By Joyce Carroll
Special to Delaware Business Times
Thanks to YouTube and reality TV, fame today — albeit often fleeting — visits ordinary people frequently.
But such was not the case in 1865 when the Petersen family was thrown into the limelight in the aftermath of the assassination of Abraham Lincoln. Books about former President Lincoln are numerous, but none has taken the perspective of Lincoln’s deathbed saga — that is, until local journalist Kathryn Canavan’s recent book, “Lincoln’s Final Hours.”
While Ford’s Theatre in Washington, D.C., may have been the venue where the president was shot, it was actually across the street at the Petersens’ boarding house where the drama of his life and death struggle unfolded. Tended to by a 24-year-old doctor fresh out of medical school, President Lincoln lay dying in a converted hallway bedroom in a bed that had coincidentally been occupied by his assassin, John Wilkes Booth, on many a night. The once-ordinary lives of William Petersen, his 15-year-old son Fred, and his 13-year-old daughter Pauline would forever be altered.
Every saga worth telling has a backstory: It takes a good storyteller to discover that narrative and articulate the details in a way that holds a reader’s interest. Canavan has managed to do that and more by building suspense within a story where we all already know the outcome. And while those in the field may refer to the art of the interview or the craft of writing — skills mastered by Canavan — it was Canavan’s dedication to research where her talent as a journalist shines.
Four years in the making, the book was the result of intensive research involving hundreds of documents, news articles and archives. As Canavan told an audience at a recent gathering of the Lincoln Club of Delaware, “Finding information about ordinary people is hard to acquire, especially more than 100 years after an event.”
Canavan’s detective work would take her to multiple states and Washington, D.C. She visited a psychiatric hospital in the nation’s capitol, and archives located in a tucked-away building down an isolated alley. She deciphered notes handwritten in phonography, the precursor to shorthand, and combed through legal files. Along the way, historians, curators, and new friends would guide her.
“It’s the amazing serendipity of research — the way people lead you to the [next] thing,” she said.
It was through one such connection that Canavan was finally able to corroborate a detail she had been fruitlessly tracking — a copy of a bill from William Petersen that she had only read about in a newspaper clipping. Petersen, apparently not a gracious host, had billed the federal government for damages. Petersen’s response to what others more likely would have deemed an honor was just one of several shocking discoveries Canavan would uncover in her work.
Canavan brings a rich tapestry of experience to her latest calling as an author. She’s covered crime stories for The News Journal, including the internationally publicized trial of the gentleman bandit, and was a National Health Journalism Fellow at the University of Southern California’s Annenberg School. She has been lauded as Pennsylvania’s Newswoman of the Year and has won a Delaware Press Association award. When her son, at the age of 12, decided to initiate a Cub Scout troop for homeless boys, Canavan served as a den mother. The volunteer experience has given perspective to her work as a journalist.
“When [you] volunteer in the community [you’re] a much better reporter because you know the community’s people,” she said, and added, “The best stories come from listening to regular people.”
While Canavan remains busy as a staff writer for the Delaware Business Times, she is also spending time on the road promoting the book. In November, she traveled to Kentucky. Within days of her return, she spoke to a crowd of 75 at a Lincoln Club of Delaware event, where she is also a member.
“It was a great honor to have her with us. Her enthusiasm and passion for her subject really came through tonight,” said Lincoln Club of Delaware President the Honorable William Carpenter Jr.
Most recently, Canavan signed books and greeted fans at Browseabout Books in Rehoboth Beach. Delawareans who missed these appearances will get another chance in April when she speaks at the Delaware Public Archives in North Dover.
“Lincoln’s Final Hours,” already into its second print run, is published by the University Press of Kentucky and is available at Barnes & Noble and Amazon.com.