Episode 5.3: “Why would Maryland do that?”

Every day at President Lincoln’s Cottage we engage with visitors in conversation on difficult topics, from grief to slavery to American identity. And occasionally, we get asked a question on a tour that stops us in our tracks – one we wish we could spend a half hour answering. Some of these questions, on their face, were innocent or simple, but on a second look they contain a level of complexity that leaves us wanting to know more.

Thanks to generous donations from our supporters, we created “Q & Abe” – a podcast that investigates real questions from visitors to the Cottage. Come on down the rabbit hole with us as we seek the answers – we always start with Lincoln and the Cottage, but we often end up in unexpected places.

For this episode, we’re talking about a question we got from a student trying to understand the reasons behind Lincoln’s assassination.   Along the way we’ll encounter a troubling relationship to cats, one of history’s most dramatic moments, and resources to stop radicalization in the present. Come along with us!

In addition to the embedded media player below, you can find the podcast on Apple Podcasts / Spotify Stitcher Google Podcasts or wherever you get podcasts. You also can read below for a transcript of the episode (coming soon!)

5.3: Why would Maryland do that?

Joan Cummins: Every day at President Lincoln’s Cottage, we engage with visitors in conversation on difficult topics, from grief to slavery to American identity. Visitors, young and old alike, connect with us from next door and from around the globe.

Callie Hawkins: And occasionally, we get asked a question on a tour that stops us in our tracks, one we wish we could spend a half hour answering. Some of these questions, on their face, seem innocent or simple, but on a second look they contain a level of complexity that leaves us wanting to know more. Each episode, we’ll investigate a single real question a visitor asked us here.

JC: At President Lincoln’s Cottage, we’re storytellers, historians, and truth seekers, so we called on people whose expertise could speak to all the facets of these questions.

CH: I’m Callie Hawkins –

JC: And I’m Joan Cummins. This is Q&Abe. Come on down the rabbit hole with us!

CH: Let’s take that half hour now. For this episode, we’re looking into the question: “Why would Maryland do that?”

JC: This is one of those questions that requires a second look, we have to admit. An elementary school student asked our colleague Jacob this, after hearing that John Wilkes Booth was from Maryland, which the student had thought of as a Union state and therefore on Lincoln’s side. So wrapped up in this question is something like, “why would someone from Maryland want to assassinate the president?”

CH: We reached out to Terry Alford, who wrote a biography of Booth called Fortune’s Fool: The Life of John Wilkes Booth. The first thing Terry said was to remind us that Maryland was more complicated than we might think.

Terry Alford: Well, Maryland is not exactly, is not totally a Union state. It’s a mixed state. Uh, it sent soldiers both into the Southern Army and the Northern Army. So you would have to say almost, what part of Maryland are you speaking of and what kind of social political group you belong to. From today’s perspective, it’s a little hard to imagine that situation, but it was a slave state, right? All the way to its northern border.

JC: The first person we asked about this question was actually our friend and colleague Alex Wood, the Education Programs Manager at Ford’s Theater here in DC. She also started with some of Maryland’s complications:

Alex Wood: It wasn’t the North versus the South in these two monolithic groups, right? And one of the tools that we love to use here at Ford’s Theater is that fantastic map that was based on the 1860 census that shows the percent of enslaved population by county. And when you look at that map, you can see that not only did Maryland and Virginia enslave thousands of people, but by county, the Virginia counties right up next to Washington DC, the Northern Virginia counties, actually had a lower percentage of their populations enslaved than the Southern Maryland counties that also border DC. So even though Maryland stayed in the union, and didn’t secede, it actually had more folks in bondage per capita than some of the counties in the Virginia side. And so when we look at that map, we immediately ask visitors and students and adults, you know, do you think everybody across the board felt exactly the same way? And looking at the map and you just see like, no, of course they didn’t. There’s all these different people with these different interests and their communities are different, and it’s a really lovely primary source to turn to that instantly complicates it, right? It wasn’t just the good guys and the bad guys.

CH: Terry and Alex both said that, though he definitely felt attached to Maryland as his home state, the thing Booth was really passionate about was the United States.

TA: Oddly enough, he had very strong feelings for the United States. You wouldn’t think that, but he was kind of a reluctant Confederate in some ways. He wasn’t what they used to call a fire-eater. Those were people down at the Deep South right, who were eager to divide the country. He was kind of reluctant to do that, because he had a very strong identity with the United States before the war, you know, the US before the war was, he thought, the best country that had ever been.

AW: I actually learned this pretty recently, and again, it was, you know, we were looking at these primary sources, Booth’s own words – but in some of his earlier letters, he talks a lot about the idea of union and the idea of the nation as a whole. And he says that he loves the union more than any man, and that is something that certainly doesn’t sit with how I had come to be telling the story where I said he was a passionate Confederate sympathizer and he wanted the Confederacy to win the war. And so this idea that he wanted the Union to survive, but just so long as the slave holding states got to keep slavery.

JC: As long as it stayed in a Confederate framework. 

AW: Exactly. It was just really strange to see in his own words the idea of union.

JC: So Booth cared a lot about the United States, but only as it had been before the war. His version of “union” didn’t mean the same thing as Lincoln might have meant by it.

CH: What else do we know about Booth’s reasons for killing Lincoln?

AW: So, Booth specifically was passionately racist and he deeply believed in the system of slavery, and he believed that that was sort of the divine order of things, was for white supremacy and the enslavement of African Americans. John Wilkes Booth wrote a letter and he handed it to his brother-in-law John Sleeper Clarke for safekeeping. And so this letter was sealed for a year, and it wasn’t until after the assassination happened that John Sleeper Clarke opened it and read it, apparently. But in this letter, John Wilkes Booth actually wrote, and you know, forgive me, but this is incredibly racist quote that’s about to happen, but so John Wilkes Booth’s own words, he says, “This country was formed for the white man, not for the black man.” And when confronted with his own language, and you know that, he wrote that in 1864, so that’s like his personal manifesto of what he thinks this war is about, what he thinks the future of the country should hold. And then at Ford’s Theater, one of the pivotal parts of our story is John Wilkes Booth listening to Abraham Lincoln on April 11th, 1865. Lincoln is speaking about his personal support for the idea to grant the elective franchise to some black men, and he singles out especially those who had served in the Union Army and those who are well-educated. Lincoln delivers this speech April 11th, 1865 from the White House to this crowd of people… For some reason, John Wilkes Booth was in the crowd that night, and when he heard Lincoln speak about African American suffrage, he turned to the guy next to him and he said, “That’s the last speech he’ll ever give.” And then there’s a couple of different accounts of what else he said around those sentences, but it really seems like this idea of African-American men having the right to vote, being empowered to participate in our government, which is one of the surest steps towards citizenship, was really the thing that pushed Booth over the edge.

CH: Alex also said that visitors to Ford’s have the same question that we’re asking today – and sometimes linger on it even after hearing the answer.

AW: And I’m always impressed at how often the question, why did he do it? But why did he kill Lincoln? I mean, it’s such a straightforward question and yet it has a finite answer, but then it also kind of doesn’t, right? Like the question keeps going. A lot of times when I’m talking with students, I think the question comes from a place of it being hard or impossible to imagine being that violent and having that much hate. I think with adults, the answer, “he was a white supremacist” might feel too simple. Which, you know, it’s not a simple answer, but it’s a straightforward answer. And there’s a lot of difference between having the thoughts and taking the action, right? And that’s probably scary for a lot of us to really imagine.

JC: We started to realize that it’s not really Maryland, it’s Booth. Why would Booth do this? How does someone decide on this course of action?

CH: Originally when we were planning this episode, we thought we might need to talk to someone about contemporary secession movements. But I had a lightbulb moment in this conversation with Alex – what we actually needed was to talk to someone about the radicalization of individuals.

JC: To get more information, we got in touch with Brian Hughes. He’s the co-founder and Associate Director of the Polarization and Extremism Research and Innovation Lab at American University –  they call themselves PERIL for short. Brian confirmed that geography doesn’t have much to do with it, when we asked him whether that showed up in PERIL’s research at all:

Brian Hughes: No, I’m afraid not. Radicalization is something that can happen to anyone in any geographic location, any socioeconomic status, any walk of life. This is a, an issue that affects the whole of society, so it takes a whole of society approach to address it.

JC: It’s true, there were plenty of Confederate sympathizers in Maryland – and plenty of white supremacists across the country – who didn’t decide to kill the President. How did Booth get to the point where violence felt like the answer?

CH: I was really curious whether his acting profession might have had anything to do with it.

AW: I mean, I would imagine that the acting community was as divided as the rest of the country. And we know that even within the Booth family, they were split in the Civil War, right? So John Wilkes Booth, passionate Confederate sympathizer, his eldest brother Edwin, passionate Unionist.

TA: Well, the stage was generally considered to be either – surprisingly, neutral on the war are vaguely pro-Southern. Actors had been very well received in the South. If the South is wrong, well, they have a right to be wrong, right? They’re just a silly part of our country, whatever. There was a feeling that of sympathy among a lot of actors. But to go as far as Booth did, that was an extra step. I mean, both of his brothers played these same roles, these same tyrannicide type roles that Booth did, and they shared not only the stage influence, they shared the actual genetic influence and factors that Booth had with the same parents, the same environment, and they didn’t kill anybody. So you have to think, okay, you know, this is something really personal to Booth.

CH: Next, we were wondering: what do we know about how the Booth brothers grew up?

TA: Well, Booth’s childhood was unusual, to say the least, almost in some ways irregular. His family were actors, that was an extremely rare profession in the years before the war, and not always considered a respectful profession by, by some people. His father was an alcoholic and given to you know, mental vagaries as they used to call him. You know, you never knew with him. I mean, he could be really a super dad and then scary. And so, the mental dynamics of the family are unusual, they’re not, they’re not normal. But again, you know, he had brothers who were actors and they, as they say, they didn’t shoot anybody, right? So you have to look, you know, to him individually for, uh, for some of the things. And he split his time between Baltimore and urban environment and, uh, a rural environment out in the country in Hartford County, Maryland. So his influences were both urban and rural. He struggled in school, but, uh, nevertheless, he doggedly plowed through, probably got about halfway through high school by modern equivalence, and took to the stage, you know, had almost immediate success. So he had come along pretty well, considering, you know, his challenging origins with his dad – particularly with his dad, his mother was a nice emotional counterweight. She was loving, accept- uncritically accepting, in fact maybe too uncritically accepting. So he had both the eccentric father whom he admired, but was afraid of, and the mother, you know, who was very indulgent in her dealings with him.

JC: Terry also told us about a distressing tendency Booth exhibited as a child.

TA: As a child, it’s more than a quirk, it’s, it’s a very bad thing. He hated cats. He absolutely hated cats and would kill them. Now, what’s odd about that is, he was extremely affectionate to horses. He was affectionate to dogs, he wouldn’t let his sister hurt butterflies or lightning bugs… And she grabbed like a lightning bug for her insect collection, he grabbed it and freed it, took it back, put it on the tree. He jumped in a river to save a dog that was drowning one time. So it, he’s not, I mean, intentional repeated abuse of an animal by a child is a disturbing, disturbing sign to saying the least, but it’s not generalized to, to other animals, it was just specific to cats.

CH: I never think that we should diagnose anyone in retrospect, but that certainly didn’t seem like a good sign. I was curious about Booth’s mental health and whether that might have anything to do with his willingness to take radical action.\

BH: You know, I think most of us who enjoy true crime have heard about the warning, the childhood warning signs of a psychopath, and it has to do with lighting fires, harming animals, bedwetting, uh, and so on. It, it’s hard to go back in time and psychoanalyze, uh, John Wilkes Booth according to those symptoms. But nowadays when we’re worried about radicalization, we look at different red flags and warning signs. We look at whether people are coming into contact with the spaces and places where radicalization tends to, to occur. So whether they’re going on certain websites, whether they’re using certain applications on their mobile phones, we look for certain talking points that begin to emerge.  I think it was Malcolm X who said something along the lines of, “Racism is like a Cadillac. It’s the same old car, but they have to trot out a new model every single year to keep you interested.” Well, that, that actually means that you can spot red flags a bit easier because they do change, uh, relatively slowly and very little, because the hate is repetitive. Because we’re still dealing with, uh, so many of the same old hates that we’ve been dealing with since the Civil War and, and earlier.

JC: Brian told us that PERIL models radicalization from primarily a social and emotional perspective, as opposed to an ideological one.

BH: You know, in the past, radicalization to violent extremism was something that was looked at from a very ideological, uh, perspective. And there were these ideas that some beliefs and ideologies led to other beliefs and ideologies. And then eventually, you know, you take this conveyor belt from point A to, to violent extremism. And this theory was, uh, widely abused during the, uh, war on terror years just following 9/11 to target Muslim Americans and, and Muslims abroad. It was, uh, abused to basically say that, if you are a Muslim, then you will become more Muslim and more Muslim and more Muslim until eventually you join Al-Qaeda. And of course this is highly offensive and it’s highly false. In fact, we see that there are, uh, uh, a great many impious and unobservant people who are drawn to religious terrorism and, uh, certainly Islamist terrorism is no exception. So in response to those abuses, people began to look at the process of radicalization differently. And part of what the way that we did that, uh, was to compare Islamist extremism with the far right. And we found an awful lot of similarities in the field. So there are a lot of similarities, and there are some similarities that I think apply to the story of John Wilkes Booth.

JC: Let’s back up for just a second and talk about the story of John Wilkes Booth. Most people know that he came into Ford’s Theater while Lincoln was watching a play, then opened the door to Lincoln’s box and shot the president in the head. Booth then leapt onto the stage and shouted something, then ran away and was chased down by soldiers before dying in Port Royal, Virginia.

CH: But what has captured the public’s fascination with this story?

TA: One of the things that certainly captures the public’s imagination is the inconceivably dramatic setting of the assassination. Prominent theater in Washington, Lincoln at the height of his fame, the war has finally come to a successful conclusion, you know, and, and Lincoln has achieved near universal respect and appreciation. And then at the moment of his glory, you might even say, he’s murdered in a theater by an actor that half the country, uh, knew who he was. And the setting, the leap to the stage, the dramatic declaration, you know, that the South has been avenged by the murder of Lincoln. I mean, you couldn’t imagine a more dramatic setting than the one, uh, in which Lincoln lost his life. And in other words, he wasn’t shot from a distance like he almost was at your place, the Soldier’s Home, one day, right? I mean, he was shot very publicly, you know, by, uh, someone who was not trying in any way to conceal his identity. And furthermore, you know, he shows the rationality of the assassination. He didn’t attack Mrs. Lincoln, he didn’t attack anybody that got on his way, he didn’t set a bomb off in the theater. You know, he didn’t try to set it on fire and kill innocent people. He went there really specifically, directly to attack the president and, and, and successfully.

JC: As we were talking to Terry, I found myself reevaluating this story that I’ve told hundreds of times. Wait a minute — a 26-year-old celebrity shot the president in the back of the head at point-blank range – and he thought people would see him as a hero? That’s wild, actually.

CH: Yeah, I was also struck by the intimacy of this action – Booth was barely any distance from Lincoln at all, which means the whole thing was up close and very personal.

JC: Alex warned us, however, against thinking of this dramatic story only in its most exciting terms.

AW: I think, maybe not even most, but many of our visitors have the idea of Booth as the handsome actor and the athletic stuntman, thespian, famous actor with many lady admirers and famous all around the country. And again, that sort of plays into the thrill of the story. So I think that in some of the storytelling, to set John Wilkes Booth and Abraham Lincoln sort of opposite one another in this like superhero battle of like, you know, superhero and supervillain. And there’s something kind of alluring about the villain even though we’re rooting for the hero, right? Like that’s –

JC: Because he’s handsome, and interesting, and…

AW: Because he’s handsome, and you know, I’m – I think that that’s sort of the more fun version of the story to entertain. And when we really look at Booth for what he deeply believed and what he wrote and what he said and how he gathered his conspirators around him and what he set out to do, and we see that he was this, you know, radicalized fanatic with a tremendous amount of anger and hate and prejudice in his heart and mind and soul, and what he envisioned for the country and what he envisioned for his own life and the part he wanted to play in it. You know, that’s a lot, that’s a lot less fun, much less cinematic, but I think that’s important. So when we’re, when we’re telling the story with visitors and students who are here on field trips or when we’re having conversations online and connecting with anyone who can’t get here in person, it’s really important to us to use that language, to, you know, not fall back on the familiar and cinematic and dramatic version of John Wilkes Booth as sort of the supervillain, but rather, really identify him using language that has power in our current times, right? Identify him as someone who believed in white supremacy. Identify him as someone who firmly held deeply racist beliefs about how people in this country should be living, and that those were the motivating forces behind his actions throughout the Civil War, and then of course, ultimately in his assassination of President Lincoln.

CH: I was thinking about another famous line from the assassination story, where William Seward said, “Assassination is not an American practice.” Terry gave us some wider context for what made it possible for something everyone thought was un-American to happen in the first place.

TA: Well, I think wars are revolutionary. And, the assassination, right, was something that had never been done – but neither was the income tax. Neither was the draft. Neither was emancipation, neither was a civil war. You know, I know this was a time where people were doing stuff they had never done, and I would say before the war had never even conceived that they would, have done, you know, people from New York killing people from Georgia. You, you, you gotta be kidding me! You know, where did that come from? And so in a way, you know, it just fit the turbulence of the times.

CH: That this was a time of firsts is such a revelatory thing for me. Like, I had never really thought about it in that way.

JC: We asked Brian to tell us: what are some common patterns he and his colleagues see among paths to radicalization?

BH: One of the most significant ones is, uh, a desire for a heroic mission. This need to be a world historical figure, and to somehow go beyond one’s role in, in day-to-day life. I’ve heard that John Wilkes Booth, despite being very successful, was not really satisfied with his career. Not in the sense that he wanted more, but in the sense that he found it a little shallow and unfulfilling. This speaks to that desire for a heroic mission, the desire to be a world historical figure, and unfortunately, he succeeded. There are other social and emotional risk factors that can, um, put someone, uh, more at risk to radicalization. There is one though, that’s very common. And this is grievance. Grievance is, it runs through extremisms of all kinds, and it can be a personal grievance, that then is directed towards political revenge or revenge against, uh, marginalized communities, uh, or it can be a personal grievance that is then directed in, in all, all different kinds of directions.

CH: Then we checked in with Terry: how much of this would apply to Booth? Was he looking for a heroic mission and/or carrying a grievance?

TA: It’s interesting that he never served in the Confederate army, although he did decide pretty quickly that the South held the proper moral high ground in the war, since it was being invaded by the North. And therefore, you know, he was a Southerner increasingly as the war went on. But I think the thing was he felt guilty about not doing anything. In other words, he played a hero on stage, but in real life he wasn’t one. The simplest Confederate soldier was more of a hero than he was, and he, he, he, he understood that, you know, he felt guilty, and one of the worst things you could say to him during the war was to call him out for being a coward or a stay-at-home, or, you know, a mama’s boy for not, you know, taking part in the war when he did really believe in that. And I think that that was very dangerous in a personality like his, which was reckless and headstrong, he had many good qualities and, and many good friends. But he did feel increasingly that he needed to do something. And I think he took a little ideology from the stage. In other words, from, from the heroes of antiquity, like Brutus, who struck against a tyrant. It’s interesting to remember that in Booth’s lifetime, and he was 26 when he shot Lincoln and himself was killed – just 26 – no president had ever had a second term. Lincoln was the first president elected to a second term in Booth’s lifetime. And therefore, you know, this was just, this was totally unacceptable that he was trying to become a dictator and Booth felt he needed to do something dramatic about that.

JC: This discussion of cowardice got me thinking about how gender, particularly perceptions of masculinity, would play into the process of radicalization.

BH: The… the pressures associated with masculinity are a huge factor in, in radicalization, the social expectations of what it means to be a man or a real man, or manly enough. Nowadays we have a lot of this talk about being an alpha male… Uh, yes, these, these are issues that produce a lot of anxiety and insecurity in people and in an effort to show that they measure up, some people turn to violence, and there’s a variety of ways that they might turn to violence. You know, these social pressures can drive people to gangs, they can drive people to participate in combat sports, which is fine, or in some cases they drive people to political violence. And a lot of it has to do with historical circumstances of the moment, a lot of it has to do with the individual personality, and a lot of it has to do with just opportunities, whether they come into contact with certain movements that they can, uh, become absorbed into. In the old days, before the internet, a person who had these grievances or these insecurities about masculinity or this desire for a heroic purpose, they would have to be very lucky – or very unlucky, depending on how you want to think about it, to meet someone who could channel those risks towards political violence. It might be much more likely that they would become involved in gangs or drugs or abusive relationships. Now today with the internet, you can’t log on without somebody trying to expose you to an ideology that hopefully is gonna channel these social and emotional problems in the direction of political extremism and violence.

CH: Brian also told us about another frequent pattern that, in retrospect, definitely made sense:

BH: This speaks to another very common dynamic that can lead to radicalization, and that’s status threat. When a person feels as if their social status is threatened, they’re more likely to scapegoat marginalized communities. We see this today. There’s all kinds of conspiracy theories that say that shadowy figures are trying to wipe out whites, or minoritize them so they can be cruelly dominated. This reflects status anxiety, a sense of threat based on the changing demographics of the United States and an unconscious understanding that the privilege of whiteness isn’t going to carry the same currency in the future that it does today. The way that we define extremism is a belief that there are different groups of people who are separated by key core identity features, so white and black, Jew and Gentile, and that these identities cannot coexist in harmony. They are necessarily at odds with one another, and the only way to resolve this conflict is through separation, domination, or extermination. Well, At the end of the Civil War, separation and domination just failed, the only thing that’s left is extermination. And so we see that with, uh, John Wilkes Booth’s assassination of Lincoln, and I would argue that we see that in the, uh, terrorist activity of groups like the Ku Klux Klan in Reconstruction.

CH: Terry confirmed that, in Booth’s case, there were some aspects connected to his personal fears, and others connected to wider social fears.

TA: The murder, as I understand it from my studies, was a combination of the political and the personal. In other words, it was both directed against the government, against Lincoln, and it also was very much to sort of fulfill personal things that Booth felt. That’s why when he was on the stage of Ford’s Theater, he cried out, “Revenge for the South.” So it is curious that the murder, as I believe, was both a practical political strike at the North, but also, you know, fulfilling to Booth psychologically as an individual.

JC: Just like Alex’s visitors, I was still kind of wondering, though, how somebody could get from “I’m kind of unhappy” to “I’m ready to shoot the president.”  What does that even look like?

BH: That’s, that’s a very good question. We don’t always know all of the factors because every radicalization journey is unique. But John Wilkes Booth would fit the profile of what’s generally called a lone actor. He, he had some support, but he was acting for the most part alone, based on his own personal initiative. There are some patterns that are very common to lone actor terrorists, that perhaps John Wilkes Booth filled, I’m not a expert on his biography, but one of them is crisis, a personal crisis. So it sounds as though his dilemma, his feelings of being a coward might amount to a personal crisis. Another is enablers. So people in the individual’s life who encourage them to continue adopting more extreme beliefs and even to, to commit acts of violence. There’s usually a precipitating event in, in the immediate lead up to the act of violence. And, uh, frequently domestic violence is involved here too. Uh, a person who has a history of domestic violence and then meets these other criteria or risk factors is much more likely to commit an act of, of lone actor terrorism.

JC: I wanted to know from Terry, if we had met, let’s say, 23-year-old Booth in 1862, before any of this happened, who would we have been meeting?

TA: You would been charmed off your feet, I imagine. He was one of the top actors of his day, very successful. And that’s one of the things that kind of interested me in my study of him. He had friends, he had admirers. You know, most assassins are born losers. They’re people you’d never heard of, they’re misfits, they’re whatever – he was somebody with something to lose. A career, a profession, money, respect of people. He had many devoted friends. And over the years, as, as time passed from the assassination, and they felt free to speak, a surprising number of them have really good things to say about him. Not about his politics, but just about, you know, acts of kindness they saw, talent that he had, the love that and deep friendship he inspired from other actors and, and just from ordinary people… And I, I think anybody who met him in the days before he went off the deep end, they were very impressed with him as a person. In fact, it’s what makes him kind of intriguing. The murder in a way, the murder of Lincoln is a little bit out of, out of sync with the rest of his personality.

CH: What changed about him in the lead up to the assassination?

TA: I do know in the months before the Lincoln murder, he was having trouble sleeping, he admitted he had what were called the blues in those days, he was drinking more, which is kind of trying to medicate himself, I would guess, so he does show some signs of that. But I, I do feel by the time the murder rolled around, he, he was really at loose ends, you know, mentally and, and I think getting, getting unfocused and friends said, you know, gosh, you changed so much in the last year, you know, I, I hardly recognize you.

JC: Having learned a lot more about him, how should Booth be remembered?

TA: Several of his contemporaries said that the assassination really swept everything else away. The good son, the talented actor, the successful business person, all, all that’s true enough, but today, you know, he’ll be remembered exclusively as, as the assassin of Lincoln. And it is hard, this galled Booth no end on his brief escape, that the assassination was looked upon as an act of cowardice. It almost is by definition. You’re attacking someone concealment who doesn’t know you’re coming. They don’t have a chance to defend themselves. It’s really hard to see anything exactly heroic in that, right? But I think he, he’ll have to be remembered as an assassin, although I think perhaps one of the most interesting of them all.

CH: Terry mentioned an intriguing possibility of an alternative that might have suited Booth better.

TA: And I think it’s one of the real misfortunes in his life that he did not enter the Confederate army. He was an excellent, superb horseback rider, a wonderful shot, had more, uh, guts and brains as a person. He would’ve made a wonderful Confederate calvary soldier and probably, you know, been killed in the middle of the war, and then we would never have heard of him. That was the proper course for him, I think. He stayed out of the war under pressure from his family, especially his mother. She had already lost four children by the time the war came along. She had no intention of losing another one.

JC: I know I’ll be turning over that image of the dashing celebrity turned cavalry hero in my head for a while.

CH: We asked Terry, if you had had the chance, what would you have said to Booth?

TA: Boy, I don’t know if I can, can really answer that satisfactorily…. you know, you would wanna say that you would wanna broaden them in their exposure to other points of view and other ways of looking at things, but the thing is, Booth was constantly around people who did not share his opinion. You know, one of ’em said that whenever they would start talking about the war Booth would just say, “Let’s talk about something else.” It’s really challenging to, to know, you know, I have fantasized about what if I ran into him a few days before the assassination and I said, “Hey, let’s go to Europe,” you know, “I’ll pay for it,” you know, I get him outta town or something like that. You’ve raised a good question and I don’t have the answer for it.

JC: IS there anything to be done about a person in Booth’s situation? We turned to Brian for more information: what does PERIL do to try and combat radicalization now?

BH: We’ve done a lot of work in what’s called attitudinal inoculation. It’s a hybrid of media literacy and counter-propaganda, and what it does is it educates viewers on the manipulative strategies that propaganda uses to get them to believe things that they wouldn’t otherwise believe and that aren’t in their best interests. So we have developed ways of producing and distributing inoculation messages, via video, via meme, and via online platforms that we’ve demonstrated are, uh, extremely effective in reducing people’s willingness to believe and to support manipulative propaganda.

JC: Yeah, and I think that it is in itself a powerful message of like, people are gonna try and mess with you. Don’t let them.

BH: Yeah. People respond very defensively, and rightly so, when you warn them, there are people who are out to con you and they’re out to con you in ways that are not in your moral best interests and they’re not in your material best interests, and it can really mess up your life if you fall for it, and if that weren’t bad enough, moral people fall for this kind of manipulation, smart people fall for this kind of manipulation, the fact that you mean well and are intelligent isn’t a defense, so we need to give you the skills to spot the tricks they use.

CH: Is there anything ordinary people can do?

BH: Well, they can go to perilresearch.com. We have a variety of guides for parents, caregivers, educators, anyone in the community who are concerned about these issues. They give you step-by-step processes to spot problems and then to deal with them, but also to address them before they start. So how do you build this kind of a resilient community? So you can go to perilresearch.com and get some of those. You can also go to splcenter.org/peril. We’ve done a lot of work with the Southern Poverty Law Center and we have additional guides there, and there are new ones that are about to come out, so check back in a month or two if you don’t see what you need.

CH: I wanted to know – from Brian’s perspective, what does success look like?

BH: Success, to us, looks like a community where everyone truly feels safe and at home, and where everyone truly has a voice and a sense that they have a say in their future. When communities look like that, radicalization doesn’t flourish. That’s when democracy is at its best, and that’s when social cohesion is at its best.

JC: Alex spoke to how she and her colleagues at Ford’s approach connecting with visitors in this historic place, and the type of space they’re trying to create:

AW: Something that we do feel very confident about is really connecting to these current events through a lens of being a place of memory. So we are this place of violence and this place of political violence, but the fact that Fords is still standing today and that it wasn’t destroyed immediately speaks to how communities respond to these events, and then how we use our physical landscape to remember those horrible moments. And sometimes people come to Fords without thinking much about the history at all, right? They’re coming to see a play, which, as I, I often say, we don’t always do plays about Lincoln or the Civil War because he didn’t come to see plays about himself. And so, you know, when you wanna come to Ford’s Theater to see a musical and just laugh and be amongst your fellow community members, that was something Lincoln valued himself, and so that is one of the ways that we memorialize him in this space. And so, I think our role really thrives in this place of being a physical place where people can come together and share in the experience of storytelling, whether that’s through theater or through learning the history, and then I think, sometimes when we find ourselves confounded by what’s happening in the world around us, because it’s never happened before, it’s our first time experiencing something, I think we can return to Ford’s Theatre and see there how nobody in those moments knew what was going to happen next either. I think we really hope that we’ll learn from our history so that we aren’t doomed to repeat it, but I think it’s really that centering on that idea of Ford’s being a space of community, a space where we can learn together and experience things together and empathize together and seek each other’s common humanity. 

JC:  At the Cottage, we also strive to be a place where visitors can connect with each other and think deeply about what they want the future to be like. That’s what Lincoln was doing here, after all.

CH: As we navigate a time filled with increasingly polarized and radical discourse, we want to encourage you to think about: How can you avoid thinking in extremes? What do you and your neighbors need to feel connected to each other, and how can you build the foundations of democracy in the community where you live?

JC: This episode was produced by me, Joan Cummins, with Callie Hawkins and support from the President Lincoln’s Cottage team. Music for Q&Abe was written, performed, and is copyrighted by Clancy Newman.

CH: Q&Abe is made possible by listeners like you. You can support the show by joining Team Lincoln at www.lincolncottage.org, where you can also check out our other online and in person programming. Another great way to help out is to leave a review in your podcast app!

JC: To the student who asked this question, thanks for reminding us just how wild history can be.

CH: Comments? Questions?  Write to us at [email protected].

JC: President Lincoln’s Cottage is a home for brave ideas. Stay curious!