What Your Teachers Got Wrong About Lincoln’s Killer

The first thing he shouted was NOT, ‘Sic semper tyrannis’

Janice Harayda
3 min readFeb 21, 2022


Detail from the cover of “Manhunt” / Credit: HarperCollins

Abraham Lincoln has inspired more good books than any U.S. president, and not just because historians tend to rank him higher even than George Washington. Photography was coming of age when Lincoln took office, and photographers like Mathew Brady and his associates captured thousands of images that have enhanced countless books about his presidency.

Some accounts of Lincoln’s life have won major awards such as the Pulitzer Prize — among them, Carl Sandburg’s Abraham Lincoln: The War Years, Eric Foner’s The Fiery Trial: Abraham Lincoln and American Slavery, and Garry Wills’ Lincoln at Gettysburg: The Words That Remade America. Other biographies have had popular movie versions, including Doris Kearns Goodwin’s Team of Rivals, the inspiration for Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln.

Still other books about Lincoln defy easy categorization. Here are two — one for adults and one for children — with broad popular appeal.

Why John Wilkes Booth killed Lincoln

Not many books about presidents are suspenseful enough to have won an Edgar Award from the Mystery Writers of America. One that earned that honor was James L. Swanson’s Manhunt: The Twelve-Day Chase for Lincoln’s Killer (Morrow, 207).

Unlike many books about the 16th president, Manhunt is neither a biography nor a character study of Lincoln or the actor who shot him at Ford’s Theatre, John Wilkes Booth.

Lincoln scholar Swanson instead has written a true-crime story about what happened between Booth’s escape from the theater and his arrest at a barn in Virginia 12 days later. He casts the actor as a passionate white supremacist who saw Lincoln as a tyrant and was enraged by the president’s recent call for limited black suffrage. Gen. Robert E. Lee had surrendered, but strong Confederate armies remained at large in parts of the South, and their leaders had not taken their cues from Lee. On Swanson’s evidence, Booth may have been delusional enough to believe that, by killing Lincoln, he could affect what remained of the Civil War.



Janice Harayda

Critic, novelist, award-winning journalist. Former book editor of the Plain Dealer and book columnist for Glamour. Words in NYT, WSJ, and other major media.