Catching the President’s Killer: The Hunt for John Wilkes Booth
A&E Home Video, Color, 94 minutes, $19.95
Director Tom Jennings has captured the drama of the intense 12-day manhunt for the first killer of an American president in an excellent video documentary, The Hunt for John Wilkes Booth. The History Channel documentary, available on DVD through A&E Home Video, effectively uses the tried-and-true format established by Ken Burns of mixing period photographs, modern video of historic locations, dramatic re-creations and expert talking heads.
The producers have wisely chosen to use Michael Kaufman’s American Brutus: John Wilkes Booth and the Lincoln Conspiracies (Random House, 2004), as the primary historical source for the documentary about Abraham Lincoln’s killer. Kaufman has spent a lifetime studying the Lincoln assassination, and his book covers the conspiracy from its earliest iterations as a kidnapping plot through the military tribunal that sentenced four of Booth’s co-conspirators to hang. Kaufman has categorically debunked most of the conspiracy theories that began to evolve almost from the time Booth pulled the trigger of his .44-caliber Deringer, blasting the fatal bullet into the president’s brain. The video, however, is primarily concerned with the assassination and manhunt, the most visually compelling aspects of the plot.
Kaufman, one of the on-camera experts, is an excellent narrator at several pivotal locations, including Ford’s Theatre, Mary Surratt’s tavern, the farm of Dr. Samuel Mudd, the Peterson House where Lincoln died, and the site of Richard Garrett’s farm near Bowling Green, Va., where Booth was finally run to ground. The other competent but less compelling narrators include: historian Roger McGrath, Booth chronicler Terry Alford, Lewis Powell biograper Betty Ownsbey, and the author of Team of Rivals Doris Kearns Goodwin. An unexpected but very informative contemporary perspective on the art of manhunting is given by John Clark of the United States Marshals Service. He compares the actions of the pursued and the techniques used by the pursuers in the Booth manhunt to those practiced today and concludes that little has changed.
The documentary excels in every technical aspect. The cinematography is excellent, providing visuals that are both haunting and dramatic. The music supplies an appropriate sense of anticipation and dread without being overbearing, and the narration, voiced by Phil Crowley, complements the visuals without being redundant.
At the documentary’s end, one is struck by how much coincidence and pure luck were involved in the manhunt. Panic and rumors resulted in authorities being inundated with false sightings from all over the country.
The hunt for John Wilkes Booth mesmerized the entire nation and aroused an almost universal lust for vengeance from a population still reeling from the effects of four bloody years of civil war. It’s amazing that there was much justice at all dispensed during those fearful, uncertain days.
Originally published in the July 2008 issue of America’s Civil War. To subscribe, click here.