In “Lincoln’s Final Hours,” Wilmingtonian Kathy Canavan climbs one of the highest historical peaks: through extensive research, plenty of moxie and a little bit of timing and luck, she has produced an entirely new and unique perspective about one of the world’s most written-about topics. TSD caught up with Canavan and asked her to take us through the journey of writing her new book.
Town Square Delaware: It takes a special kind of courage to tackle a topic that may be one of the most written-about subjects in American history, not to mention making it the subject of your first book. How did you arrive at the decision to write about the Lincoln Assassination, and in particular, how did you possibly conceive of such a unique angle that hadn’t yet been covered?
Kathy Canavan: With 16,000 books on President Lincoln, Lincoln’s Final Hours was really pure serendipity. I didn’t have to look for an angle. It came to me. One day in 2009, I was visiting Petersen House, the house where Lincoln died. I asked the guide who slept in the deathbed the night after the assassination – because Petersen’s was a boardinghouse and it didn’t close down for a single night, even after the president died there. She told me a government clerk named Willie Clark slept there that Saturday night. I asked if she could recommend a book about Clark and the other boarders who witnessed the president’s death. She said there had never been a book – in 145 years.
My childhood home was about eight miles from the site of the Lindbergh kidnapping. The trial was long over when I was growing up, but there were several older neighbors who witnessed slivers of history – a chauffeur, a man who dug ditches outside the house, a woman who owned the hotel where the New York newsmen rented cots in the hallways during Bruno Hauptmann’s sensational trial. All their perspectives were lost to history. That’s why, in Lincoln’s Final Hours, I searched for the stories of the ordinary people who actually witnessed the president’s death.
TSD: Talk a little bit more about the process of researching the book. You’ve uncovered information and details that hadn’t been previously known or reported. It all must have taken an extraordinary amount of time. Did you head into this with an idea of the narrative you wanted to tell, knowing what you were looking for? Or did what you find along the way lead you to the story?
KC: I approached it as I would a news story – trying to record every possible perspective from all the people who were inside that four-story boardinghouse on the night the president died there. My goal at the outset was to find some information about each person who lived in or visited the house on assassination night, possibly for a magazine article, possibly for a book. That part wasn’t too difficult because this was our country’s first presidential assassination, and any involvement at all merited a mention in obituaries and anniversary stories in the newspapers. It was relatively easy to construct a who’s who of Petersen House. Finding more interesting details was a four-year quest – a part-time quest because I was also freelancing for USA Today’s Money section, for the News Journal and the Philadelphia Inquirer and AARP. Whatever I was doing, though, I was drawn back to the Petersen House story and wishing I could research full time. For the last year, I did.
The people at Ford’s Theatre were very kind and extraordinarily helpful. They were as eager as I was to find more information on the Petersens and their boarders. Searches through diaries and family letters and public records in archives led to tracking down family members all over the U.S. and one in Canada. And, of course, there were many disappointing dead ends.
But there were high points too. When I found a long-misfiled bill in the incorrect box at the National Archives, I ran downstairs and texted a curator who had also searched for it. She texted back, “If had been there I would have done a little dance with you in the reading room.”
TSD: This is your first book, but you’ve had a successful career as a working, professional journalist and writer. Had you always wanted to write a book and just never had the time or did the ambition strike you more recently?
KC: Writing a book was never on my to-do list. I love to tell factual stories. This one just grew too large to work as a magazine piece. I wanted it to read like a crime story because it is the most consequential murder in American history, but every word is true and documented, with 771 footnotes. I guess that’s a byproduct of being a news reporter.
TSD: Your book has received great reviews and hopefully is selling briskly. In today’s challenging publishing landscape, how do you get your product in front of the right reviewers and readers including the huge audience of people fascinated by all things Lincolniana?
KC: You’re certainly correct that publishing is changing and newspapers are also changing, so getting a book reviewed is tough. Newspapers with limited budgets aren’t spending on book reviewers and, often, books just pile up on the former reviewers’ desks. Lincoln’s Final Hours became available as a used book on Amazon prior to the publication date. The only way that could happen is if some editors or booksellers were selling the review copies the publisher mailed out pre-publication.
Lincoln’s Final Hours was reviewed in only two newspapers – the Baltimore Sun and the Times-Union in Jacksonville, Florida. I’m thankful print, online, TV and radio outlets featured stories about the book — Town Square Delaware, C-Span, the News Journal, WHYY, History News Network, the Larry Mendte Show, WABC in New York.
The University Press of Kentucky, the publisher, has been great. When I appeared at the Kentucky Book Festival, they magically got the book featured on the cover of the Louisville Courier Journal’s book festival supplement. My first speech ever was to a packed house in a huge 18th Century library at Oxmoor Farms, an historic horse farm in Louisville, Ky. That was daunting.
The Lincoln community is always eager for new facts 151 years after the assassination, so I’ve been ridiculously lucky to be invited to speak to groups like the Lincoln Group of Washington, D.C., the Surratt Society, the Kentucky Historical Society and the Lincoln Club of Delaware. The Abraham Lincoln Book Shop in Chicago interviewed me on their online show. My favorite was a book signing at the Lincoln Home National Historic Site in Springfield.
TSD: Share a few words about the writer’s craft … how do you organize your time between researching, writing and editing, and when and where do you write?
KC: I write at a desk in our living room with a couple bookcases of Lincoln books behind me. The funny thing is I knew none of the authors when I started work in 2009, but the Lincoln community is so extraordinarily kind, that, I now count several of the authors as good friends. One of them suggested the book to University Press of Kentucky, which was my first pick for a publisher because they have a wonderful reputation for supporting authors and they’ve done some great Lincoln books.
I had no idea how to organize a book, so I organized it as I would a news story. I created one document, in Dropbox and backed up on a stick drive, and I inserted facts as I found them. It worked very well for me. I’d carry my laptop to archives, type in the information I needed and all the metadata so I could find it again if needed, and streamline it on the return train trip.
When I got back to my desk, I’d insert the information wherever it fit in that one large document, which grew to more than 1,000 pages.
TSD: What are your favorite Delaware spots these days?
KC: I haven’t had time for many activities the past two years with a full-time job and book events, but I’m usually at the Y around 5:30 a.m. and we take time for dinners and long walks with friends.