July 2005

Gena Anderson

nonfiction

Assassination Vacation by Sarah Vowell

What compels someone to make a pilgrimage? That question has been on my mind quite a lot lately, especially with the recent buzz here in Chicago over the supposed Virgin Mary salt-stain that appeared on an underpass of the Kennedy Expressway. People came from all over the state to see it, and I even saw the questionable miracle on CNN. Maybe I shouldn’t be so quick to judge -- after all, I have always wanted to visit the world’s largest ball of twine in Minnesota.

It’s a historical pilgrimage Sarah Vowell embarks upon in her book Assassination Vacation. Vowell immerses herself in the minutiae of presidential assassinations, focusing specifically on Lincoln, Garfield, and McKinley, all of whom were shot while in office. Part memoir, part history lesson, Assassination Vacation is a hilarious look at a strange form of patriotism -- presidential death artifacts. Vowell, who describes herself as “obsessed with death,” drags her friends and family members to see the different statues, homes, and even pieces of the presidents themselves, displayed in various fashions all over the country. The commentary on her personal feelings about politics and the history of the United States is what pulls the narrative of the book together, uniting the past and present in an attempt to discover what makes the relics of death so interesting to us today.

Vowell starts her tour at the Ford Theater, where Lincoln was shot. Lincoln does seem to take up most of the book, but he also has the most drama surrounding his death, which started out as a kidnapping plot and ended as an assassination. Vowell follows the path of John Wilkes Booth as he escapes, visits a museum that has a bone fragment from Lincoln’s skull, goes to the prison where alleged co-conspirator, Dr. Samuel Mudd, was incarcerated, and even comes across Lincoln’s drainpipe: “Any old forgettable rich guy might warrant a marble tomb, an obelisk, or elaborate sculptures after death, but you know you are regarded with a ridiculous, religious amount of awe when they put your dug-up drainpipe in a museum.”

The assassinations of Presidents Garfield and McKinley are definitely not as well known as that of Lincoln, but there are still a few artifacts associated with them. Garfield was shot by Charles Guiteau, a slightly delusional man who was upset when he wasn’t appointed ambassador to France. The Smithsonian has the train station floor tile Garfield was standing on when he was shot—incidentally, Robert Todd Lincoln, who was present at his father’s deathbed, was standing a few feet away from Garfield when he was shot, and was also in the same town as McKinley when he was shot by Leon Czolgosz, earning Robert Todd Lincoln the affectionate nickname of “Presidential Death Magnet.” Vowell’s take on the strange relationship between the Presidents and their assassins is astute:

I am only slightly less astonished by the egotism of the assassins, the inflated self-esteem it requires to kill a president, than I am astonished by the men who run for president. These are people who have the gall to believe they can fix us -- us and our deficit, our fossil fuels, our racism, poverty, our potholes and public schools. The egomania required to be president or a presidential assassin makes the two types brothers of sorts.

In an attempt at interactive book reviewing, and because I find the subject matter so interesting, I decided to drag my reluctant co-worker Adriane on a pilgrimage to the Chicago Historical Society during our lunch break in order to view the actual bed that Lincoln died on. Unfortunately, the exhibit was closed so the most I can say is that I was in the same building. At least I have a nice set of Lincoln paper dolls I bought from the gift shop, and can console myself by using them to reenact that fateful night.

Assassination Vacation by Sarah Vowell
Simon & Schuster
ISBN: 0743260031
258 Pages