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THE END of two presidents

Writer takes us back to 1865

Created date

December 21st, 2010

All of us have an obsession of some sort, something that occupies our thoughts and drives us to search for answers. James Swanson found his at the age of ten, when his grandmother presented him with a framed etching of a derringer pistol. Beneath it was part of a clipping from the Chicago Tribune dated April 15, 1865. Its headline told of President Abraham Lincoln s murder at the hands of John Wilkes Booth and how the famous actor leapt from the box to the stage below, shouted Sic semper tyrannis! then rode off into the night. The dramatic exit marked the start of a 12-day hunt for history s most notorious assassin. For the young boy reading about it, it was the beginning of a life-long fascination with the Civil War and its characters. Swanson, who ironically was born on Lincoln s birthday, from then on immersed himself in all aspects of those tumultuous weeks in April 1865, collecting relics and ephemera related to the slain president and the war he prosecuted. Decades later, two books have come out of this obsession. His first, the best-selling Manhunt (Harper Perennial, 2007), chronicles the search for John Wilkes Booth, while his latest work, Bloody Crimes (William Morrow, 2010), completes the tale with the sad account of Lincoln s death pageant and the chase for his fallen adversary, Jefferson Davis. Together, these books depict the end of two presidents, and Swanson tells their stories with an epic style that reflects his love for the material. Of course, he is hardly alone in his fascination with these sagas, least of all that of Lincoln, who gained mythic status in death.

Why Lincoln?

The best-selling author s flesh-and-blood portrayal of the Great Emancipator raises an interesting question: How did a man with a first-grade education, who didn t have a vast library or sage mentor, become a political leader and, in time, America s secular saint? Lincoln s genius and his success cannot be fully explained by rational means, and I believe that when it comes to his political rise and performance as president, you re dealing with a historical X factor, he says. Shakespeare certainly had it. You can t fully explain why Shakespeare was Shakespeare. The same, I think, goes for Lincoln. InBloody Crimes, Swanson serves to accentuate this X factor with a deeply human portrait of the humble rail-splitter set against that of the more exulted Jefferson Davis. First, there were the similarities between the two. Both were born in Kentucky log cabins, had sons buried in Georgetown s upscale Oak Hill Cemetery, and slept in their respective presidential mansions only 100 miles apart. On the other hand, Davis s illustrious career as a war hero, congressman, senator, and secretary of war made him a more likely president than did Lincoln s small law practice and single term in Congress, which otherwise would have destined him for local prosperity and national obscurity.

History firsthand

Still, each man had qualities that justify Swanson s obsession with their stories, and he hopes that more Americans join him.Manhunt puts readers in Lincoln s box at Ford s Theatre and riding along with Booth on his desperate run south. Likewise,Bloody Crimeslets them bear witness to Lincoln s autopsy in the White House and Jefferson Davis s last days as the Confederate president. Such scenes are dramatic, compelling, and very real. I write my books for people who may not have ever read a volume on the Civil War, says Swanson. These readers can understand what s happening just as well as those who know a lot about the subject, and all of them novice and expert alike should feel as though they ve gone back in time. This includes younger audiences too. In fact, Swanson recently produced a children s version ofManhunt, and a similar edition ofBloody Crimesis soon to follow. It frustrates me when I hear that kids aren t taught about the Civil War or about other elements of America s past, he laments. If properly told, these stories are every bit as exciting as fiction. Swanson knew this when he was just ten years old, and today, through his books, he s proving it to us all.