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How Accurate Is the Lincoln Assassination Miniseries ‘Manhunt’?

A professional historian tells you what’s really true in Apple TV+’s killer thriller

spinner image Lili Taylor and Hamish Linklater sitting next to each other in Ford's Theatre in a scene from the Apple TV+ series "Manhunt"
(Left to right) Lili Taylor and Hamish Linklater in "Manhunt."
Courtesy: Apple TV+

The seven-part limited series Manhunt (Apple TV+, March 15) offers a fresh take on the 1865 death of Abraham Lincoln (Gaslit’s Hamish Linklater): It’s a thriller about the pursuit of assassin John Wilkes Booth (Masters of the Air’s Anthony Boyle), led by Lincoln’s vengeful friend and Secretary of War Edwin Stanton (The Crown’s Tobias Menzies, 50). Lili Taylor, 56, plays distraught Mary Todd Lincoln, and Patton Oswalt, 54, Lafayette Baker, the shady detective on Booth’s trail. The show is based on James Swanson’s bestseller Manhunt: The 12-Day Chase for Lincoln’s Killer. In my opinion as a former Harvard fellow and teacher of American history at five colleges, it manages to be both broadly historically accurate and engrossing.

Here are the facts (and what’s fiction) about Manhunt, and what you need to know before you watch:

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spinner image Patton Oswalt in "Manhunt"
Patton Oswalt stars as Detective Lafayette Baker.
Courtesy: Apple TV+

Lincoln's assassination was of one the first events all Americans experienced simultaneously

As Manhunt correctly shows, word spread fast via the telegraph, four years after the completion of the first transcontinental line. Suddenly, news that used to take days or weeks to travel around the country arrived in hours. A Massachusetts woman 450 miles from Washington wrote of Lincoln’s death in her diary one hour after it happened at 7:22 a.m. The grief spread so fast that in New York, every building on Broadway from end to end was hung with black drapery — and almost immediately, the nation was sold out of black bunting.

John Wilkes Booth, 26, was already a celebrity

By 1860, Booth earned the equivalent of $700,000 a year (in modern dollars) as an actor. His father, Junius Brutus Booth, was America’s most celebrated actor, and his older brother Edwin inherited that mantle. Swanson, 65, calls the Booth family the “Barrymores of their day,” but Civil War historian Anne Rubin jokingly says John Wilkes was more like “a lesser Baldwin brother.” He was mostly known for his looks: One critic called him “the handsomest man in America,” and he left brokenhearted women up and down the East Coast.

He shot Lincoln and jumped onstage. He might have escaped out the back door of Lincoln’s box, but this scene won him wider fame than his more respected relatives. It also meant he was instantly recognized after the shooting, speeding the investigation.

He had a big ego and grandiose, stupid plans

Booth bungled his initial plan, to kidnap Lincoln and exchange him for thousands of captured Confederate soldiers (he had Lincoln’s carriage route wrong). When he learned at the last minute about Lincoln’s visit to Ford’s Theatre, he switched to killing him, which he thought would demoralize the North and allow the South to fight on. As Manhunt marvelously shows, he thought he’d be feted as a hero. In his head he was Cain or Macbeth or Brutus, slayer of Caesar in Shakespeare’s play.

spinner image Brandon Flynn and Tobias Menzies riding on horses in the Apple TV+ series "Manhunt"
(Left to right) Brandon Flynn as Eddie Stanton Jr. and Tobias Menzies as Edwin Stanton in "Manhunt."
Courtesy: Apple TV+

Edwin Stanton wasn’t as central as the miniseries makes him

Stanton, whom Lincoln affectionately called Mars (the Roman god of war), did take charge as Lincoln lay bleeding, ordering the military to guard Washington and its officials and search trains for Booth. But in one of the biggest deviations from the book (and history), Manhunt makes Stanton the key figure, the cat to Booth’s mouse, chasing suspects through the countryside, finding Booth’s gun. Great for drama, less good for accuracy. And clean-shaven Menzies looks nothing like the real Stanton, who sported a long hillbilly beard with a white skunk stripe down the middle.

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spinner image Lovie Simone and Antonio Bell walking next to each other in the Apple TV+ series "Manhunt"
(Left to right) Lovie Simone as Mary Simms and Antonio Bell as Milo Simms.
Courtesy: Apple TV+

All of the scenes with Booth and enslaved Mary Simms are fictionalized

Simms (Greenleaf’s Lovie Simone) really did testify in court against her enslaver, Dr. Samuel Mudd, to establish his Confederate sympathies — and a Black woman testifying against a white man was practically unheard-of. But Manhunt shows her interacting with Booth when Mudd treated the fugitive’s fracture; in fact, she had left Mudd’s farm when Maryland outlawed slavery in 1864. Adding Simms creates a prominent, sympathetic Black character early in the show, highlights Booth’s racism and the mistreatment of the enslaved, and gives the creators a way to explore the fate of freed people after the war.

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spinner image Anthony Boyle as John Wilkes Booth in "Manhunt"
Anthony Boyle stars as John Wilkes Booth.
Courtesy: Apple TV+

Some of the most famous scenes in the show may not have happened that way

Booth supposedly shouted (as in Manhunt), “Sic semper tyrannis!” (Thus ever to tyrants, Virginia’s motto) after he shot Lincoln. But witnesses disagreed. He may have added, “The South is avenged,” or “The South shall be free,” or “I have done it!” The idea that he said it from the stage, and broke his leg when he landed, comes from Booth’s last diary entry, which may have embellished the facts.

After Lincoln died, Stanton is reported to have said, “Now he belongs to the angels” (as he does in Manhunt), or maybe “Now he belongs to the ages,” but none of the contemporaneous accounts mentions Stanton’s poetic words. They don’t show up until 1890, in the bestselling book by Lincoln’s former private secretaries. New Yorker writer Adam Gopnik called it the “most famous epitaph in American history,” and everyone wants to believe it happened that way. People’s memories are suspect. We will never know.

spinner image Lili Taylor and Tobias Menzies in "Manhunt"
(Left to right) Lili Taylor as Mary Todd Lincoln and Tobias Menzies as Edwin Stanton.
Courtesy: Apple TV+

Jefferson Davis didn’t have anything to do with Lincoln’s assassination 

The show leaves us a little unsure whether Confederate President Davis was involved. Stanton and the others investigating Lincoln's killing were sure he was. Fear of a last-ditch effort to save the Confederacy was everywhere. No one wanted to believe that a lone gunman could pull this off; they needed it to be part of a bigger conspiracy to make sense of it to themselves. But federal officials couldn’t find evidence that convincingly linked Davis to the plot — their best witness turned out to be a perjurer. After two years in jail, Davis was released and eventually included in a general amnesty.

spinner image Hamish Linklater in the Apple TV+ series "Manhunt"
Hamish Linklater stars as President Abraham Lincoln.
Courtesy: Apple TV+

Lincoln’s death changed history

He demonstrated more political shrewdness than his clumsy, inflexible, not-ready-for-prime-time successor, Andrew Johnson. Had Lincoln lived, he likely would have made the integration of freed Blacks and Confederates into society during post-Civil War Reconstruction a smoother process. Stanton, who supported aggressively helping the freedmen, would have retained significant sway. Instead, as Manhunt shows, Stanton fought constantly with Johnson, the antagonist of freed people. Johnson’s attempt to fire Stanton led to his own impeachment.

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