In the Houses of Their Dead explores both the Lincolns’ and the Booths’ enthrallment with spiritualism, the belief that living people can communicate with deceased people’s spirits...Members of both families were shattered time after time by a litany of heartbreaking, often torturous illnesses and deaths, which inspired a desire to communicate with their dead loved ones...Alford seamlessly tells the two families’ stories, starting with the major players’ childhoods and continuing until their deaths—and after...Alford sets the historical stage well, allowing readers to understand the emotional underpinnings of Lincoln’s assassination, which he memorably describes.
... a well-sourced if slight piece of sideways biography that often strains to justify its thesis, but makes a lively study of two wildly disparate clans nonetheless ... even Alford never really roots out the source of the mania that turned a celebrated performer of no particular political will or creed (though he really seemed to hate house cats) into a foaming radical willing not just to die for the Southern cause, but to unseat democracy. Booth’s fanatical conviction that Lincoln had kingly designs on a dictatorship — and that he alone could stop it — somehow managed to pass, it seems, as one more quirk of an artistic temperament ... Alford’s slim, meticulously referenced account, for all its talk of drawing-room conjurers and necromancers, is far less fanciful than that, if hardly dry and academic: a lighter kind of summoning, teased from the footnotes of history.
Alford, having written a definitive biography of Booth, knows the territory. He explores Lincoln’s own religious sensibilities, which ran deep but were unmoored to any particular creed ... This may hold special appeal for fans of George Saunders’ Lincoln in the Bardo (2017), since it provides factual background for the popular novel.