Assassination Vacation is a nonfiction discussion on three American presidents and their assassins as told by one with an obsession so great, she actually took a vacation to visit each and every landmark associated with the murders. Lincoln (R) in 1865, Garfield (R) in 1881, and McKinley (R) in 1901 are the three presidents she focuses on while visiting all museums, national markers, and homes associated with the presidents and their assassins. Simon & Schuster | 2006 | Paperback | 270 pp
Sarah Vowell is a pacifist, someone who abhors violence of any kind. She’s nauseated by war and the thought of murder, which makes her obsession on assassinated American presidents a strange one, indeed. Yet her morbid curiosity is filled with humor as she gallivants across the country looking for anything with a connection to these three men and their killers. Her story involves an assortment of friends who accompany her on different legs of the journey, tour guides and museum curators who offer unique perspectives, and her notes on the the markers/monuments, or lack thereof, that she came to find.
“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 them two types brothers of sorts.”
Calling president and assassin “brothers of sorts” was even more apparent in the description of President Abraham Lincoln and his assassin John Wilkes Booth. She described them both as having similar upbringings but who diverged in adulthood. It reminded me of Truman Capote’s comparison in the movie Capote – the one he made between himself and Perry Smith, the killer in his true crime novel In Cold Blood: “It’s as if Perry and I grew up in the same house. And one day he stood up and went out the back door while I went out the front.” The same could be said for Lincoln and Booth.
The story of President James A Garfield and assassin Charles J. Guiteau is little known but wildly fascinating. Garfield, a likable president who never wanted the position and who would “rather be reading”, was busy stamping out corruption in the big appointments of his new administration, which made him an instant enemy of those who had been profiting from being “boss”. Garfield hadn’t even been in office for a year before he was killed by Guiteau, a man rejected for an ambassadorial appointment, a cult member who “was the one guy in a free love commune who could not get laid.”
He was on his way to becoming a great president, loved by the masses. But because he had been killed so early, stealing away the chance for attributing major reform to his office, his name is barely recognized these days. Even the place where he was assassinated is devoid of a marker of any type.
“No plaque marks the spot where Guiteau gunned down Garfield – zip.”
The last jaunt through untimely presidential deaths focuses on President William McKinley and his assassin, anarchist Leon Czolgosz. McKinley, not a good guy but a war-mongering imperialist who did little for blue collar workers, was killed by a former blue collar worker who has been lured by the rhetoric of anarchists, people who called for the abolition of government. Vice President Theodore Roosevelt then became president by succession, and for the first time in American history a law was passed that forbade anarchists from entering the country, making it the first time immigrants would be asked about their political beliefs.
The history lessons are fascinating because of the author giving them. Sarah Vowell has a great sense of comedic wit that is both hilariously dry and weirdly appropriate. She doesn’t come across as a stuffy know-it-all, but someone you actually want to have a beer with.
“I actually giggle when he tries to steel me for seeing the re-created 1920s embalming room, as if I’m not wearing Bela Lugosi hair clips; as if I didn’t just buy a book for my nephew called Frankenstein and Dracula Are Friends; as if I was never nicknamed Wednesday (as in Addams); as if in eighth-grade English class, assigned to act out a scene from a biography, when all the other girls had chosen Queen Elizabeth or Anne Frank, I hadn’t picked up Al Capone and staged the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre with toy machine guns and wadded-up red construction paper thrown everywhere to signify blood; as if I’m not here to see the replica of Abraham Lincoln’s casket; as if I’m not the kind of person who would visit the freaking Museum of Funeral Customs in the first place.”
She’s also absolutely amazing with details. Vowell finds connections where no one else would see them. For example, when discussing the funeral of Edwin Booth, the famed NYC thespian and brother to Lincoln’s assassin:
“Just as his pallbearers were carrying his coffin out the door in New York, in Washington, three floors of Ford’s Theatre collapsed. The building had been turned into a government office building after the Lincoln assassination. Twenty-two federal employees died.”
Sarah Vowell turns her obsession of presidential assassin history into a contagious read. Assassination Vacation is mesmerizing with fascinating detail. It’s never boring (even if you hate politics as I do) and oftentimes it’s laugh-out-loud funny. It’s also profoundly sad as we can see history repeating itself through polarized and hateful rhetoric. A great book for book club.
by Sarah Vowell