By Benjamin Svetkey
Updated February 08, 2006 05:00 AM

Maybe I missed that class, but I honestly had no idea that John Wilkes Booth spent 12 days evading a massive manhunt after shooting Abraham Lincoln. I didn’t know that Lincoln’s slaying on that fateful night in 1865 was part of a much wider conspiracy, that Booth had dispatched two other assassins on simultaneous missions to murder Vice President Andrew Johnson and Secretary of State William H. Seward (failed missions, thankfully). In fact, you could fill a book with all the things I (and probably a lot of other people) never learned in school about that tragic event in early American history — but then, James L. Swanson already has.

Technically, Manhunt belongs in the history section (its author is a respected Lincoln scholar), but it’s as gripping a page-turner as anything you’ll find on the mystery shelf. Opening on the afternoon before the assassination, it shadows Booth as he hatches his dark plot, chronicling every detail of his notorious crime (months earlier, he had toyed with the idea of kidnapping Lincoln, but never got around to it). For instance, Booth, the most famous stage actor of his time, crept unnoticed into the presidential box at Ford’s Theatre, fired a .44-caliber bullet from his single-shot Deringer into the back of Lincoln’s head, just under his left ear, then jumped to the stage, theatrically shouting ”Sic semper tyrannis” (breaking his leg in the process, a possible origin for theater’s good luck phrase). But the truly riveting stuff comes after the murder, with Swanson tracking Booth and his co-conspirators as they scatter into the South, hiding in pine thickets and slipping past Union patrols as thousands of frantic troops comb the countryside in pursuit.

Even the poorest student can tell you the outcome of the chase: Booth was found in a Virginia barn, shot and killed by Union soldiers. But did you know that in the days after the assassination, Booth’s friends and (especially) lovers hurriedly burned or hid his letters (one paramour, Isabel Sumner, kept her mash notes secret from the world for an astonishing 62 years)? That angry mobs of vigilantes roamed city streets across the country, taking out their vengeance on Confederate sympathizers? And, as we probably could have guessed, that America’s press lapped it all up, providing daily doses of hysterical (and mostly inaccurate) headlines, whipping the nation into one of its first media frenzies?

Swanson’s book does one other thing no textbook ever could: He makes the characters in this great American tragedy actually seem human. Even Booth comes across as viscerally real, especially to anyone familiar with those who still practice his curious profession. Wounded and on the lam from the law, the old ham couldn’t help but follow his press coverage, greedily poring over his clippings whenever he had a chance. ”Incredibly,” writes Swanson, ”despite his pain, exhaustion, and dire, life-threatening predicament, the actor was eager to read his reviews.”