religious movement born out of the Second Great Awakening. In the early 19th century, America was consumed by a societal revival which resulted in both religious fervor and confusion of identity. This all laid the groundwork for a popular new spiritual movement, one that could be practiced anywhere, by anyone, and carried no baggage from a previous country.
Equally impressive was the First Lady’s ability to beckon Willie’s spirit. Sometimes the boy brought his brother Eddie with him. Twice he came back with Aleck Todd, Mary’s half-brother. … Mary was no passive host to these ghostly visitors. She seemed to summon them, bringing herself into a trance state just like a medium. Through this ability and through her dreams, Mary was able to achieve what professional spiritualists termed “the unconscious celebration of somnambulist visitations.” ~Loc. 1716
Belief in ghosts — and their ability to communicate with the living — was not considered sacrilegious. Quite the opposite. Spiritualism’s rise is often attributed to the mysterious Fox Sisters sho woke to spirits through knocks and creaks and raps. They quickly became a sensation and toured America demonstrating their talent. Their practice lent credence to other mediums, including spiritualism’s inclusion in religious practices. It was incredibly common for devoted Christians to also speak to relatives who had passed on.
Since one of the visitors’ sources of income was buying and selling horses, they often camped off a lane near the Booth family farm at Woolsey’ blacksmith shop. John [Wilkes Booth] wandered down to the caravan where he found an old woman to tell his fortune. “Ah, you’ve a bad hand,” the crone commenced. “Trouble in plenty everywhere I look. You’ll break hearts. … Young sir, I’ve never seen a worse hand, and I wish I hadn’t seen it, but every word I’ve told is true.”
“How am I to escape it?”
“You’d best turn a missionary or priest.”
Like most American families in the 1840s and 50s, the Lincolns and the Booths practiced a religion that also embraced aspects of Spiritualism. By using this framework for the biographical history, Alford explores the societal turmoil that allowed Lincoln to become president and John Wilkes Booth to become an assassin.
This is by far the most entrancing history I have read about the Lincoln-Booth tragedy. By weaving in extended family histories, details about fellow theatre impresario Joe Jefferson, and setting in against a fraught background, the spirits absolutely come alive in this book.
Read via NetGalley.
Publisher: Liveright (June 14, 2022)
Hardcover: 320 pages