Memory  /  TV Review

The Hunt for John Wilkes Booth Goes On

A new television miniseries depicts the pursuit of Lincoln’s killer. But the public appetite for tales about the chase began even as it was happening.
Karen Joy Fowler

You get, onscreen, the civil war you’re living. “What if Booth weakened our democracy?” a reporter asks Stanton in the first episode of “Manhunt” (filmed in 2022). Lest you miss any of the clues pointing to the crime of our time, the insurrection at hand, we see a nefarious villain—famous and cosseted, one of the richest men in New York—boasting, as he points a gun at Stanton, “I could fire this on Wall Street in broad daylight and nothing would happen to me.” Stanton, however determined to capture Booth, is as hobbled as his prey. In “Manhunt,” the War Between the States is a war between two crippled, broken men. “Manhunt” is “The Prisoner of Shark Island” upside down: the Confederates have become the villains. Much else remains the same. The killer is a man with a gun. The law is a man on a horse. They stagger after each other, armed to the teeth: the least frail man wins.

You also get whatever civil war, or whatever history, that Hollywood is willing to pay for, which, as a rule, involves men, horses, and guns. George Saunders’s luminous novel “Lincoln in the Bardo,” about the President’s grief at the death of his young son Willie, in 1862, became an eerie, three-hundred-and-sixty-degree New York Times virtual-reality short in 2017, and feature-film rights were soon sold, but there’s still no movie (although an opera is in the works). Nor has there been a film of Geraldine Brooks’s Pulitzer Prize-winning 2005 Civil War novel, “March,” an exquisitely unsettling upending of “Little Women.” And there doesn’t appear to be any upcoming adaptation of Karen Joy Fowler’s 2022 novel, “Booth,” long-listed for the Booker Prize, a book that is to Swanson’s “Manhunt” what “Little Dorrit” is to an episode of “Law & Order: Special Victims Unit.”

Fowler’s searching family saga begins with Richard Booth, “skinny as a stork,” a former lawyer and an admirer of the English radical John Wilkes. While living on his family’s halfhearted farm in Maryland (“the people who live there call it the farm, though it’s half trees”), crafting a new translation of the Aeneid which he will never finish, and helping fugitive slaves escape to Philadelphia, he is given the honor of naming the baby who will become his most famous grandson. Richard Booth’s son, Junius, has left his wife and son in England and fled to America with a woman named Mary Ann Holmes. She is left on the farm to raise the children for nine months of the year while her husband tours the country, performing onstage, between bouts of insanity that the family calls his “mad freaks,” though they also involve suicide attempts, first by hanging, then by drowning. As for Mary, Fowler writes that, by 1838, the year John Wilkes is born, for “seventeen years, almost without break, she’s been either expecting a baby or nursing one. It will be twenty continuous years before she’s done.”