Abraham Lincoln (1809-1865) was shot yesterday 154-years-ago on April 14, 1865. He was 56-years-old.
Lincoln’s death was Propaganda of the Deed. John Wilkes Booth (1838-1865), a Confederate sympathizer, was strongly opposed to the abolition of slavery. He did not see men as men. Also, like those Japanese soldiers hiding afterward in the Philippine jungle, Booth refused to admit that the war was over, even though Robert Lee had surrendered four days earlier. Booth was 27-years-old, passionate about that in which he believed, and so, so pitifully wrong about the whole thing. He was uneducated, white, male and single. He believed in fantasy myths that did not make economic sense. He believed in social constructs that were inhuman and inhumane. He could only see through eyes that were clouded by hate. His assassination of the U.S. president, in the name of all that was horrid, was Propaganda of the Deed.
After pulling the trigger in the theater box, Booth fled Ford’s Theatre (511 NW 10th Street, Washington, D.C.) on horseback. He was followed. There was a manhunt. It was frontpage news across the country for a few days. His companion eventually gave him up. He died in a police shootout 12 days later. A few others were hanged, too, as conspirators.
Lincoln had died the following morning.
On that morning of April 15, 1865, an attendant emptied the deceased president’s pockets. The contents were put in a box. Like in “My Favorite Things”, the brown paper package was tied up with string. The box was given to Lincoln’s oldest son, Robert Lincoln (b. 1843), who was at his father’s deathbed that morning. Eventually, Robert Lincoln gave the box to his daughter, Mamie Lincoln Isham (b. 1869). She eventually donated the box to the Library of Congress in 1937 when she was 68-years-old.
And there it would sit.
Now, Daniel Boorstin (1914-2004), one of my favorite authors, historians and social commentators, was librarian of Congress from 1975 to 1987. His assumption of office has been described as follows.
Surveying his ornate Jefferson Building office after becoming Librarian of Congress in 1975, Dr. Boorstin spotted a large package on one of the shelves of the walk-in closet safe. About the size of a shoe box, the package was wrapped in dusty brown paper and tied with faded tape. On the package someone had written “To be opened only by the Librarian of Congress.” Inside was a leather box that Dr. Boorstin opened with a key that was tied to the handle. Inside the box was a smaller container of blue cardboard with a handwritten label: “Contents of the President’s pockets on the night of April 14, 1865.”*
So on Feb. 12, 1976, Boorstin held a press conference to open the box that contained the contents of President Lincoln’s pockets on the night he was murdered.
The night Lincoln was murdered at Ford’s Theatre, he was carrying:
- a pair of small spectacles folded into a silver case
- a pair of reading glasses
- a small velvet eyeglass cleaner
- an ivory pocket knife trimmed with silver
- a large linen handkerchief with “A. Lincoln” stitched in red
- a tiny pencil
- a brass sleeve button
- a fancy watch fob
- a brown leather wallet lined with purple silk. It contained a Confederate five-dollar bill bearing the likeness of Confederate President Jefferson Davis and eight newspaper clippings Lincoln had cut out and saved. All of the clippings praised him.
In a great act of openness, these artifacts were put on display at the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C., in 1976, the year of the U.S.’s 200th birthday. They are still on-view today.
To close, I will borrow from Lincoln’s own second inaugural address, given on Saturday, March 4, 1865.
Weeks of wet weather preceding Lincoln’s second inauguration had caused Pennsylvania Avenue to become a sea of mud and standing water. There was no asphalt. Thousands of spectators stood in thick mud on the Capitol grounds to hear the president. There were no loudspeakers. As Lincoln stood on the East Portico to take the executive oath, the newly-completed Capitol dome over the president’s head was a physical reminder of the resolve of his administration throughout the years of civil war. Chief Justice Salmon Chase administered the oath of office.**
In that speech, Lincoln spoke to us all.
“With Malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right, as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in, to bind up the nation’s wounds.”
Photos courtesy of the Library of Congress and Wikipedia.