Chasing Lincoln’s Killer

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Planning, Conspiracy, and the Unexpected Theme Analysis

Themes and Colors
News, Information, and Misinformation Theme Icon
Planning, Conspiracy, and the Unexpected Theme Icon
The Theatrical and The Real Theme Icon
Survival vs Principles Theme Icon
LitCharts assigns a color and icon to each theme in Chasing Lincoln’s Killer, which you can use to track the themes throughout the work.
Planning, Conspiracy, and the Unexpected Theme Icon

Chasing Lincoln’s Killer describes a successful conspiracy to kill the president, but it also shows that important historical events are often the result of unpredictable circumstances and luck. For example, John Wilkes Booth could have harmed Lincoln on two other occasions. During the President’s inauguration speech, if Booth had taken the opportunity presented to him by chance, he easily could have shot the president from the crowd. And a year earlier, Booth planned with a group of conspirators to kidnap the president to try to change the course of the war. Yet this carefully hatched plan came to nothing, demonstrating that it is important not only to plan, but also to take opportunities as they present themselves.

In the end, Booth was able to carry out his dream to assassinate the president and impact the country’s future as the result of an unexpected stroke of luck. It was only because Booth unexpectedly discovered that Lincoln would be watching a play at Ford’s Theater that he could carry out a plan to assassinate the president. He was then able to use his knowledge of the theater and his trusted position as a well-known actor among the theater’s staff to gain the access he needed to quickly plan an assassination for that very night. His co-conspirators, on the other hand, who were tasked with killing other important figures in the government, did not have a lucky circumstance fall into their lap, and they all failed in carrying out their murderous missions.

Booth was not the only one to assume that a conspiracy would be necessary to achieve a great crime like the murder of the president. When they learned about the assassination of Lincoln and the attack on Secretary of State Seward, the authorities in Washington assumed that these acts were part of a conspiracy directed by the Confederate authorities. While they were right that Booth had planned his actions and directed a group of his followers, the assassination was not part of a larger conspiracy planned by the leadership of the Confederacy.

As both Booth and the Union authorities were to learn, however, events that change the course of history are not necessarily the result of carefully hatched schemes, but can come about as a result of planning, chance, or both.

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Planning, Conspiracy, and the Unexpected ThemeTracker

The ThemeTracker below shows where, and to what degree, the theme of Planning, Conspiracy, and the Unexpected appears in each Chapter of Chasing Lincoln’s Killer. Click or tap on any chapter to read its Summary & Analysis.
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Planning, Conspiracy, and the Unexpected Quotes in Chasing Lincoln’s Killer

Below you will find the important quotes in Chasing Lincoln’s Killer related to the theme of Planning, Conspiracy, and the Unexpected.
Chapter 4 Quotes

All Atzerodt had to do was knock on his door and the moment Johnson opened it, plunge the knife into his chest or shoot him dead. Compared with the challenges that faced Booth and Powell, Atzerodt had the easiest job of all. But that night, Johnson escaped death. Atzerodt could not do it. He drank in the hotel lobby, and the more he drank, the worse the plan sounded. He did not knock on Andrew Johnson's door. He left the bar and walked out. Abandoning his mission, Atzerodt got on his horse and rode away. He wasn't sure what to do next.

Related Characters: George Atzerodt, Vice President Andrew Johnson
Page Number: 69
Explanation and Analysis:

George Atzerodt had been tasked with killing the new vice president, Andrew Johnson. When Booth initially told Atzerodt to murder Johnson, Atzerodt had refused. Only after Booth threatened to turn him in to the authorities did Atzerodt agree to the killing. Despite the ease of his target, Atzerodt either lacked the conviction or the courage to take the opportunity. Atzerodt may never have been as fully invested in the Southern cause as Booth believed him to be, or he might have been scared of committing a murder. Either way, despite having ample opportunity to kill Johnson, Atzerodt did not take the chance. This raises a parallel to the several occasions in which Booth had an opportunity to kill Lincoln but was not able to follow through, and this is also an instance of Booth believing (falsely) that everyone who even nominally shares his beliefs must also share his willingness to sacrifice everything for those beliefs. Booth will make this mistake several more times.

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Chapter 5 Quotes

Within a few minutes of the assassination, the news began spreading, first by word of mouth from Ford's, then by messenger. It traveled no faster than a man could run on foot or ride on horseback. Between 10:30 and 11:00 P.M., more than fifteen hundred people spilled out from the theater onto the streets. They fanned out in all directions, like an unpaid army of newsboys shouting, "Extra!"

Related Characters: Abraham Lincoln
Page Number: 78
Explanation and Analysis:

In the first day or so after Lincoln was shot, the news spread mainly by word of mouth. The telegram was a new technology, and only a select few (including government officials like Secretary of War Stanton) had access to it. Because of this, the audience members emanating from Ford’s Theatre served the function of an army of newsboys, letting the residents of Washington D.C. know what happened. However, because the news was spread by word of mouth, an ever-increasing number of different stories about what had happened emerged. Certain people embellished the facts, others misremembered them, and others changed them to fit their own agenda. Until official versions of the facts could circulate in newspapers, this state of affairs created confusion, uncertainty, and fear about what would happen next.

Chapter 9 Quotes

Traveling light had served him well in the first part of his escape, but left him unprepared for this unanticipated phase of his journey. He left Washington wearing the equivalent of a modern-day business suit, unsuitable for camping out. Without a change of clothing, his garments quickly became dirty, ruining a key element of Booth's trademark, winning style—his beautifully dressed, well-groomed appearance. He and Herold could not bathe or wash clothes and, unshaven, they looked and smelled worse each day. They looked like the fugitives they were. Their looks might even jeopardize their ability to receive a proper reception at the fine Virginia households they planned to call on across the river.

Related Characters: John Wilkes Booth, David Herold
Page Number: 137
Explanation and Analysis:

Booth and Herold had been waiting in the pine thicket for days, and, without a bath or change of clothes, they had begun to look like fugitives. Booth had made few preparations for his escape. The crux of his plan was to move rapidly to the Deep South where he would be able to use his polished good looks, fame and dramatic charm to win the support and friendship of those he met. Without his good looks, this plan would only work if Booth’s persuasive powers were enough to overcome the prejudice his dirty appearance would inspire in the Southerners he would meet. This is another example of Booth’s background as an actor damaging his ability to make plans commensurate with the reality he was facing as a fugitive. Booth had thought his new life would be somewhat similar to his old one; he didn’t realize that, by dramatically changing the course of history, he was also making himself vulnerable to situations in which his old tricks wouldn’t work.

Chapter 10 Quotes

While Booth and Herold tarried, the government pursued them with new energy. The evidence gathered at Mudd’s farm, plus alleged sightings of the fugitives southwest of his farm, suggested that the assassins were making for Virginia. They knew Booth was lame, on crutches. They knew he had shaven off his mustache. Horse-mounted couriers and telegraph wires were alive all day with instructions to troops to enlist the help of fishermen and others on the river to capture the fugitives.

Related Characters: John Wilkes Booth, David Herold
Page Number: 150
Explanation and Analysis:

Booth and Herold attempted to cross the Potomac River in a rowboat, but they went in the wrong direction. When they arrived back in Maryland after this failed expedition, they decided to spend a full day resting at the house of a contact of Herold’s. Biding their time and sheltering in place had served Booth and Herold well when they had the expert intuition of Thomas Jones to guide them. Although it had taken the authorities a few days to begin to effectively use technology to spread information about the fugitives, the poorly-executed period of the manhunt was ending. Booth and Herold heard how coordinated the manhunters were becoming, but this did not spur them to move quickly to reattempt the river crossing. Booth and Herold had hoped to already be in Virginia by this point, but they failed to quickly react with a new plan once the previous plan was scuttled. Perhaps they failed to set off again across the Potomac that night because they were exhausted or disappointed; regardless, this amounted to a failure to deal with new circumstances as they arose.