Artifacts of assassination, Pt. 1
The best documented presidential deaths in the Political History collections are those associated with assassinations. Though the nation has mourned when presidents died of natural causes (our collections include many mourning ribbons and broadsides commemorating this fact), those deaths did not produce quite the level of intimate, personal collecting as the unnatural ones. The trend could indicate the dramatic impact on the nation when a president is taken by force rather than chance. Or, it could just indicate the public’s fascination with all things presidential and morbid.
Since the museum’s collection of objects is so large, we’ve decided to split this post into two parts. Part 1 will look at objects connected to the assassination of Abraham Lincoln. (Of the four presidents who have been assassinated, the Division of Political History’s collection has the most objects from the events surrounding Lincoln’s death.) Part 2 will focus on collections tied to later presidential assassinations.
President Abraham Lincoln
In 1865 Americans were reeling from the physical and emotional toll of the Civil War, and the slaying of the president represented the war’s final emotional blow for many. Our collection has objects from the official investigation into the assassination, as well as objects kept as personal mementos from those whose lives were touched by the event. Lincoln’s contemporaries both recognized his assassination as an important historical moment and formed an emotional connection to the event. Both reactions were made tangible through saving objects.
Around 10:15 p.m. on April 14, 1865, John Wilkes Booth shot Abraham Lincoln in the back of his head as the president watched a play at Ford’s Theatre. Lincoln was taken across the street to the home of William Petersen, where he died at 7:22 the next morning. An autopsy was performed at noon that day, and on April 19 a memorial service was held in Washington, D.C. A funeral train traced the route Lincoln had taken to Washington, D.C., back to Springfield, Illinois, where he was interred on May 4.
Nine people were suspected of conspiring to kill the president. The actual assassin, Booth, was killed on April 26 while attempting to evade capture. The other eight—Edman Spangler, Lewis Powell, Samuel Arnold, David Herold, Mary Surratt, Dr. Samuel Mudd, George Atzerodt, and Michael O’Laughlin—were all found guilty of conspiracy to murder the president in June 1865. Surratt, Herold, Atzerodt, and Powell were hanged on July 7. The rest were sent to prison.
The nation had lost its first president to violence. Immediately, people began collecting and saving objects. The War Department held on to Lincoln’s top hat, which he had taken off and placed on the floor at Ford’s Theatre. Officials saved the hat for potential use as evidence in the trial of the assassins.
Some, like the cup from which Lincoln drank coffee before leaving the White House for the play, were recognized after the fact as important connections to a president, whereas on other days they would hardly have been noticed.
Some, such as the medical kit used during the autopsy, were immediately deemed worthy of preservation and kept by individuals who used them as a memory of the event.
For some other items, we don’t know who first recognized them as worth saving. They ended up in the hands of collectors, who then passed them to the Smithsonian.
Even the hoods used to cover the faces of the conspirators while in prison, along with the arm and leg shackles they wore, were saved by the War Department and in 1903 transferred to the museum, almost as if by presenting physical evidence of justice served they could close the chapter on a national nightmare.
Click here to read the second part of this post, which focused on artifacts connected to the other presidential assassinations. This is the fifth post in the blog series “Death in the Presidential Collections.” Click on these links to read part one, two, three, and four.
Bethanee Bemis is a museum specialist and collections manager in the Division of Political History.