James L. Swanson

Chasing King’s Killer: The Hunt for Martin Luther King, Jr.’s Assassin, can trace its origins back to my childhood. When I was a boy, my mother—an artist—led me to what she called her “morgue”: a tall, floor-to-ceiling closet with a sliding door that concealed several shelves piled high with vintage source material, including newspapers, magazines and picture books documenting the tumultuous events of the 1960s, including the murder of Martin Luther King, Jr. Mesmerized, I paged through old Life magazines from the spring of 1968. I opened long-folded newspapers, their pages browned and brittle, and read their frightening headlines. I wanted—needed—to learn more. For years, I have collected the books, documents, artifacts and original sources that allowed me to write Chasing King’s Killer.

My book is about more than the assassination. The story opens before the tragedy, in 1950s America, when a 29-year-old minister survived a shocking, near-fatal stabbing in New York City and went on to become the greatest civil rights leader in American history. I want young readers to know Martin Luther King, Jr. in life—first as a boy, then as a young man and finally as a leader on the world stage. Readers accompany King on his amazing 10-year journey to greatness. And then they travel to April 1968, and to King’s fateful trip to Memphis, Tennessee. They also meet a mysterious, lifelong criminal whose 1967 escape from prison sent him on a bizarre, year-long odyssey that climaxed with the murder of Dr. King, a dramatic escape and the biggest manhunt in American history. I set the whole story against the backdrop of the tumultuous 1960s that had mesmerized me in my youth: the civil rights movement, the FBI’s harassment of King, the Vietnam War, the counterculture and the race to the moon.

To research Chasing King’s Killer, I immersed myself in the documents, photographs, music and popular culture of the 1960s. I studied biographies, memoirs and histories, but also newspapers and magazines to capture the mood of the era. I combed through thousands of images that tell the story of the turbulent time of civil rights marches and anti-Vietnam War protests. I discovered a shocking and surprising new letter written by FBI director J. Edgar Hoover, illustrating his hatred for King and his desire to ruin him. (Published for the first time in this book, the letter has already made the news!) And I located original examples of the four different types of FBI wanted posters for James Earl Ray. Each one tells a story. All of these sources put me into the mindset of what it was like to live through the tragic events of 1968. My research was every bit as intense as the work I do in the books I write for an adult audience. I researched everything from slavery and the Civil War to the history of the civil rights movement and the pop culture of 1960s America. All told, I used several hundred sources and several thousand photographs. Some photographs will be familiar, others are seldom seen. All are incredibly moving. I think we achieved seamless matching of text and images.

It is exciting to write a book set in the 20th century. One of the frustrations of writing about Abraham Lincoln is that he lived long before the age of film or sound recording. Everyone who once knew him was long dead. In contrast, while researching this book, I was able to meet some of those who actually knew Dr. Martin Luther King. It was a privilege to meet people like Julian Bond, Dorothy Nash and Congressman John Lewis, who wrote the foreword to the book. And unlike Abraham Lincoln, Martin Luther King, Jr. can speak to us through films and recordings. We can watch him in action striding across America’s stage, and hear his magnificent and stirring voice.

The assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. on April 4, 1968, haunts us to this day. We miss him still. But the tragedy of 50 years ago can also inspire us. King was a great man who loved America. He was an optimist about the country’s future who believed that one day “we as a people will get to the promised land.” He was also one of the bravest men in American history who lived for years under the near-constant threat of violence and death, even more so than Abraham Lincoln or John F. Kennedy. On the last night of his life, in the most moving speech he ever gave, King said, “Tonight I am not fearing any man,” and that “I want to live a long life.” It was not to be. Half a century later, the all too brief life of Martin Luther King, Jr.—he was only 39 years old when he died—continues to inspire us.

I hope that sharing his story will inspire a new generation of young Americans.

 

Author photo by Lisa Nipp.

Chasing King’s Killer: The Hunt for Martin Luther King, Jr.’s Assassin, can trace its origins back to my childhood. When I was a boy, my mother—an artist—led me to what she called her “morgue”: a tall, floor-to-ceiling closet with a sliding door that concealed several shelves piled high with vintage source material, including newspapers, magazines and picture books documenting the tumultuous events of the 1960s, including the murder of Martin Luther King, Jr. Mesmerized, I paged through old Life magazines from the spring of 1968. I opened long-folded newspapers, their pages browned and brittle, and read their frightening headlines. I wanted—needed—to learn more. For years, I have collected the books, documents, artifacts and original sources that allowed me to write Chasing King’s Killer.

<b>Grandmother's gift inspires a lifelong fascination</b> It was my grandmother who first got me interested in assassination. I was born on Lincoln's birthday, February 12. When I was a child, from as far back as I can remember, I received Lincoln books, trinkets, medals and souvenirs as gifts. When I was 10 years old, I discovered the dark side of the Lincoln story. That's when my grandmother Elizabeth, a veteran of the long-vanished, legendary Chicago tabloid newspaper scene, gave me what some might consider an odd gift for a child a framed engraving of John Wilkes Booth's Deringer pistol, the one he used to murder Abraham Lincoln. Framed with this engraving was a clipping from the Chicago Tribune dated April 15, 1865, the day Lincoln died.

Unfortunately the clipping was incomplete, so when I was a child, I could read only part of the story. The article described the pistol attack on the president, Booth's leap to the stage at Ford's Theatre, the vicious knifing of Secretary of State Seward, and Booth's escape across the stage and race to the back door leading out to the alley and then . . . nothing. Someone had cut off the rest of the story so the clipping would fit within the frame! I must have read that article hundreds of times over the next few years. I remember vividly one night when I read that clipping over and over and thought, I want to read the rest of the story. Little did I know that one day, I would write about that story in not one, but a series of books devoted to the end of the Civil War, Lincoln's last days and his assassination and its unforgettable impact on American history and myth. And so it was my grandmother's gift a priceless relic that still hangs on my wall that triggered my lifelong obsession with the Lincoln assassination and inspired me to write Manhunt: The 12-Day Chase for Lincoln's Killer and Lincoln's Assassins: Their Trial and Execution. One of the most thrilling things I did as part of the research for my books was to acquire an entire run of rare, original issues of the Chicago Tribune about 100 newspapers from the end of the Civil War through the death of Lincoln and the trial of the conspirators. Whenever I look at them I am overcome with fond memories of my grandmother Elizabeth. When I grew older and learned more about Lincoln, I began collecting at a more advanced level books from the Civil War, newspapers, posters announcing the death of Lincoln, original prints and photographs and more. In high school, instead of buying a used car, I purchased one of the rare original reward posters offering a $100,000 reward for the Lincoln assassins. Once I got to college, I studied the assassination of Lincoln, and his era, ever more seriously. I was a student of John Hope Franklin at the University of Chicago and took his wonderful courses on the Civil War era and on the history of the American South. Manhunt and Lincoln's Assassins are the result of a lifetime of study, plus several years of intensive research and writing. I've assembled a reference library of several thousand books, relics, documents and illustrations covering Abraham Lincoln, the presidency, the Civil War and 19th-century American history. Much of what I needed for Manhunt and Lincoln's Assassins was already sitting on my shelves. I just needed to open these books and read them again. I also consulted my extensive collection of Civil War newspapers. Having so many priceless sources in my home library allowed me to work all day and then deep into the night my favorite time for research and writing. Public libraries close at night. My library was open 24 hours a day. These primary sources were absolutely essential. I could not have written the books without my collection of original materials.

I've tried to share many of these pieces in Lincoln's Assassins, a book I consider the pictorial companion to Manhunt. Lincoln's Assassins contains almost 300 color plates of the rare objects that have inspired my research, including the first publication ever of the entire series of Alexander Gardner's notorious and haunting photographs of the hanging of the Lincoln conspirators. The book is a scrapbook that I hope will transport readers back to the saddest days in American history.

Of course, there are a number of wonderful relics that I haven't discovered. Number one is Sergeant Boston Corbett's pistol the one he used to shoot and kill John Wilkes Booth. It was a prize relic, even at the time. Collectors offered Corbett up to $1,000 for the pistol. He refused, but soon enough it was stolen from him, and it's now been lost to history. The person who took it surely must have known its value, but I imagine that as it passed from hand to hand, and generation to generation, its history and importance have been lost. I'm betting that somewhere out there, a collector owns the revolver used to kill John Wilkes Booth and he doesn't even know he has it. And then there are the Booth autopsy photos that vanished within days of his death.

For me, the manhunt for Booth and the trial and execution of his conspirators continues. I'm still researching the topic, and I'm still hoping to discover other relics, letters, documents, or photographs that have been lost for more than a century, and that I can use in my next book about the thrilling manhunt for Jefferson Davis and the astounding, nationwide funeral events for Abraham Lincoln. This is the most alluring thing about writing history. The story never really ends, and you never know what amazing thing you might discover tomorrow.

<i>James L. Swanson is a legal scholar with the Heritage Foundation in Washington, D.C. Manhunt, his account of the search for John Wilkes Booth and his conspirators, spent 13 weeks on the</i> New York Times <i>bestseller list and has 250,000 copies in print. A movie version starring Harrison Ford is currently in pre-production.</i> Lincoln's Assassins, <i>a book co-written in 2001 by Swanson and Daniel R. Weinberg, is being brought back into print this fall in a new edition from William Morrow.</i>

<b>Grandmother's gift inspires a lifelong fascination</b> It was my grandmother who first got me interested in assassination. I was born on Lincoln's birthday, February 12. When I was a child, from as far back as I can remember, I received Lincoln books, trinkets, medals and souvenirs as gifts. When I was 10 years old, I […]

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