In the frantic moments after John Wilkes Booth shot Abraham Lincoln in the back of the head on Apr. 14, 1865, the president’s unconscious body was carried to the bedroom of a townhouse across the street from Ford’s Theatre in Washington, D.C. As doctors worked through the night to relieve the pressure on Lincoln’s brain, his blood seeped into the pillows of the room’s single bed—on which Booth himself had napped just a few weeks prior.

Stranger still: months before the assassination, Lincoln’s eldest son, Robert, was at a railroad station in Jersey City, N.J., when he fell between the platform and a moving train. He was in mortal danger—until John Wilkes Booth’s brother Edwin reached down, grabbed him by the collar, and pulled him to safety.

Terry Alford’s enthralling new history, In the Houses of Their Dead: The Lincolns, the Booths, and the Spirits (Liveright, June), unearths these and other uncanny associations between the families of the Great Emancipator and his assassin, including their shared interest in spiritualism, a quasi-religious movement whose followers believed they could commune with the dead. Speaking over Zoom from his home in Fairfax County, Va., Alford says he wasn’t aware of all the connections between the Lincolns and the Booths when he started researching the book in 2017. “But I put the antennae out, and when I saw them, I said, yes—this stuff fits together.”

Piecing together the odds and ends of American history has been a passion of Alford’s since his grad school days at Mississippi State University, when he came across a document related to an enslaved African prince who was freed from a Mississippi plantation in 1828.

After Alford moved with a group of 15 friends—including Earth Day cofounder Sam Love—to D.C.’s Foggy Bottom neighborhood in 1970 to “engage in antiwar activities and escape the Mississippi scene,” he tracked down the “million different little pieces” of the prince’s story and turned them into his first book, Prince Among Slaves. Published in 1977, it’s never been out of print, Alford proudly notes, and was even made into a PBS documentary.

“That was a fun project,” he says, breaking into a grin. “We filmed it in Hollywood—Hollywood, Maryland. I told somebody, ‘I always knew I’d get to Hollywood sooner or later.’ ”

Alford is full of such anecdotes, polished bits of personal history delivered with wry, understated charm. Discussing his youth in the Mississippi Delta town of Indianola (“B.B. King’s hometown”), he recalls his aunt’s “tall tale” about a great-grandfather in the Confederate Army at Vicksburg who was so starved that he “snuck out and conked a Union mule on the head and dragged it back into the fort,” where a Louisiana chef “worked his New Orleans magic on this unfortunate animal.”

And here’s Alford on how he landed a job at Northern Virginia Community College, where he taught history for 42 years before retiring in 2015: “One rainy day, I got out the D.C. yellow pages—if anybody remembers what something like that is—and I wrote the same letter to every college and university listed in the book, from schools that wouldn’t even open a letter from me to some that might. But I thought, I don’t know—and NOVA replied.”

At NOVA, Alford taught a class on great crimes in American history. “Each week I would do a different case,” he recalls, “and hands-down, the Lincoln assassination was the one students liked the best.” He soon expanded the subject into its own class and realized that no one had written a full-scale biography of John Wilkes Booth—a paucity that Alford attributes both to the reluctance of Lincoln historians to make Booth “some kind of antihero” and to the irrationality of the assassination itself, which came “like lightning out of a clear blue sky.”

So, Alford “decided to give it a shot” himself, and, after 25 years of research and writing, he published Fortune’s Fool: The Life of John Wilkes Booth in 2015. The book went on to become a finalist for best biography with both the Los Angeles Times Book Prize and National Book Critics Circle Award, as well as winning the Abraham Lincoln Institute Book Award.

Though it was well known that Mary Todd Lincoln—who had already lost one child, Eddie, to pulmonary tuberculosis by the time her second-youngest son, Willie, died of typhoid fever in 1862—held séances in the White House, Alford learned of the Booth family’s interest in spiritualism through his research for Fortune’s Fool. The entire clan was “given to dreams and visions,” he says. Patriarch Junius Brutus Booth, the nation’s leading dramatic actor, was so distraught by the death of his five-year-old daughter Mary from cholera that he dug up her corpse, opened a vein in her arm, and attempted to suck out the tainted blood. Edwin Booth was born on the night of the spectacular 1833 Leonid meteor shower—a sign interpreted by the family’s servants to mean that he was “gifted to see ghosts.” Three decades later, Edwin was lying in bed one early morning in New York City when he felt a pair of “ghost kisses” on his cheek and heard a voice say, “Come to me, darling. I am frozen.” Two days later, his young wife Mollie died in Boston.

In an era marked by the deaths of as many as 750,000 Union and Confederate soldiers, as well as countless others from fevers and infections, Mary Todd Lincoln and Edwin Booth weren’t unusual in seeking solace from mediums and clairvoyants. By one estimate, the spiritualist movement, which began in 1848, had 1.6 million followers by 1860. Despite the popularity of spiritualism, there were only about a dozen “top-tier” mediums, according to Alford, and their interactions with the prominent Booth and Lincoln families overlapped in tantalizing ways.

Charles H. Foster, “a hard-drinking, cigar-chomping oracle,” brought messages from Willie Lincoln to his parents and, after entering into a deep trance, “almost smothered” Edwin with caresses from Mollie. Charles J. Colchester, a controversial British medium who stumped the president by causing odd noises in different parts of a room, became close friends with John Wilkes Booth in the months before the assassination. Though it’s unclear how much he knew of Booth’s plans, Colchester repeatedly warned Lincoln to be careful.

When he set out to explore these and other links between the Lincolns, the Booths, and spiritualism, Alford “didn’t have a thesis or theory that I wanted to prove,” he says. “I just wanted to tell a story. That’s all I’ve ever wanted to do as a writer—tell a story of interesting people.”

To help map how his subjects “related to the inexplicable,” Alford initially planned to make notes on the wall of his writing room, like William Faulkner did. “Faulkner’s from Mississippi; I’m from Mississippi,” he says, “so I thought it would be okay.” But his family vetoed the idea, so he went to an art store and bought a poster-size sheet of paper for each key player in the book. He taped the sheets to the walls of his office and filled them up with notes.

“It was so satisfying,” Alford says. “After I finished a chapter, I could pull that sheet off the wall. Gradually I began to see the wall reappear as I went all the way around the room writing the book.”

The resulting narrative not only renders multidimensional portraits of John Wilkes Booth and Abraham Lincoln (who was both practically minded and “embarrassingly superstitious”) but also rescues lesser-known figures from obscurity. Adam Badeau, an ambitious drama critic who nursed an unrequited love for his friend Edwin Booth before becoming Ulysses S. Grant’s favorite staff officer in the Union Army, is one of the book’s brightest stars. Poet John Pierpont and U.S. Commissioner of Agriculture Isaac Newton—Mary Todd Lincoln’s chief spiritualist companions in Washington, D.C.—also make memorable appearances, as do mediums Nettie Colburn and Belle Miller, also known as “the Georgetown Witch.”

Packed with eerie coincidences, amusing anecdotes, momentous twists of fate, and everyday human drama, In the Houses of Their Dead brings to mind a work of art that hangs on Alford’s living room wall. Painted on a bed sheet by Texas folk artist J. Edgar Kimsey in 1920, it depicts a group of cowboys sharing a chuckwagon meal in front of a raging campfire. The promise of a good yarn—a ghost story, perhaps, full of interesting people and the spirits that haunt them—hangs in the night air. Alford, who bought the painting on a cross-country trip during his “hippie days,” says its serves as an inspiration to everyone who comes over. But he’s clearly the one who’s taken it to heart.