Assassination Vacation

Vowell, Sarah

Primary Category: Literature / Nonfiction

Genre: Investigative Journalism

Annotated by:
Duffin, Jacalyn
  • Date of entry: Feb-18-2009
  • Last revised: Feb-12-2009


Obsessed with the history of presidential assassinations and captivated by the power of places and objects to evoke the past, the author writes about her travels to the sites commemorating the lives, illnesses, deaths, and burials of Presidents Lincoln, Garfield, and McKinley and of their murderers. The greatest attention is given to Lincoln.

The context of the killings is presented in atmospheric detail and goes well beyond the individual deaths to the political tensions in which they occurred: slavery, the Civil War, the Spanish American War, partisan manipulation, economic strife. Special attention is given to wounds and body parts and to chattels, pus, and bits of bone.

The quirky research method of inveigling a sister and several long-suffering acquaintances (invariably introduced as “my friend XXX”) to drive the author to her desired destinations generates a counterpoint. Perhaps, the spiciest commentary on her investigations comes from the ever reliable insights of Owen, a four-year-old nephew.

This past is also about the physical objects--guns, tombs, statues, letters, plaques, buildings, furniture, and clothing--that memorialize and are fetishized by their contact with greatness. And it is about the people who care for it in the present--the curators, volunteers, collectors, and writers.

An encounter with the marvelous, stunningly beautiful (but now late) Gretchen Worden, curator of Philadelphia’s Mutter Museum, as she speculates on the future of her own corpse, will be a poignant surprise for those who knew her in person or through her many appearances on the Letterman Show (p. 93-99). As Vowell wrote in her acknowledgements (p. 258): “The world is a little less interesting without her in it.” Indeed.

The result is a highly readable set of interconnected chapters that blends extensive knowledge of American history with a fanatic’s zeal to get at the true story, sense, and emotions, especially those investing objects and places with what is called—"wie es eigenlicht gewesen [ist]"--as it really was.


History as road trip.

The format is original, with lots of first person, no footnotes,  no bibliography,  and no index. The narrative delivers perhaps a bit too much on the author’s own cute neuroses (e.g., phobia of driving, narcissism over phobias, etc.) and not enough on her sources (e.g., Charles Rosenberg’s superb study on the Trial of the Assassin Guiteau, 1968).

The obsession to pursue obscure leads will be familiar to historians, although the easy, conversational, wise-cracking style and the lack of scholarly apparatus will not, e.g., one entire sentence: “As if.”

Many historians will wish that they had had the nerve to write a sentence like that, or any of the following: “I looked at the five photographs of women in the womanizing Booth’s pockets when he died … he was a lady-killer too.” (p. 25); “I’ve seen Powell’s grave” (p. 41); “I am pro-plaque.” (p. 159); “I have seen Guiteau’s original note.” (p. 165). Lord knows we have thought them often enough.

Doctors involved garner opprobrium. For example, Dr. Samuel Mudd who tended the injured John Wilkes Booth was convicted for complicity in Lincoln’s death; he is not redeemed by Vowell, despite the family’s determined “lobbying” to clear his name (p. 59-60). The post-Listerian attendants of Garfield are accused of transforming survivable wounds into murder by “poking their grimy fingers in the presidential innards” (p. 160). Sadly, such a facile remark is an all too frequent trope in the knee-slapping version of medical history, but--as always—it bears consideration.

The author has a keen (and not overly sympathetic) eye for character, coincidence and irony.  However, sometimes she supplies too much information of the strange-but-true sort. She writes, for example, how the now abandoned building on Wall Street, “that got Garfield killed” became a luxury hotel that hosted the wedding reception of Liza Minelli, whose “’co-best men’ were Michael Jackson and his brother Tito.” (p. 126). 

Some of her associations are downright loose: “Roosevelt must have wanted to write back to Robert Todd – tod the German word for death—Lincoln” (p. 233.) In case you didn’t get it: that the president’s son had been close to the assassinations is linked to his mother’s maiden name.

Yet the self-indulgent excesses can be forgiven because this book about ghastly murder is deeply informative, even inspirational, and so much fun.


Simon & Schuster

Place Published

New York



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