Bookmonger: A look back at the Civil War era and Lincoln’s assassination

“John Surratt – the Lincoln Assassin Who Got Away” by Michael Schein

Over the past few years, particularly in the eastern half of the United States, museums, libraries, historical societies and national parks have produced all manner of exhibits, re-enactments, and such to mark the significant moments of the Civil War, which happened 150 years ago. All that is coming to a close now, as the last major events of the Civil War (Lee’s surrender at Appomattox and Lincoln’s assassination at Ford’s Theatre) occurred in April of 1865 – and the opportunity for sesquicentennial commemorations has passed.

I’m running behind: only now am I getting to a book about Lincoln’s assassination that was published this past April. But I’ve found this book to be so intriguing that I’d like to recommend it to you – history is always going to be in the past, anyway, so my tardiness should not be of any consequence.

“John Surratt: The Lincoln Assassin Who Got Away” was written by Snoqualmie Valley author Michael Schein. A former lecturer for Humanities Washington, Schein also taught American legal history for several years at the University of Puget Sound and Seattle University before turning his hand to historical novels. “Bones Beneath Our Feet” and “Just Deceits” centered on questions of constitutionality, justice and wrangling in the courtroom.

But this latest book is nonfiction – Schein turns his attention to a convoluted, Confederacy-backed plot to bring down the 16th President of the United States.

I count myself as one who is interested in 19th century American history – but I confess ignorance of the fact that Lincoln’s assassin, John Wilkes Booth, had not acted alone. And I’d had no idea that even after Booth was hunted down and killed, eight others were convicted as co-conspirators, and four of them were executed soon thereafter, including a woman named Mary Surratt.

Mary was the mother of John Surratt, and while author Schein focuses on the son’s clandestine activities leading up to Lincoln’s death, he sheds plenty of light on the mother’s involvement, as well.

In fact, Schein introduces us to a wide array of Surratt family members and acquaintances, and takes us along as the peripatetic young John, only 20 years old at the time, makes connections, secures money, conceals weapons, surveils sites, woos pretty ladies and passes notes from Maryland to Montreal in the six months leading up to Lincoln’s assassination.

A great deal of Surratt’s work was intentionally obfuscatory – espionage was his trade. Yet Schein dives in with sharp-eyed zeal, combing through archives, presenting the research (letters, diary entries, newspaper accounts, courtroom transcripts) and parsing their legitimacy. Every chapter is followed by a long list of footnotes.

Nonetheless, this is not a scholarly slog – the reading is immensely engaging. This is real-life drama involving idealism, narcissism, charismatic players, high stakes, treachery and tragedy.

Not every question in this complicated narrative is answered, but how terrific that the questions have been raised once again! Schein breathes new life into a transformative episode that has been neglected for too long. “John Surratt” is a fascinating read.

The Bookmonger review appears each week in Take Five. For more entertainment, go to BellinghamHerald.com/entertainment.