Today falls on the Ides of March, when Caesar was famously slain, and my thoughts turn toward the river of history, and how assassinations recut its banks. This is a Shakespearean subject. Yet my first book is less theatric than forensic; you learn of 23 stab wounds from at least 20 killers and can vividly picture the daggers. I wouldn’t call it a classic thriller, but it is a classics thriller, and why not, since author Barry Strauss teaches history and classics at Cornell. His “The Death of Caesar: The Story of History’s Most Famous Assassination” (Simon & Schuster, 2015) teases apart this paramilitary operation of 60 or more conspirators and, in reporting the facts, revokes much of Shakespeare’s poetic license in “Julius Caesar.”
Caesar never said “Et tu, Brute,” for instance; that was a Renaissance invention. Also, Brutus’s cut was not the unkindest. This honor went to Decimus, one of Caesar’s most prominent generals and his lifelong friend. Decimus was the Roman Kim Philby. But he was a lower class than Brutus and lacked the latter’s philosopher friends who wrote many odes to this man who did not love Caesar less, just Rome more. The fault, dear Decimus, was in yourself; the one with the best publicists shines in history and stars in the play.
The conspirators believed Caesar was becoming a despot, and Strauss agrees, adding that the killing staved off autocracy for 300 more years. Here in America, I’ve always assumed that the murders of Presidents Lincoln and Kennedy were similarly shattering and pivotal, but those of Presidents McKinley and Garfield held far less impact. But the splendid “Murdering McKinley: The Making of Theodore Roosevelt’s America” (Hill and Wang, 2003) convinced me otherwise.
Author Eric Rauchway says McKinley’s death ripped up the era of boss politics and began the era of Rooseveltian progressive reforms. So McKinley had two killers, “the man who shot him and destroyed his body, and the man who succeeded him and erased his legacy.” The assassin was a midwestern anarchist named Leon F. Czolgosz (pronounced “Cholgosh”) who felt that McKinley was the stooge of Ohio Senator Mark Hanna, a powerful steel and oil magnate and political kingpin. Indeed, historian Henry Adams called the president “a supple and highly paid agent of the crudest capitalism.”
Czolgosz believed he had an illness and only months to live (one of Rauchway’s revelations) and decided to take McKinley with him, finding his chance after getting to the front of the line to shake the president’s hand at the 1901 Pan-American Exposition in Buffalo. After he fired the shots, Czolgosz told an officer, “I done my duty.” One storyline especially caught at me here. Also waiting on line was “Big Jim’’ Parker, an African-American waiter at the Exposition. The president’s guards eyed him suspiciously because of his race so failed to zero in on Czolgosz. But Parker grabbed and disarmed the assassin, an unflattering fact the guards tried to edit from history.
There are many, many books on the Lincoln assassination, but Doris Kearns Goodwin, who wrote the foreword, says this next is the best. Nora Titone’s “My Thoughts Be Bloody: The Bitter Rivalry Between Edwin and John Wilkes Booth That Led to an American Tragedy” (Free Press, 2010) tours many houses divided. Let’s start with the toxic sibling split: Edwin Booth, four years older and far more talented, travels with his renowned actor father, Junius Brutus Booth, from show to show, while John barely sees his father during his childhood. There’s a geographical rift, too; when John begins his acting career, Edwin demands they divvy up the country. Edwin takes the North — and John the South, steeping himself in Confederate rhetoric until, in killing Lincoln (as Goodwin says), “he finally upstaged his brother.”
Sarah Vowell, the writer and actress, also braves the topic in her genre-bending “Assassination Vacation” (Simon & Schuster, 2005). Is it a history? Travelogue? Stand-up routine? Yes. The book begins when Vowell heads to the Berkshires to see Stephen Sondheim’s “Assassins,” stays at an inn, and discovers that “most people don’t like to talk about violent historical death over muffins.” But she’s obsessed and visits various sites, from the Lincoln Memorial to Philadelphia’s Mütter Museum, which showcases, among other relics, brain tissue from Charles Guiteau, President Garfield’s assassin.
Vowell’s chapters on Booth and Czolgosz are quirky-wonderful, but her stuff on Guiteau, well, kills. The man was nuts, but made good copy (at the trial, there was frequent laughter at his outrageousness). This unstable, difficult, Illinois-born preacher-lawyer-writer thought Vice President Chester Alan Arthur would be a better leader so, as he wrote, killed Garfield as “a political necessity.” Before that, he spent some years at New York’s utopian Oneida community, where even they couldn’t tolerate him; Guiteau’s nickname there was “Gitout.” Vowell cheerfully dubs him “the one guy in a free love commune who could not get laid.”
I’m tempted to skip books about the Kennedy assassination, because most make me feel Oliver-Stoned to death. But I must single out Gerald Posner’s 1993 landmark, “Case Closed: Lee Harvey Oswald and the Assassination of JFK” (Anchor reissue, 2003) for its scrupulousness. It goes well beyond the Warren Commission by featuring harrowing material on Oswald’s childhood, plus multiple interviews with the medical staff at Dallas’s Parkland Memorial Hospital. “Time and technology have caught up to the conspiracy critics,” adds Posner, citing new evidence (ballistic, photographic) that proves Oswald acted alone. As he writes in his afterword, this new edition could’ve been titled “Case Still Closed.”
Given recent events in Ferguson and beyond, I found this book on Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination excruciating for the what-ifs. In “Hellhound on His Trail: The Electrifying Account of the Largest Manhunt in American History” (Doubleday, 2010), author Hampton Sides makes great, daring choices; you don’t read the killer’s real name until page 321, for instance. Before that James Earl Ray is prisoner #416-J or Eric Galt, or any number of his aliases. Also, it begins not in Ray’s childhood or in Memphis in April 1968, but a year earlier, when he escapes from a Missouri prison by hiding in a bread truck leaving the prison bakery. The details gather and sicken: how #416-J laboriously dyed his prison pants with stencil ink so as to pass as a civilian, how he later gets facial surgery, goes to bartender school (his class photo will become a breakthrough in the King case), and carries a copy of a crackpot self-help book called “Psycho-Cybernetics.” Throughout, there’s the irony of J. Edgar Hoover’s FBI, which so tormented King, but then masterfully hunts Ray from Memphis to Toronto to London.
In all these books, the killers become more knowable, but their actions still appall. So it was unsettling to switch gears, wishing they’d succeeded. Yet that’s the reality of reading “Countdown to Valkyrie: The July Plot to Assassinate Hitler” (Frontline, 2008). As with Caesar, Valkyrie was a large conspiracy, and author Nigel Jones goes for heart-pounding chronology as the leader, Colonel Claus von Stauffenberg, places a briefcase bomb under the table next to the führer at a 1944 meeting at his Wolf’s Lair retreat. Two things foil the plot: a fluke interruption prevents the plotters from adding a second bomb to the briefcase, thus lessening its damage, and one of Hitler’s men absently moves the briefcase behind a sturdy oak table leg — which then diverts the blast (others are killed, but not Hitler).
When Booth shot Lincoln at Ford’s Theatre, he famously shouted, “Sic semper tyrannis” — thus always to tyrants. The phrase is attributed to Brutus. Five months before in New York, Edwin played Brutus and John was Marc Antony in “Julius Caesar.” In Act II, there was an interruption; Confederate spies had lit fires across the city, and smoke filled the theater. The show resumed in Act III in which Antony curses Caesar’s assassins. And that night, John Wilkes Booth delivered the line that could’ve been his epitaph: “[T]his foul deed shall smell above the earth.”
Katharine Whittemore is a freelance writer based in Northampton. She can be reached at katharine.whittemore@ comcast.net.