James L. Swanson: Fascinated by Lincoln's Assassination, and the Trail of the Killer

Historians in the News

Mr. Swanson, a constitutional law expert at the Heritage Foundation, a conservative research institute, has satisfied his decades-long fixation [with the assassination of Lincoln he read about as a boy in a partial newspaper clipping] — by finishing the story himself. His book, "Manhunt: The 12-Day Chase for Lincoln's Killer," was published last month by William Morrow, an imprint of HarperCollins, just in time for Lincoln's (and Mr. Swanson's) birthday.

The author's passion is a widely shared one, with proven marketability. His book sold for more than $500,000, a hefty sum for a debut work of nonfiction. And Walden Media, the film production company that produced "Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe," optioned film rights two years ago, based solely on the book proposal.

The company purchased the movie rights in October 2005 for roughly the same amount as the book deal. Harrison Ford has signed on to play a leader in the hunt for Booth. The producers have yet to announce who will play the infamous killer.

"Manhunt" made its debut at No. 6 on The New York Times best-seller list, and has held steady at No. 5 since then, making it the most popular history book in the country right now. It is in its fifth printing, with 200,000 copies in circulation.

Mr. Swanson, an intense man whose pale complexion and dark heavy eyebrows give him a somewhat brooding look, is reveling in the attention. "I had no idea how it would do," he said. "I don't know what people like. I wrote the book for myself. So I am thrilled that people are responding."...

The young collector further fed his fascination at the University of Chicago, where he studied American history, often sharing his rare finds with his favorite professor, the scholar John Hope Franklin, who became a mentor and friend.

"What I liked about him was his thoroughness and diligence and his capacity to pursue a subject to the bitter end," Mr. Franklin recalled. "When I read the book I smiled and said, 'There is James.' "

During the three years that it took him to write the book, Mr. Swanson said he all but imprisoned himself in his house. He listened only to Civil War-era music and read original documents from the time. He purchased a full run of The Chicago Tribune from April through July 1865 as well as originals of The New York Herald, spreading the papers over the length of his 14-foot dining room table to study every detail, for days at a time.

Read entire article at NYT

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