Ten-year-old Tad Lincoln loved the theater, especially one animated performer he watched at a Washington, D.C., playhouse in 1863. “I’d like to meet that actor,” he said. “He makes you thrill.” Tad quickly got his wish: After the performance, the stage manager escorted him and his friend into the actor’s dressing room, where John Wilkes Booth greeted them warmly. “The future murderer of Tad’s father gave a rose to each child from a bouquet presented him over the footlights,” writes historian Terry Alford in his endlessly fascinating book In the Houses of Their Dead: The Lincolns, the Booths, and the Spirits.
Alford knows his subject inside and out, having written Fortune’s Fool, a landmark biography of Booth that Karen Joy Fowler has praised as a major resource for her novel, Booth. In the Houses of Their Dead explores both the Lincolns’ and the Booths’ enthrallment with spiritualism, the belief that living people can communicate with deceased people’s spirits. Members of both families were shattered time after time by a litany of heartbreaking, often torturous illnesses and deaths, which inspired a desire to communicate with their dead loved ones. The two families even sometimes turned to the same mediums, which is just one of many historical threads that tie these two tragedy-bound families together. And yes, there were numerous White House seances, one of which was said to have levitated Abraham Lincoln in the Red Room as he sat atop a grand piano!
Alford seamlessly tells the two families’ stories, starting with the major players’ childhoods and continuing until their deaths—and after. He’s a fair-minded narrator of these complicated historical figures, never casting judgment but rather letting the historical record speak for itself through his riveting, elegant prose. He presents, for instance, Lincoln as a young man playing a prank on a friend by persuading two other friends to dress as ghosts as they walked home one dark night. “Never have I seen another who provoked so much mirth and who entered into rollicking fun with such glee. He could make a cat laugh,” wrote one admirer. That characterization certainly contrasts with the more common portrayal of a brooding, whip-smart but sometimes awkward Lincoln.
Alford sets the historical stage well, allowing readers to understand the emotional underpinnings of Lincoln’s assassination, which he memorably describes. Particularly fascinating are the details of its aftermath—how, for instance, Mary Todd Lincoln was left with restricted funds, living in boarding houses and rented rooms as she tried to deal with the deaths of her husband and, ultimately, three of her beloved sons. In 1872, a noted “spirit photographer” produced an image of her that supposedly showed Lincoln standing behind her, hands on her shoulders, with one of their lost sons nearby.