Before you bemoan the current state of media, why don’t we apply modern-day best practices to a historic event and see how well journalists of yesteryear fared? Just check out how the news media covered one of the most infamous moments in American history: President Abraham Lincoln’s assassination on April 14, 1865.
The way we deliver catastrophic news now is to get to the newsy part as quickly as possible. A sitting American president is fatally shot in the head? Doesn’t get more newsy than that.
But here is how the Associated Press handled the story at the time:
WASHINGTON, APRIL 14 — President Lincoln and wife visited Ford’s Theatre this evening for the purpose of witnessing the performance of ‘The American Cousin.’ It was announced in the papers that Gen. Grant would also be present, but that gentleman took the late train of cars for New Jersey.
The theatre was densely crowded, and everybody seemed delighted with the scene before them. During the third act and while there was a temporary pause for one of the actors to enter, a sharp report of a pistol was heard, which merely attracted attention, but suggested nothing serious until a man rushed to the front of the President’s box, waving a long dagger in his right hand, exclaiming, ‘Sic semper tyrannis,’ and immediately leaped from the box, which was in the second tier, to the stage beneath, and ran across to the opposite side, made his escape amid the bewilderment of the audience from the rear of the theatre, and mounted a horse and fled.
The groans of Mrs. Lincoln first disclosed the fact that the President had been shot, when all present rose to their feet rushing towards the stage, many exclaiming, ‘Hang him, hang him!’ The excitement was of the wildest possible description.
There was a rush towards the President’s box, when cries were heard — ‘Stand back and give him air!’ ‘Has anyone stimulants?’ On a hasty examination it was found that the President had been shot through the head above and back of the temporal bone, and that some of his brain was oozing out. He was removed to a private house opposite the theatre, and the Surgeon General of the Army and other surgeons were sent for to attend to his condition.
That right there could be the most buried lede ever published.
Readers learned that “The American Cousin” was a crowd-pleaser and Grant took a late train before they were informed that “the President had been shot.”
But what about his condition? Keep going until just before the end of the story, where you’ll learn:
The President was in a state of syncope, totally insensible and breathing slowly. The blood oozed from the wound at the back of his head. The surgeons exhausted every effort of medical skill, but all hope was gone.
The parting of his family with the dying President is too sad for description.
Lest we get too judgmental here, AP reporter Lawrence Gobright raced from the White House to Ford’s Theatre to put this report together, and “he was handed the assassin’s gun and turned it over to authorities,” AP editors noted.
Points to Gobright for being a patriot.
The news judgement of Washington’s Evening Star may have been somewhat better, but the newspaper’s front-page treatment wasn’t especially great.
Somebody should have rethought where the advertisements ran, given the circumstances: The words “how to gain and retain affection” appeared right next to the assassination story. That advertisement bills plantation bitters as akin to an “elixir of love.”
Here’s how the Evening Star’s story on Lincoln reads:
Last evening, at 10.30 p. m., at Ford’s Theater, the President, while sitting in his private box with Mrs. Lincoln, Miss Harris, and Maj. Rathbun, was shot by an assassin who suddenly entered the box. He approached behind the President. The assassin then leaped upon the stage, brandishing a large dagger or knife, and made his escape by the rear of the theater. The pistol ball entered the back of the President’s head. The wound is mortal. The President has been insensible ever since It was inflicted, and is now dying.
Maybe the fact that other people were sitting in the private box with Lincoln isn’t as important as this series of words: “Shot by an assassin.” Would suggest moving the guest list down.
The Daily Ohio Statesmen encounters a similar problem with its front page. Can you spot the Lincoln story?
It’s in the fourth column.
It’s not at the top of that column.
This is how the story begins:
The assassin of President Lincoln left behind him his hat and a spur. The hat was picked up in the President’s box, and has been identified by parties to whom it has been shown as the one belonging to the suspected man, and accurately described by other parties not allowed to see it before describing it.
A number of newspapers, including the New York Times, the New York Tribune and Indiana’s Daily State Sentinel, ran the same dispatch. The Times dedicated its entire front page on April 16 to Lincoln’s death, under the banner: “Our Great Loss.” The newspaper declared it “the National Calamity.” The page includes key bullet points, including the news that the vice president has been inaugurated as the president.
On page four of the Times, an article headlined “the Murder of President Lincoln” begins: “The heart of this nation was stirred yesterday as it has never been stirred before. The news of the assassination of Abraham Lincoln carried with it a sensation of horror and agony which no other event in our history has every excited.”
Horror. Agony. Fitting words.
The New York Herald’s coverage of the assassination spanned “an unprecedented seven editions,” according to a current exhibit at the Newseum in Washington.
In the Midwest, expressive punctuation reigned supreme. The Cleveland Morning Leader used seven exclamation marks in announcing Lincoln’s assassination.
Using exclamation marks in headlines is a rare practice circa 2015. But if you’re going to do it, this is the story that commands it.
Good work, Morning Leader.
If you’re wondering, by the way, where The Washington Post’s Lincoln front page is, it doesn’t exist. The Post didn’t begin publishing until 1877, well after the assassination.