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  • The Lincoln Assassination Riddle: Revisiting the Crime of the Nineteenth Century ed. by Frank J. Williams and Michael Burkhimer
  • David E. Woodard
The Lincoln Assassination Riddle: Revisiting the Crime of the Nineteenth Century. Edited by Frank J. Williams and Michael Burkhimer. True Crime History Series. ( Kent, Ohio: Kent State University Press, 2016. Pp. x, 214. $29.95, isbn 978-1-60635-295-3.)

Academics, casual history readers, Abraham Lincoln aficionados, and the general reading public will all have fun with this little gem. The Lincoln Assassination Riddle: Revisiting the Crime of the Nineteenth Century consists of fifteen short articles covering the ongoing "riddle" of the assassination [End Page 439] approached from "different perspectives," each focusing on "one controversial and compelling aspect of the event" (p. viii).

Michael J. Kline's contribution argues that "tantalizing clues" suggest that John Wilkes Booth could have been part of the 1861 Baltimore plot on the presidentelect's life (p. 3). But this proof is speculative at best, as Kline admits, and never reaches beyond that initial speculation. Kline's evidence is limited to the fact that Booth associated with many of the other Baltimore plotters, that Booth's whereabouts in early 1861 are unclear, and finally, that Booth killed Lincoln in 1865—so he was probably involved in this first plot as well. Of all the articles in the book, Kline's takes the most latitude in attempting to prove a difficult theory.

Blaine V. Houmes revisits the age-old question of whether modern medicine could have saved the sixteenth president's life. While the medical knowledge of Lincoln's head wound was primitive and some questionable methods were used to treat him immediately after the shooting, Booth's bullet was fatal. The ball had gone '"through the center of the brain'" and stopped just "behind the right eye" (p. 53). Houmes, a physician and former medical examiner, also argues convincingly that several critical areas of Lincoln's brain were traumatized. It would have been impossible for the president to have survived this brain injury, even today. Draining Lincoln's wound did keep him alive a few hours longer. But he was brain-dead by 1:00 a.m. Houmes notes that the president "began having a sudden seizure-like movement, with his arms stiffening out over his body and his eyes suddenly dilating" (p. 51). Houmes concludes this outstanding article that Lincoln's wound "was fatal 100 percent of the time in 1865, and it remains the same today" (p. 57).

Laurie Verge's chapter addresses yet another Lincoln assassination controversy: was Mary Elizabeth Surratt guilty, or was she railroaded by public opinion and harsh military justice? Verge, director of the Surratt House Museum in Maryland, hedges her bets on this important question. Surratt knew about a kidnapping plot but not about Booth's assassination plans. So the accused, according to Verge, was not guilty on all counts. The author's research shows how Booth manipulated many of the people involved. The talented actor gave out only bits of information but was still able to bring people into his circle with his charm and charisma. Yet no one probably knew all the details. While Surratt did know about hidden weapons and should have known about some of the conspiratorial activities, she probably was unaware of Booth's Ford's Theatre plans. Whether she was innocent remains a point of controversy.

Richard W. Etulain deals with the tragic post-assassination life of the president's wife. Mary Todd Lincoln has been called hysterical, overbearing, overly emotional, jealous, a poor money manager, and even mentally ill. Etulain points out that her entire life had been filled with tragedy, as both her parents died early and her family was left in shambles, if not destroyed. For an individual who already seemed unable to balance her emotions, Mrs. Lincoln's beloved husband's death proved to be the "central act" in a life of tragedy and misfortune (p. 134).

Hugh Boyle exposes a few of the other characters from this 1865 drama. Boyle presents short sections on Mary Todd Lincoln, the Seward family, Henry Rathbone and Clara Harris, Anna Surratt, William Petersen, and Laura Keene...


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pp. 439-441
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