John Wilkes Booth was one of the most famous actors of his day, known for his attractiveness and charm. Swanson emphasizes that Booth’s inflated view of himself led him to overestimate his ability to survive during his escape and the help he could count on convincing others to provide him.
The confidence Booth gained from his successful performances on the stage led him to believe that he could use the force of his personality to alter history. But although this belief did lend him the courage necessary to carry out the assassination, he was not able to shape the way his act was interpreted by the rest of America, or the way it would affect the course of history. This confidence also meant that Booth failed to think through what could happen during his escape, like the fact that he might need to hide out in the woods and would soon become dirty and bedraggled. Since he depended so much on his good looks to convince people to help him, this presented a problem.
The blurry line between the imagined world of a play and the real world is not only a feature of Booth’s fertile imagination, though. Throughout his escape, Booth’s skills as an actor would often prove inadequate to the task of surviving on the run. But in the event of assassinating Lincoln, being an actor gave him the practical knowledge of the layout of Ford’s theater and the timing of the play that led to his success. His knowledge of the theater allowed him to perfectly time the moment when he shot Lincoln. He waited for a moment when the audience would be laughing loudly at a joke in the play, so that many would not hear the gunshot. And, while escaping from the theater, Booth continued to benefit from the confusion in the audience about what was really happening and what had been staged as part of the play.
The blur between the real and the theatrical continued after the killer’s escape, when the lead actress in the play that Lincoln had come to watch visited the box where he had been shot. Wanting to be a part of the real, historic scene playing out in front of her, Laura Keane left the stage and went to the president’s box, where she asked the doctor treating Lincoln for permission to cradle the wounded president’s head in her lap.
Chasing Lincoln’s Killer shows that the skills needed in the real world and in the theater sometimes overlap, but with a crucial difference. Booth is able to accomplish a murder and to escape capture for twelve days, using the self-confidence and skill that he gained as an actor. But even though Booth was able to make the world his stage and become a larger-than-life character who would go down in history, he could only be an actor in the play of history, not its director or playwright. An actor in a play knows how the audience will view him because he knows the script and the stage directions. In the real world, Booth played his own part, but did not alter the way others would act and react to him, and ultimately did not change the outcome of the war as he wished.
The Theatrical and The Real ThemeTracker
The Theatrical and The Real Quotes in Chasing Lincoln’s Killer
Twenty-six years old, impossibly vain, an extremely talented actor, and a star member of a celebrated theatrical family, John Wilkes Booth was willing to throw away fame, wealth, and a promising future for the cause of the Confederacy. […] Handsome and appealing, he was instantly recognizable to thousands of fans in both the North and South. His physical beauty astonished all who saw him. A fellow actor described his eyes as being "like living jewels." Booth's passions included fine clothing, Southern honor, good manners, beautiful women, and the romance of lost causes.
The comic line spoken by Harry Hawk, "You sockdologizing old mantrap," was followed by an explosion of laughter from the audience. The black powder charge exploded and spit the bullet toward Lincoln’s head. The muzzle flash lighted the box for a moment like a miniature lightning bolt. Had Booth succeeded?
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!"
Laura Keene knelt beside Lincoln, lifted his head, and rested it in her lap. Bloodstains and tiny bits of gray matter from Lincoln’s brain oozed on to the cream-colored silk fabric, spreading and adding color to the frock's bright and festive red, yellow, green, and blue floral pattern. Laura Keene cherished the blood-and-brain speckled dress she wore this terrible night. In the days ahead, people begged to see the dress, to handle it and marvel at the stains on it. The dress vanished long ago, but miraculously a few small pieces—five treasured swatches—survived. Long ago the stains, once red, faded to a rust-colored pale brown.
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.
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.
Young John Garrett, back from an errand at a neighboring farm, reported that the U.S. government was offering a $140,000 reward for Abraham Lincoln’s assassin. The family discussed the assassination with Booth, speculating on why the murderer did it. The actor, still masquerading as a Confederate soldier commented on his own crime and analyzed for the Garretts the motives of Lincoln’s killer!
He had already committed the most daring public murder in American history. Indeed, he had performed it, fully staged before an audience at Ford's Theatre. Tonight he would script his own end with a performance that equaled his triumph at Ford's.
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.