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THE GREAT CRIME — THE ASSASSINATION OF THE PRESIDENT
O powerful western fallen star!
O shades of night—O moody, tearful night!
"When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom'd"
On April 14, 1865, the president of the United States went to the theater. Five days earlier Lee had surrendered to Grant. The Civil War was over and the North held a jubilee. Cannons boomed, people sang in the streets of Washington, and bonfires flamed. On April 14, Good Friday, Abraham Lincoln sought relief from the exhilaration of victory by attending the play Our American Cousin at Ford's Theatre.
The afternoon papers, the Evening Star and the Daily National Republican, published notices that General Grant would be Lincoln's theater guest that night. Grant had spent most of the war at the front and was an unfamiliar sight in the capital. The promise of his appearance guaranteed a full house. But then the Grants decided to leave Washington on an early train to visit their children. The Lincolns had trouble replacing them; several people declined their invitation. Finally, Clara Harris, daughter of U.S. Senator Ira Harris, and her fiancé, Major Henry Rathbone, accepted the invitation.
When the curtain rose at 8:00 P.M., theatergoers who glanced up at the president's box were disappointed to find it empty. Perhaps Lincoln had changed his mind and was not coming. In fact, the president's carriage arrived late, at about 8:15. The Lincoln party enteredFord's, ascended the stairs, walked across the back of the theater, and stepped into their box, which was festooned with flags. The performance was suspended so that the orchestra could play "Hail to the Chief." As the audience cheered, the Lincolns took their seats.
During the performance, at about 10:15 P.M., a lone figure slipped into the box and fired a bullet into the back of the president's head. Simultaneously, several blocks away, a man forced his way into the home of Secretary of State William Seward and nearly stabbed him to death in his bed. At the theater, Lincoln slumped forward in his rocking chair. He lapsed into unconsciousness without uttering a sound. The assassin swung over the balustrade, ran across the stage, fled out a back door, and galloped away on a waiting horse. Several witnesses said the assassin looked just like John Wilkes Booth, the famous actor.
They were right. Booth, the twenty-six-year-old scion of America's most celebrated theatrical family, had just assassinated the president of the United States. One of the great actors of his day, Booth used his fame and wealth to support a conspiracy against Lincoln. A longtime Confederate sympathizer, he hated Lincoln and his polices. In 1864 he and his loosely organized band of followers plotted to kidnap the president and hold him as a hostage for the Confederacy. His scheme failed, the war ended, and the South lay in ruins. To avenge that defeat, Booth turned to assassination.
Surgeons at Ford's Theatre pronounced the president mortally wounded and warned that he could not be moved far. Soldiers carried him across the street to the Peterson house and laid him diagonally across a spindle bed that was too short for his tall frame. Mary Lincoln sobbed uncontrollably in the front parlor. At the back of the house, Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton interviewed witnesses, sent telegrams to army posts, and commanded troops to hunt for the assassin. Abraham Lincoln lingered until morning, when he died at 7:22.
1. Perhaps the finest portrait of John Wilkes Booth ever made, this magnificent large-format albumen photograph remains vivid evidence of Booth's appeal. (Caption continues on page 148).
2. An outraged nation condemned John Wilkes Booth for his loathsome act. Artists demonized the assassin with lurid depictions of him as the devil's disciple. This imaginative carte-deisite montage, based on an actual photograph of Booth, shows Satan whispering in Booth's ear to murder President Lincoln.
3. This carte-de-visite depicts a jaunty Booth, renowned for his luxurious wardrobe, in all his splendor.
4. An authentic Ford's Theatre playbill for the night of April 14, 1865. The public clamored for souvenirs of the assassination. The first reproductions of this playbill appeared within days and continued to be made for decades.
5. Rival publishers competed frantically to produce prints within days of the assassination. This color lithograph by A. Pharazyn was one of the most dramatic—albeit fanciful—depictions. The president's box was higher from the stage, Booth did not sail through the air; and Lincoln did not spring from his chair after being shot.
6. & 7. Booth's single-shot derringer became an iconic artifact of fascination, as this undated souvenir photo from the nineteenth century suggests.
8. In this hitherto unpublished letter, one of the longest letters he ever wrote, a mirthful teenage Booth writes to his boyhood chum T. William O'Laughlin on June 18, 1855. Chatty and spirited and a poor speller, the seventeen-year-old Booth reports on local gossip, social events, and girls: "Well the first week in June was taken up by a Fair held in Church Ville for the benefit of the Presbyterian church.... I was there night and day and you must not think I am blowing when I say I cut quite a dash. I saw pretty girls home from the Fair at ten O'Clock at night some at the distance of four or five miles.... Stevenson Archer, a young lawyer from Bel-Air, whent to Boston and brought back a wife worth $60,000.00 that's what I call doing the thing up brown. He gave a party but I was one of the Non Visitants. In plain english I was not invited. Ned Webster another of the same profession and from the same place has gone off to get himself a wife, and I hear that he has got himself a very rich one. It's an old saying that a lawyer can lie like the devil also in making women concent. The devil tempted mother Eve with an apple. I don't know wether lawyers use apples or no but they all tempt the ladies. It is strange too that ladies like to be connected with the law in any way, but it is always best to agree with a lawyer as well as a doctor for they have the means of revenge, hurrah. I have wrote a long letter at last." Ten years later, Booth murdered President Lincoln, and T. William O'Laughlin's brother, Michael, was tried as one of Booth's conspirators.
9. & 10. In some cities, the newspapers did not wait for their regular editions to publish news of the assassination. Instead, they rushed into print with one-page broadside extras that announced the latest—and frequently erroneous—news. The Daily Citizen Extra contains many errors: It reports that Secretary of State Seward is dead (he was wounded in a knife attack); it states that Lincoln died at 7:02 A.M. (the time of death was approximately 7:22 A.M.); it says that one of Lincoln's theater companions, Rathbone, held the army rank of captain (he was a major); and it states that Rathbone was shot in the arm (Booth cut him with a knife). These incorrect statements, plus spelling and typographical errors, suggest that this broadside was printed in haste on the morning of April 15, 1865. This Mirror Extra, also from the fifteenth, was produced so quickly that the printer did not even bother to trim the sheet properly.
11. Ford's Theatre
12. From the telegraph office pictured in this carte-de-visite, news of the assassination and death of the president was flashed to the nation.
13. This action-packed April 22, 1865, issue of the National Police Gazette portrays scenes from what it calls "The Assassin's Carnival"—the assassination of Lincoln at Ford's Theatre, the attempted assassination of Secretary of State William H. Seward in his bed, and the deathbed of the president.
14. Lewis Powell's knife, used to attack Secretary of State Seward and his medical attendant, Private George Foster Robinson.
15. Robinson saved Seward's life by fighting off the formidable Powell. For his heroism and the wounds he sustained, Congress gave him a gold medal and a reward of five thousand dollars. Robinson asked for Powell's knife as a souvenir, and in this letter dated July 10, 1866, Joseph Holt, judge advocate of the United States Army and a prominent figure at the trial of the conspirators, presented the knife to Robinson.
16. Replica of Robinson's medal.
17. In Washington, D.C., the Sunday Morning Chronicle of April 16 (right) provided a much more detailed account than the issue rushed into print the previous day
18. In this Harper's Weekly woodcut, Lewis Powell launches his attack on the household of Secretary of State Seward.
19. & 20. Within hours of the assassination, the New York Herald, receiving the latest news by telegraph, reported to its readers early on the morning of April 15. The April 16 issue confirmed the death of the president.
21. & 22. The North rejoiced when the citadel of the Confederacy, Richmond, fell on April 3, 1865. This rare large-format broadside, printed by Loag in Philadelphia, celebrated the news but became obsolete less than two weeks later when Lincoln was assassinated. The printer immediately reset the type, abandoned the festive red, white, and blue color scheme, and produced a somber tribute to Lincoln. Paired, these broadsides show vividly how the mood of the country changed overnight.
23. & 24. Soon after the nation's newspapers published the first accounts of the assassination and death of Lincoln, other publishers followed with pamphlets. Abott A. Abott's The Assassination and Death of Abraham Lincoln, a twelve-page pamphlet from the American News Company in New York, is thought to be the first separately printed account of the assassination. Barclay & Company of Philadelphia published a series of pamphlets about the assassination and the trial of the conspirators, including The Terrible Tragedy at Washington. Assassination of President Lincoln.
25. In Clarion, Pennsylvania, where this broadside was published, loyal Union men issued resolutions mourning Lincoln and calling patriotic meetings to demonstrate their grief. Similar broadsides were published in many other cities.
26. In this fantastical carte-de-visite, a stern Columbia and a screaming eagle keep a vigil over the memory of the martyr president and proclaim a warning: "Make a chain, for the land is full of bloody crimes." Soon chains and manacles would become symbols of the trial of the conspirators.
27. One of many carte-de-visite-size memorial cards printed in the days following the assassination.
28. & 29. People expressed their grief by purchasing and wearing white silk ribbons printed in black (above right). Dozens of different versions were produced, and even today hitherto unknown designs continue to be discovered.
30. 31. 32. & 33. Small, colorful paper flags were popular symbols or mourning.
34. & 35. Manufacturers of mourning memorabilia, an instant cottage industry, took out newspaper ads, like this one from Harper's Weekly, to hawk their wares. A typical badge combined a Lincoln photograph, an American flag, and a black ribbon.
36. & 37. These large-format mourning broadsides, intended for display on a wall or in a window facing the street, are rare. The portrait broadside, with its primitive woodcut, is not a very good likeness of Lincoln, but it speaks with touching simplicity. The black American flag and its demand for vengeance suggest what is to come for those involved in the president's murder.
38. Six days after the assassination, John Wilkes Booth and his alleged accomplices, John H. Surratt and David Herold, were still on the loose. To speed their arrests, on April 20, 1865, Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton offered a reward of $100,000 for their apprehension—and threatened with death anyone who gave them aid. Several different types of broadsides were printed in Washington, D.C., to publicize the reward.
Excerpted from LINCOLN'S ASSASSINS by James L. Swanson and Daniel R. Weinberg. Copyright © 2001 by James L. Swanson and Daniel R. Weinberg. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved.