On April 14, 1865, Abraham Lincoln was shot dead by John Wilkes Booth. The moment of the president’s assassination has been well-preserved in the collective memory of the United States. Many Americans still remember Booth's infamous war cry, “Sic semper tyrannis.” There are innumerable portraits of Lincoln sitting in the upper balcony of Ford's Theatre, frozen in shock at the moment of the fatal pistol shot.
But what image do Americans have of the 16th president—and the nation he left behind—in the moments after the bullet passed through?
In a trove of images held in the Meserve Kunhardt Collection, one of the most interesting themes that emerges is this representation of the final, tangible traces of Lincoln's life in the aftermath of his death. (The photographs, and the family that collected and preserved them, are the subject of Living With Lincoln, a documentary premiering on Monday night on HBO.)
The eight photos provided below help to reveal, in part, a material history of the events that followed Booth's fatal shot. But they also provide an affective history: a record of emotions and reactions to the fact of the president's death, both from members of Lincoln's inner-circle as well from ordinary citizens of the newly wounded Union.
After he was shot, Lincoln was escorted to the Petersen House, just across the street from Ford's Theatre. There, he was taken to a room that was being rented by Union soldier William T. Clark.
Later, after Lincoln was laid down in the bed, Secretary of the Navy Gideon Welles entered into the room. He later described the scene in his diary:
The giant sufferer lay extended diagonally across the bed, which was not long enough for him. He had been stripped of his clothes. His large arms, which were occasionally exposed, were of a size which one would scarce have expected from his spare appearance. His slow, full respiration lifted the clothes with each breath that he took. His features were calm and striking. I had never seen them appear to better advantage than for the first hour, perhaps, that I was there.
At 7:22 a.m. the following morning, Lincoln was pronounced dead, as his 6-foot-4 frame lay spread across this too-small bed.
Two hours after his passing, one of the Petersen's boarders—a man named Julius Ulke, who had spent the night bringing water to Lincoln's doctors—came into the room and set up his camera. The image above, which did not re-appear in public until 96-years after its initial capture, shows both the bed and the blood-soaked pillow where the president last laid his head.
The image above shows the 16th president laid out in his coffin in New York's city hall. The daguerrotype is the only image of Lincoln in death that has been preserved—and it almost never existed.
Brigadier-General E. D. Townsend, seen here at the foot of the coffin, allowed the image to be captured by a New York photographer despite Mary Todd Lincoln's explicit ban on photography at the viewing. When Townsend's superiors discovered his negligence, they ordered the general to destroy the image. Yet Townsend found himself unwilling to completely eliminate this final record of Lincoln. In secret, he kept one of the photographs for himself.
The photograph was re-discovered by chance in 1952 thanks to a 14-year-old boy named Ronald Rietveld. Rietveld made the discovery after he was invited to visit the archives of John Nicolay and John Hay, the Secretary and Assistant Secretary in Lincoln's administration, in Springfield, Illinois. Rietveld reportedly recognized that it was Lincoln's coffin in the faded photograph—which he found unceremoniously stuck between pages of stationary—based on a sketch that had been previously published in Harper's Weekly.
Rietveld, who is now a retired historian, credits the beginning of his career to his teenage discovery.
On February 11, 1865, Lincoln allowed the sculptor Clark Mills to spread oil across his face and slather it over with a thin layer of plaster paste. The result was a "life mask"—a form of portraiture that experienced a popular revival in the 19th century. The plaster mold was later used to create bronze replicas like the one pictured above.
The staff at the National Portrait Gallery/National Museum of American History suggests that the original "life mask" was meant to preserve a wizened image of the battle-worn president:
Throughout the Civil War, Lincoln was very careful to make himself "visible" to the American people. This was evidence of his dedication, and there was no better evidence of his work than the lines on his face. Lincoln was well aware of how the war had aged and tired him.
When the president was assassinated, two months after the plaster cast was made, the meaning of the mask changed.
"It is [now] impossible to look at this cast of Lincoln’s face—gaunt and careworn—and not think that it is a death mask."
After performing the inquest into Lincoln's death, U.S. Surgeon General Joseph Barnes cut off a lock of the dead president's hair and gave it to one of Lincoln's servants, a man named Thomas Pendel. Pendel, who became Lincoln's chief doorkeeper in 1864, was noted for his striking resemblance to Lincoln: The doorman's lanky frame nearly matched the president's odd dimensions and his facial features were so uncommonly similar to Lincoln's that Pendel was sometimes mistaken for the president himself.
It was this uncanny similarity that initially endeared the doorkeeper to Lincoln's son Tad. And it was Pendel who was ultimately left to comfort Tad after news of the president's death reached the family home and Lincoln's son came running to his father's lookalike, screaming, "Oh Tom Pen! Tom Pen! They have killed papa dead. They killed papa dead."
Later that May, Mary Todd asked the servant to put on her husband's black broadcloth coat and model his presidential office suit in a posthumous portrait painted by the famed Boston-based artist William Morris Hunt.
Though Pendel was later described as a "simple, uneducated" man, his possession of this snippet of hair, cut from the head of his dead presidential doppelgänger, along with the elegant broadcloth, made him a person of particular interest for Lincoln's archivists.
In addition to Booth, a number of other Confederate sympathizers were arrested for their alleged involvement in a conspiracy that also included plans to assassinate Vice President Andrew Johnson and Secretary of State William H. Seward. Eight of the conspirators were ultimately arrested and brought to trial. Edwin M. Stanton—Lincoln's secretary of war, who had maintained a close but tempestuous relationship with the president and stood with him in his final moments at the Petersen House—took charge of the imprisoned assassins. He did not take his job lightly.
Stanton demanded that the alleged conspirators be forced to wear the canvas hoods pictured above. The hoods, which Stanton had custom-designed for the prisoners, covered the entire head, leaving only a small hole for eating and drinking. Additionally, the hoods were secured by being tied tightly around the necks of the prisoners. The heavy canvas covering was made even more miserable by the sweltering heat of a Washington summer. Yet above all these other discomforts and cruelties, these hoods were intended to create a feeling of near total isolation. The seven male conspirators were forced to wear these hoods day and night (the one female prisoner, Mary Surrat, was spared this punishment). One of the hoods worn by prisoner Lewis Powell required extra padding in order to stifle his attempts at self-harm.
Stanton, in reaction to Lincoln's death, is perhaps best remembered for his poised, eulogizing phrase, "Now he belongs to the ages." The image of the prison hoods, however, preserves evidence of the darker sentiments of the war secretary in the months that followed the president's death.
Old Bob, Lincoln's favorite horse, is shown here being readied for Lincoln's funeral. The horse, originally named Robin, was used by Lincoln when he rode circuit as a young attorney in Illinois. Old Bob, whose epithet was meant distinguish him from Robert Lincoln ("Young Bob," age 22) was 16 years old at the time of Lincoln's death.
On May 4, the old horse was transported to Lincoln's hometown of Springfield, Illinois, where he plodded behind the $6,000 crystal, gold, and silver Hearse the carried the body of his owner.
Yet the most striking moment in the life of the elderly animal may have come the day before, when Old Bob was draped in a mourning blanket and trotted out riderless on Chicago's Michigan Avenue. There, the caparisoned horse was reportedly accompanied by 10,000 school children wearing black sashes, each of them mourning Old Bob's former rider.
The Reverend C.B. MacKee has long been known, in certain circles, for his assiduous recording of the weather in D.C. and the surrounding regions from 1858 to 1865. For persnickety Civil War buffs, the accuracy and regularity of the minister's weather records make them an invaluable resource. Historian Robert K. Krick credits the foundation of his opus, Civil War Weather in Virginia, to the fastidious work of the "Old School Presbyterian" minister, whose records were rescued and preserved by the Weather Bureau in the 1950s.
For those who are not so invested in the history of meteorology, however, MacKee may be of interest more for the details left out of his weather book than for those he included.
One notable entry in MacKee's weather book, pictured above, is dated April 15, 1865: "Last night at one of the Theatres the President of the U. States was killed by an assassin."
MacKee took the news of the president's death hard. An unrepentant Unionist, he had been forced to leave his congregation in Lewinsville, Virginia after the town was occupied by rebel troops in 1861. After fleeing to Washington D.C., he was recruited into official government service by the War Department. The preacher developed a reputation for devoted record-keeping that may have matched his faith in a higher power. On April 15, however, he faltered.
"This horrible transaction" MacKee wrote on the day of the president's death, "had such an impression on me that I neglected to record the temperature at 2 and 10 p.m."
This image is—debatably—the last photograph of Abraham Lincoln ever captured. William H. Mumler, a former engraver, became known in 1860s Boston for a particular brand of "spiritual" photography. Mumler's images frequently revealed ghosts lingering behind his flesh-and-blood subjects. These ghost images became particularly popular in the aftermath of the Civil War, as Mumler's photographs would frequently—and not inconveniently—reveal friends or family members who had been lost in combat. Among the mourning customers who visited Mumler was Mary Todd Lincoln, who sat before the spiritual photographer roughly four years after her husband's assassination.
Mary had already been attracted to the rising tide of American spiritualism before her husband's passing. After the loss of her son Willie, she had turned to mediums to communicate with him beyond the grave. Naturally, Mumler's portrait of Mary Todd revealed a ghoulish Abraham lurking just above and a little behind his widow's shrouded head.
By 1869, many Americans had become suspicious of Mumler's miraculous images. P.T. Barnum—of Barnum & Bailey's fame—denounced the photographer in his book Humbugs of the World and testified against him during a famously contentious trial for fraud (Barnum's public shaming of Mum was later endorsed by Harry Houdini).
Despite these high-profile doubters, however, Mary Todd Lincoln remained faithful to the image of her late husband.