Sunday, December 23, 2007

Sic Semper Tyrannis! Tonight on the History Channel

I've got a bit of a thing for both Abraham Lincoln and his misguided assassin John Wilkes Booth. The History Channel premieres a new special The Hunt for John Wilkes Booth tonight at 8pm eastern time, and it should be a good two hours with enough history and adventure to satisfy anyone.

Everybody knows how Booth shot Lincoln in the head at Ford's Theater in Washington D.C., but less known is the story of Booth's unbearable and ultimately futile flight from justice. After breaking his leg in his jump to Ford's stage and then hobbling to his waiting horse, Booth managed to squeak past road guards to escape the city, accompanied by young David Herold. Making his way to the house of Dr. Samuel Mudd -- great controversy here, of course; were they acquaintances, did Mudd help the assassin? (well, of course, but not knowing he killed Lincoln, I would say, and unless Booth was a hell of a good actor Mudd must have known who he was, but maybe not....) -- where his leg was temporarily splinted and then Booth and Herold disappeared off into the Maryland and Virginia countryside to evade capture by Union troops.

For nearly two weeks they survived out in the wild, taking fateful wrong turns in borrowed boats, begging food from rebel sympathizers, and desperately hiding out in fetid swamps, with all the while Booth scribbling emotional tirades in his diary and watching his broken leg go rotten. Finally they stumbled onto the Garrett farm, where they stayed for a couple of days but finally ended up consigned to the barn when the family became suspicious of their strange guests. Union soldiers followed clues to the Garrett place, Booth and Herold were trapped in a burning barn -- but you should really watch the show to find out the rest.

The rest of the story includes, bizarrely enough, Booth getting shot by a crazed Union soldier named Boston Corbett, a truly mad hatter and religious fanatic who castrated himself a few years before the War. You can't make up stuff like that. I know I'll be fascinated to see how The History Channel tells this unique real life tale. It's difficult to have sympathy, perhaps, for the murderer of one of the most incredible figures in American history, but John Wilkes Booth was a troubled and misguided soul, but also extremely fascinating in his own right. (And so was Booth's brother Edwin, who has a movie about him, 1955's Prince of Players starring Richard Burton, with John Derek as JWB.)

If only some day someone would properly put John Wilkes Booth's story on film! I know that the new National Treasure: Book of Secrets movie deals with Lincoln assassination lore, with actor Christian Camargo, who so expertly played the Ice Truck Killer on the first season of Dexter -- you knew we had to get it in here somehow! -- onscreen briefly as Booth. Director/writer Todd Field (In the Bedroom) has/had a Booth film in the works for a while, but haven't heard much about it lately. With the right actor as Booth, someone able to capture his charm, talent, touch of madness and could be great. Maybe someday!

Anyway, make like a history student and watch The Hunt for John Wilkes Booth tonight on The History Channel; two runs tonight then it plays a couple of times early in the new year. Check out the special's website for more background information on this important moment in United States history.

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