News breaks in lightning speed these days.
But a century and a half ago, making updates to a big story was quite complex. For each new edition, the latest news had to be reported, transmitted by telegraph, edited, set in hot type, printed on paper and hawked by newsboys.
A new exhibition at the Newseum illustrates firsthand just how the reporting of a major event changed throughout the day. “President Lincoln Is Dead: The New York Herald Reports the Assassination” features seven editions of the New York Herald from April 15, 1865, the day Lincoln died. The Newseum says this is the first time all seven editions of the paper, at four cents a copy, have been displayed together.
Here’s how it unfolded:
The right-hand side of the April 15, 1865, New York Herald features a 10-day-old dispatch about Jefferson Davis’s reaction to the fall of Richmond; the left-hand column labels the shocking news: “IMPORTANT.” There follows a deck headline with urgent clauses, among them: “Assassination of President Lincoln,” “The President Shot at the Theatre Last Evening.” Finally: “Escape of the Assassins” and the naming of the suspect: “J. Wilkes Booth, the Actor, the Alleged Assassin.”
The first report is the 1:30 a.m. dispatch from Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton to Maj. Gen. John Adams Dix. The latest news was a 2 a.m. update: “The President is still alive, but here is no improvement in his condition.” The rest of the page has news of the state capital and a crosswalk at 59th Street.
Same as the 2 a.m. edition, but with the addition of THE LATEST NEWS in the middle. It also features a missive from Stanton to Dix: “The President still breathes, but is quite insensible, as he has been ever since he was shot. He evidently did not see the person who shot him, but was looking on the stage, as he was approached from the behind.”
The newspaper’s own dispatch includes this vivid opening sentence: “When the fatal shot was fired, Mrs. Lincoln, who was alongside her husband, exclaimed, “Oh! Why didn’t they shoot me — why didn’t they shoot me!” Some of the other front-page news (such as the crosswalk) has been dropped.
Everything is the same on the front page except for a box of headlines with the word EXTRA and the headline “DEATH of the PRESIDENT!!” atop Stanton’s terse dispatch to Dix: “Abraham Lincoln died this morning at twenty two minutes after seven o clock.” The Herald is among the first newspapers to report his death. News of the state capital has been dropped, but there’s still an item about an Easter concert.
Black stripes surround the box declaring Lincoln’s death, and a headline announces: “Ten Thousand Dollars Reward Offered for the Arrest of the Assassins; J. Wilkes Booth Identified as Murderer of the President.”
Black bars now separate all six columns, and there’s a staff report from Washington: “The bells throughout the city are tolling the public departments and most of the places of business are closed. . . . The most profound sensation prevails here and the deepest realization of the irreparable loss which the nation has sustained pervades the minds of the people.”
The updates go to Page 8, where “Details of the Surrender” of the Civil War from days earlier is followed by the news of “THE NATIONAL CALAMITY.” Among its updates is a dispatch from 1:20 p.m. reporting that “the President died quietly . . . so quietly that it was hardly known.”
There is a description of the moving of Lincoln’s body to the White House and a list of his pulse and respiration after the shooting. Reports of reactions from different cities include ones from Washington — “Strong men weep in the streets” — and Saratoga, N.Y., where “they have no faith in [Vice President Andrew] Johnson’s ability to carry the country safely through the present crisis.”
And sure enough, below a note about theaters being closed and a warning to watch the Canadian border for the assassins, is a large headline: “Inauguration of Vice President Johnson as PRESIDENT.” There are just two sentences about the swearing-in and one quote from Johnson: “The duties are mine. I will perform them, trusting in God.”
There are updates on Lincoln’s autopsy, the arrival in Washington of Gen. Ulysses S. Grant and more reactions. But the “CAPTURE of BOOTH” erroneously dominates the updates. A report says Booth has been arrested near Baltimore, but John Wilkes Booth never went north. He was cornered and killed in Virginia on April 26. Then, as now, such is the occasional problem with breathless, unverified updates.
Catlin is a freelance writer.
President Lincoln Is Dead: The New York Herald Reports the Assassination Through Sept. 13 at the Newseum, 555 Pennsylvania Ave. NW. 202-292-6100. www.newseum.org. $21.95, $17.95 age 65 and older; $12.95 for ages 7 to 18; free for age 6 and younger.