J. KEMPER CAMPBELL
“In the Houses of Their Dead: The Lincolns, Cabins, and Spirits” by Terry Alford, Liveright Publishing Company, 298 pages, $27.95.
Readers might assume that the lives of Abraham Lincoln and John Wilkes Booth have been fully explored over the past century and a half. Writers from Carl Sandburg to Bill O’Reilly have portrayed the pair, and actors from Henry Fonda to Daniel Day Lewis have attempted to capture Lincoln’s character.
Yet Terry Alford, a retired Virginia professor who wrote an earlier book about Booth, managed to uncover new bonds between the two intertwined families that inexorably led to that fateful night at Ford’s Theater.
In his new book, “In the houses of their dead”. Alford claims that both the Lincolns and the Booths dabbled in spiritualism, a belief that spirits of the dead could communicate with the living through a medium and that supernatural sources could predict future fates.
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This critic has taken a keen interest in the Lincoln assassination since seeing the gruesome relics collected and displayed at the Armed Forces Institute of Pathology in Washington, D.C.
Spiritualism was a common belief in the mid-19th century and persisted through World War I and the 1918 flu pandemic, when nearly every family was affected by the death of a loved one.
Sir Arthur Conan Doyle was one of its main proponents, and the subject was revisited in this space on October 16, 2017, with the book “Through a Glass Darkly”. Both Lincoln and Booth were superstitious, believing in the power of omens, charms, and fortune tellers.
The Booths were a well-known acting family, especially Junius, the father, and his sons, Edwin and John. However, Junius, an alcoholic, was also intermittently disturbed, even going so far as to exhume the corpse of a girl who had died of cholera in an attempt to remove her “unclean blood” to revive her.
Edwin and John were idolized for their good looks and theatrical skills and the only childhood clue to future disaster was John’s ailurophobia causing him to torture and kill cats.
Lincoln, on the other hand, suffered from bouts of melancholy and premonitions of his own untimely death. His wife, Mary, was driven to the madhouse by the untimely loss of three sons, Eddie, Willie and Tad, and her husband. She frequently invited psychics to the White House to commune with their ghosts. Remarkably, Lincoln and Booth shared the same quack medium, Charles Colchester, who attempted to warn Lincoln of his impending danger.
Another unlikely and ubiquitous figure who flew between families like Forrest Gump was Adam Badeau, who had an unrequited romance with Edwin Booth and attended Booth’s first wedding while also managing to be a trusted assistant to Edwin Booth. ‘Ulysses Grant and to be present for the surrender at Appomattox. .
In summary, this fascinating book contains a myriad of previously unknown connections between Lincoln and Booth that occurred both before and after the infamous act.
J. Kemper Campbell, MD, is a retired ophthalmologist from Lincoln. His final required lecture as Chief Resident concerned muscle imbalance in Abraham Lincoln’s left eye which was intermittently higher than his right. This condition caused him to experience ghostly double vision of his own image when looking at himself in a mirror. He felt this predicted that he would die in his second term.