Chasing Lincoln’s Killer

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Survival vs Principles 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.
Survival vs Principles Theme Icon

Lincoln’s assassination occurred during the last month of the four-year American Civil War (1861-1865), in which 600,000 people died. It was an extremely violent time. People across the country had fought to uphold the principles of the North or South, but often had to fight for their lives as a result, either on the battlefield or to recover from sickness or injury. There had also been enormous economic devastation, which made gaining money or resources a matter of survival. Throughout Chasing Lincoln’s Killer, the way people seek to use violence to prove their principles often goes astray. Violence, the threat of violence, or danger often fails to have the effect of supporting the principles that those committing the acts of violence hope to serve.

Whether Booth got caught or escaped, it was unlikely that he could ever continue his profitable career as a touring actor, and so he saw assassinating Lincoln as an honorable sacrifice of his happy life and career for his principles. The death of Lincoln and the rest of his cabinet was meant to spur the Confederacy to continue fighting to preserve the South as he saw it: a land of honor, defined by codes of conduct that called for hospitality to strangers and a willingness to sacrifice your life to defend your principles. Yet Booth’s act had the opposite effect: he turned Abraham Lincoln into a martyr and demoralized the South.

Lincoln was shot in the back of the head while relaxing at the theater, so he was not aware of the principle for which he died. Still, as Chasing Lincoln’s Killer emphasizes, the fact that his body fought a strong battle to hold onto life became part of the way that his death was recast in the public imagination. His death was seen as a martyrdom for the principles of freedom that he had led the nation in war to uphold.

The attack on Seward was also interpreted differently from the way Booth and his co-conspirators had hoped. Because Powell attacked innocent members of the Seward family, his attempt to kill for a principle (to take down the government of the North) was mainly viewed as the act of a terrifying madman.

The manhunters hoped to capture Booth alive and force him to stand trial, undergo months of scrutiny by the press, and face execution by hanging. This, they believed, would have created a clear connection between his death and the defeat of the Confederate principles he fought for in the public imagination. But once again, the attempt to control life and death in order to prove a principle came up short. Boston Corbett shot Booth to protect the other nearby soldiers, placing the survival of his comrades above the principles the authorities sought to emphasize through Booth’s public trial and execution.

The book describes combat, injury and death in detail, putting a magnifying glass up to a few acts of violence. In each case, the fight for life or survival itself becomes the most important thing during the moment of combat, while the principles that someone may think he is killing or dying for are not necessarily the ones that history or public opinion will keep in mind when remembering the violence.

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Survival vs Principles ThemeTracker

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

Below you will find the important quotes in Chasing Lincoln’s Killer related to the theme of Survival vs Principles.
Prologue Quotes

"Fondly do we hope—fervently do we pray—that this mighty scourge of war may speedily pass away….With malice toward none; with charity for all; with firmness in the right, as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in; to bind up the nation's wounds; to care for him who shall have borne the battle, and for his widow, and his orphan—to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace, among ourselves, and with all nations."

Related Characters: Abraham Lincoln (speaker)
Page Number: 2
Explanation and Analysis:

Lincoln spoke these words during his Inauguration on March 4, 1865, a month before the fall of the Confederate capital of Richmond, Virginia. Although it was still uncertain that the Union forces would win the war and reunite the country, the tide seemed to be turning in that direction. Lincoln wished to project certainty about the war’s outcome, but not to gloat or shame those who had supported the Confederate cause. His goal was to show Americans that one of the principles that he had fought for was the unity of the country. To live up to that principle Americans would need to forgive and forget, showing compassion to their former enemies.


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As Lincoln spoke, one observer, Mrs. Lincoln’s dressmaker, Elizabeth Keckley, a free black woman, standing a few steps from the president, remarked that the lamplight made him “stand out boldly in the darkness.” The perfect target. “What an easy matter would it be to kill the president as he stands there! He could be shot down from the crowd,” she whispered, “and no one would be able to tell who fired the shot.”

Related Characters: Elizabeth Keckley (speaker), Abraham Lincoln
Page Number: 7-8
Explanation and Analysis:

Elizabeth Keckley was listening in the audience on April 11, 1865 when Lincoln gave a speech saying that he wanted black Americans to be given the right to vote. As a free black woman, she was uniquely positioned to understand all the violent hatred that this proposal would stir, especially among those in the South who were still fighting to secede from the Union and live in a country where they could continue to hold slaves. She realized that this principled stance of Lincoln’s might put his life in danger and she fretted to see his physical vulnerability at the very minute he made the announcement. Obviously, her comment is perceptive, as John Wilkes Booth—the very type of Confederate she feared—was in the audience making the same observation about the president’s vulnerability.

Chapter 1 Quotes

At this supreme moment, the people cheered the man who, after a shaky start in office, learned how to command armies, brought down slavery, and became a most eloquent and moving speaker. And as he promised he would, he had saved the Union. Lincoln stood in the box and bowed to the audience.

Related Characters: Abraham Lincoln
Page Number: 31
Explanation and Analysis:

Lincoln had arrived late to the play at Ford’s Theatre and the action on stage had been stopped in order to play the traditional song of a presidential entrance, “Hail to the Chief.” In this large hall full of spectators, some of whom had come to the theater that night expressly to get a glimpse of the president and his guests, the sense of uncertainty that reigned throughout the country was not to be found. To see the president doing something as normal as going to the theater gave people the sense that the war was really nearing its conclusion. Although Lincoln had been at times a controversial president, the audience at Ford’s Theatre recognized that he had been guided by his principles and had succeeded in winning a war for those principles.

Chapter 2 Quotes

Booth scrambled to center stage, turned to the audience, and stood up straight. Though every second was precious to his escape, he knew that this was his last appearance on the American stage. This would be the performance he would be remembered for. All eyes were on him. He stood still, paused to build suspense, and thrust his bloody dagger victoriously into the air. The gas stage lights shone on the shiny blade now stained with blood. "Sic semper tyrannis!" he thundered. It was the state motto of Virginia: "Thus always to tyrants." Then Booth shouted, "The South is avenged!"

Related Characters: John Wilkes Booth (speaker)
Page Number: 43
Explanation and Analysis:

Booth jumped from the presidential box onto the stage, injuring his leg. He was too caught up in the moment to fully register the pain, however, and instead he put all of his focus into making a dramatic statement of the principles that he believed he was serving by shooting Lincoln. At this moment, his career as a dramatic actor and his decision to make a dramatic impact on history converged. He used the skills of an actor—dramatic language, timing, gesture, and presence—to try to inspire admiration and draw support for the Southern cause. Perhaps he believed that his dramatic delivery would impact the audience politically, just as his acting had impacted his audiences emotionally in the past.

Chapter 3 Quotes

The sergeant and Augustus wrestled Powell into the hall and into the bright gaslight. Powell and Augustus, their faces inches apart, fixed their eyes on each other. Then Powell spoke. In an intense but calm voice, the assassin confided to Augustus, as though trying to persuade him, the strangest thing: “I’m mad. I’m mad!”

Related Characters: Lewis Powell (speaker), Augustus Seward, Sergeant Robinson
Page Number: 57-58
Explanation and Analysis:

Powell had hoped to murder Secretary of State Seward as part of Booth’s plan to weaken the government of the North and support the Confederate cause. However, Lewis Powell was only able to assault four members of the Seward family—some of these assaults were quite brutal, but Seward, his target, lived. There was no indication that Powell was actually mad. Instead, the violent acts he was then committing made him feel that he was being driven mad. At the moment when he rolled out of the dark bedroom and into the light, Powell came face to face with the violence that he had committed in order to advance his principles. In the context of this violent battle for survival between Powell and the Seward family, Powell’s principles may have seemed almost irrelevant to the bloodshed in front of him at that moment. Those who learned of his violent crime later felt similarly, struggling to connect any kind of noble or principled action with the brutal violence Powell had carried out.

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.

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 6 Quotes

Stanton knew that if any person in Washington deserved a precious lock of the martyr’s hair, it was Mary Jane Welles. She later framed the cherished relic with dried flowers that had decorated Abraham Lincoln’s coffin at the White House funeral. Stanton gazed down at his fallen chief and wept.

Related Characters: Abraham Lincoln, Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton, Mary Jane Welles
Related Symbols: Mementos
Page Number: 105
Explanation and Analysis:

After the others who had sat by Lincoln’s deathbed had left, Stanton spent a private moment in the room where Lincoln’s body lay. Although Stanton, with Lincoln dead, saw himself as being responsible for the nation’s security, he was also affected on a personal level by the death of the president. During the years of the war, the cabinet members had forged close, almost familial ties. Looking at Lincoln’s corpse, Stanton thought back on other losses that top government officials and their families had suffered. Mary Jane Welles had nursed Mary Todd Lincoln through the loss of her son Willie. At this moment, Stanton’s grief gave him sympathy for Mary Jane’s experience. Stanton was compelled to reward the woman who had taken it upon herself to comfort the Lincoln family during another period of grief with a lock of Lincoln’s hair that would serve as a memento. This passage is also a reminder of the extent to which Lincoln sacrificed his family life in order to save the country and defend its principles.

The nation could hardly bury its martyred Father Abraham with a lead ball lodged in his brain. They cut it out, marked it as evidence, and preserved it for history. His blood, according to a newspaper report, was drained from his corpse by an embalmer, transferred to glass jars, and preserved. When they were finished, Mary Todd Lincoln sent a request: Please cut off a lock of his hair for her.

Related Characters: Abraham Lincoln, Mary Todd Lincoln
Related Symbols: Mementos
Page Number: 109-110
Explanation and Analysis:

After Lincoln died but before he was buried, doctors and coroners examined his body and an embalmer prepared it for burial. It was common in the nineteenth century to collect mementos of the dead, such as locks of hair. At such an uncertain time for the nation, and with the hunt for Lincoln’s killers only in its beginning stages, the professionals tasked with the care of Lincoln’s body went farther in collecting mementos that might usually occur. Because of the gravity of the situation and the uncertainty of what was to come, they not only collected the bullet which could be used as evidence but also went so far as to preserve his blood. This also reflects the extent to which the president had been beloved by Union sympathizers. Even strangers felt devastated by Lincoln’s death and they desired mementoes that would make this historic event seem as personal to them as it felt.

Chapter 7 Quotes

When Jones went to the Confederate capital, Richmond, at the beginning of April 1865 to collect the money owed him by the Confederacy, he discovered that the army had evacuated the city and he went unpaid. He lost $2,300 owed to him for three years of service, along with all the money he had invested in Confederate bonds at the beginning of the war. All this meant Jones needed as much money as he could lay his hands on.

Related Characters: Thomas Jones
Related Symbols: Money
Page Number: 119
Explanation and Analysis:

After telling Booth and Herold to hide in the pine thicket, Captain Cox turned to fellow Confederate sympathizer Thomas Jones for assistance. Jones had already been impoverished because of his support for the Confederacy, which, for Cox, Booth and other believers in the principles of Southern honor, was proof of his character. Cox was confident that Jones would be willing to continue to risk his life for his principles. Although Jones needed as much money as he could get, it was key to his identity as a man of honor to be guided only by his principles and never by his wallet. While men like this did exist, Booth was tricked by these encounters into thinking that all good Confederates in the South were like Jones. Of course, people’s actions are based on many different factors, and it proved naïve to think that a defining feature of the South (and one that made Booth willing to die for the Confederate cause) was that everyone acted based on honor.

Chapter 9 Quotes

Whatever papers Booth read, they all condemned him for his heinous act. Even worse, Booth saw the beginning of a change in how Abraham Lincoln was viewed by America. Lincoln was transformed from a controversial and often unpopular war leader into a martyr and hero. Stories reported in the papers condemned Booth by name in the most unforgiving, vicious language.

Related Characters: Abraham Lincoln, John Wilkes Booth, Lewis Powell, Secretary of State William H. Seward
Page Number: 139
Explanation and Analysis:

Thomas Jones brought Booth newspapers each day the fugitive was stuck hiding in the pine thicket. Booth had envisioned that his assassination of Lincoln would be something akin to what he did on the stage as an actor, though, this time, instead of being only the actor, he would be playwright and director, too. Nothing in his experience as an actor led him to foresee that his actions could be interpreted differently from how he meant them. Booth believed that once Lincoln’s critics learned of the attack they would celebrate Booth’s bold action. He believed that killing Lincoln would be a strike against Lincoln’s principles and he was shocked to see the president’s popularity soar posthumously as the nation rallied around the causes that the deceased president had supported.

Chapter 10 Quotes

As Jones grabbed the stern of the boat and shoved it off, a grateful Booth thrust a fistful of Union greenbacks at Jones. Jones refused the gesture, saying that he had not helped him for money. Under protest, he agreed to accept just eighteen dollars, the price he had paid for the boat.

Related Characters: John Wilkes Booth, Thomas Jones
Related Symbols: Money
Page Number: 146
Explanation and Analysis:

Jones had advised and fed the two fugitives for days while they waited in the pine thicket. Now, having seen the cavalry ride out of town, Jones advised the two men that the time was right to cross the river into safer territory in Virginia. Although Jones had been impoverished by his service to the Confederacy, he felt bound by his principles to refuse money offered to him for helping Booth and Herold. To accept money for this help would have gone against his sense of himself as a Southern gentleman who always did the right thing, whether or not he could profit materially by it. Jones’s attitude was in contrast with the attitude of many of Booth’s co-conspirators who had allowed him to buy them things.

Chapter 11 Quotes

Booth decided it was better to die than be taken back to Washington to face justice. He did not wish to bear the spectacle of a trial that would put him on public display for the amusement of the press and curiosity seekers. Nor did he wish to endure the rituals of a hanging: being bound and blindfolded, parading past his own coffin and open grave, climbing the steps of the scaffold. The shameful death of a common criminal was not for him. It was far better to perish here.

Related Characters: John Wilkes Booth
Page Number: 171
Explanation and Analysis:

Booth had been cornered. He was in the Garretts’ barn and the manhunters standing outside had set the barn on fire in an attempt to force him to come out. Under this circumstance, Booth’s priority was simply to not get captured. As an actor, he was deeply familiar with the power of spectacle. He knew that the court case that would be brought against him would be maximally public and that the authorities would seek to humiliate him. They would not only do this out of a sense of justice, but also in an attempt to undermine Booth’s principles by publicly killing him. Booth loved to be a part of riveting story that drew public attention, but only if he felt he could control the message the public would receive. In this context, it seemed most dramatic and effective for his message if he died in a struggle with the authorities.

Chapter 13 Quotes

Another hunt, the one for reward money, began before Booth's corpse had even cooled. With Booth dead, and his chief accomplices under arrest, awaiting trial, it was time to cash in. Hundreds of manhunters rushed to claim a portion of the $100,000 reward offered by the War Department. Tipsters with the slightest connection to the twelve-day search for Lincoln's killer tried to get their piece of the reward.

Related Characters: Abraham Lincoln, John Wilkes Booth
Related Symbols: Money
Page Number: 182
Explanation and Analysis:

In the hopes of capturing Booth and putting him on trial, Stanton advertised a monetary reward for anyone who could aid in the capture of Booth and his accomplices. Although Booth had been killed, depriving Stanton of a public trial, those who had contributed to tracking the assassin down still had to be paid. At a time when both the Northern and Southern economies had been decimated by war, it was no surprise that many Americans were eager to cash in. In particular, however, the chief investigator Lafayette Baker inspired antipathy by trying to control the investigation so that he could stake a claim to the reward money. Although Lincoln’s death had brought some unity to Americans as they grieved for the president, it was still a time when many were struggling and could not pay attention only to principles.