John Wilkes Booth: The devil made him do it.



















































































































Oh Gee, O.J.

We thought you couldn’t sink any lower, but we were wrong. We thought the American public couldn’t rise any higher, but we were wrong there, too.

By Mary Beth Crain

On July 7, 1865, barely three months after the assassination of Abraham Lincoln, four of the eight conspirators convicted in the plot to murder him were hung by the neck until dead, in a speedy prison yard execution. Outrage over the President’s murder was so intense that the overwhelming desire of the American public was for the accused to be tried, convicted and dispensed with as quickly as possible.

The conspirators were arraigned before a military commission on May 10, less than a month after the assassination. The verdicts were declared on June 30, the sentences handed down on July 6, and the executions carried out the next day, barely giving the condemned time to comprehend their fate. As soon as George Atzerodt, Lewis Paine, David Herold and Mary Surratt were pronounced dead, their bodies were placed in the pine ammunition cases that doubled as makeshift coffins, and unceremoniously dumped into four freshly dug graves near the gallows. That night, a newspaper editorial proclaimed, “In the bright sunlight of this summer day…the wretched criminals have been hurried into eternity, and tonight will be hidden in despised graves, loaded with the execrations of mankind. We want to know their names no more.”

And so, the conspirators faded into quick oblivion. No lengthy appeals. No big movie deals, no “If I’d Plotted to Kill Lincoln” mega-buck confessions. In fact, if you referred to the villains in polite society, you would likely be censured and shunned. The mere mention of their names was giving them too much posthumous publicity.

So, it’s just too darn bad that O.J. Simpson didn’t live 140 years ago. Wouldn’t it have been nice to see him convicted in six weeks instead of basking in the glory of a nine-month-long three-ring circus of a trial? Wouldn’t it have been nice to see him swing instead of walk? Wouldn’t it have been nice not to have to watch him make multi-million dollar book and movie deals for years to come, profiting handsomely from the heinous crime everybody but his brain-dead jury knew beyond a reasonable doubt that he’d committed? Wouldn’t it be nice to “know his name no more”?

Of course, there were problems with the trial of the Lincoln assassination conspirators. Its ultimate aim was conviction, not justice. Evidence in some of the cases, particularly that of Mary Surratt, was at best questionable, and it was later determined that she was innocent. But since her home was used as a meeting-place, and since the public was hell-bent on vengeance, emotion overruled reason. In 19th century America, justice might have been too swift, but in 20th century America it was definitely too slow, not to mention absurd. It is said that John Wilkes Booth, as he was dying, looked at his hands and murmured, “Useless, useless,” bemoaning the ultimate failure of what he had envisioned as his heroic deed. As O.J. Simpson continues to make millions off of his crime with a book that actually has the gall to detail how he would have killed his wife and Ron Goldman—a book that many consider to be his real confession—we could look at our justice system and utter the same lament.

At least it’s to the American public’s credit that O.J. and his latest unspeakably tasteless literary effort have been roundly put in their place. In a sordid world where prurient interest rules, one wouldn’t have expected the uprising of outrage that caused “If I Did It” to be pulled from the shelves and prompted the cancellation the author’s interview on Fox Network with his own editor/publisher Judith Regan, the Gutter Gussie of the literary world. If “If I Did It” marked a new low in the history of publishing, the reaction to it marked a new high in the moral standards of a society obsessed with amorality. Apparently there are limits, after all—a happy thought that might give us renewed faith in the human spirit and the triumph of good over evil.

This is not to say that people wouldn’t have read “If I Did It,” or not tuned in to O.J.’s interview. It is also not to say that 141 years ago, Americans were not obsessed with anything that had to do with Lincoln’s assassins. Until he was gunned down, John Wilkes Booth was an object of mass fascination. As one historian observes, “Booth’s escape incensed, but also thrilled, the nation. Photographs of him became so popular that soon the government banned their sale. Newspaper ads shamelessly offered Booth photos for sale.” You could also purchase handsome bust portraits of the assassin, along with wild, lurid prints depicting Satan egging Booth on, and Booth riding furiously on horseback, pursued by the stern ghost of Lincoln. As for Booth’s co-conspirators, their execution, noted one newspaper, was “the hottest ticket in town,” with people clamoring for the limited passes to the event.

Well, this behavior is nothing new, of course. Gawkers have gathered at crucifixions, picnicked at hangings, bought trinkets at the guillotine. In the less-than proud history of the human race, murder, in whatever form it may take, has always been a sell-out show. But in the case of O.J. Simpson, it looks like the American public has finally had enough. For twelve embarrassing years, we have watched him literally get away with murder. And now, somewhere deep down in the trash heap of our violent, cynical, bloodthirsty culture, we have rediscovered our moral conscience. We’ve sent a message to the media that won’t soon be forgotten: We won’t buy books by murderers that brag about their crimes. We won’t support TV stations that publicize those books. We may not have gotten justice twelve years ago, but by God, we’ll get some sort of justice now.

Of course, that justice comes at a stiff price, $3.5 million, to be exact. That’s what O.J. got for “If I Did It.” Rumors are that his kids got the money, although he says he just used it to pay his debts. Either way, it’s a scandal. What child would want the blood money from a book their father wrote, ruminating on how he would have killed their mother? Why should O.J. be able to wipe out his debts with the proceeds of his murder confession when millions of Americans are struggling to live decent lives and keep their heads above water? Why should killers get multi-millions to wave their bad deeds in everybody’s face when wonderful writers can’t sell their books because they’re not celebrities, or are lucky to get a $10,000 advance?

Hopefully Judith Regan, Harper Collins and Rupert Murdoch have learned a lesson here. But it’s a long road back to a decent society. We must not only decry bad taste efforts like “If I Did It”—we must demand better fare. That’s probably about as likely as cows flying over the rooftops and laying brass eggs, but we mustn’t give up hope. There’s always the chance, after all, that the Messiah will return, there’ll be two chickens in every pot, and people will prefer Dostoyevsky to Dr. Phil. We might just have sunk so low that the only way we can go now is up. And maybe “If I Did It” is the arrow pointing the way.


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Senior editor Mary Beth Crain’s last piece for SoMA was Saddam in Heaven.

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