I've always really enjoyed American history, particularly from the era of post-Civil War through World War 1. I know that high school history books don't really dive into this era much outside of the industrial revolution, but a lot of cool events happened.
Yes, I know the sticker on the book says $1.50, but I actually got this book three years ago for 75 cents. Shout out to the AAUW Book Sale in State College. The folks that put on that event are first-class and it is all for a great cause. Anyways, I'm embarrassed it took me three years to get to reading this.
Just to preface, I didn't know a whole lot about John Wilkes Booth outside of the obvious facts that he was Abraham Lincoln's killer, he was an actor, had southern sympathy and spent time in my native Venango County speculating in oil. In fact, if you ride your bike along the Allegheny River from Franklin to Emlenton there is a very remote plaque and story about Mr. Booth. So what did I learn from this book? See below....
What Jumped Out to Me?
1. Do not, I mean absolutely do not skip over the epilogue in this book. What happens to many of the characters is just as good as the story itself.
2. Mr. Swanson obviously invested a TON of time in gathering information from this book. The fact that he gathered up all of the little bits of information and put the pieces together into a coherent story makes the book breeze by you in just a few days.
3. I had no idea about the history of Ford's Theatre after the assassination and the incredible effort to preserve the space when it could have rightfully been bulldozed.
4. I was surprised with how caught up Booth was in the newspaper reports and gossip about the assassination. In my mind, I thought he was trying to absolutely fly south as fast as he could with a broken leg. This put to bed this notion.
5. I didn't know a whole lot about the assassination attempts on Seward and Johnson. I just knew that they were failed, but this book really brought those two events to life.
6. The idea of justice was a fleeting one in that era. Certain major players in the story got off with relatively light sentences, while ones with accidental or unknowing roles got harsher sentences. There seemed to be no particular rhyme nor reason.
7. I did not know a whole ton about the secret southern Rebel sympathizer network. I feel we're taught in school that it was full states that felt one way or the other. In reality, it feels more like the American Revolution where it wasn't always evident where you stood.
There is a Silver Lining in Every Setback Part 1: Venango County, Going to Penn State and Understanding Privilege
I grew up in a great family. As the youngest of four in rural Northwestern Pennsylvania you always had to find ways to entertain yourself. With us it was traveling the country (like myself with my favorite President Abe Lincoln) in our pop-up camper, playing a lot of board games and spending time outdoors. My time sleeping in the outdoors can be measured in the years, not in weeks or days.
Our house was about 1,100 square feet for the six of us. With the average household now having just short of 1,000 square feet/person I don’t know how we didn’t kill each other. I always thought only having one bathroom was nuts and I still do. It was a good thing we were pretty secluded in the woods with a big yard to run around.
As a kid you don’t understand economic development. All I knew was we as a community in Venango County were very dependent on the likes of Quaker State, Wolf’s Head and Pennzoil for careers. At one time the region was one of the nation’s most prosperous areas of the country. Slowly throughout my youth those companies moved south to more fertile territory, mostly in Texas where the taxes are low. When they left they promised they would help replace their economic impact. What a corporate lie that was. The question became: If you get a college degree why would you come home to Venango County?
Most recently in Oil City, PA the median household income is about $36,000 compared to the national average of about $62,000. I started high school with 105 kids, graduated with 80 and about 40 of us went to college. Many of my friends I grew up with either left the community as a whole or were in and out of trouble shortly after high school. At first it was largely marijuana, meth or cocaine based, but increasingly over the last five years it has been heroin. I still get nervous each time I click on a police blotter article from home.
It isn’t all doom and gloom as a handful of friends moved back becoming difference makers that I admire. Hopefully they can turn the tide on what has been a difficult 20+ years. It has been exciting to go home and see a brewpub or new restaurant pop up where boarded up windows once were. I hope they can keep this trajectory for the next generation growing up in Venango County.
Most of my region has safe public schools in the grand scheme of things. Nowhere near the top any kind of state rankings, but we made due. I didn't even realize field hockey, debate, chess or lacrosse teams were HS activities until I was at Penn State. It is basically public school or bust for kids in the region. Coming from a family of public schools teachers, was there really an option?
Our teachers really cared about us students and helping us reach our goals. For many of us teachers were about the only people we knew with a college degree. Visiting with the majority of high school friends their parents mostly went to work after high school in some kind of blue-collar or clerical position. We didn’t see a diverse group of successful college or trade school graduates. Mostly people living paycheck-to-paycheck. Luckily, we had a teacher in high school that exposed us to plenty of college tours to gain perspective. Unfortunately, only about 20-25% of all students went on such tours to know what is possible.
I finished 14th out of 80 students in my high school class. It would have been higher, but I’ve always had the personality of mailing in any subject or assignment I didn’t care about. I wanted to invest the minimal amount of time, so that I could spend more time on things I cared about. Those topics I cared about were easy A’s. For me that was economics and content creation mostly. For a long-time my personal website had more traffic than our HS's website, which my friends and I always found comical. Since we technically had a guidance counselor, but he never really met with any of us I chose journalism as a major to combine those interests. There was no other place I wanted to attend than Penn State. All three of my older siblings have a degree from the school, so my choice was easy.
I credit Penn State more so with expanding upon my worldview than necessarily the traditional education I received. You got to meet, and sometimes live, with people from vastly different background from yours. You found a lot of common ground with people you never would have if you only judged a book by its’ cover. I’ve remained good friends with so many of these people and count them now as family.
What surprised me after my first year at Penn State was that I had way more in common with inner-city kids from minority groups than I did with wealthy white kids from the suburbs of those cities. Just far more relatable to my background of tight-knit families with 3+ kids having to stretch a budget. How comical is it in a world now so divided along political and cultural lines that a rural white kid easily bonded with kids from the Bronx or inner-city DC?
My parents believed that education was worth saving for throughout their careers. As long as I finished in eight semesters, went to a public school and stayed in the state of Pennsylvania, they could pay for it. I got everything I needed and a few things that I wanted. I owe many of my friendships and achievements to their saving and sacrifice to get me there.
However, I also found what geographical economic privilege was as well. My jaw dropped when other students said they would apply to 10, 15, 20+ internship opportunities in their backyard. I'd already fought the battle just to get to a place like Penn State, but now I learned there was another steep climb until my 2008 graduation.
You also found there were big advantages for kids from wealthy families:
About the Author
Andy Rupert is a Penn State (B.A. John Curley Center for Sports Journalism 08') and a Southern Miss (M.S. Sport Management 09'). He has spent his whole career working in sports and tourism digital marketing and metrics.