Review: 'They Have Killed Papa Dead!" by Anthony S. Pitch

February 15, 2009


Of all of the now mythic events in the sad but inspiring life of our 16th President, none is more tragic, mysterious or fascinating for students of history and lovers of true-crime thrillers than the events at Ford's Theatre on the evening of April 14, 1865.

Almost all of us are familiar with the basic facts of how, shortly after his second inauguration and the end of the incredibly bloody conflict that abolished slavery while nearly tearing apart the United States, Confederate sympathizer, renowned actor and all-purpose cad and creep John Wilkes Booth snuck into the Presidential box during a performance of "Our American Cousin." As the lone actor onstage uttered the play's funniest line ("You sock-dologizing old man-trap!"), Booth put a single shot from a .44 caliber Derringer into the head of Abraham Lincoln, who died early the next morning at a boarding house across the muddy tract of 10th Street NW in Washington, D.C.

As Lincoln expelled his final breath, Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton broke down. "Now he belongs to the ages," he said. Or did he?

Some historians now argue that Stanton actually said, "Now he belongs to the angels." And this is only one of thousands of small but immensely curious details that remain in contention about Lincoln's assassination, along with the serpentine tale of a much wider conspiracy by Booth to obliterate not only the chief executive, but several of his cabinet members, possibly Vice President Andrew Johnson and hopefully the Union itself as revenge for its victory over the South in the Civil War.

Until recently, the most riveting and best researched account of Booth's murderous crime, ambitious but often ill-planned conspiracy and escape and eventual killing by Union soldiers was Manhunt: The 12-Day Chase for Lincoln's Killer, written by Washington lawyer and devoted Lincolnologist James L. Swanson and first published in early 2006. But even stronger in terms of its exhaustive scholarship, dramatic and compelling language and insightful analysis of the politics, the social settings and the sounds, sights and even smells of the relevant locales is They Have Killed Papa Dead!" The Road to Ford's Theatre, Abraham Lincoln's Murder, and the Rage for Vengeance, published late last year by Steerforth.

Author Anthony S. Pitch is a former broadcast editor for the Associated Press, and he brings a journalist's urgent rhythms and eye for small but revealing observations, along with the serious and extensively annotated scholarship of a great historian. (His earlier books include The Burning of Washington: The British Invasion of 1814.) This winning combination is evidenced right in the title, which comes from the heartbreaking lament of Lincoln's young son Tad upon learning his father was shot.

"When Tad returned to the White House, he ran up to the assistant doorkeeper, Thomas Pendel, and cried out, 'Oh, Tom Pen! Tom Pen! They have killed Papa dead! They have killed Papa dead!' Pendel, a former marine and metropolitan policeman, had the unenviable task of trying to comfort the twelve-year-old, sitting by his bedside until well after midnight before the weary boy finally fell asleep."

The argument can be made that despite such gripping anecdotes, the last thing the world needs is another book on Lincoln, and Pitch takes this on right off the bat in his preface. "Critics assumed that nothing new could be found to justify publication of yet another volume on the assassination," he writes. "I always replied that five hundred artists painting the same landscape would come up with five hundred different canvases, none of which could be stamped as definitive."

That may be true, but some of those canvases certainly are more ambitious and affective than others, and after nine years of work that included the unearthing of numerous new letters and first-hand eyewitness accounts, Pitch has given us if not the definitive story of the assassination and the events before and after, than the one that readers should turn to first, with Manhunt following closely in second place.