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Assassination Fever Ran in Booth Family

New research reveals that Junius Brutus Booth, the father of Lincoln assassin John Wilkes Booth, aspired to live up to his middle name. Historians at the University of Tennessee recently confirmed that the elder Booth, a leading Shakespearean actor called the “mad tragedian,” threatened to kill President Andrew Jackson. In an 1835 letter demanding clemency for two men sentenced to death for piracy, Booth warned Jackson that he would “cut your throat whilst you are sleeping.”

Booth’s signature on the letter was dis missed as a hoax for 173 years, especially since Jackson’s own office marked the correspondent “anonymous.” But a con temporary visitor to the Hermitage, Jackson’s residence in Nashville, Tenn., prompted further investigation when he told archivists he had seen a copy of the letter attributed to Booth at the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum in Springfield, Ill. “We started out to disprove that the letter was from Booth,” says Daniel Feller, the director of The Papers of Andrew Jackson at the University of Tennessee, “but we began to tilt toward the idea that he had written it.” The PBS show History Detectives also got involved in the investigation and consulted a handwriting expert who confirmed that the letter was written by Junius Brutus Booth.

The letter, dated July 4, was addressed from Brower’s Hotel in Philadelphia. Booth’s theater company was performing in the city at the time, and Booth failed to show up for the July 4 performance. He later penned a letter admitting to writing something nasty to the “high authorities of the country.”

Grant Occupies Dixie Again

Ulysses S. Grant will occupy the South in spirit forevermore. Following a nasty dispute at Southern Illinois University, the former home of the Grant archives, hundreds of thousands of documents relating to the Union hero and 18th president have been turned over to Mississippi State University in Starkville. That’s about 150 miles from Vicksburg, the site of Grant’s July 4, 1863, victory that helped doom the Confederacy.

“A few lost-causers in Mississippi are not too happy about having the archive here,” says John Marszalek, a professor emeritus of history at Mississippi State and the new executive director of the Ulysses S. Grant Association, “but the reaction we’ve gotten in the state has been incredibly positive.” Marszalek, a biographer of General William Tecumseh Sherman, was chosen to head the Grant Association after the death last July of John Y. Simon, who had overseen the archive since its establishment at Southern Illinois 44 years ago.

Simon edited 30 volumes of Grant’s published papers and won the prestigious Lincoln Prize in 2004, but charges of sexual harassment put him in jeopardy of dismissal from the university in January 2009. Simon denied the charges, but more controversy over the collection followed his death. Representatives of the association charged that someone at the university had forged “payment documents” connected to the archive and, last fall, sued for ownership of the collection. The association won control after an out-of-court settlement in which both parties agreed not to speak about the dispute.

Lost Record of Early Lincoln-Douglas Debate Surfaces

Graham Peck, a historian at Saint Xavier University in Chicago, has uncovered previously overlooked newspaper accounts of an 1854 encounter between Abraham Lincoln and Stephen Douglas that offer a preview of their historic round of debates four years later. Lincoln was touring central Illinois that fall to advocate the repeal of the Kansas-Nebraska Act, Douglas’ recent Senate bill that opened Western territories to slavery, when the two crossed paths at the Illinois state fair. Peck says that reporters from two St. Louis newspapers provided more details about the event than their Springfield counterparts, the standard sources for information about the early debate. The accounts shed new light on how the future president sharpened his political attacks on slavery long before he achieved national renown.

Racial Utopia Gets Overdue Recognition

The Department of the Interior has designated a 42-acre field in west ern Illinois near the town of Barry as a National Historic Land mark. It was the site of the long-gone town of New Philadelphia, where about 160 people—one-third black and two-thirds white—lived together peacefully in the mid-19th century. New Philadelphia was founded in 1836 by Frank McWhorter, a free African American, who later bought the freedom of 16 enslaved members of his family.

Geronimo vs Yale

Harlyn Geronimo, great-grandson of the legendary Apache, filed suit against Yale University and its Skull and Bones secret society, claiming that members of the society stole the warrior’s skull and other bones from his grave at Fort Sill, Okla., in 1918. He wants the remains returned for proper burial in New Mexico, where Geronimo was born about 1829. The lawsuit comes on the 100th anniversary of Geronimo’s death while being held at Fort Sill as a prisoner of war.

A 1918 letter from one Skull and Bones member to another mentioned the alleged theft by a group that included Prescott Bush, future U.S. senator, father of President George H.W. Bush and grandfather of President George W. Bush. Bush was serving in the U.S. Army at Fort Sill at the time. Yale declined comment, although a spokesman noted that the society’s clubhouse where the remains are kept—the Tomb—is not on school property.

Angel Island Site Receives Facelift

The Angel Island Immigration Station in San Francisco Bay, which recently unveiled the first part of a $60 million restoration, processed hundreds of thousands of Asian immigrants, mostly Chinese, between 1910 and 1940. In keeping with strict limitations first put into place by the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act (and not rescinded until 1943), immigrants were sometimes detained for years and subjected to repeated interrogations and demeaning physical exams. Detainees carved poems about their experiences on the walls of their barracks, one of which reads: “Everyone says traveling to North America is a pleasure / I suffered misery on the ship and sadness in the wooden building / After several interrogations, still I am not done / I sigh because my com patriots are being forcibly detained.”

Ancient Chocolate Unearthed in Chaco Canyon

For several years University of New Mexico anthropologist Patricia Crown tried to figure out how Puebloans 1,000 years ago used the distinctively cylindrical jars unearthed at Chaco Can – yon, the ancient center of Puebloan culture in northwest New Mexico. Then a tip from a Mayanist inspired her to have fragments tested for cacao residue, even though the nearest cacao tree would have been about 1,000 miles away. The Mayans drank chocolate from decorative cylindrical jars on ceremonial occasions, and their trade networks extended as far north as Chaco. An analysis of the Chaco shards revealed the presence of cacao, and the results had Crown walking around for days, exclaiming, “It’s chocolate!” Because there were so few of the jars, and because they were found in what had been a cache, Crown believes the cacao was drunk on ritual occasions like marriages and funerals.

Washington’s Best Men Are Reunited

It wasn’t easy running the Continental Army. A new exhibit at Mount Vernon presents an uncommonly broad view of the challenges faced by George Washington, whose senior staff came from 10 countries and more than a dozen professions. “George Washington & His Generals,” on display until January 2010, gathers more than 120 objects, including portraits, a Fort Ticonderoga cannon and a Washington letter with this stormy assessment: “I am now embroiled on a tempestuous ocean from which perhaps no friendly harbor is to be found.”

Economists Study Value of Loyalty During Civil War

Loyalty was a saber that cut both ways for Union soldiers during the Civil War. A wife-and-husband team of economists from UCLA, Dora Costa and Matthew Kahn, studied the military service records for 41,000 Yankee soldiers for their book, Heroes and Cowards: The Social Face of War, and found lower desertion rates among troops who shared hometowns, ethnic backgrounds and/or occupations. “The more homogeneous your company was,” says Costa, “the more likely you were to stay”—and die. Being true blue paid off, however, for prisoners of war. At the notorious Andersonville prison camp in Georgia, for example, more than 40 percent died, but Irish immigrants imprisoned with other Irish immigrants from the same company survived at a rate of more than 90 percent.

John Dean’s Role in Watergate Revisited

A new dispute over Watergate centers on whether White House counsel John Dean—who told Richard Nixon the scandal was a “cancer growing on the presidency”—was more cause than cure. In an article rejected by the journal American Historical Review, Peter Klingman charged that Dean’s role in the scandal’s cover-up was underplayed in Stanley Kutler’s 1997 book Abuse of Power: The New Nixon Tapes. Klingman argues that Kutler deliberately omitted and transposed comments in the book’s transcripts of White House tapes to show Dean in a more favorable way. Official transcripts of the difficult-to-decipher conversations in question have never been released.

Dean, the first White House official to testify that the president was directly involved in the cover-up, called the new accusations the work of “revisionists” who want to shift blame from Nixon to others. Kutler admitted that Dean has become a friend, but said he “never knowingly or deliberately falsified any information, conjured conversations, telescoped conversations—and I never changed any positive assertion into a negative or a negative into a positive.”


Originally published in the June 2009 issue of American History. To subscribe, click here