"They have killed our good president": Remembering the horror of the Lincoln assassination

In an age of telegraphs and daily papers, the shock and disbelief of Lincoln's death spread slowly across America

Published February 16, 2015 5:00PM (EST)

A detail from the cover of "Mourning Lincoln"     (Yale University Press)
A detail from the cover of "Mourning Lincoln" (Yale University Press)

Excerpted from "Mourning Lincoln"

People had run straight from Tenth Street to the telegraph office, spreading word beyond the capital. The government-owned telegraph was central to Civil War military operations, with its speedy transmission over great distances, and Lincoln had spent hours at the office every week, waiting for communications from the front and conversing with the operators, who received and delivered messages day and night. Early transmissions about the crime at Ford’s were not entirely clear as to the president’s state, but in time official confirmation of death reached communities wherever the wires ran. Newspapermen wrote headlines from the dispatches, and printers hurried through their mechanical tasks. Newsboys scooped up the bundles of papers or sheaves of “extras” and set out on their rounds, calling out the tidings. The Berkshire Courier extra in Great Barrington, Massachusetts, with a 10:00 a.m. dateline, read “Terrible news! Lincoln dead! He is Shot by an Assassin!”

Beyond Washington on Saturday morning, April 15, laborers and servants were among the first to know. Night watchmen, coal shovelers, and lamplighters passed the news along to one another, as cooks in kitchens, up at dawn preparing breakfast, and valets, building fires in their masters’ bedrooms, stepped outside to investigate the ruckus of shouting and hurried footsteps.

“Oh, Ma’am, President Lincoln was murdered last night in the Washington theater by an actor!” cried Ellen Kean’s maid, entering the bedroom of the English actress who was playing in New York.

“Oh, Mr. Clapp, there is a policeman downstairs, and he says President Lincoln has been killed.” Boston editor William Clapp wasn’t yet dressed when his servant Kate burst into his room, in tears.

“Tell Mrs. Dall Lincoln and Seward have been assassinated,” the milkman ordered a servant in the vestibule of Caroline Dall’s Boston home.

“Nonsense,” retorted Dall, who had gone to bed happily thinking of victory.

“I wonder what they will say next,” marveled fifteen-year-old Sadie Dall, as she and her mother descended to breakfast. That’s when Sadie picked up the newspaper on the doorstep, turned pale, shrieked, and began to cry. Soon the bells began to toll. Northerners were used to turning to the morning paper’s “telegraphic column” for the latest war news, and for many that Saturday, the headlines explained the confusing off-hour chimes. For others, like the Dalls, the bells confirmed the seemingly inconceivable headlines.

Passing on the news became a first act of mourning. Saying the words aloud was one way to make it more real, and telling someone else meant you didn’t have to be alone with it. Just as laborers out on the street had informed one another, and just as servants passed the news to their employers, now those at home began to knock on neighbors’ doors and call into windows.

“Have you heard the terrible news?” the man at the front stoop asked Charles Mallory in Mystic, Connecticut. It was Mr. Woodward, Mallory’s blind neighbor, and he was crying. “They have killed our good president.”

“Oh! Horrible, horrible news!” Those were the words Lucy McKim heard as she readied to catch the nine o’clock train out of Philadelphia. Her cousin Annie had just spoken with a neighbor and was now sobbing.

Everywhere, people gathered, and everywhere they searched one another’s faces for verification. Just as Sarah Browne had instantly absorbed the distress on the visage of the man at her door, mourners read the meaning in eyes, brows, lips, and complexions, telling of genuine consternation, alarm, and woe. For one’s face to reflect sincere feelings was an ideal that had become increasingly untenable in middle-class Victorian culture, with the growing acceptance of artful cosmetics and fashion, but at this cataclysmic moment, all masks seemed to fall away, as people turned earnestly to the countenances around them, not simply to affirm the news but also for guidance about how to respond to such an unprecedented event.

To authenticate the news further, people had to leave the house in order to engage with others. Out on Boston’s State Street, Caroline Dall saw the bare heads of men buried in newspapers and realized that they had rushed outside too quickly even to put on their hats.

Anna Lowell ordered her driver to take her through the streets of Boston in her horse and buggy, from where she “could see people looking at me & at each other.”

“Is it true what they say, that our president—” called out a man in a passing wagon.

“Yes—murdered!” Lowell called back.

“Oh dear, oh dear!” the man moaned, driving on.

Boston businessmen headed to the Merchants’ Reading Room, where members gathered spontaneously to pray together, while women accepted guests at home and paid visits to neighbors.

On that Saturday morning, news of the crime reached small towns in northern New England and the Mid-Atlantic, as well as Chicago, Kansas, and Salt Lake City. In Sacramento, the first mentions arrived at nine in the morning, local time. That afternoon, outside the telegraph office in a north ern California mining town, a crowd gathered to listen to a public reading of the telegram, “word by word” as it arrived. By the next day, smaller cities in Ohio, Wisconsin, and Minnesota knew. Where no telegraph lines ran, people wouldn’t know until newspapers arrived by mail—Santa Fe and the remoter parts of Utah Territory didn’t hear until May. Speed of transmission to the South varied, what with rail lines cut by the Union army and newspaper offices abandoned by fleeing Confederates. Some small towns received telegrams that same Saturday. New Orleans got the news four days later, via newspaper. More than a week after the assassination, some Texans were just hearing rumors of the fall of Richmond, and Iowa soldiers in Alabama got word at the end of April. For some freedpeople, both adults and children, the first announcement came in the classroom, from Yankee teachers or school superintendents. Confederates might see the occupiers’ flags flying at half-mast. Verification then came in letters and newspapers arriving on steamships from the North.

On the water, word passed from ship to ship, as U.S. vessels ordered other boats to lower their flags. Across the oceans, steamships arrived with bundles of telegrams and newspapers. On the day Lincoln died, William Gould, the Union navy runaway slave, was in Cádiz, Spain, just learning of the fall of Richmond. The timing was the same in London; as Lincoln’s funeral was under way in Washington, the legation there was crowded with elated Americans congratulating themselves on Richmond’s fall, and a week after Lincoln’s death, they had just begun to celebrate Lee’s surrender. In Jamaica, news of victory and the assassination arrived simultaneously at the end of April, obliging residents to “rejoice with trembling.” Gould and his fellow sailors were en route to Lisbon in early May when a U.S. vessel brought the “awful tidings,” he wrote in his diary. The news reached Sierra Leone and China in mid-June, Australia in late June.

For Lincoln supporters who heard of the assassination long after, the feelings and rituals were the same. Charles Hale, U.S. consul in Egypt, had been enjoying himself in the diplomats’ stand at early May horse races in Alexandria, cooling off with ices, savoring bonbons, and accepting felicitations over Union victory, when a woman called out, “Come here, Mr. Hale, here’s some news for you.” She had just gotten word from Constantinople, where the telegraph connected with London, and as this particular dispatch had it, Lincoln had been shot in Richmond. Shaken, and thinking the interruption “thoughtlessly abrupt,” Hale returned to his seat, “very much overcome,” even as he wondered if it could possibly be true. The news was later confirmed and corrected via ships from Malta and Italy, and in a batch of mail from Marseille that included letters from home, a copy of the official telegram from Edwin Stanton, and the April 15 editions of the New York and Boston newspapers. Hale stayed up most of the night and into the next day, poring over the “tale of horror,” making himself believe what everyone at home had known for weeks.

* * *

Astonished. astounded. startled. Stupefied. Thunderstruck. A calamity. A catastrophe. A dagger to the heart. A thunderbolt. A thunderclap from a clear blue sky. The feelings that had engulfed the Confederates less than a week earlier now overtook their conquerors. It was “too horrible to be true” and “too terrible to believe.” It was simply impossible to “realize”—that was a favored nineteenth-century locution, meaning to make real, and over and over again people invoked that word; “I can scarcely realize it.” “I cannot realize it.” “But how can we realize it?” People could not and would not believe it. “I cannot have it so,” one woman wrote; “it must not be so.”

Disbelief was most intense for African Americans, whose stake in the war’s outcome and promise was so tangible. Freedpeople in the tiny settlement of Frogmore on Saint Helena Island off the South Carolina coast refused to mourn until they were certain. As the black minister there explained, “They could not think that was the truth, and they would wait and see.” For the soldiers of the Fifty-Fourth Massachusetts, the news was “too overwhelming, too lamentable, too distressing” to comprehend. Many of the men of the Twenty-Fifth U.S. Colored Troops likewise “refused to believe the report” until absolutely confirmed. On Bienville Street in New Orleans, Elizabeth Clark felt very much “agitated,” while her neighbor Mary Jones felt “very much worried” as she sat outside her door so as not to miss any further information. Mattie Jackson, an escaped slave from Missouri, called the assassination “an electric shock to my soul.” Again, the reading of countenances commenced the process of turning the incredible into the credible, of validating feelings and expression of those feelings. In Louisville, “distress was visible in every colored person’s face.”

For some, it took a long time to concede. Like Confederates who felt time distorted and reality displaced when they learned of defeat and surrender, Lincoln’s mourners thought it must be a lie or, as freedpeople in a Virginia classroom put it, “a secesh lie.” In Baltimore, Edward Greble, a white man, was riding an omnibus when he heard someone say that the president had been assassinated, which he quickly dismissed as “a canard.” Back at his hotel, the proprietor had just been to the telegraph office, and Greble watched as the other guests remained so incredulous as to think it a joke. To Boston merchant Charles French, it all seemed like a sensational getup. It felt like a “dreadful dream,” people said, a “horrible dream” or a play on a stage. To Elizabeth Agassiz, who got the news while traveling in Brazil, it felt like “the last scene in a five act tragedy,” then “a gigantic street rumor,” then a bad dream. “Stunning,” the women’s rights reformer Susan B. Anthony wrote from Leavenworth, Kansas. Walt Whitman would soon capture these feelings in a tribute poem to the president, casting Lincoln as a ship captain, writing, “It is some dream that on the deck, / You’ve fallen cold and dead.” A lie or a joke, a sham or mere gossip, a nightmare or a show: that was how it felt. A deception, an illusion, a performance—the words people invoked conveyed all manner of the unreal. Today we might say, I felt like I was in a movie.

Magnifying the shock was the crime’s timing—Sarah Browne’s “frantic joy” turned into “frantic grief.” In Norfolk, the freedpeople’s schools, already closed for victory celebrations, now remained shuttered for the rituals of mourning. In Nashville, Unionists changed the city from its “gala appearance” into a cheerless scene, cannons now booming in sorrow instead of jubilation. Yankee soldiers there had been strutting in a parade when the news came “like a crash,” prompting the musicians to switch from quicksteps to death marches. In New Bern, North Carolina, Mary Ann Starkey looked around her contraband camp, filled with fellow former slaves. Had she written only a few days earlier, she confessed in a dictated letter, “I should only have rejoiced over the glorious news”; among the war refugees she assisted as head of the Colored Women’s Union Relief Association, Starkey now saw “little heart left.” In Charleston, the men of the black Fifty-Fifth Massachusetts had just enjoyed the company of Henry Ward Beecher and William Lloyd Garrison. Soon they lowered flags, fired guns, tolled bells, and draped headquarters, all their actions “feeble expressions of feeling, for so great a loss.” It was, wrote a northern teacher in Virginia, the “most Joyous, yet saddest month our country has ever known.”

A group of two hundred prominent New Yorkers had chartered a steamer to take them to the flag-raising at Fort Sumter and as yet knew nothing as they sailed toward Fortress Monroe, Virginia, one of the stops on their post-celebration tour of Civil War sites. Early on Tuesday, April 18, the passengers were breakfasting when a pilot boat with a lowered flag came into view.

“What’s the news?” someone called out.

“President Lincoln is dead!” came the response, prompting the diners to drop their silverware. Had the president “at last worn himself out,” they wondered? Soon other passing ships conveyed the facts, and the New York, Baltimore, and Richmond papers waiting at Fortress Monroe contained the details. The New York revelers canceled their itinerary and headed straight home.

Up north, with fireworks and victory parades barely over, the outpourings of joy abruptly ceased and reversed course, some victory parties quite literally interrupted. In Chicago, happy shouts and the noise of tin horns subsided into solemnity. In a Maine town, the bells kept ringing, one moment “chiming merrily,” the next “tolling a requiem.” It was “more dreadful by the contrast,” wrote an Ohio man; “all the darker for the previous light,” wrote a woman in Massachusetts. All in the same day, Caroline White recorded in her diary, “the sun rose upon a nation jubilant with victory” and set “upon one plunged in deepest sorrow.” Over and over, people tried to articulate the nature of the change. Edward Everett Hale could not believe he was “in the same world, and in the same week.” A Connecticut soldier in Virginia thought back to his regiment’s victory observances, only to realize that “while we were having such a fine time here, the President was being murdered.” How sad the timing was too for President Lincoln himself, another soldier wrote to his parents, “to be shot just as he was about to see the war closed,” when peace was just about to “crown his honest and earnest efforts.”

If passing on the news was one way to make sense of the senseless, another was to make a record of the deed. Michael Shiner, a former slave and laborer in the Washington navy yard, noted in his journal a set of details that a great many would write down: the day, date, and place of the shooting, and the date of Lincoln’s death. Connecting himself personally to the event, Shiner added that the Lincolns had visited the navy yard on the very day of the assassination. The white Washington minister James Ward embellished his own record with underlinings and exclamation points. “We have the saddest tidings this morning that ever shocked our Country,” he wrote. Then, like Shiner, he recorded the main fact: “President Lincoln was murdered at Ford’s Theater last night!!!” When Sarah Putnam, fourteen years old, heard the news at her Boston breakfast table, she drew a picture of her feelings—a face with two wide, round eyes and a wider circle for a mouth—thereby preserving the essence of the visible expressions that helped make the news believable (the girl would grow up to be a portrait painter). Putnam vowed to her diary to report the facts “without any sentiment,” but when she wrote, “Now president L. is dead,” her double underline, along with the face she had rendered, betrayed her emotions.

People flipped back the pages of their diaries in efforts to create an accurate chronological account. A Union soldier who had noted drills, a dress parade, and a package from home on April 14 now squeezed in the words, “President Lincoln shot in Ford’s Theatre.” When the news reached England, Punch journalist Shirley Brooks turned back the sheets of his diary twelve days to write, “This evening President Lincoln was killed,” as if he had gotten the news that same night. People wrote long letters, then asked for them to be returned; “send it back, for I have no other record,” Caroline Dall instructed the recipient of a long missive in which she set down all the details.

People preserved their reactions on paper in all kinds of ways. They drew heavy black lines to signal the separation of everything that came before the assassination from everything that would come after. They recorded the deed, then drew a box around the words to make them stand out on the page. People drew pictures of graves or penned the facts in beautiful calligraphy. Annie Hillborn wrote the word “Died” at the top of the page, then wrote “April 15” in the left margin and “1865” in the right margin. Beneath that came the words, “Our Loved President” and “At 22 min past 7 O’clock AM.” She added Lincoln’s birth date and age, followed by “A martyr to Justice & Liberty. Killed by the hand of an assassin.” A seamstress in New York City, without the time and supplies available to Hillborn, crammed a record of the event onto a page in her account book, fitting the words around her list of purchases. “The Pres. was assassinated in his seat at Ford’s Theatre,” she wrote, “a ball pass through his brain.”

Sarah Browne had referred her husband to the newspapers, unable to bring herself to write out the particulars, but unlike Sarah, many mourners drank up and dwelled on the details. Some cut out newspaper columns and pasted them into their journals, while others copied out the facts, refashioning official reports into personal records. Either way, it was a means both to preserve history and to face what still felt incomprehensible, as the act of assembling, organizing, and composing formed another step in the confounding process of “realization.”

They wrote down everything. How the president’s bodyguard went ahead to the theater but was nowhere to be found when the assassin approached. How the president’s personal valet unwittingly let the assassin by. That the assassin was the actor John Wilkes Booth. How Booth entered the anteroom and looked through a peephole in one of the doors that led directly to the box. How he had earlier carved that peephole himself, since he was permitted access to the theater as a recognized actor. How he opened the door and wedged it shut from the inside. How he shot the president once in the back of the head. How Mary Lincoln screamed. How Booth broke his ankle on his clumsy vault to the stage. How he cried out, “Sic semper tyrannis!”—the motto of the state of Virginia—as he leapt, or maybe he said, “The South is avenged.” How the president was conveyed across the street to the Petersen boardinghouse. How another conspirator attacked the Sewards. That the president expired at twenty-two minutes past seven o’clock the next morning.

Every detail recorded and absorbed made it less a hallucinated nightmare or a theatrical drama, less a lie or a hoax. After eleven-year-old Grenville Norcross wrote in his diary that President Lincoln was “shot through the head by J. W. Booth,” the boy used up four pages transcribing every word of a newspaper article. Anna Lowell selected particular facts: that Lincoln laughed at the play yet looked sad; that Mrs. Lincoln tried to rouse her husband after Booth pulled the trigger. A woman in New Hampshire described the bullet’s entrance, “three inches back of the left ear.” A man in Washington recorded that Lincoln had entered Ford’s Theatre “from the dress circle through a narrow corridor some three feet wide and eight or ten long” and that the room at Petersen’s was “about 9 feet by 15, with two windows and three doors.” In the two days following, Charles French wrote down all the specifics, from Lincoln’s decision to attend the theater that night to a description of the suit the president would wear inside his casket. Every fact made it more possible that it had truly come to pass.

Just as the victors had imagined their exultation as universal less than a week earlier, as mourners they now envisioned their grief the same way. If recording the facts helped them cope with their shock, so too did observing and preserving the public scenes of reaction. Many noted not only the desolation etched onto every face, but also the pervasive mood of despondency, thereby fitting their own despair into something larger: a whole village, an entire city. Just as Sarah Browne imagined the feelings of her husband down south, mourners everywhere imagined—and newspapers confirmed—that their own feelings were multiplied across the nation and around the globe. White people who lived or worked near black people tended to record those emotions, like Gideon Welles in Washington who documented the grief of the capital’s large wartime African American population. Some who didn’t know any black people but who associated Lincoln with emancipation conjured those feelings, like the northern New England woman who envisioned “how the poor Freedmen will mourn over the dreadful calamity so suddenly fallen upon us!”

Newspaper reports, from which mourners gathered so much of their information, also helped the bereaved put unspeakable feelings into words. When a Pennsylvania soldier wrote of the “greatest National calamity that ever befell the American people,” he likely borrowed that description from a journalist. When sixteen-year-old Margaret Howell recorded that she was awakened with the “startling news of the assassination of our noble and beloved President,” she no doubt meant every word, even if the adjectives she chose—startling, noble, beloved—were ubiquitous in the papers. When she wrote, “Tis the saddest day in our History,” she was also likely echoing the papers, invoking a reporter’s words in order to give voice to her own emotions.

Excerpted from "Mourning Lincoln" by Martha Hodes. Published by Yale University Press. Copyright by 2015 by Martha Hodes. Reprinted with permission of the author and publisher. All rights reserved.

By Martha Hodes

Martha Hodes is professor of history at New York University. She is the author of two previous prize-winning books, "The Sea Captain's Wife: A True Story of Love, Race and War in the 19th Century" and "White Women, Black Men: Illicit Sex in the 19th Century South."

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