Does ‘Manhunt’ Get the John Wilkes Booth Story Right?


Anthony Boyle as John Wilkes Booth in "Manhunt." - Credit: Apple TV+

Anthony Boyle as John Wilkes Booth in “Manhunt.” – Credit: Apple TV+

“Sic semper tyrannis!” With these words John Wilkes Booth fled Ford’s Theatre in Washington, D.C. after shooting Abraham Lincoln in the head with a 44 caliber derringer on April 14, 1865, altering the course of history and prompting a 12-day manhunt that ended when Sgt. Boston Corbett shot Booth in a Virginia farmhouse (he died hours later). The assassination and the pursuit are now the subjects of Manhunt, a brisk new limited series on Apple TV+.

Based on James L. Swanson’s 2007 nonfiction book of the same name, the series, created by Monica Beletsky (who’s written for Friday Night Lights and Fargo, among other shows), manages to adhere to the historical record, with minor strokes of narrative condensing, while also providing a ripping narrative. Anthony Boyle plays Booth; Tobias Menzies is Edwin Stanton, Lincoln’s Secretary of War, who also led the manhunt; and Hamish Linklater plays Lincoln, mostly in flashback.

So yes, the series is accurate in important matters. Which doesn’t mean you won’t have questions. There are a great many moving parts here. Below you’ll find some explanations of some of the players and events in the drama. Get ready to chase.

Did Booth really yell “Sic Semper Tyrannis?” And what does that mean, anyway?
Probably. That’s what witnesses heard, anyway. Some (including Booth) said he yelled only “Sic semper!” The full phrase translates to “Thus always to tyrants,” which is what Brutus said to Julius Caesar when he assassinated him. (By the way, we hope you had a happy Ides of March, which was Friday.)

Why did Booth kill Lincoln?
Booth, who, not coincidentally, was a Shakespearean actor, was also a fervent Confederate sympathizer who was outraged by the abolition of slavery. He also refused to believe the Civil War had ended, even after Robert E. Lee surrendered, because the Army of Tennessee continued to fight. He was a hardcore believer in the lost cause.

Did Stanton really suffer from asthma?
Throughout the series we see Menzies’ Stanton struggling to breathe and receiving medical care. Stanton was a chronic asthmatic, and his poor health was said to have given him a prickly personality. Stanton, who clashed with Lincoln early on as part of what historian Doris Kearns Goodwin would term the president’s celebrated “Team of Rivals” cabinet, would become a staunch supporter of the Emancipation Proclamation and an important sounding board for Lincoln. Stanton’s asthma would ultimately kill him in 1869, shortly after President Ulysses S. Grant appointed him to the Supreme Court, but before he could take the oath.

Who is the Black man who guides Booth across the swamp?
As Booth and fellow conspirator David Herold (Will Harrison) scramble from the authorities, they encounter Oswell Swann (played by Roger Payano), who the fugitives pay to lead them through treacherous swampland to fellow Confederate sympathizers. Swann was one of the Wesorts, a group of Maryland Native Americans with Black, indigenous, and white ancestry. For a fee he gave the men bread and whiskey, and guided them to Rich Hill, the home of Confederate sympathizer Col. Samuel Cox. Other sympathizers then helped Booth and Herold escape from Maryland into Virginia via the Potomac and Rappahannock Rivers. Oswell later claimed he didn’t know he was helping the man who killed Lincoln.

Why does some of the series take place in Montreal?
Bien sûr. Aside from being a lovely city in Quebec, Montreal, which was then part of British North America, was what the Montreal Gazette recently described as “a sort of Casablanca: a city that was a hub of wartime plotters, spies, and Confederate soldiers on the run.” The city was the hub of a Confederate Secret Service operation with about $1 million in funding. Booth visited Montreal six months before the assassination; early in the series, Stanton discovers evidence of a $500 deposit Booth made to a Montreal bank. It’s only a matter of time before the investigation heads north.

Was there really a conspiracy targeting other members of Lincoln’s cabinet?
Absolutely. In Episode 1 of the series we see former Confederate soldier Lewis Powell (Spencer Treat Clark) force his way into the home of Secretary of State William Seward (Larry Pine), who was stabbed in the face and neck but survived the attack. Another Confederate sympathizer, George Atzerodt (Tommie Turvey), was assigned to kill Vice President Andrew Johnson (Glenn Morshower), but chickened out and never made the attempt. One thing Manhunt makes clear is that the Lincoln assassination wasn’t an isolated crime. It was the most important part of a larger coup attempt with multiple targets.

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