I bought my first Lincoln book at the age of fourteen. It was
Twenty Days by Dorothy Meserve Kunhardt and Philip B. Kunhardt
Jr. I distinctly remember leafing through the book in a store
and being captivated by the photographs of the people and places
surrounding Lincoln's death and funeral ceremonies. Perhaps I
was attracted more to the macabre nature of the subject than by
its historical significance, but whatever drew me to the book
led me to a lifelong interest in Abraham Lincoln.
The recent publication of another graphically oriented book reminds me of my first experience with Twenty Days. Lincoln's Assassins: Their Trial and Execution, by James L. Swanson and Daniel R. Weinberg, offers an unparalleled look at the photographs, prints, illustrations, and relics associated with the pursuit, capture, and punishment of those who conspired to kill Abraham Lincoln.
The authors plainly state in their preface that the book is not a detailed study of the assassination or a biography of John Wilkes Booth. Rather, it is a photographic essay about those people who conspired with Booth to kidnap President Lincoln, as well as those who stayed on when the plan turned into one of assassination.
Despite the claim that the book is not intended as a in-depth history of the assassination, the authors present a crisply written synopsis of the plot and the hunt for those responsible. The narrative is concise, and uses a number of lesser-known sources to bring a fresh perspective to the oft-told tales. However, the real story is conveyed through the 256 images that follow Swanson's account. A few of the images are familiar, and more than a few are published for the first time. All are captivating.
The highlights from this book are really too numerous to mention. However, a description few of the treasures that I found of interest, which will offer a sample of the depth of the rare material used. Contained within the 151 pages of the book one will find a hitherto unpublished letter written by seventeen-year-old John Wilkes Booth to T. William O'Laughlin, brother of Lincoln conspirator Michael O'Laughlin. At two and one-half pages, it is one of the longest Booth letters extant. Other significant manuscript material featured include Lewis Powell's death warrant, which was recently discovered in the West Point Military Academy Museum, Winfield Scott Hancock's order to General John Hartranft ordering the hanging of four of the conspirators, and the original order of execution read by General Hartranft to the condemned on the gallows. Alongside these historic documents are more mundane, yet equally poignant manuscripts. For instance, one finds a handwritten receipt dated May 30, 1865, from a barber for shaving the conspirators then being held in captivity.
But where this book really shines is in the presentation of the graphics: photographs, prints, and paintings. Again, an attempt at even touching upon the highlights would prove futile in this brief review. A mere taste of what awaits the reader will have to suffice. After their arrest, photographer Alexander Gardner captured the images of all the conspirators, except for Dr. Samuel Mudd and Mary Surratt. The photographs were taken on board the USS Montauk and USS Saugus, which temporarily held the conspirators before there were transferred to the Old Arsenal Prison. The photographs of these men awaiting their doom are quite haunting. The reproduction of the original photographs by Arena Editions, the publisher of the book, is outstanding, conveying details caught by the wet plate photographic process that are missed by modern photography. Gardner was particularly captivated by the image of Lewis Thornton Powell, the man who attempted to kill Secretary of State William Henry Seward. Gardner took at least ten different photographs of Powell.
Also of great interest are sketches of the conspirators drawn by General Lew Wallace, who was a member of the military commission that tied the conspirators. Multitalented Wallace (who would later write the classic novel Ben Hur) sketched the portraits of the conspirators from life during the trial.
The hanging of Mary Surratt, Lewis Powell, David Herold, and George Atzerodt was photographically documented in a series of ten images, also taken by Alexander Gardner. One could argue that Gardner's documentation of the execution was the first time a major event was covered through photojournalism. Specifically chosen to be the only photographer present, Gardner carefully scouted the yard of the Old Arsenal Prison for the best possible vantage point. Gardner took a series of photographs of the grim event, commencing with the empty scaffold awaiting the prisoners and ending with four lifeless bodies hanging by their necks ready to be cut down and buried a few feet from where they had died. Weinberg and Swanson show all eight photographs in their proper sequence, the first time that has ever been done in book format. Prints of Gardner's photographs were sent on to Harper's Weekly magazine, where many of them were reproduced in woodcut form for the publication.
I also found of interest four oil paintings, of Lincoln, Booth, Herold, and John H. Surratt, which were commissioned by author Finis L. Bates. Bates had written a popular, but completely fictionalized, account of John Wilkes Booth escaping death in 1865, and living well into the 20th Century under the name John St. Helen. The Escape and Suicide of John Wilkes Booth was hawked at carnivals and sideshows where Bates exhibited a desiccated human body that he claimed was the mummified remains of Booth/St. Helen. In 1903 Bates commission several painting of the principal figures in the conspiracy to be used in the book and to be displayed at his sideshow. The paintings were lost for many years until four were recently discovered. They are reproduced in Lincoln's Assassins for the first time in color, and for only the second time since 1907.
Lastly, and of particular interest to me as a collector of books and pamphlets, many scarce and desirable printed items are depicted. Included are accounts and transcripts of the trial, tracts issued in defense of many of the accused, and the popular accounts of the trial and execution brought out in the aftermath of those great events. In the final chapter, "Memory and Myth," several 20th Century books are featured that attempted to cleanse the reputations of those involved in the conspiracy, chiefly Mary Surratt and Samuel Mudd.
Lincoln's Assassins: Their Trial and Execution is a book destined to become a classic. Printed in full color by Arena Editions (who specialize in art books), this large-format work is the type of book you can pick up time and again. And perhaps more is to come from Swanson and Weinberg. At the conclusion of the text, the authors ask for assistance from their readers in uncovering unknown written accounts, photographs, illustrations and periodicals depicting the events surrounding the assassination. The possibility of further or updated versions of this type of book makes one excited for what may forthcoming.
Note: Signed first editions of Lincoln's Assassin are available exclusively from The Abraham Lincoln Book Shop.