49 pages 1 hour read

James L. Swanson

Manhunt: The 12-Day Chase for Lincoln's Killer

Nonfiction | Biography | Adult | Published in 2006

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Summary and Study Guide


Manhunt: The Twelve-Day Chase for Lincoln’s Killer (2006) by James L. Swanson is a popular true-crime historical thriller about the assassination of President Abraham Lincoln on April 14, 1865 and the search for the assassin John Wilkes Booth. James Swanson has written several books about Abraham Lincoln and other events in American history including the assassination of President John F. Kennedy. The book won the Edgar Award, a literary award for fiction and non-fiction works about crime. It was later adapted into a young adult version entitled Chasing Lincoln’s Killer: The Search for John Wilkes Booth (2008). In 2024, Manhunt: The Twelve-Day Chase for Lincoln’s Killer was adapted into a limited series for Apple TV+ starring Tobias Menzies as Secretary of War Edwin Stanton.

Manhunt: The Twelve-Day Chase for Lincoln’s Killer is a popular history that relies on an extensive bibliography of first-person accounts, newspaper coverage, and academic histories. Written as a minute-by-minute narrative covering the assassination and its aftermath, it describes the challenges authorities faced in their search for Lincoln’s assassin. It also covers the public response to the shocking events both at the time they took place and in the contemporary era. Swanson uses vivid, sensory writing to give a sense of tension and urgency to historical events.

The guide uses the 2006 HarperCollins PerfectBound e-book edition.

Content Warning: This guide mentions suicide.

Plot Summary

The Introduction begins with a description of President Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address as the Civil War is coming to an end. Present at the inauguration is the actor John Wilkes Booth, who is devastated that the Confederacy is on the brink of collapse. Following the capture of Richmond, the capital of the Confederacy, and the surrender of Confederate General Lee at Appomattox, Booth swears he will take revenge against President Lincoln.

Chapter 1 begins on April 14, 1865. Booth goes to Ford’s Theatre to pick up his mail. While there, he learns that President Lincoln and Union General Grant are expected to attend the play that evening. When Booth learns this news, he decides to put his plan to assassinate the president into motion. He meets with his coconspirators to lay out the plan. Instead of kidnapping the president as they had planned previously, Booth will kill President Lincoln, George Atzerodt will kill Vice President Johnson, and Lewis Powell will kill Secretary of State Seward with the assistance of David Herold.

In Chapter 2, Booth sneaks into President Lincoln’s box at Ford’s Theatre and shoots the president in the head with a single bullet. He then stabs Captain Henry Rathbone, also in the box, and leaps onto the stage, where he declares that he did it for the Confederacy. Meanwhile, Lewis Powell enters Secretary Seward’s house, stabs the Secretary and his sons, kills a State Department messenger, and flees.

In Chapter 3, Booth flees Ford’s Theatre on his horse. He convinces the guard on the bridge to let him cross into Maryland. George Atzerodt decides not to kill Vice President Johnson and spends most of the evening wandering around the nation’s capital. David Herold abandons Powell at the Seward residence and meets Booth across the bridge in Maryland. President Lincoln, barely clinging to life, is taken out of Ford’s Theatre and to the Petersen boardinghouse across the street.

In Chapter 4, Secretary of War Edwin Stanton begins to arrange the official manhunt and investigation from the Petersen boardinghouse. Booth and Herold meanwhile stop at the Surrattsville pub for supplies and then go to the house of Confederate sympathizer Dr. Samuel Mudd, where Mudd can treat Booth’s broken leg and they can rest.

In Chapter 5, President Lincoln dies in the early hours of April 15, 1865. Dr. Mudd learns that the president has been killed and urges Booth and Herold to leave his house. He sends them to Dr. Samuel Cox, who tells them to hide in a pine thicket near his residence. Dr. Cox arranges for Confederate agent Thomas A. Jones to help them escape across the Potomac to Virginia. Jones advises them to stay in hiding until the search dies down.

In Chapter 6, Jones makes an escape plan and prepares a boat for them. The authorities meanwhile begin rounding up the coconspirators, such as Lewis Powell, Mary Surratt, and George Atzerodt. The authorities arrive at the Mudd farmhouse to question him.

In Chapter 7, Jones makes the final preparations for Booth and Herold’s escape to Virginia. On April 20, he puts them on a boat on the river, but they go north instead of south and land in Maryland. The authorities continue to interrogate Mudd about Booth and Herold.

In Chapter 8, on April 22, Booth and Herold set back out in their boat to Virginia. They arrive at a Confederate agent’s house, who sends them to a Dr. Stuart. Dr. Stuart refuses to house them and sends them to stay in the quarters of his Black servant, William Lucas. The next day, Lucas’s son takes them to the ferry in Port Conway so they can continue south to Port Royal. There, they are joined by three Confederate soldiers who escort them on the ferry and to Richard Garrett’s farmhouse.

In Chapter 9, on April 24, the authorities begin their search for Booth and Herold near Port Royal. They learn that the fugitives are at the Garrett farm. The Garrett brothers had meanwhile grown suspicious of Booth and Herold and locked them in the tobacco shed. That is where they are when the authorities arrive. Herold surrenders to the authorities. Booth is shot in the back of the neck by Sergeant Boston Corbett. He is taken out of the shed and dies.

In Chapter 10, Booth’s body is brought back to Washington, DC, autopsied, and buried. Rewards and compensation are distributed to those who found the fugitives and coconspirators. Powell, Atzerodt, Surratt, and Herold are tried by military tribunal and sentenced to death by hanging on July 7, 1865.

The Epilogue covers what happened to the other figures in the story following the assassination. Notably, Dr. Samuel Mudd was pardoned by President Johnson. Swanson then describes the museum dedicated to the assassination at the re-created Ford’s Theatre in Washington, DC. He connects the assassination of President Lincoln with more recent crises in American history like the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.