J. Wilkes Booth (1893) Review

For over 30 years, one of my great interests involves the assassination of Abraham Lincoln, his assassin, John Wilkes Booth, and the ins and outs, facts and “facts,” and plots, subplots, conspiracies, myths and legend that pertain. It all started in September 1991, with the segment covering Booth on the fourth season of the original run of Unsolved Mysteries. Over the years, I’ve researched a lot, read many books, and I’m always ready to re-read a favorite and look for more clues. However, I’m overjoyed when I come across one of those books I’ve heard of, read about, seen in reference lists, and are old. By old, I mean, not readily available anymore. Thanks to the fine folks at Scribd, I just finished one such book. The title is incredibly long, so I’ll reference it once. No sense in making you, dear friends and readers, keep reading it. The book? The author? How old is this thing? Of course, there’s the question of enjoyment and rating, so let’s get into all these things.

I’ll just go in order here. The book? J. Wilkes Booth: An Account of His Sojourn in Southern Maryland after the Assassination of Abraham Lincoln, His Passage across the Potomac, and His Death in Virginia. Christ, that’s a mouthful to type out. Our author is one Thomas A. Jones, who I need to give a few lines to by way of an introduction. Jones would be like most of us, obscure and forgotten within our own time and with the passage of so many years after death. However, thanks to a chance encounter, history remembers him as one of the many minor figures pulled into the “Lincoln/Booth” saga. Read any book on the assassination, and you will read of Thomas A. Jones. You’ll also come across his book, usually in the bibliography. Following the assassination, and Booth making it across the Navy Yard Bridge out of Washington. After his visit to Dr. Mudd, Booth and an “accomplice” came to the farm of Samuel Cox late at night. Cox, the foster brother of Jones, sent for him as Jones was in the work of getting people and mail out of Maryland and into Virginia across the Potomac. All of this is in the book, first published in 1893. As for the ebook version I read, it includes 18 pen and ink illustrations, and covers 77 pages across seven chapters.

That’s enough background. The book is a somewhat interesting read, and broken into thirds as far as storytelling. The first part is a brief autobiography of Jones, which sets the table for how he came to be a minor figure in the assassination lore. We then get to how he came to meet Booth, agree to help him and his accomplice, and we finish with what happened to him and Cox, including an imprisonment for a time. The Federal Government, in the days and weeks after the assassination, had imprisoned many they felt had some tie to the assassin or the assassination. The third chapter is where I start having issues. Jones details how he came to aid Booth, and how he helped him try to cross the Potomac with his accomplice in Jones’ boat. The first trip, as history notes and I have no reason to question, wasn’t a success, but the next day the two landed on Virginia soil. My issue is Jones begins the chapter writing he heard in December 1864 of an “abduction” plot, and lists both Booth and early co-conspirator John Surratt as involved. He doesn’t mention how he heard, or how he heard it from, or the reason for naming these two. Next, as he will do over the course of the following chapters, he states facts and “facts.” “Facts” being the approved Federal government version of what happened to Booth, though his escape legend began the very night he “died” at Richard Garrett’s farm. It seems odd to me he’d insert any of this beyond his role in aiding Booth. He mentions David Herold several times by name as Booth’s accomplice, but never states that he or Cox received an introduction from the second man, only one from Booth. In the fourth chapter, Jones tells of how he became a minor figure in the “Lincoln/Booth” saga.

I know I’ve written a lengthy review of a very short book. Please forgive me, but I’m a huge fan, practically lifelong, of this whole affair, as I’ve stated. As a scholar, if I can find a decent physical copy at a reasonable price, I’d add it to my collection. As it is, Jones’ book is a second shelf read, interesting, but his listing of extra pieces he couldn’t have known during those April weeks in 1865 takes away from my enjoyment.

Copyright © Drew Martin 2023

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