McNamee on Williams and Burkhimer, 'The Lincoln Assassination Riddle: Revisiting the Crime of the Nineteenth Century'

Frank J. Williams, Michael Burkhimer, eds.
Heather McNamee

Frank J. Williams, Michael Burkhimer, eds. The Lincoln Assassination Riddle: Revisiting the Crime of the Nineteenth Century. True Crime History Series. Kent: Kent State University Press, 2016. ix + 214 pp. $29.95 (cloth), ISBN 978-1-60635-295-3.

Reviewed by Heather McNamee (University of Memphis) Published on H-FedHist (September, 2017) Commissioned by Caryn E. Neumann

In the early morning hours of April 15, 1865, as President Abraham Lincoln drew his last breath, Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton uttered “now he belongs to the ages.” Stanton’s words for his fallen leader signified Lincoln’s place in American history. The man was dead, but the legacy lived. Lincoln’s death, as much as his life, also belongs to the ages. As Lincoln’s status as an important figure in American history was solidified, intrigue regarding his assassination increased. Even today, 152 years after his death, a simple search produces over eighty-five assassination-related works. These works vary in credibility from scholarly to conspiracy and illustrate that while Lincoln’s death maintains an important place in history, there are plenty of unanswered questions.

In The Lincoln Assassination Riddle: Revisiting the Crime of the Nineteenth Century, editors Frank J. Williams and Michael Burkhimer compiled an impressive series of essays that address many of these lingering questions. Relying on the expertise of over one dozen professional historians and independent scholars, the collection uses historical inquiry to solve the assassination riddle. As Williams states, “the hope is that this book might shed some light on the mystery of why Americans kill their leaders” (p. viii). Throughout the fifteen-chapter work, the assassination is approached from various perspectives and angles. It is clear that the riddle is complex, and to fully understand the assassination means to fully understand the precursory events, the individual actors, and its continued legacy.

This work provides an emotional authenticity that is often missing from other Lincoln assassination works. By illuminating the complex web of characters and connections that led to the assassination, several chapters illustrate the role individual human agency played in Lincoln’s death. It is easy to depict historical events in a clinical and methodological way: this happened at this time that led to this event. This work delves deeper. It illustrates how the deliberate decisions of individuals led to the assassination. Michael W. Kauffman’s analysis of the co-conspirators and their “guilt by insinuation” provides the best example of the power of individual agency. Kauffman argues that John Wilkes Booth’s movements and behaviors leading to the assassination reveal the humanity of all who came to be involved. Kauffman states, “Characters were no longer historical clichés who always seemed to behave as southern sympathizers are supposed to behave” (p. 38). Laurie Verge’s examination of Mary Surratt’s movements prior to the assassination suggests that Surratt was a more active participant in the conspiracy than previously assumed. Though Verge argues that Surratt was actively involved in the initial kidnapping plot, the author also questions whether or not Surratt knew Booth’s plot had evolved to murder. In both chapters, the central characters of Booth and Surratt are depicted in all of their humanity. The authors depict their characters as human beings: Booth as a charismatic man and maniacal liar eager to shroud his actions in a web of conspiracy, Surratt as an independent and inquisitive woman more in charge of her own fate than previously realized.

Burkhimer’s essay in chapter 13 provides the most controversial but intriguing section of the work. Burkhimer argues that Lincoln should be considered a voting rights martyr and placed in the same category as, for example, Andrew Goodman, James Chaney, Michael Schwerner, and Medgar Evers. “The men are linked by their shared fights for voting rights and civil rights, for which all paid the ultimate price” (p. 165). Burkhimer dismisses infamous statements made by Lincoln that portray his less-than-egalitarian approach to race, and instead favors an interpretation in which Lincoln’s actions supposedly speak louder than his words. This chapter rests on major assumptions regarding Lincoln’s future plans for newly freed slaves. Though Burkhimer points to historical evidence that Lincoln was working behind the scenes to extend the franchise to a limited number of African Americans in Louisiana, it is questionable whether this is enough to designate Lincoln as a voting rights martyr. Lincoln’s actions regarding voting rights were not public at the time and though the author suggests that Lincoln’s pro-African American suffrage comments in his last public speech sparked Booth to assassinate rather than kidnap him, this argument is on unsteady ground. Goodman, Chaney, Schwerner, and Evers were very public in their support for black voting rights and it was their voting rights activism that motivated their murderers. Undoubtedly, Booth considered Lincoln too progressive on civil rights issues, but whether he was ultimately motivated to kill Lincoln because of his stance on voting rights specifically remains uncertain. Nevertheless, this chapter provides a thought-provoking interpretation of Lincoln and illustrates the continued battle over his legacy.

By depicting the vast network of characters and their actions in altering the course of history, along with thought-provoking interpretations of Lincoln and his legacy, The Lincoln Assassination Riddle provides an intriguing examination of an already interesting topic. It deserves a special place in the extensive historiography of Lincoln, his death, and what it has meant for America through the ages. 

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Citation: Heather McNamee. Review of Williams, Frank J.; Burkhimer, Michael, eds., The Lincoln Assassination Riddle: Revisiting the Crime of the Nineteenth Century. H-FedHist, H-Net Reviews. September, 2017. URL:

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