Assassination Vacation, by Sarah Vowell – In this book, Vowell recounts her travels to places associated with the assassinations of Presidents Lincoln, Garfield, and McKinley. (While the Kennedy assassination is mentioned a few times, and Vowell points out in the last chapter that her interest in presidential assassinations can be linked to a list of supposed similarities between Lincoln and Kennedy’s deaths, it isn’t central to the book.) It’s a good read, educational but with a good dose of humor, and plenty of admissions that many would find the author’s hobby rather nerdy. Not surprisingly, Lincoln merits the longest chapter, and there’s quite a bit on John Wilkes Booth and the racist conspiracy that resulted in the assassination. Vowell determines that Dr. Samuel Mudd, who treated Booth’s wounds and is sometimes considered a victim of ignorance, was probably guilty, pointing out that he and Booth had been seen in public before and that Mudd’s house was quite difficult to find if you hadn’t been there before. (Vowell reports that she got lost eighteen times trying to find it, and that was with MapQuest.) One of the places she visits is Fort Jefferson in Florida, where Mudd was a prisoner and assisted during the yellow fever outbreak of 1867. (And no, the expression “your name is mud” did not originate with the doctor, although it was associated with him quite early on.)
The Garfield chapter was interesting to me because I really knew very little about him. As Vowell points out at the beginning, this is pretty typical. Garfield was nominated through compromise between the different factions of the Republican Party, the Stalwarts and the Half-Breeds. His assassin, Charles Guiteau, was an egomaniacal cultist rejected by his own cult, who felt Garfield had ruined the Republicans. One interesting thing Vowell points out about Guiteau is how incredibly optimistic he was. Finally, we get to McKinley, whose killer was an anarchist named Leon Czolgosz. The chapter also reports on Vowell’s trek up Mount Marcy, where Theodore Roosevelt was vacationing when he found out McKinley had been shot. There are many tangents like this throughout the book, and they help to keep things interesting.