Lincoln’s Final Hours: Conspiracy, Terror, and the Assassination of America’s Greatest President by Kathryn Canavan. University Press of Kentucky, 2015. Cloth, ISBN: 978-0813166087. $29.95.
Not a year goes by without several new books on Lincoln’s assassination being published. This was certainly the case in 2015, the sesquicentennial anniversary of the death of the nation’s sixteenth president. The questions one often asks when confronted with another book on the tragic event are, “what, another Lincoln assassination book?” and “what more can one say about the assassination?” The latter question was front and center in my mind when I began to read Kathryn Canavan’s Lincoln’s Final Hours. I am pleased to report that there is more one can say about the subject, and the author of the book reviewed here does it admirably.
Lincoln’s Final Hours is a well-written, fast-paced narrative aimed primarily at a popular audience. Rather than offering the usual, minute-by-minute movements of Booth and his fellow conspirators before and after the assassination, Canavan offers the reader a different story: one that involves the experiences of various people who participated in one way or another in the events surrounding the murder of Abraham Lincoln. For example, among those whose lives were forever changed by the assassination were Charles Leale, the young army surgeon who was the first physician to enter the president’s box, and William Petersen and members of his family, residents of the boarding house across the street from Ford’s Theater to which the mortally wounded president was taken to die.
This reviewer found the stories of the Petersen family to be the most compelling of those portrayed in Lincoln’s Final Hours. William Petersen’s fifteen-year-old son Fred, who witnessed Lincoln’s last hours in the back room of his father’s boarding house, was the first of many who sought to make money by selling “relics” associated with Lincoln and his death. Within hours after Lincoln’s body was removed from the house, Fred was selling squares of paper dipped in blood (probably that of Major Henry Rathbone rather than Lincoln’s) from the floor of the front hallway. And there was no shortage of people willing to buy as well as to take. When William Petersen allowed curiosity seekers into his house to see the room where Lincoln died, some took advantage of the opportunity and walked out with bloody bandages and pieces of wallpaper and carpet. As Canavan points out, officials were not immune to relic hunting. An employee in the government’s undertaking office opened Lincoln’s coffin and helped himself to the late president’s necktie and a piece of his shirt. William Petersen also sought to reap financial benefit from the historic events that unfolded in his boarding house. Weeks after the assassination, he charged the War Department $550 for rent of the room and compensation for the use of his home, furniture, linens, as well as his servant’s time. He also charged for his own time, despite the fact that he was not on the premises when Lincoln was dying.
Canavan also covers Lincoln’s funeral, as well as the escape and hunt for John Wilkes Booth. She does not offer an analysis of Booth’s motives, but this is not a criticism; it is not the purpose of Lincoln’s Final Hours to explain Booth’s actions. She does make a claim that both Booth and Boston Corbett, the man who shot and killed Lincoln’s assassin, were madmen without offering and evidence to support her claims. One could argue that since Corbett was committed to an asylum for the insane, Canavan is on strong ground. But Mary Lincoln was also committed to an asylum, and there is no consensus among historians regarding her mental health. One may call Booth’s murder of Lincoln a mad act, but one cannot refer to him as a madman without providing something in the way of tangible proof.
Canavan ends Lincoln’s Final Hours with an epilogue that briefly chronicles the later lives of each of the participants she mentions in the book, ranging from Mary Lincoln to several Petersen House borders and the Petersen family. By 1870, with his financial situation in ruins, William Peterson took to alcohol and laudanum, on which he overdosed and died in 1871. Four months after his death, his wife Ann died. Fred Petersen lived until 1915. His life after the assassination included a successful career in the carpet business in Washington, as well as a stormy marriage followed by a well-publicized divorce. To the day he died, Fred defended his father’s actions during and after the assassination.
This book is not for those who seek a scholarly history of the Lincoln assassination. It is a good read for those interested in the personal stories of those affected in some way by the events that took place on Good Friday in April of 1865. I recommend it as one of the better assassination books.
Thomas A. Horrocks is the author of Lincoln’s Campaign Biographies (2014).