American Brutus: John Wilkes Booth and the Lincoln Conspirators (Book Review)

Reviewed by Bali Fox
By Michael W. Kauffman
Random House

Because this spring marks a milestone anniversary of the Lincoln assassination (140 years), it’s not surprising that new books about the plot to kill Lincoln have appeared. Hundreds of works about the Lincoln assassination have been published over the years, some advancing outrageous theories. No lunatic fringe ideas will be found in Michael Kauffman’s American Brutus, which instead offers a new but reasonable interpretation of the events surrounding the incident at Ford’s Theatre.

This substantial tome represents a lifetime of labor for Kauffman, who has been researching the assassination and providing tours of Booth’s escape route for three decades. He shows remarkable restraint in unraveling what is essentially a detailed biography of John Wilkes Booth, never straying far from his sources but synthesizing evidence to develop new perspectives on Booth.

Unlike most other Booth biographers, Kauffman assesses his subject as a manipulator, not a stooge for others. Moreover, Booth maneuvered all his accomplices into a trap from which no escape was possible. Kauffman reached these conclusions after analyzing the data he amassed with a computer program that helped him see relationships among people and events.

Novices to the assassination need not fear tediousness or overkill on technical details, however. American Brutus is an engrossing, minute-by-minute account of events surrounding what could arguably be labeled "the crime of American history," not simply "the crime of the century.

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