Recently, there has been a minor controversy regarding the sale of John Wilkes Booth bobblehead dolls. A reporter from The Evening Sun of Hanover, PA, received an anonymous complaint about the dolls being sold at the Gettysburg National Military Park gift shop. When he inquired about them, the gift shop removed them from their shelves within a couple of days. Shortly thereafter, without any noted complaints or inquires, the Abraham Lincoln Museum and Library in Springfield, IL, followed suit and removed the bobbleheads from their gift shop.
What interests me the most about this controversy is how people have reacted to the dolls. The original article notes that, “At first, the bobblehead drew chuckles from some of the students. But most reconsidered that reaction when asked to comment.” This “chuckling” reaction would be the one I would expect from most people. As a bobblehead doll, it is made to be a gag gift. People either like them enough to buy them, or they move on, instantly forgetting them.
When probed about the dolls, the students being interviewed responded with the remarks akin to, “Yes, I suppose it is wrong to make them.” What changed their minds? A few seconds earlier they were chuckling at the John Wilkes Booth bobblehead, and now they are calling for its immediate removal. Their new-found disgust is a product of their education about Lincoln. It is this education that we all receive. We rightfully idolize and revere Lincoln for his strengths and courage as president. He freed the slaves, kept the nation together and paid for it all with his life. All of these things are true, but, in order to keep Lincoln as the penultimate American president, we all ignore the complexity of his death. The man who killed him was a crazy, racist, cold-blooded killer. We simplify Lincoln’s death into its simplest but, inherently, incorrect terms. Did Booth commit an atrocious deed that should be condemned? Of course. However, we should not dismiss his importance to the Lincoln we know and love.
This is the fine line that “Boothies” walk pursuing our interest. As those who study the assassination, we look at the factors and motivations of Booth and other groups, North and South, who wished for and plotted to end Lincoln’s life. While Lincoln was a great man and a great president, he was also one of our most hated presidents. This version of Lincoln was buried and forgotten with Booth’s body. One bullet, fueled by the anguish of the ravaged South, transformed Lincoln into a saint. Booth should be studied not only for this crucial act, but for the complexity of his character that led him to such a crime.
Of all the reactions given in the articles and comments regarding the bobbleheads, I am slightly disappointed on a purely scholarly level with Mr. Harold Holzer’s quote in which he states that selling the John Wilkes Booth bobbleheads are, “…like selling Lee Harvey Oswald stuffed dolls at the Kennedy Center.” While both Lincoln and Kennedy’s assassinations were traumatic events in our history, the men who committed them were polar opposites. The times and events they lived through defined them as uniquely troubled individuals and each had vastly different motivations for their crimes. By painting these two assassins with the same brush, we actually diminish the honored men they killed. The story of Lincoln’s assassination is a dark one and an unpleasant one. However, looking at the men and women who conspired to kill Lincoln helps us better understand the harsh period of time in which Lincoln lived and led a nation.
According to the original Evening Sun article, 11 out of the 12 people interviewed stated that the Booth bobblehead was inappropriate. The sole hold out was a 15-year-old boy who stated, “It’s a part of history and we can’t just ignore it because it’s a bad part.”
I couldn’t agree more: