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The Judges of the Secret Court

I had never heard of David Stacton when I picked up this novel recently. But the title was wonderful: The Judges of the Secret Court – don’t you just have to find out what that refers to? It’s a novel about that most intriguing figure in American history, John Wilkes Booth. And it is introduced by John Crowley. With all that going for it, how could I resist?

I am very glad I picked the book up.


The Civil War period is jammed full of ironies, just read any history. But one that has always particularly intrigued me occurred on Friday 25th November 1864. On that evening, in the Winter Garden Theater in New York there was a benefit performance of Julius Caesar staring Junius Brutus Booth as Caesar, with his brothers Edwin Booth and John Wilkes Booth.

Edwin Booth

It was the only occasion on which the three Booth brothers appeared on stage together.

Friday 25th November was also the day upon which a gang of Confederate agents attempted to set fire to New York. It was a bungled attempt. The agents set their fire bombs in various hotel rooms around the city, but to avoid detection they made sure that all windows and doors were firmly closed, so most of the fires were starved of oxygen before they even got started.

Nevertheless, many fires did take hold, and one of the places threatened was the Winter Garden Theater. It was Edwin Booth, far and away the greatest actor of the three, who stepped out of character and calmed the audience so the performance could proceed.

By all accounts the theatre was full, and the performance was superb. But what might have happened? And how close might Confederate agents have come to preventing the tragedy that occurred only five months later?

John Wilkes Booth

Stacton mentions the benefit performance early in the novel, but doesn’t really draw out the ironies. There are plenty of other ironies to come through the novel though. Not least the fact that Wilkes (as he was known to his family), an actor more acclaimed for the athleticism of his performances than the depth of this characterisations, stumbled in his leap from the box at Ford’s Theater, catching his spur in the bunting and hence breaking his leg. An unusual stumble that also caused him to mumble his exit line. Stacton is in no doubt that his line was, indeed, ‘sic semper tyrannis’; but in truth no-one in the theatre heard it clearly, even those who hadn’t paid much attention to the muffled shot in the Presidential Box, and there have been arguments ever since about what Booth really said. His greatest performance, and he fluffed it. Much of Stacton’s book revolves around these twin issues of performance and failure.


Lincoln is shot on page 49. Booth dies on page 173. The novel itself is 255 pages long. So although Booth’s flight occupies a good proportion of the novel, its concerns are much wider.

(Curiously, although Stacton sticks very closely to the facts, as far as I am able to tell, he makes two small but significant changes at the point of Booth’s death. History has it that Sergeant Boston Corbett, a religious fanatic who had been castrated for reasons that remain unclear, fired the fatal shot. Stacton has Booth shoot himself, with Corbett claiming the kill because the soldiers were under orders not to let Booth commit suicide. And at the moment of death, Booth is reported to have held his hands before his face and murmured, ‘Useless, useless’. Stacton has Booth examine his hands in the blazing barn before any shots are fired. The hands are liver spotted, a symbol of the loss of his matinee-idol good looks (and therefore of his poise, his standing, his career). The murmur of ‘Useless, useless,’ at the point of death, therefore, acquires a broader, more existential significance.)

Booth himself occupies probably 50% of the novel, though even here he is not always centre stage. Stacton shifts viewpoint several times per chapter, sometimes several times per paragraph. The effect is prismatic: we look at events from a variety of perspectives, dip into a variety of moral consciousnesses. Several pages, for instance, are devoted to Lincoln’s long, slow death scene (how easily we slip into theatrical metaphors when discussing this) in the run-down little house across the street from Ford’s Theater, slipping from the mind of a doctor, to Mary Lincoln, to an actress who accompanies her, to Stanton (the out and out villain of the novel), to Vice President Johnson paying a fleeting visit. Quite a bit of the novel is devoted to Booth’s family: Edwin, who is never arrested but hides himself away from the public gaze; Junius, who is arrested then released but who seems sublimely unaffected by the whole thing; their sister, Asia, who is pregnant and married to a man who believes the assassination was a plot to ruin his own social standing; and their mother, who doted on Wilkes. In many ways this is the least dramatic but the most interesting part of the book. And there is Stanton’s hunt for anyone who might possibly be a part of a conspiracy that is mostly in his own imagination.
But time and again the novel returns to Booth and his agonisingly slow flight through the swamps of southern Maryland in the company of poor, innocent, childlike David Herold.

David Herold

It’s a story of disintegration, the gangrenous leg, hurriedly and inadequately set by Dr Mudd, acting as a metaphor for Booth’s sense of self. Everything is a performance, even death is a glorious act that lasts only until the curtain falls. Less and less does he understand what he has done, why he is not already being acclaimed as the greatest star of the age. Even Lincoln was just playing a walk-on part in the eternal fame of John Wilkes Booth: though Stacton doesn’t say this, you get a sense that his Booth never quite grasps the fact that Lincoln doesn’t get up again and walk away after the hero has leapt from the box to the stage. Appearance is more important, more real, than reality; and he only, and rather resentfully, recognises that reality might intrude upon appearance, when he stands alone in the blazing barn and knows that he must die.

Mary Surratt

Once he does die, the novel turns to another performance, the dreadful show trial of the conspirators, focussing in particular upon Mrs Surratt. It is again presented as appearance, a play in which reality has no part, all is orchestrated by Stanton to achieve some apotheosis of his own power regardless of sense or justice or right. There is rich irony in the verdict, when Spengler is found innocent of all charges and so will only have to serve six years hard labour. Mrs Surratt will die, of course, because that is Stanton’s will. She is hanged alongside Payne (probably the only truly guilty one among them, who attempted to murder Secretary of State Seward); Herold, who probably had the mentality of a child and no conception of what he was caught up in; and Atzerodt, who was a drunk and did nothing except try to get more drink. Years later, of course, when Mrs Surratt’s son, John, who possibly was part of the conspiracy, is finally captured and put on trial, it all comes out: how Stanton manipulated the evidence, used perjured witnesses, and stage-managed the execution of an innocent woman. It leads to his downfall, practically the last thing that President Johnson did in office. But, of course, by then it is far too late for Mrs Surratt.

And even this isn’t the end of the story. Because the novel begins and ends with Edwin Booth; tracing at the end how he rebuilt his theatrical career, attracting ever greater fame, although he was changed by the experience. It is not the conspirators who are punished, but those around them.


In my post about Barry Unsworth, I noted that he is the type of historical novelist who does not use real historical figures. David Stacton is clearly the opposite.

In his introduction, John Crowley divides historical fiction into three broad types:

[T]he ones that tell stories of fictitious characters against a general historical background …; those that follow the adventures of invented characters who become involved with actual historical characters and events; and those that fictionalize real people of the past, or use the techniques of fiction to reveal or exhibit more of their insides.

I don’t entirely agree with Crowley on this. It is a slick and superficially convincing division, but it doesn’t come close to telling the whole story. Crowley’s exemplar of the first type is Gone With The Wind, though the characters are very much caught up in real historical events, and real historical characters do appear, which would seem to put it into the second category.

I think a better division might be to say that there are historical romances and historical novels. The historical romance is an adventure story whose colour is provided by the setting. Real events and real characters may well occur in these, as, for instance, in Gone With The Wind, or The Three Musketeers or The Prince and the Pauper, but the story is about the adventure, the romance, the colour, it is not about the real characters or the real events. Indeed, real figures may well be made to behave contrary to what is known about them, or put into situations that simply would not or could not occur, because the story takes precedence over the history. The historical novel, in contrast, is concerned with trying to figure out the past, maybe to reconfigure it in modern terms to help us understand it, or maybe to emphasise its difference so we can see where we do not understand it.

The historical novel might itself be further subdivided, along lines analogous to the distinction between social and political history. The social history novel is concerned with how people lived, what it was like to experience that particular time. Examples might include Barry Unsworth’s The Quality of Mercy or E.L. Doctorow’s The March: real events feature, real characters may appear, but the focus is on the lived experience. The political history novel, in contrast, is concerned with the people who shape the events, with the how and why of the past. Examples might include Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall or David Stacton’s The Judges of the Secret Court: the focus is all on the real people caught up in the real events in an attempt to capture something of what it was that drove them. The two types are not mutually exclusive. There’s a nice little social aside in Stacton’s novel, for instance, about a character carefully wearing trousers that did not have a crease, because the crease would indicate mass-production and so mark him as lower social status. Similarly there are telling glimpses of Sherman in Doctorow’s novel. Indeed, there are cross-overs between what I have termed the historical romance and the historical novel. For instance, The Horse Soldiers by Doug Stanton is a historical novel that recounts in factual detail a real incident from the Civil War, and uses real characters (though sometimes given other names), and yet it is also a story told with the dash and adventure of a historical romance. No such divisions are ever hermetic: there is always movement between the categories, and most works can be read in ways that might put them in several different categories. Still, I think my reading of the role of real characters in historical fiction provides a better account of what is actually going on than Crowley does.


And before I forget: the title.

The Judges of the Secret Court turns out to be the title of a hopelessly amateur play sent to Edwin Booth late in his life. But it serves as the trigger for his memories, so that within the context of the novel the judges are all the people who have been the playthings of history, and the court is memory itself.

It is a very fine book, do yourself a favour and read it.

3 thoughts on “The Judges of the Secret Court

  1. Forgive my historical ignorance. Who is Stanton, the so-called villain? Not to be confused with Stacton, the author, I assume? Even Stanton’s first name would help us look him up, please.

  2. Ah, forgive me, an old Civil War buff forgets that not everyone is intimately familiar with the members of Lincoln’s Civil War cabinet. Edwin M. Stanton was the Secretary of War, an effective but mean-spirited politician. After the assassination he effectively ran the country for a while, hounding anyone with suspected Confederate sympathies and working against the liberal surrender terms worked out by Lincoln and Grant. When it became clear how much he had manipulated the workings of the court that executed Mrs Surratt (even hiding a mercy plea so that President Johnson would not see it in time), Johnson dismissed him from his post. Stanton’s response was to try to organise an impeachment of Johnson, which failed.

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