In the houses of their dead : the Lincolns, the Booths, and the spirits

by Alford, Terry,

Format: Print Book 2022
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In the 1820s, two families, unknown to each other, worked on farms in the American wilderness. It seemed unlikely that the families would ever meet--and yet, they did. The son of one family, the famed actor John Wilkes Booth, killed the son of the other, President Abraham Lincoln, in the most significant assassination in American history. The murder, however, did not come without warning--in fact, it had been foretold.

In the Houses of Their Dead is the first book of the many thousands written about Lincoln to focus on the president's fascination with Spiritualism, and to demonstrate how it linked him, uncannily, to the man who would kill him. Abraham Lincoln is usually seen as a rational, empirically-minded man, yet as acclaimed scholar and biographer Terry Alford reveals, he was also deeply superstitious and drawn to the irrational. Like millions of other Americans, including the Booths, Lincoln and his wife, Mary, suffered repeated personal tragedies, and turned for solace to Spiritualism, a new practice sweeping the nation that held that the dead were nearby and could be contacted by the living. Remarkably, the Lincolns and the Booths even used the same mediums, including Charles Colchester, a specialist in "blood writing" whom Mary first brought to her husband, and who warned the president after listening to the ravings of another of his clients, John Wilkes Booth.

Alford's expansive, richly-textured chronicle follows the two families across the nineteenth century, uncovering new facts and stories about Abraham and Mary while drawing indelible portraits of the Booths--from patriarch Julius, a famous actor in his own right, to brother Edwin, the most talented member of the family and a man who feared peacock feathers, to their confidant Adam Badeau, who would become, strangely, the ghostwriter for President Ulysses S. Grant. At every turn, Alford shows that despite the progress of the age--the glass hypodermic syringe, electromagnetic induction, and much more--death remained ever-present, and thus it was only rational for millions of Americans, from the president on down, to cling to beliefs that seem anything but. A novelistic narrative of two exceptional American families set against the convulsions their times, In the Houses of Their Dead ultimately leads us to consider how ghost stories helped shape the nation.

Published Reviews
Booklist Review: "The Lincolns' obsession with reaching out to their beloved son Willie after his early death from typhoid has been extensively reported, but historian Alford demonstrates that it wasn't just Abraham Lincoln's family who turned to spiritualism. Ironically, the thespian family of Lincoln's assassin John Wilkes Booth had something of a parallel interest in communicating with the departed. Alford, having written a definitive biography of Booth (Fortune's Fool, 2015), knows the territory. He explores Lincoln's own religious sensibilities, which ran deep but were unmoored to any particular creed. Mary Todd Lincoln sought the advice of different spiritualists who might bring her some solace by convincing her of the ongoing life of her departed son. Other contemporaries hungered for similar assurances, and some charlatans even went so far as to attempt to blackmail the First Lady. Alford introduces readers to many spiritualist-devoted characters who held influential posts in both military and government. This may hold special appeal for fans of George Saunders' Lincoln in the Bardo (2017), since it provides factual background for the popular novel."
From Booklist, Copyright (c) American Library Association. Used with permission.
Publisher's Weekly Review: "In this intriguing if meandering study, historian Alford (Fortune's Fool) views the "common experiences" of the Lincoln and Booth families through the lens of spiritualism. He details how Mary Todd Lincoln became interested in spiritualism after the death of the couple's second child, Eddie, in 1850. When another son, Willie, died in 1862, Mary's interest intensified, and the Lincolns sat for about a dozen seances with medium Nettie Colburn in a two-year period at the White House. Though Abraham Lincoln was "embarrassingly superstitious," according to Alford, he viewed spiritualism largely as "entertainment," whereas Mary "seemed to summon , bringing herself into a trance state just like a medium." Elsewhere, Alford links the Booth family's interest in spiritualism and the occult to patriarch Junius Brutus Booth, a talented but alcoholic and mentally unstable actor given to periodic breakdowns. During the Civil War, the Lincolns and Booths consulted the same mediums, including Englishman Charles Colchester (real name Jackson Sealby), who grew so alarmed by John Wilkes Booth's threats against the president that he gave Lincoln "vague but repeated warnings to take care." Though Alford occasionally wanders far afield from the book's central theme, he packs the narrative with intriguing if little-known historical figures and strange coincidences. This unusual portrait of two famously intertwined families fascinates. (June)"
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Additional Information
Subjects Lincoln, Abraham, -- 1809-1865 -- Religion.
Lincoln, Mary Todd, -- 1818-1882 -- Religion.
Lincoln family.
Booth family.
Booth, Junius Brutus, -- 1796-1852 -- Family.
Lincoln, Abraham, -- 1809-1865 -- Assassination.
Spiritualism -- United States -- History -- 19th century.
Parapsychology -- United States -- History -- 19th century.
Presidents -- United States -- Biography.
Publisher New York :Liveright Publishing Corporation,2022
Edition First edition.
Other Titles Lincolns, the Booths, and the spirits
Language English
Description xvii, 298 pages : illustrations ; 24 cm
Bibliography Notes Includes bibliographical references (pages 251-285) and index.
ISBN 9781631495601
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