ASSASSINATION has never been an instrument of politics in the U.S.: no plot to seize power, no palace intrigue, has ever cost an American President his life. The three assassins whose bullets killed Presidents Lincoln, Garfield and McKinley were lonely psychopaths, adrift from reason in a morbid fascination with the place history gives those who reverse its orderly progress. Each sought an hour of mad glory—and each died convinced that history would understand.

John Wilkes Booth, 26, was among the most famous American actors of his time, but in the year before he killed...

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