Assassination of President Lincoln: History of an Epic Tragedy

Introduction: Scott Phillips is a genealogical historian and owner of Onward To Our Past® genealogy services. In this guest blog post—to commemorate the fact that this week marks the 149th anniversary of the assassination of President Abraham Lincoln—Scott searches old newspapers to see how this traumatic news was reported to our ancestors in the nation’s newspapers.

The American Civil War effectively ended with the surrender of Confederate General Robert E. Lee to Union General Ulysses S. Grant at Appomattox Court House, Virginia, on 9 April 1865 (see 149th Anniversary: Civil War Ends with Lee’s Surrender to Grant). Although the last battle of the Civil War was not fought until 13 May 1865, it seemed in mid-April of 1865 that America’s long internal struggle was finally over.

Then, just five days after General Lee’s surrender, tragedy struck the evening of 14 April 1865 when President Abraham Lincoln was shot by Southern sympathizer John Wilkes Booth while watching the popular play Our American Cousin at Ford’s Theatre in the nation’s capital. The President died the next morning from his wounds at the nearby Petersen House located at 453 10th St., Washington, D.C.

a lithograph by Currier & Ives of the assassination of President Abraham Lincoln, 1865

Illustration: lithograph by Currier & Ives of the assassination of President Abraham Lincoln, 1865. Source: Library of Congress.

This traumatic news gripped the nation back then, and as genealogists and family historians it is interesting to think about how this news was reported to the public, and to wonder what its effects on our families and ancestors might have been.

To find the answers, I searched on Lincoln’s assassination in GenealogyBank’s online Historical Newspaper Archives.

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Lincoln’s Assassination Hits the Newspaper Headlines

Right away, I found this article from a New York newspaper with these shocking headlines. The article provides a series of dispatches that the newspaper received, from the assassination attempt up to President Lincoln’s death at 7:22 a.m. on 15 April 1865.

Can you imagine how this tragedy must have gripped every one of our American ancestors?

Assassination of President Lincoln, Albany Evening Journal newspaper article 15 April 1865

Albany Evening Journal (Albany, New York), 15 April 1865, page 2

This Maine newspaper uses similar headlines and carries the latest dispatches from Washington regarding Lincoln’s last day alive, the assassination scene, and details of the assassination attempts on Secretary Seward and his son.

President Lincoln Assassinated, Daily Eastern Argus newspaper article 15 April 1865

Daily Eastern Argus (Portland, Maine), 15 April 1865, page 2

Newspapers in the South reflected the same shock and sadness, as you can see from this Virginia newspaper.

editorial about the assassination of President Abraham Lincoln, Alexandria Gazette newspaper article 15 April 1865

Alexandria Gazette (Alexandria, Virginia), 15 April 1865, page 2

As you can imagine, the news of Lincoln’s assassination riveted the entire nation.

Lincoln’s Funeral Train

Then came the Lincoln funeral train, which passed through 444 communities in 7 states; many Americans went to see the train carrying the body of the President (and that of his young son, Willie) from Washington, D.C., to Springfield, Illinois, to pay their final respects. After departing from Washington, D.C., Lincoln’s funeral train passed through Maryland, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, New York, Ohio, Indiana, and finally Illinois.

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This Vermont newspaper article outlines the plans for the funeral train.

Transportation of President Lincoln's Remains to Springfield, North Star newspaper article 29 April 1865

North Star (Danville, Vermont), 29 April 1865, page 2

My Ancestors Watched as Lincoln’s Train Passed

At this time in our nation’s history, most of my ancestors who had immigrated to the United States were living in Cleveland, Ohio, and many of them may have seen the following newspaper article. With incredible detail, this article explains not only the order of the reception of the funeral train in Cleveland, but also the exact times the pilot engine (an advance train engine checking the tracks, etc.) and the cortege train would leave each of the 19 stations in the Cleveland area. It also instructs that every business be closed that day, flags were to be at half-mast, and “the bells of the city will be tolled during the moving of the procession.”

I clearly remember my grandmother relating stories to me of her parents and aunts and uncles all going to see Lincoln’s funeral train that day.

Reception of President Lincoln's Remains, Plain Dealer newspaper article 27 April 1865

Plain Dealer (Cleveland, Ohio), 27 April 1865, page 3

This article from a New York newspaper provides many details about the movements and stops of Lincoln’s funeral train.

article about President Abraham Lincoln's funeral train, New York Tribune newspaper article 1 May 1865

New York Tribune (New York, New York), 1 May 1865, page 5

More Interesting Facts about Lincoln

In my reading on Lincoln’s assassination I found two particularly interesting facts that I need to research more. The first is that the President’s funeral train actually stopped in the small town of Michigan City, Indiana, adjacent to where I live now.

The second interesting fact is that trains played a prominent role in the life of President Abraham Lincoln even before he was sworn in as president, as explained in this 1861 article from a Pennsylvania newspaper. It reports the story of an assassination plot targeting Lincoln as the president-elect made his way to the nation’s capital to be sworn in. Luckily the plot was uncovered and Lincoln, in disguise, was spirited past the conspirators in Baltimore, Maryland, and—as we all know—was successfully sworn in to become America’s 16th president.

article about a plot to assassinate President-Elect Abraham Lincoln, Washington Reporter newspaper article 28 February 1861

Washington Reporter (Washington, Pennsylvania), 28 February 1861, page 2

Now, I am betting that is a great story all on its own for a future Blog article! Stay tuned!

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46th Anniversary of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s Assassination

At 6:01 p.m. the evening of 4 April 1968, the civil rights leader Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was killed by an assassin while standing on the second-floor balcony of the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, Tennessee. Though rushed to St. Joseph’s Hospital, Dr. King was pronounced dead at 7:05 p.m. He died young at only 39 years old. A stunned nation lost its leading proponent of nonviolence, the civil rights movement lost its most visible leader, and many Americans deeply mourned King’s death.

Dr. King had come to Memphis to lead a protest march supporting the city’s striking garbage workers, almost all of whom were black. The plane carrying him to Memphis on April 3 received a bomb threat, and that night he gave what turned out to be the last speech of his life, sounding eerily as though he had already transcended his own death:

Like anybody, I would like to live a long life; longevity has its place. But I’m not concerned about that now…I’m not fearing any man. Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord!

Historical newspapers are a great resource for exploring your ancestors’ lives—and the times they lived in. Here is a collection of old front-page headlines to show how newspapers broke the tragic news of MLK’s assassination to the nation. (Note: all of the newspaper articles used to illustrate this Blog post come from GenealogyBank’s online Historical Newspaper Archives.)

front-page news about the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Record American newspaper articles 5 April 1968

Record American (Boston, Massachusetts), 5 April 1968, page 1

front-page news about the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Greensboro Daily News newspaper articles 5 April 1968

Greensboro Daily News (Greensboro, North Carolina), 5 April 1968, page 1

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front-page news about the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Boston Herald Traveler newspaper articles 5 April 1968

Boston Herald Traveler (Boston, Massachusetts), 5 April 1968, page 1

front-page news about the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Centre Daily Times newspaper articles 5 April 1968

Centre Daily Times (State College, Pennsylvania), 5 April 1968, page 1

front-page news about the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Commercial Appeal newspaper articles 5 April 1968

Commercial Appeal (Memphis, Tennessee), 5 April 1968, page 1

front-page news about the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Morning Advocate newspaper articles 5 April 1968

Morning Advocate (Baton Rouge, Louisiana), 5 April 1968, page 1

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front-page news about the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Aberdeen American-News newspaper articles 5 April 1968

Aberdeen American-News (Aberdeen, South Dakota), 5 April 1968, page 1

front-page news about the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Augusta Chronicle newspaper articles 5 April 1968

Augusta Chronicle (Augusta, Georgia), 5 April 1968, page 1

front-page news about the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Dallas Morning News newspaper articles 5 April 1968

Dallas Morning News (Dallas, Texas), 5 April 1968, page 1

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