President Lincoln was shot in his booth at Ford’s Theater by John Wilkes Booth shortly after 10 p.m. on April 14, 1865.
Just hours later, in an age before radio or television, let alone instant messaging and Twitter, The New York Herald was on the streets with its first dispatch that the president had been shot. For the next 18 hours, in a series of increasingly somber and detailed accounts, the newspaper would print and publish six more editions chronicling Lincoln’s death, the hunt for his assassin and the swearing-in of Vice President Andrew Johnson as the nation’s 17th president.
In an exhibit coinciding with the 150th anniversary of Lincoln’s death, curators at the Newseum have for the first time assembled all seven editions published by The Herald that fateful day, including an “extra” edition — once thought lost — that was among the first to inform Americans that their president had died.
It did not take the newspaper’s correspondents long to identify the perpetrator.
“The circumstantial evidence is very strong that J. Wilkes Booth is the person who shot the President,” read The New York Herald’s early morning edition on April 15, 1865, noting that “several parties who are well acquainted with [Booth] and saw the assassin when he jumped from the box, are positive that he is the man. If he is the man, it is impossible for him to escape.”
In fact, Booth eluded his pursuers and sparked a frantic manhunt that resulted in his death 11 days later at a Virginia farm.
Lincoln was shot by Booth at 10:15 p.m. on April 14. The Herald was able to report the president’s passing and have it ready to sell for 4 cents in 90 minutes after Lincoln was pronounced dead at 7:22 the next morning.
“The exhibit is crisp and clean,” said Carrie Christoffersen, curator and director of collections at the Newseum. “The papers on display are dense. The type is small and there is a lot of information on one page, so we really wanted to highlight the crucial pieces on the display. Visitors are going to feel like they are in 1865 and it’s going to be revealed to them as it was to the people at the time.”
The New York Herald was one of the most widely read newspapers of the time. Founded by James Gordon Bennett in 1835, it published until 1924 from its Manhattan headquarters. It published more news than any other paper of its day, including coverage of sports, foreign affairs and theater. It developed business coverage and nonpartisan political reporting.
Editorially, it tended to be a sharp critic of Lincoln and his administration, although a strong supporter of the Union cause.
The rise of the telegraph helped the newspaper receive and spread news quickly across the United States.
“Journalism is the rough draft of history,” said Patty Rhule, the Newseum’s senior manager of exhibit development. “It’s pretty incredible to get together, piece by piece, the story of Lincoln’s death in the newspapers.”
The paper named Booth the chief suspect at 10 a.m., after a letter written by him detailing the conspiracy was found in his room at the National Hotel. The hotel stood at the site that is now occupied by the Newseum.
The last edition, which falsely reported that Booth had been arrested, was given on loan to the museum by collector Dean Melen. The remaining six editions are part of the Newseum’s collection of 35,000 historic newspapers.
The death of Lincoln on The Herald’s front page that day runs atop a story of Confederate President Jefferson Davis in Danville, Virginia, trying to rally the last of the defeated rebel forces to continue to the fight — six days after Gen. Robert E. Lee’s surrender to Gen. Ulysses S. Grant at Appomattox.
“The President is still alive, but he is growing weaker,” The Herald reported in its 3 a.m. second edition. “He remains insensible, and his condition is utterly helpless. Large crowds still continue in the street, as near the house as the line of guards allow. The wildest excitement prevailed in all parts of the city. Men, women and children, old and young, rushed to and fro, and the rumors were magnified.”
The Herald’s April 15 edition has become famous for another reason: A bogus mock-up of the paper’s front page that day has become one of the most notorious fakes in newspaper collecting circles. The counterfeit versions often feature a drawing of the slain president, whereas all of the real Herald editions featured the wall of copy without illustrations that was more typical of the times.
The exhibit opened Friday. It will continue at the Newseum this year and through Jan. 10.