Abraham Lincoln assassination coverage revisited

On an April night 150 years ago, Associated Press reporter Lawrence Gobright was working late in the nation’s capital when he heard hurried steps and a man burst into the room to tell him President Abraham Lincoln had been shot.

Thus began one of several remarkable feats in journalism that put The New York Herald, the nation’s most widely read newspaper at the time, on the streets at 2 a.m. on April 15, 1865, with news of the shocking crime at Ford’s Theater. It was one of the first papers to publish news of the shooting based on Gobright’s reporting, and over the next 18 hours it would follow up with six more editions.

Now, for the first time, all seven editions of the Herald’s coverage of the assassination are being displayed together in an exhibit at the Newseum marking the 150th anniversary of Lincoln’s death. The exhibit opened in February and runs through Jan. 10, 2016.

The artifacts are a window not only on how people learned of one of the most cataclysmic events in history, but also a reflection of the ever-faster means of communication that were changing 19th-century America and the world. The newspapers also represent another of the endless layers of the Lincoln story.

“I really think it is the most consequential murder in American history, in terms of the stature of the victim and the bad effects that flowed from it,” said Terry Alford, a historian who consulted on the exhibit and authored Fortune’s Fool: The Life of John Wilkes Booth, released yesterday.

The impact of Lincoln’s murder was immediate and nationwide, thanks to the telegraph.

“It made the nation shudder,” Alford said. “By lunchtime the next day, people in San Francisco knew what happened and who did it. That’s extraordinary for the 19th century.”

Lincoln historian and biographer Harold Holzer said the newspapers are “really the equivalent of staying glued to CNN or Fox today.”

“This was the biggest story in the history of the media up to that time,” he said.

The Herald’s editions, looking almost as fresh as the day they were printed thanks to the high cotton content in the paper, detail the unfolding tragedy with a breathless immediacy undiluted by the passage of time.

“IMPORTANT,” reads the ominous headline on the Herald’s first early morning edition. “Assassination of President Lincoln. The President Shot at the Theatre Last Evening. Secretary Seward Daggered in His Bed But Not Mortally Wounded.”

In the day, “assassination” meant a surprise attack, not necessarily a murder. But from the very first dispatches from Washington that the Herald published, it was clear Lincoln would not survive. “The wound is mortal,” read the official War Department announcement.

Gobright later wrote in his memoirs that he filed his reports “with trembling and nervous fingers,” and yet “I was afterward surprised that I had succeeded in approximating so closely to all the facts in those dark transactions.”

Later editions added new information, finally revealing that the suspect in the assault on the president was Booth, a well-known actor.

In its 8:45 a.m. edition, the Herald carried the first news that Lincoln had succumbed to his head wound just one hour and 23 minutes earlier.

“EXTRA. DEATH OF THE PRESIDENT!!” the front page blared.

“You really can go into this intimate gallery and you can drop yourself into 1865 and feel like you are getting the news as it’s happening,” said Carrie Christoffersen, the Newseum’s curator and director of collections. “And you feel that sense of urgency to find out, ‘Oh my gosh, when did they learn the next thing? How quickly were they getting this information? What can I find out now?’ as you move from edition to edition.”

It turns out that the edition announcing Lincoln’s death was previously unknown until the Newseum started research for the exhibit, she said. Six of the papers came from two collections the museum purchased, and the seventh is on loan from a private collector.

The amount of detail Gobright and other journalists were able to gather and disseminate in the hours after the assassination is impressive, said Patty Rhule, the Newseum’s senior manager of exhibit development and a former USA TODAY reporter.

“At the time, the country doesn’t know if (it’s) under attack by another nation … they don’t know who the assassin is. So … the press does what it’s supposed to do, informing and kind of calming the nation in a moment of crisis,” she said.

The Lincoln assassination and its aftermath riveted the nation.

“It had everything,” said Holzer, whose new book, President Lincoln Assassinated!: The Firsthand Story of the Murder, Manhunt, Trial, and Mourning, was released in February. “A, it was unexpected; b, it was a matter of huge interest and importance to everybody in the country, North or South; c, it was unprecedented — no president had ever been killed, and it was an effort to cut the head off of the entire government; and d, it was the great manhunt story, a true crime story.”

The Herald was uniquely qualified to take on the task of covering and updating such a huge breaking story. At more than 100,000 subscribers, it was the largest paper at the time, boasted a vast network of reporters and had the latest and largest presses, capable of producing 16,000 sheets an hour.

One thing no newspaper yet had was an easier way to set stories in type. In 1865, every letter, every comma and period, had to be handset, character by character. And, Christoffersen pointed out, “they’re doing it upside down and backwards.”

The time-consuming make-up process meant the editors did not break down the front page to put a new story in, but rather just added newer material to what was already there for a follow-up.

“We always say here at the Newseum that journalism is the first rough draft of history and this exhibit shows that because mistakes were made — and corrected in the same editions sometimes,” Rhule said.

The Herald would continue into the 20th century, merging with its former rival, The New York Tribune, in 1924. Faced with mounting losses and labor strife, The New York Herald-Tribune folded in 1966.

On his many visits to Washington and on one of his last nights in the city, Booth roomed at the National Hotel on Pennsylvania Avenue. The hotel stayed in business until 1931. It is now the site of the Newseum.

Source Credits: James R. Carroll, The (Louisville, Ky.) Courier-Journal.

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