When President Abraham Lincoln, his wife, and guests entered their terrace box at Ford’s Theater at 8:30 pm on Good Friday, April 14, 1865, the audience erupted in a spontaneous standing ovation.
Our American Cousin, a comedy by playwright Tom Taylor, was well into its first act, but the arrival of the President brought the production to a standstill. The house orchestra broke into Hail to the Chief. Lincoln modestly smiled, waved and took a small bow.
It was a glorious moment: the Civil War had ended just five days before, the crowd was in an exuberant mood.
Two hours later, Lincoln was shot and the exhilaration became chaos.
John Wilkes Booth had slipped into the private box, put a bullet in Lincoln’s head at point blank range, plunged a dagger into one of the guests, and jumped to the stage ten feet below. He shouted “Sic Semper Tyrannis,” which means “thus always to tyrants.”
The bewildered crowd watched as Booth raced across the stage — he exited the theater through a rear door and cantered off on a getaway horse.
There were 1,000 patrons who witnessed the tragedy in Ford’s Theater that night. In his book, We Saw Lincoln Shot, author Timothy Good gathered 100 accounts from those eyewitnesses.
In the main, these recollections concur about the skeleton of the storyline — but, not surprisingly, they vary considerably on the details.
For example, did Booth break his leg when he jumped from the presidential box? Many of the witnesses conjecture that he suffered the injury during the leap, a story still widely disseminated. It probably did not happen that way.
One of Booth’s companions during his escape, David Herold, and the physician who set the broken leg, Dr. Samuel Mudd, both reported Booth said he broke it when his horse fell on him.
Scientists have known for a long time that the accuracy of memories is dubious.
Cognitive specialist Julian Matthews explains this phenomenon by pointing out the different ways people encode, store and retrieve a memory. Encoding is particularly impactful: this is how we perceive an event. Perception is influenced by our past experiences, our expectations and our selective focus.
Journalist Elizabeth Williams offers this: “Most people think of a memory like a computer file…somewhere in the brain waiting to be recalled when needed. The truth is our memories are more like a never-ending game of telephone we play with ourselves over time…every time you recall the information, you’re essentially replacing the old memory with a new one…. this has the consequence of altering the memory in various ways.”
Thus, the witnesses of Lincoln’s assassination exhibit the inconsistencies that experts would now predict. How Booth entered the theater, when the play actually started, how many guards sat in the presidential box, at what point in the play the assassination took place and the exact words the assassin exclaimed when he hit stage are all subjects of quibbling.
We Saw Lincoln Shot breaks the remembrances into four sections: first accounts, those from the conspiracy trial, period of transition which followed, and final accounts. This is very effective, as it illustrates the impact of time and distance.
One of the more engaging stories in the book came from Samuel J. Seymour, only five years old when his nurse and his godmother took him to Ford’s Theater that April evening. They sat in the box opposite the President, so he had an excellent view of the catastrophe.
Seymour remembered “lots of excitement…people were hollering and screaming and crying…I was scared to death.” He said that his chief concern was for “the poor man who fell out of the balcony.”
On February 8, 1956, Seymour appeared on the nationally televised program, I’ve Got a Secret. A YouTube video of this is below.
Two months after the television appearance, Seymour passed away at 96. He was the last surviving eyewitness of the Lincoln shooting.
Footnote: For the sake of comparison, we reached out to one of the surviving eyewitnesses of the Kennedy assassination on November 22, 1963. He confirmed that, although the throng was 8 to 10 deep in the heart of the Dallas business district, there were only about 500 spectators in Dealey Plaza where President Kennedy was struck down.
Fortunately, from an historical perspective, one of those in attendance was a 58-year old clothing manufacturer who brought his Bell & Howell home movie camera along – Abraham Zapruder. Like any eyewitness account, his 26-second film of the assassination is truthful and confounding.