read from February 15 - March 02
Assassination Vacation by Sarah Vowell
Summary (via Goodreads)
Sarah Vowell exposes the glorious conundrums of American history and culture with wit, probity, and an irreverent sense of humor. With Assassination Vacation, she takes us on a road trip like no other—a journey to the pit stops of American political murder and through the myriad ways they have been used for fun and profit, for political and cultural advantage.
From Buffalo to Alaska, Washington to the Dry Tortugas, Vowell visits locations immortalized and influenced by the spilling of politically important blood, reporting as she goes with her trademark blend of wisecracking humor, remarkable honesty, and thought-provoking criticism. We learn about the jinx that was Robert Todd Lincoln (present at the assassinations of Presidents Lincoln, Garfield, and McKinley) and witness the politicking that went into the making of the Lincoln Memorial. The resulting narrative is much more than an entertaining and informative travelogue—it is the disturbing and fascinating story of how American death has been manipulated by popular culture, including literature, architecture, sculpture, and—the author's favorite— historical tourism. Though the themes of loss and violence are explored and we make detours to see how the Republican Party became the Republican Party, there are all kinds of lighter diversions along the way into the lives of the three presidents and their assassins, including mummies, show tunes, mean-spirited totem poles, and a nineteenth-century biblical sex cult.
I like her dry humor. "With a century and change between the 1880 convention and now, I'll admit I rolled my eyes at the ideological hairsplitting, wondering how a group of people who more or less agreed with one another about most issues could summon forth such stark animosity. Thankfully, we Americans have evolved, our hearts made larger, our minds more open, welcoming the negligible differences among our fellows with compassion and respect."
But there was a HUGE turnoff for me - she used the "r" word. It wasn't quoting someone using it back when it was common either, they were her sentences, such as "He was so inbred and crazy...He was probably retarded." and "I can relate. (Not to being retarded...)".
A few "fun" facts I learned:
- Robert Todd Lincoln was nearby for all 3 assassinations he was alive during. He was at his father's deathbed, he was only a few feet away when Garfield was shot, and he arrived in Buffalo moments after McKinley was shot.
- Only JFK was shot with a rifle; the other three assassinations (and attempts on Teddy Roosevelt, FDR, Truman, Ford, Reagan) all with handguns.
- Edwin Booth (John's brother) rescued a man that had fallen on the train tracks during the Civil War. That young man was Robert Todd Lincoln the president's son. What a crazy coincidence.
- As pallbearers carried Edwin Booth's coffin outside in NY, 3 floors of Ford's Theater in Washington collapsed. It had been turned into a government office and 22 federal employees died.
- People agreed Charles Guiteau was insane and should be committed before he assassinated Garfield but nobody could afford to pay for him to do so. "If Guiteau had received proper treatment from mental health professionals in a caring, padded facility with locks on the doors, it might have spared James Garfield's life."
- Civil war sculptural tradition says that if the rider was wounded in battle, one of the horse's hooves should be raised.
- "As [George] Westinghouse's alternating current become more popular than [Thomas] Edison's direct current, Edison launched a smear campaign against Westinghouse in which, attempting to prove the danger of AC, he staged demonstrations electrocuting horses and dogs that caught the eye of New York prison reformers looking for humane methods to carry out capital punishment. Hence the electric chair...Before the verb "to electrocute" came to define death by electricity, Edison advocated that the verb be named for his nemesis, that a person who had been electrocuted would have been westinghoused instead."
A Few Quotes from the Book
"Bennett asked, "You know the Kevin Bacon game?"
"The one where he can be connected to every other movie star?"
"Yeah, that's the one. Assassinations are your Kevin Bacon. No matter what we're talking about, you will always bring the conversation back to a president getting shot." "
"Going to Ford's Theatre [now as a tourist] to watch the play is like going to Hooters for the food."
"There it lay upon the white china, a little black mass no bigger than the end of my finger - dull, motionless, and harmless, yet the cause of such mighty changes in the world's history as we may perhaps never realize..." ~ quote from a letter Edward Curtis wrote to his mother after assisting in the autopsy of Lincoln
"A platform was built under the painting of George Washington to hold Lincoln's casket. It was here under the Washington portrait's gaze that the future president delivered his "House divided" speech in 1858, famously prophesizing that "this government cannot endure, permanently half slave and half free," unaware that he would be the man to fulfill this prophecy, that he would be the man who made the government "all one thing, or all the other," and that for his trouble he would be murdered only to end up here, again beneath this portrait, a corpse."