Tuesday, January 15, 2008
As I posted on December 20, 2007, The History Channel recently showed a two-hour documentary about the 12-day hunt for John Wilkes Booth, the assassin of Abraham Lincoln. Thanks to the hectic schedule of the holidays, I didn't watch it until last night. I thought I'd share my own opinion about the documentary.
"The Hunt For John Wilkes Booth" is based upon Michael W. Kauffman's excellent book published in 2004, titled: "American Brutus: John Wilkes Booth and The Lincoln Conspiracies." Kauffman serves as the principal expert on the show. Other people adding their two cents were a man from the U.S. Marshals Service, to provide expertise about techniques in manhunting, and Betty J. Ownsbey, a biographer of Lewis Powell, the man who nearly killed William Seward.
As The History Channel tends to do, there were many re-created scenes of the historical events being discussed, but the scenes are repeated ad nauseam. I specifically refer to the scenes depicting Booth and his co-conspirator, David Herold, running through the woods. Of course, Booth and Herold did spend many days hiding out in the Pine Thicket and other woods, but just how many times do we need to see the actors in the trees? One somewhat comical aspect of the scenes was the fact that "Booth" hobbled on his right leg sometimes and on his left leg at others. Of course, the real Booth broke his left leg.
The documentary makers were smart enough to show the actual sites of the assassination and the manhunt. Kauffman showed the Presidential Box at Ford's Theater, the room where Lincoln died, Mary Surratt's house, Dr. Samuel Mudd's house, and finally the site of the farm where Booth was shot and killed, which is today a wooded median strip in a highway. Filming at the various sites was especially informative to me as I've never been to the Surratt and Mudd houses.
There were some relatively minor omissions from the documentary, which might have added some context. One closeup showed the puzzling "Don't wish to disturb you. Are you at home?" that John Wilkes Booth wrote on a calling card and placed in the mailbox of Vice-President Andrew Johnson. Historians continue to debate the card to this day, and some theorists even believe it implicates Johnson in the plot. Nothing was discussed in the documentary about the card and it implied that this was the card that Booth gave to Lincoln's valet.
While the documentary of course included Mary Surratt and her role in the conspiracy, it did not mention that she was the first woman executed by the Federal Government. It also didn't discuss the frantic efforts to get her sentence reduced to life or less. Perhaps the documentary makers didn't think that was important in the context of the manhunt for Booth. But it did go on to show photos of the hanging of her, Lewis Powell, David Herold, and George Atzerodt, so I do think the extraordinary fact of excecuting a woman should have had been briefly discussed.
The documentary closes with a "what happened to" summary of the other conspirators: the hangings of course; and the sentencing to prison of Edmund Spangler, Dr. Mudd, and Michael O' Laughlin. I'm surprised, though, that it didn't have a follow-up about Mary Surratt's son, John. He ended up escaping punishment entirely, although he was tried for murder in a civil court in 1867. Had he been caught and tried by the military tribunal, he most likely would have been hanged along with his mother.
As in his book, Kauffman equivocates about the role of Dr. Samuel Mudd in the conspiracy. His brief discussion in the show seemed to imply to me, at least, that Mudd knew Booth, but that Mudd didn't know about the plot to kill Lincoln. This is in contrast to other historians' opinions, most notably that of Edward Steers, Jr. I tend to agree with the historians who believe Mudd had a very large role in the conspiracy and was by no means an innocent man, no matter the protestations of his family.
All in all, I found the documentary to be very informative and quite well done, unlike some other History Channel documentaries I've suffered through. Kauffman is an engaging expert and having the U.S. Marshal explaining manhunt techniques was quite clever. I found the biographer for Powell to be superfluous. I'd recommend this documentary to anyone who might wish to view it. The History Channel website currently lists it for sale on DVD.
Posted by Geoff Elliott at 3:05 PM