James Swanson

Inside Media: Chasing Lincoln's Killer

February 14, 2009

Guest: James Swanson

By Maureen Freeman, programs coordinator

An incomplete newspaper clipping triggered James Swanson’s childhood curiosity about the hunt for Abraham Lincoln’s assassin.

The clipping, from an 1865 story in the Chicago Tribune, was cut off after it described how John Wilkes Booth fled the stage at Ford’s Theatre in Washington, D.C., after shooting the president. The clipping not only prompted Swanson to spend the next few decades learning the rest of the story, it also "began my obsessive chase for Lincoln memorabilia," he said.

Swanson’s search for all things Lincoln led to the publication of his best-seller "Manhunt: The 12-day Chase for Lincoln’s Killer." His enormous collection of Lincoln memorabilia includes original newspapers reporting on Lincoln’s death, the chase for his killer, and his funeral procession.

"When I’m looking at a Civil War [era] newspaper, I want to have the real one in my hands, to know what it was actually like to hold it at the time, " Swanson said. "I read everything in that paper, even the advertisements, to see what products are for sale. If I’m going to write any kind of history, it’s essential that I have the original things of history surrounding me. Otherwise, it just doesn’t work."

He said that although Lincoln himself loved newspapers, he faced a dilemma during the Civil War when rebel agitators threatened the nation’s survival.

"With some reluctance, Lincoln did for a time suppress a few publications. It was brief, and it was not nationwide," Swanson explained, adding that Lincoln "was willing to stretch and push the Constitution in certain places, because he believed his ultimate obligation was to preserve constitutional government and save the union."

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