A BOOK DEAL: It took novelist/artist/raconteur Barnaby Conrad more than 60 years to write this what-if book: Was John Wilkes Booth really killed after assassinating President Abraham Lincoln, or did he escape and live for years?
Conrad has finally carried out his 1947 deal with Nobel Prize-winning novelist Sinclair Lewis. “He told me the whole story in 10 minutes over breakfast at 5:30 in the morning,” Conrad said over lunch. Conrad was to write it and get a share of the royalties.
But Conrad’s life, including many other books, and a near-fatal venture into bullfighting, intervened. After one of his close encounters with a bull, actress Eva Gabor ran into author Noel Coward and passed on the bad news. “Dahling, did you hear about poor Barnaby Conrad? He vas gored in Spain.”
“He was what?” demanded Coward.
“Gored,” Eva replied.
“Thank heavens. I thought you said ‘bored.’”
At long last, Carpinterian Conrad’s The Second Life of John Wilkes Booth (Council Oak Books) is in the bookstores. Conrad doesn’t really believe the long-held notion in some circles that Booth escaped and went West, rather than being mortally wounded in a Virginia tobacco barn days after he killed Lincoln, as the official account has it. But the fog of time hangs low over who did what during those turbulent days of April 1865 as the Civil War was coming to a bloody close.
Conrad harbors suspicions that Lincoln’s power-hungry Secretary of War Edwin Stanton was up to his ears in the plot. “It sure seems like it.” For one thing, Booth’s diary, found with his body, included 18 pages about Stanton, Conrad said. “The diary went to Stanton, and the 18 pages disappeared.”
Despite warnings, Lincoln went to Ford’s Theatre that fateful night of April 14. For some reason, his guard was two blocks away, drinking at a bar, when Booth fired a derringer bullet into the back of Lincoln’s head. “Why did he pick that day to not be there?” Conrad asked me.
If Stanton was a conspirator, he made sure that dead men — and one woman — told no tales. When suspects were rounded up after the assassination, some historians say Stanton arranged for them to go before a military court, which he could sway, rather than a civil court. After a travesty of a trial — featuring revolting, inhumane treatment of the imprisoned suspects, insisted on by Stanton — four were hanged on July 7, 1865, and others sent to prison. The guilt of Mary Surratt is still debated, and her fate is the subject of a new Robert Redford movie, The Conspirator. Surratt ran a Washington boardinghouse, where the culprits met to plan the attack, and a witness said she helped arrange for guns for the escaping men.
The military court that found her guilty recommended that her life be spared, but President Andrew Johnson ordered her to be hanged anyway.
Booth and his co-conspirator had originally planned merely to kidnap the president in order to force the Union to release Confederate prisoners and hopefully end the war. But after the South’s surrender, Booth’s plans switched to assassination and revenge. The Southern zealot hated Lincoln, called him a “tyrant,” and detested his freeing of the slaves and plans to extend voting rights to them. Booth, then 26, was a famous actor and, according to Conrad, “a matinee idol.” Some newspapers called him “the handsomest man in America.”
History says Booth was tracked to a barn in northern Virginia by Union soldiers who demanded that he surrender. When he balked, they threatened to burn him out. Although the men apparently intended to take Booth alive, one of them, without authorization, fired into the barn and shot Booth in the neck. He died three hours later.
But was it really Booth? Some authors have long questioned it, even though, according to most historical accounts, his body was positively identified by friends and family. In 1995 a descendant of Booth’s brother Edwin asked permission to disinter John Wilkes Booth’s supposed body, in order to settle the controversy by comparing his DNA with still-preserved vertebrae taken from the dead man at the barn. The cemetery objected, and a judge refused permission.
In his novel, Conrad has to explain how Booth escapes from the barn. It’s fairly simple, but I won’t reveal it. Who knows, it might have happened that way.
“People like to give second lives to assassins,” Conrad observed. And, for that matter, to outlaws like Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (Robert Leroy Parker and Harry Longabaugh, respectively). Were they killed by Bolivian soldiers, as in the movie of the same name, or did they live on and have “second lives” in the American West?
Conrad, who worked as a secretary for Sinclair Lewis for five months in 1947, found the acclaimed author of Main Street, Arrowsmith, Dodsworth, and Elmer Gantry “a mercurial, fascinating, and difficult man — moody.” Also, thanks to his early success in the 1920s, he was considered at that time to be “the richest writer in the world,” Conrad said.
One day, Conrad recalled, “I brought back a cute girl. I liked her a lot, and Sinclair liked her a lot, too. He fired me and took her to Europe.”
Conrad’s next book topic: “My five months with Sinclair Lewis,” who died in 1951