by Barbara Rimkunas
This "Historically Speaking" column was published in the Exeter News-Letter on Friday, April 10, 2015.
No United States president had been murdered before. Two presidents had died in office, William Henry Harrison and Zachary Taylor, but in each case there had first come word of illness and people knew that even minor illness could result in death. Abraham Lincoln’s assassination was startling because of its suddenness. Even the long years of war with weekly announcements of battlefield deaths did little to prepare people for the violent actions of John Wilkes Booth.
How long he lingered outside the Petersen house is unknown, but at some point he returned to his rooms at the National Hotel. He learned of the President’s death the next morning, jotting in his diary, “Heard at breakfast that the President died at 7:22 this morning. Vice President Johnson took a oath prescribed for a President.”
Word reached Exeter quickly. Hannah Brown, a 62 year old seamstress living on River Street, was shattered when she heard the news. Her diary entry reflects the suddenness of the news. “This day sad and awful news came over the wires to us that last evening an assassin by the name of Booth went in to the theatre at Washington and shot our President Abraham Lincoln. What a shock it gave us all what horrible thing it is to think of!”
By the time the weekly Exeter News-Letter was published on Monday, April 17th, there was no one in town who hadn’t heard the news. The paper is a mish-mash of jubilant news of the surrender of Richmond followed by Lincoln’s triumphant visit to the rebel city and the deep sorrow at his subsequent death. The account also reminds us that Booth was not a lone assassin and the plot had included planned attacks on the Vice President, who was unharmed, and Secretary of State William Seward, who would barely survive a vicious knife attack by Lewis Powell. “Had the President only been murdered,” wrote the News-Letter, “we might have supposed it the work of some insane or intoxicated wrench, but the murderous assault on Mr. Seward, and the preparations of escape, tell us that deed is the result of a conspiracy against the chief men of the country.”
Harold Blake, a 13 year old from Kensington, was working as a Western Union messenger boy in Washington, DC when the President was killed. Fifty years later, his memory of the night appears confused. He writes that he and his father were to attend Ford’s Theatre that evening, but late streetcars made them miss the beginning of the show and they attended a performance of “Moll Pitcher” at Grover’s Theatre instead. He remembered nothing of the turmoil of that night, believing that the play he saw must have ended before the assassination occurred. But he wasn’t at Grover’s on April 14th. Tad Lincoln was there, watching a performance of “Aladdin! or His Wonderful Lamp” when news reached the audience that the President had been shot. Blake must have confused the night and the play with another time. He did, however, recall how he and his father heard of the President’s death. “It was not until next morning when Orderly Eaton and I, riding to the city, saw bunting being removed from private and public buildings, and being replaced with crepe and the flags half-masted. The appalling story of the tragedy of the night before was being told in voices subdued and broken. Few dry eyes were there that day.”
Far away in Paris, 22 year old Edward Tuck had just been appointed as a consular pupil at the U.S. Consulate. His days were spent buried in clerical work, but he kept abreast of the news of the war as best he could. Several years earlier, an attempt to lay a trans-Atlantic telegraph cable had failed, so in April of 1865 it still took 11 days for news to arrive from the States. He would write to his father, on April 28th, “The horrible news first reached Paris on Tuesday afternoon. It was brought to the Consulate from the Bourse (the Paris stock exchange), but I disbelieved it as the Bourse dispatches have nearly always proved false. In the evening private dispatches from England confirmed it. The agitation was immense. Americans wrung their hands and even cried, in some cases, like children.” The Tuck family was well acquainted with the Lincolns, so his grief must have been acute. His words to his father reflect the nation’s attempt to make sense of a senseless act. “The death of no man in the world could have produced so melancholy an effect. His martyrdom casts the last and greatest dishonor on the southern cause…In the great grief which every American feels, as for a near relative, it is comforting to think his death has purchased for himself a place by the side of Washington, and for his country and his country’s cause a sympathy that only result in good.”
Photo: Gilman Marston, Brigadier General and congressman, was most likely the first Exeter citizen to hear of the death of President Lincoln. Upon hearing the news he rushed to the scene before the President’s condition was announced to be fatal. Confirmation came the next morning.