How The 50th Anniversary Of President Lincoln’s Assassination Was Observed

With The JFK Assassination Anniversary Approaching, A Look At  How The Nation Remembered President Lincoln On The 50th Anniversary Of His Assassination – April 15, 1915

Frank Leslie's Illustrated Newspaper April 29 1865

Leading up to November 22, 2013, there has been an abundance of media recalling the fateful weekend fifty years ago when President John F. Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas.

Over the years many parallels and coincidences have been drawn between the assassinations of President’s Lincoln and Kennedy. Several of these are urban legends-  i.e. Lincoln’s secretary was named Kennedy; Kennedy’s secretary was named Lincoln. Kennedy’s secretary was named Lincoln, but there is no evidence Lincoln had a secretary named Kennedy. But some parallels are true: Both presidents were shot on a Friday in the presence of their wives. Both presidents were shot in the head. Both presidents were accompanied by another couple, etc.

Burlington Weekly Free Press April 15, 1915 - click to enlarge

Burlington Weekly Free Press April 15, 1915 – click to enlarge

For the 50th anniversary of Lincoln’s assassination the media coverage was not the front page kind that the Kennedy assassination is receiving now. Obviously in the 21st century we have film, TV radio, magazines, newspapers and of course the internet to propagate thousands of stories about JFK and the assassination.

In 1915 print reigned supreme as the main mass medium, with motion picture newsreels still in their infancy.

Surprisingly, in the days leading up to and after the date of the 50th anniversary of the Lincoln assassination, newspaper and magazine stories were not that widespread.

So how exactly did the nation remember the martyred president on the 50th anniversary of his assassination and what were the stories about?

Many newspapers covered the fact that President Woodrow Wilson issued an executive order that on Thursday April 15, 1915 to mark the 50th anniversary of the death of President Abraham Lincoln, that all the executive offices be closed. The American flag would be placed at half staff on all public buildings, forts, military posts and United States vessels.

New York Governor Charles S. Whitman also issued a proclamation that mirrored part of President Wilson’s executive order by  ordering the lowering of all flags on public buildings.

In the week leading up to the anniversary some newspapers such as The Washington Herald ran a series of long stories surrounding little known facts about Lincoln and his last days in office. The series included profiles of the assassin John Wilkes Booth and other key people, accounts of the assassination itself and the aftermath.

Like the current coverage of Kennedy’s assassination, a lot of the stories in 1915 are about the assassin and the conspiracy rather than about Lincoln.

Also similar to the JFK anniversary assassination coverage, are eyewitness accounts of the assassination of Lincoln. Many people in 1915 came out of the woodwork to say they had been at Ford’s Theatre the night of April 14, 1865 to see the play Our American Cousin and witnessed Booth shooting Lincoln.

In almost every newspaper and magazine eyewitness account 50 years later, the witness was “very near Lincoln, “had a great view of Lincoln,” or “made their way to the President’s box” after the shooting to see the mortally wounded great emancipator.

In actuality, according to most contemporary eyewitness accounts, most people in the theatre did not realize Lincoln had been shot.

After Booth shot Lincoln and the ensuing brief struggle with Major Henry Rathbone who was sitting with the president, Booth jumped to the stage, shouted something and exited the theatre. The people watching the play thought Booth emerging from the president’s box onto the stage was part of the play. The vast majority of the audience did not witness Booth shooting Lincoln and had no idea what had happened.

It is also not possible that many of the witnesses seemingly made their way to the presidential box or helped carry him across the street as they claimed, since the theatre was packed with over 1,700 people in attendance. Most of those in attendance never saw Lincoln up close after he had been shot.

As with JFK, in the eyewitness descriptions, there are discrepancies as to what actually happened when Lincoln was shot. Among them: Booth jumped from the balcony and caught his spur on the American flag draped over the box. Others say Booth lowered himself carefully from the railing of the box and was grabbed by Major Rathbone, causing Booth to lose his footing on the flag as he fell to the stage with a broken leg.

Another lingering discrepancy was what Booth shouted when he made his way across the stage towards his escape. Some witnesses claim he shouted “Sic semper tyrannis.” Others claim Booth said, “The South is avenged!” or “The South will be free!” And one witness claimed Booth uttered a stream of “profane words.”

One eyewitness to Lincoln’s assassination, William J. Ferguson, the call boy at Ford’s Theatre was filling in that night for another actor. He would describe his account of the shooting many times for the press over the years. Ferguson went on to a long career on the stage and in films. In a bizarre coincidence, Ferguson was cast as Lincoln in the movie The Battle Cry of Peace in 1915.

There were at least four other actors from the company of Our American Cousin that were still alive in 1915; Harry Hawk, E.A. “Ned” Emerson, Jeannie Gourley Struthers and Helen Truman Wynkoop. In 1915, none of them were interviewed for the anniversary.

While the Kennedy assassination anniversary has received much more coverage than Lincoln did in 1915, Lincoln is the literary champ of the two. Checking the Online Computer Library Center which lists library holdings from around the world, Kennedy has had about 11,000 books published about him, Lincoln has been the subject of more than 30,000.

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3 Responses to How The 50th Anniversary Of President Lincoln’s Assassination Was Observed

  1. Richard says:

    Actually, I was wondering this exact thing on my way home from work today. Thanks for the answer. As for the literary holdings, Kennedy is on pace with Lincoln; Lincoln has been dead three times longer with approximately three times the holdings.

  2. dave says:

    True to my nature, I was wondering about this and apparently nobody else cares!

  3. Trevor says:

    Comparing the media coverage of the 50th anniversaries of these two assassinations… although interesting, is like comparing apples to oranges. The parameters of privacy and press coverage were so different in 1915 and really didn’t dramatically change until Watergate…followed a quarter century later by the internet. What remains more intriguing is the parallels of the two assassinations. Adding to the coincidences that have already been revealed are that both of their Vice Presidents were named Johnson and were from the south, both Presidents championed the civil rights of black people and were unpopular in the south and both assassins were known by their first, middle and last names. Lincoln and Kennedy both lost a child while in office.

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