Discussion Guide for Chasing Lincoln's Killer
- Grades: 6–8
About this book
"This story is true. All the characters are real and were alive during the great manhunt of April 1865. Their words are authentic. In fact, all text appearing within quotation marks comes from original sources: letters, manuscripts, trial transcripts, newspapers, government reports, pamphlets, books, and other documents. What happened in Washington, D.C., in the spring of 1865, and in the swamps and rivers, forests and fields of Maryland and Virginia during the next twelve days, is far too incredible to have been made up." — James Swanson, Excerpt from Chasing Lincoln's Killer
So begins this fast-paced nonfiction thriller that gives a day-by-day account of the wild chase to find the assassin John Wilkes Booth and his accomplices. It shows readers Abraham Lincoln the man, the father, the husband, the friend — and how his death impacted the nation.
Discuss what makes Swanson's work so realistic and riveting. How did he go about getting so many fascinating details to infuse his narrative? If you could research any topic to this depth, what would you choose? As you read the book make a list of the most fascinating facts you unearth in each chapter. Be prepared to share.
- Why do you think the author included the prologue in the story? How is this a good summary of a long and complicated war?
- Why is John Wilkes Booth so angry? How did his plan reach beyond Lincoln? How did Booth's career as an actor influence his plan for the assassination? How did it also help with his escape? Describe his treachery on that fateful night in April, 1865.
- What happened at the home of Secretary of State William H. Seward. How was the attack more brutal than the plan?
- Evaluate the escape plans of the conspirators. What helped and hindered their escapes? Who aided them? In your opinion are people who aid criminals as guilty as those who commit the crimes or not?
- Who was Edwin Stanton? What decisions did he make after the assassination of Lincoln? Does he act with more leadership than new Vice President Johnson? Does he take his authority too far? Did you consider his treatment of Mary Todd Lincoln cruel?
- What part did Mary Surratt and Dr. Samuel Mudd play in the assassination? Do you think they both deserved to hang for their crimes? Who else assisted but was not brought to justice?
- How did Powell stumble into the authorities' hands? Who else was arrested early on? Were some innocent people wrongly accused?
- Who is Thomas Jones? How does he support Booth and Herold? How does his intimate knowledge of the Potomac become necessary?
- Why was Booth surprised by the reactions to the assassination in the D.C. newspapers? How had the tide of opinion changed about the president?
- Did John Wilkes Booth plan his escape carefully? Why did he encounter so many mishaps?
- How were the Garretts duped into helping John Wilkes Booth and David Herold? In the end, how did they end up aiding the Union troops in their pursuit of these most wanted outlaws?
- What happened to John Wilkes Booth in the end? What were his last words? How has he been immortalized in Washington, D.C., as well as Lincoln himself? How can we discourage this honoring of the person who committed such evil? How does this apply today?
At almost every stage in the timeline of events, a person could have made a choice that would've changed the events of history (including avoiding Lincoln's assassination). As you read, make a list of these people and their decisions.
James Swanson has an amazing ability to present nonfiction historical material like a fiction storyteller. Using your favorite chapter as a mentor text, write your own retelling of a historical event.
Create a graphic organizer which details the following information: conspirators and accomplices, their part in the plot, whether they were successful, their escape plan, and what happened to them in the end.
Inspired by the artistic depictions in the newspapers of the time period create an accurate drawing or collage based on one scene in the story.
Resources for Further Study
Armstrong, Jennifer. Photo by Brady: A Picture of the Civil War. Atheneum, 2005. Grades 6-8.
Freedman, Russell. Lincoln: A Photobiography. Clarion, 1987. Grades 5-8. Newbery Medal Winner.
Holzer, Harold, compiler and editor. Abraham Lincoln, The Writer: A Treasury of His Greatest Speeches and Letters. Boyds Mills, 2000. Grades 6-8.
McKissack, Patricia C., and Fredrick L. McKissack. Days of Jubilee: The End of Slavery in the United States. Scholastic, 2003. Grades 4-8.
Murphy, Jim. The Long Road to Gettysburg. Clarion, 1992. Grades 6-8.
Pinkney, Andrea Davis. Abraham Lincoln: Letters from a Slave Girl. Winslow, 2001. Grades 6-8.
About the Author
James L. Swanson was born on February 12, Abraham Lincoln's birthday. His fascination with Lincoln began when he was a young boy. On his tenth birthday, his grandmother gave him an engraving of the Deringer pistol John Wilkes Booth used to assassinate Abraham Lincoln, framed by a newspaper article published on the day after the event. The newspaper article described some aspects of the assassination, but was cut off before the end of the story. This book was James's way of finding out the rest of that story.
An Interview with the Author
You and Abraham Lincoln share the same birthday. Do you feel some kind of special connection to our sixteenth president?
As far back as I can remember, I've always felt connected to Abraham Lincoln. From an early age I received Lincoln items as gifts — comic books; souvenirs from the Lincoln sites in Illinois, where I was born; picture books; and, when I learned to read, books.
Was it difficult locating all the primary sources and deciding what was most important to include in your story?
It has taken me years to build up my personal library of thousands of rare and often unique original documents, manuscripts, newspapers, pamphlets, prints, photographs, artifacts, and memorabilia. I am still adding to it. Without it, it would be impossible for me to write my books. When I study what happened the morning Lincoln died, I need to have the original newspaper in my hands. I want to read about the death of Lincoln just as people who were alive then read about it, following events as they unfolded. In order to take the reader back in time, I need to go there and experience it myself.
Is anyone else in your family particularly interested in history?
All of them. We were a family of storytellers. My grandmother worked at several of the old tabloid Chicago newspapers, and my grandfather was a policeman from the 1930s through the 1960s. He saw it all, from the gangster era to the Vietnam riots era. They both loved telling dramatic stories. My grandmother got me interested in the Lincoln assassination when I was ten years old.
In all of your studies of Lincoln and the assassination, what aspect of the events did you find the most surprising or unexpected?
History is never inevitable. When we look back in time, we assume it had to happen that way. But it didn't. Booth's bullet almost missed. Lincoln did not have to die. History is not abstract or inevitable-it is the story of men, women, and children as they pass through time, influencing events by their specific words and deeds.
What do you think every kid should know about Lincoln?
Few Americans know what a hard, underprivileged, and poverty-stricken childhood Lincoln had. Today we romanticize the myth of the log cabin, but Lincoln recalled his origins with reluctance, pain, and regret. He had less than a year and a half of schooling, and his early years were devoted to brutal, physical toil. But he changed his destiny by cultivating a love of learning, reading, and writing, and by an unquenchable will to better himself. Lincoln once said that he was a living example of how a young person could succeed through hard work, and he was right.
How did you get your start as an author?
By reading. The best authors are always great readers before they become great writers. When I was a child I loved books. I was always going to our local public library, and my parents gave me hundreds of books. In time, my love of storytelling made me want to write my own.
This guide was created by Tracie Vaughn Zimmer, a literacy coach and children's author. Visit her web site to find hundreds of guides to children's literature.