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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I Met Abraham Lincoln: True Stories in Historical Newspapers

Introduction: Gena Philibert-Ortega is a genealogist and author of the book “From the Family Kitchen.” In this guest blog post—in honor of today being Presidents’ Day—Gena searches old newspapers to find amazing stories about people who were still alive in the 1930s, ’40s and ’50s who had met Abraham Lincoln.

Did your ancestor meet a famous person? Maybe they had occasion to hear a great orator or speak with an author. Did they rub elbows with someone infamous? I’m always fascinated by the history that our ancestors, even our more recent ancestors, witnessed.

Do you have an ancestor who met, heard or saw Abraham Lincoln? There could be a variety of reasons a 19th century ancestor encountered the 16th president of the United States. As president during the American Civil War, Lincoln gave speeches and visited the troops so it’s possible that a person living in the 1860s may have had an encounter with him.

photo of President Abraham Lincoln, 8 November 1863

Photo: President Abraham Lincoln, 8 November 1863, by Alexander Gardner. Credit: Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division.

But did you ever consider that some of those same people may have lived into the20th century and had occasion to tell their story about meeting Lincoln? Many Civil War soldiers or contemporaries of Lincoln would have been at least middle-aged to quite elderly when the 20th century rolled in. There were some alive at the beginning decades of the 20th century who were able to boast about meeting Lincoln.

So what if we up the ante? What about people who were still alive in the mid-20th century? The chances of someone who had met or personally saw Lincoln would have dwindled by then. However, a search in GenealogyBank’s Historical Newspaper Archives shows that there were still people at that late date who could tell of meeting what many believe is the greatest president who ever lived.

Samuel J. Seymour, Last Living Witness to Lincoln’s Assassination

In 1956 an elderly man appeared on the television game show I’ve Got a Secret. This TV show featured a celebrity panel who, when presented with a special guest, tried to guess what secret the person held. The featured guests’ secrets included things that were amazing or unusual about that person. Those who stumped the panel received a cash prize. Samuel J. Seymour spent about five minutes on the show while two of the panelists asked questions that led them to guessing his secret. (A side note: while many younger readers wouldn’t recognize most of the celebrities that appeared on the show, on the day of Seymour’s guest spot there was a very recognizable face—that of famous actress and comedian Lucille Ball—who was on the panel, but she didn’t get a chance to question Mr. Seymour.)

Seymour was a 5-year-old boy when he was taken to Ford’s Theatre on 14 April 1865—the night that President Lincoln was shot. While he did not know initially that Lincoln was shot, and did not see the actual shooting, he did remember years later the fear he felt that night. He also remembered feeling concerned about the man (John Wilkes Booth) that he saw fall onto the stage. In the chaos of the moment—and because he was so young—Seymour didn’t realize that Booth had in fact shot the President when he saw the actor suddenly leap down onto the stage.

Of the lasting effect of being at Ford’s Theatre that night, Mr. Seymour said: “…I sometimes still relive the horror of Lincoln’s assassination, dozing in my rocker as an old codger like me is bound to do.”

Imagine that—a man in the 1950s carrying the memory of President Lincoln’s assassination!

I Saw Lincoln Shot, Plain Dealer newspaper article 7 February 1954

Plain Dealer (Cleveland, Ohio), 7 February 1954, page 192

You can view the actual portion of this episode of I’ve Got a Secret featuring Samuel Seymour on YouTube.

Richard R. Davis, Civil War Soldier

The following 1936 newspaper article, written just three years shy of Mr. Davis’s 100th birthday, tells of his Civil War career and his meeting Abraham Lincoln one day when the president came and spoke to the troops. Of that talk, Mr. Davis remembered that Lincoln “told us then that we were fighting to preserve the Union of States and of our sacrifice.” After speaking, Lincoln walked amongst the troops with his son.

Davis recounts that when he tussled the hair of Lincoln’s son the boy grinned and said: “Do you think I’m a child? Say, I’m a pretty big fellow.”

Richard Davis: Civil War Veteran Who Met Lincoln, Druid newspaper article 1 December 1936

Druid (Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania), 1 December 1936, page 1

Davis actually saw Lincoln several times, and also met other noteworthy figures of the time such as Generals Grant and Hooker. The reporter writes that it’s obvious that Lincoln was a hero to Davis and that his time serving in the Civil War was a “highlight of his journey along life’s highways.”

Meeting Presidential Candidate Lincoln

Because some young people who met Lincoln went on to live long lives, we do have stories of the Great Emancipator told by witnesses well after most who knew Lincoln had died. For example, Perry Green Brock—who died in 1949 at the age of 105 years—told of meeting candidate Lincoln in 1856 in Kentucky when he was a boy. Brock later fought for the Confederacy during the Civil War but doesn’t mention what he thought of Lincoln during that time. He was quoted in the following newspaper article as saying that the South would have won if “us rebels hadn’t run out of shells.”

Perry G. Brock, Who Met Lincoln, Passes at 105, Dallas Morning News newspaper obituary 24 November 1949

Dallas Morning News (Dallas, Texas), 24 November 1949, section III, page 6

Did your ancestor meet Abraham Lincoln or another famous person? If so, research the encounter in GenealogyBank’s Historical Newspaper Archives, then write the story and preserve it for future generations. If your ancestor did indeed meet Abraham Lincoln, please share the details about the encounter with us in the comments. We’d love to hear your family story.

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