‘Manhunt’ (2024) True Story Explained: How Did John Wilkes Booth Die?


The Apple TV miniseries Manhunt, based on James L. Swanson’s nonfiction book of the same name, follows a real-life theater artist and an extremist, John Wilkes Booth, whose name is enough to remind us of the horrible crimes he had committed in the 18th century. Swanson’s book tells us in a note that the entire story is true. All the characters present in the book were real and were alive during the assassination of the President and the great manhunt of April 1865. Swanson took most of their dialogue from original letters, newspapers, trial transcripts, and other government documents. After watching the first two episodes, it would be safe to assume that the Apple series is going to be a faithful adaptation of Swanson’s book, which means the creators will refrain from making any creative changes for dramatic purposes. The creator, Monica Beletsky, and director, Carl Franklin, might not want to hurt the sentiments of the people, especially the minorities in the country. It is no hidden fact that some sections of American society considered John a hero and saw him as a symbol of hope in dark times. Hence, the series will have the moral responsibility to not glorify an assassin’s actions and be realistic in its accounts.

The very first page of Swanson’s book introduces us to the difference in ideology between two men—Abraham Lincoln and his killer, John—which most likely influenced the decision of the latter to commit such a crime. While Lincoln wanted to give an equal and fair chance to all men and women, John believed his policies were a disgrace to American society. He was against the abolishment of slavery for reasons that still prevail in the country. But that wasn’t the only thing that compelled him to murder the President. John wanted an opportunity to make himself famous, and undeniably, the act was his moment of fame.

Who was John Wilkes Booth?

On April 3, 1865, in Richmond, Virginia, the citadel of the Confederate army fell to the Union forces, which marked the end of the war and the rebellion in the country. It was the only time when Lincoln would be reelected as President. On April 11, Lincoln proposed the idea of giving voting rights to people of color in the country. While many rejoiced, the likes of John grinded their teeth in agony. It was a moment of shame for all those who didn’t align with the ideologies of the Union army, and therefore, they had to do something to stop the man responsible for such an embarrassment. 

The 26-year-old actor, John, was the son of legendary theater actor and tragedian Junius Brutus. Is it me, or is the name “Brutus” very suggestive in itself, especially when we are talking about theater? Nevertheless, as the Apple series tells us, John never achieved the kind of fame his father and brother once enjoyed. He mostly played side roles on stage and was only recognized for his fake stunts. However, John had one more talent. His physical beauty made him quite popular with the ladies and he never had trouble finding female company. The first episode of the series hints at the same. On the night of the assassination, a tragic Friday in the history of America, John went to the Ford Theatre to receive an email when he found out about the President’s arrival in the evening. Lincoln was coming to watch a play with his wife. A series of thoughts ran through John’s mind. In just eight hours, he set his plan in motion and decided to kill the President at the very shrine that gave John a name and livelihood. The reason being that John knew the layout of Ford’s intimately.

Who was Edwin Stanton?

Over the course of seven long episodes, the Manhunt series will shed light on the real-life co-conspirators of John, who planned three strikes on the night of April 14. Their goal was to dissolve the President’s government and revive the rebellion that had ended a few days ago. It was at this tumultuous time that we came across Lincoln’s most trusted ally, Edwin Stanton, the then Secretary of War. Based on the premiere episodes, it is safe to assume that the entire series is going to follow these two real-life characters: Stanton and John. As mentioned earlier, throughout its narrative, the series will focus on more subjective issues like John’s motive for planning the conspiracy and his hatred towards people of color. In Stanton’s case, it sheds light on his internal and external conflicts.

Stanton is a burdened individual struggling with the loss of his daughter, Lucy Lamson, who died at the age of 2. The loss of the infant put a crack in his marriage, most likely because Stanton tried to escape his grief and became a workaholic. The same is said about him at the beginning of the series, and it can be speculated that by the end of the series, he will probably become a better husband and spend a considerable amount of time with his family. Nevertheless, in the beginning, Stanton had a much bigger issue to deal with. In his subconscious mind, he blamed himself for the attack on the President. Perhaps he took the victory of the Union to heart and became lenient. He blamed himself for not being there on the night of the assassination. He might have saved his friend and his president, but it was too late. It was the guilt that fueled Stanton’s manhunt for the assassin who existed on the other end of the moral spectrum. With his fellow soldiers and officers from the NYPD, Stanton not only solved the conspiracy behind the murder but also apprehended most of the co-conspirators alive so that they could be punished before the law.

How did John die?

As far as John Wilkes Booth is concerned, he left Washington, D.C., on the very same night and was headed towards Virginia, where he believed the Confederates would hail him as their hero and protect him. Unfortunately, for John, reality hit him hard in the face. John ran from the authorities for 12 long days (which is also in the title of Swanson’s book), and finally, on April 26, a regiment of the Union army found him in the South. A sergeant named Boston Corbett confronted the culprit, but instead of arresting him, he shot the man down. Corbett was initially arrested for disobeying the arrest orders but was later turned into a hero in the media, because of which all the charges were dropped against him. 

With John’s death, the manhunt finally came to an end, but the actions of such a man still echo today. It only reminds us of the fact that, as human beings, we are willing to kill and slaughter fellow countrymen only because we don’t align with their ideologies. We are willing to pick up arms against each other just to prove ourselves correct. There could have been a better solution to this conflict. Or maybe it wasn’t a conflict to begin with. It was just a group of men and women who failed to respect people who didn’t share the color of their skin. And just to prove their supremacy, they were willing to make the entire nation go up in flames and push it towards another civil war. Hopefully, the series will help us further establish the difference between right and wrong, as racism still remains a problem in the modern world. 

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Shikhar Agrawal
Shikhar Agrawal
I am an Onstage Dramatist and a Screenwriter. I have been working in the Indian Film Industry for the past 12 years, writing dialogues for various films and television shows.

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