John Wilkes Booth was 26 years old when he shot President Lincoln at Ford’s Theatre in Washington, DC, 150 years ago today. The delusional assassin thought he would be heralded as a hero, but he instead became the object of an unprecedented 12-day manhunt that found him sleeping in drainage ditches, unable to even light a fire for warmth or food.
“There’s a description in his journal about being able to hear the search parties nearby and having to lie still for days,” photographer Nate Larson told Hyperallergic. His series Escape Routes, which goes on display at the Arlington Arts Center in Virginia on April 18, tracks Booth’s 75-mile flight through the Maryland countryside. “I imagined him looking at the sky, which is the thought behind the sky photograph — that’s the sky above where that happened.”
The image captures the clear blue sky above a pine thicket in Bel Anton. At the bottom corners, anachronistic telephone lines faintly emerge, anchoring the heavens to earth and encroaching on our historical fantasy; telephones weren’t invented until seven years after Booth’s death.
An Indiana native, Larson first became interested in Booth after he moved to Baltimore in 2009 and discovered the assassin’s grave lay just a half-mile from his office. His imagination was further stirred by James L. Swanson’s nonfiction narrative Manhunt: The 12-Day Chase for Lincoln’s Killer. Soon after, he picked up a Maryland Civil War Trails map and followed Booth’s journey six different times, photographing throughout. “The romantic in me likes to think that sites retain some kind of energy ripple from past events, but the skeptic in me doesn’t think that’s possible, so I photograph to see what’s there,” he explained.
Finding vestiges of that storied chase became a matter of conjecture and best guesses. Though Larson started with the known sites, he quickly became interested in the contemporary landscape that has since formed. The route he followed twists from the city to the suburbs, through agricultural fields, truck stops, rivers, and rail lines — a mix of landscapes Larson called “a microcosm of America.” He found himself entranced by their growth and decline, which seemed to symbolize all the promises and failures of politics in our own time.
Pondering Booth’s last days, it’s striking to think that the country today sometimes feels as politically divided as it was back then. The search party may have caught up with him long ago, but his brand of dogmatic ideology lives on at the growing fringes of the Right and Left both. “I hope that the traces of the past can point to where we are in the present,” Larson said, “and also that our understanding of the modern landscape can be enhanced by linking it to past events.”