On this, the 148th anniversary of Lincoln’s assassination, I reflect on my own interest in the tragedy at Ford’s Theatre. In high school, I was in speech and drama. One day, a good friend of mine who had soundtracks to many musicals, starting playing Assassins by Stephen Sondheim in his car. At first I thought, “what a dark thing to write a musical about”. However, as I listened deeply to the lyrics, I was struck by how little I knew about the history of the people I heard. The songs spoke of their misguided hopes and I was convinced to learn more about these people I knew little to nothing about. I had heard of John Wilkes Booth of course, but only as the crazy, racist actor who shot Lincoln. Beyond that, he was a mystery to me. The more I read about Booth, the more I felt him to be such an oddity compared to the other Assassins. In his song, entitled “The Ballad of Booth”, he sings of his crime, “Let them cry ‘dirty traitor’, they will understand it later.”
Despite all of the books that I’ve read on the subject since hearing this song for the first time, I still don’t truly understand what made Booth commit his deed. There are many wonderful books that expertly dissect Booth, and the authors provide wonderful insights as to why he acted as he did. However, the more I read, the more impossible I find it to put Booth into just one of these corners. That is what keeps me drawn to this history. Even after all this time, Booth and his band of conspirators are still an enigma to me. So I will continue to read and learn about them. This is what helps keep Lincoln’s legacy alive, in my eyes. When we dismiss the men and women involved in the ‘dreadful affair’, we allow Lincoln to die. When we claim to know all we need to know about the Lincoln assassination, we end his story. So while my interest in Lincoln may be focused on the final chapter of his life, to me, that chapter will never close. As long as others feel the same as I do, then Abraham Lincoln will never die.