This coming week will mark the 149th anniversary of Abraham Lincoln’s assassination at the hands of John Wilkes Booth. In previous years the National Park Service and the Ford’s Theatre Society have commemorated this moment in history with a wreath laying ceremony at the Petersen House. If the tradition is repeated (and I dearly hope that it is) I will, sadly, not be around to witness it. Instead, I will be about 40 miles south, sharing in the moment of silence surrounded by nothing but trees and birds. I feel that the log cabin born President wouldn’t mind.
Starting this Saturday, April 12, I will be isolating myself into a forested area in Southern Maryland for a little over four and a half days. I will not have a tent. I will not have access to running water. I will not have a change of clothing. The purpose for this self imposed isolation is my desire to reenact a moment of history. Those of you who follow this blog, my Twitter account, or are part of the discussions over at Roger Norton’s excellent Lincoln Discussion Symposium, already know the period of time that I am trying to reenact. 149 years ago, from about midnight on April 16th through dusk on April 20th, John Wilkes Booth and his accomplice David Herold found themselves hiding from Federal troops in a pine thicket in Southern Maryland. Their caretaker was a man by the name of Thomas Jones. During those dangerous times, Jones kept the two men hidden and fed while he waited for a chance to get them across the Potomac River. For almost five days, Booth and Herold hid in the pines worried that the snap of every twig was the cavalry about to pounce on them.
I want to duplicate that experience. Prior to his spell in the woods, Booth was a braggart regarding his deed and expected his act to be celebrated by his countrymen. A distinct shift in thinking occurred during those long days and nights in the woods. Booth read about how his crime was perceived in the newspapers that Jones brought him and he was dismayed. Rather than finding the doors of Confederate sympathizers opening wide for him, he found himself sleeping on the cold ground dependent on a single soul for his basic needs. The Booth who emerge from those woods, was a transformed man, a beaten man. The glorious dream that Booth hoped for faded into a wooded nightmare before his very eyes.
In literature about the assassination, the time in which Booth was in the pine thicket is given little space. This is not the blame of the historian of author, however. The lack of interpretation of Booth’s time in the pine thicket is due to the lack of resource material regarding this very private time for the assassin. Therefore, I decided that understanding this period of time on the escape of John Wilkes Booth would require more than just consulting texts and resources. To attempt to get into the mindset of John Wilkes Booth, I decided to recreate the conditions that he faced.
Over the past couple of months and with the help of so many generous colleagues, I have assembled the clothing and supplies that Booth would have had with him during his time in the pine thicket. My reenactment will feature one major anachronism: a video camera. With this modern tool, I will record my experiences and my thoughts throughout the endeavor. After returning to modern times, I will edit and share the footage of my primitive camp out here on the blog.
I hope this endeavor explains my more recent silence on BoothieBarn. The preparation for this undertaking has been massive and has precluded me from engaging in my normal research.
When the 149th anniversary of Lincoln’s assassination rolls around in a few days and this blog appears to be silent on the matter, just read one of the previous posts (like this one or this one) and think of this crazy researcher who is at that moment laying out in the woods trying to get into the mindset of the assassin … and trying to remember how many leaves there are on poison ivy.
P.S. Some of my friends and family have expressed their concern for my safety during this excursion. In order to provide “proof of life” to those caring souls I will be asking my own Thomas Jones to post pictures of me on my Twitter account when she comes to bring me supplies. So keep an eye on @BoothieBarn over the next week to see how I’m getting along.