Investigative Classics is a weekly feature on noteworthy past examples of the reporting craft.
It is hard to say what is most striking – the accuracy, the attention to detail or the equanimity displayed by the unnamed reporter as he described, in Washington's Evening Star, one of the most calamitous events in American history:
At half-past ten o’clock last night, in the front upper left hand private box in Ford’s Theater while the second scene of the third act of “Our American Cousin” was being played, a pistol was fired and Abraham Lincoln shot through the neck and lower part of the head.
A second after the shot was fired, a man vaulted over the baluster of the box, saying “Sic Semper tyrannis!” and, adding another sentence which closed with the words, “revenge for the South,” ran across the stage with a gleaming knife, double-edged and straight, in his right hand.
Indeed, a sample of articles collected by the Library of Congress about President Lincoln’s assassination on April 14, 1865 is an impressive display of journalism. Though we’re often told that 19th century American newspapers were hotbeds of partisan rancor, the news coverage of Lincoln’s death and its aftermath embodies high standards of fact-based reporting. The gravity of the subject matter and the simplicity of style give much of the prose the power of poetry. Here are some snippets from various stories:
Daily Intelligencer (Wheeling, W. Va.), April 17, 1865: “At 7:20 o’clock the President breathed his last, closing his eyes as if falling to sleep, and his countenance assuming an expression of perfect serenity. There were no indications of pain, and it was not known that he was dead until the gradually decreasing respiration ceased altogether.”
A separate story in that edition reported: “The President’s body was removed from the private residence opposite Ford’s Theater to the Executive mansion this morning at 9:30, in a hearse and wrapped in the American flag. It was escorted by a small guard of cavalry.”
Daily Intelligencer, April 28, 1865: “Booth was discovered in the barn by the cavalry. He declared his intentions never to surrender, and said he would fight the whole squad, consisting of 28 men, if they would permit him to place himself twenty yards distant. … Booth was on a crutch, and was lame. He lived two hours after he was shot, whispering blasphemies against the government and sending a farewell message to his mother.”
Cleveland Leader, May 5, 1865: “At 10 o’clock P.M. (Tuesday), the streets [of Chicago] are densely filled with people to witness the passage of the funeral procession to the Chicago and Alton Railroad station, from which the remains are to be conveyed to Springfield.”
Later, as the train passed Lockport, Ill.: “Minute guns are fired. Many persons line the track, holding torches in their hands, and the bands play funeral dirges. Many ladies and men are draped on a heavily and tactfully draped platform singing a hymn. It is estimated that 12,000 persons are gathered here. Bonfires light up this interesting scene.”
Evening Star, May 6, 1865: The story quotes at length from the funeral sermon delivered by Matthew Simpson, who said: “Besides the goodness of such a man, his fame was full, his work was done, and he sealed his glory by becoming the nation’s great martyr for liberty. He appears to have had a strange presentiment early in his political life, that some day he would be President. You see it, indeed, in 1839. Of the slave power, he said, ‘Broken by it? I, too, may be asked to bow to it. I never will. The probability that we may fail in the struggle ought not to deter us from the support of a cause which I deem to be just.’ ”
Evening Star, May 15, 1865: “EXTRA” reads the main headline. “Trial Of The Conspirators/ Important Testimony/ Full And Accurate Report/ Appearance Of The Prisoners/ First Day’s Proceedings.” Long before the internet allowed newspapers to link to source documents, the Star went on to provide a near verbatim transcript of the testimony in the trial of eight people who allegedly conspired with Booth.
Cleveland Leader, June 30, 1865: “Tomorrow, the Commission [trying Booth’s co-conspirator] will re-assemble in secret session, to declare their verdict and sentence. The impression seems to be that all will be convicted but that [Lewis] Payne, [David E.] Herold and [George A.] Atzerodt only, will receive death sentences.”
Even as the trial was coming to close, the same edition of the Leader carried another story that suggested new and enduring troubles: “The feelings of the representatives of the people of South Carolina new in Washington, in regard to the enfranchisement of blacks, may be seen in the following remark of a prominent member of the delegation … ‘Under no circumstances will the native born citizens of South Carolina ever allow the negro to vote in that State.’ ”