The small Ford's theater is packed that Good Friday April night of 1865 and quivers with excitement and anticipation. Everybody knows that Lincoln and possibly General Grant will be attending "Our American Cousin." When the Lincolns arrive half an hour after the curtain goes up, there is a standing ovation. Mr. Lincoln bows, with a smile. General Grant does not attend the play, but the Lincolns' friends Major Rathbone and Clara Harris accompany them. It is noticed that Mary Todd Lincoln has her hand affectionately on the President's knee while they are seated in their box. You are there. You too try and get a glimpse of the President in his rocking chair but he's partially hidden behind an American flag. You hear the shot right after Harry Hawk on stage says "you sockdologizing old man-trap." Is that gun shot sound part of the play? Then you smell the gun smoke. And you hear Mary Lincoln shrieking from the presidential box. The theater erupts into pandemonium.
This book is the horse's mouth in regards to Lincoln's assassination. The first person, eye witness accounts of men and women and even boys are taken from letters, affidavits, depositions, magazine articles and more and are riveting- and in the earlier written reports quite remarkably consistent. As the years went by some accounts become embellished. But the early descriptions right after the events in 1865 are remarkably consistent except for two details: did Booth break his leg when he hit the stage and did he yell "Sic semper tyrannis" and or something else?
Many descriptions of John Wilkes Booth vaulting over the rail of Lincoln's box, catching his spur in a flag draped there and landing awkwardly on one knee or even on all fours appear in the book. But the early reports state that Booth immediately recovered his equilibrium and ran swiftly across the stage and out the back where his horse was being held. Observers mention his diabolic expression and that he carried a long bladed knife which glinted in the stage lights. Booth himself, in his diary tries for martyrdom as he states he broke his leg in the 10 foot jump to the stage but did the deed for the sake of the south not for self-aggrandizement. Booth actually was looking for self-glory and his theatrical performance was quite calculated. Most witnesses agree that he did say "sic semper tyrannis." He shoots an unarmed man in the back and considers himself a hero and expects the nation to idolize him. He most certainly broke his leg after he left the theater, probably from a fall from his horse.
What you feel when you read this book is the great love for Lincoln that washes like a tide across the little Ford's theater and binds the witnessing audience of the awful event together in a tapestry of a horrible shared experience. Several surgeons attended the stricken president who was laid flat on his back on the floor of the box. Dr.Charles Leale discovered the entrance wound of the bullet under Lincoln's left ear. The bullet had plowed through Lincoln's brain coming to rest behind his right eye, which quickly turned black. Dr. Leale knew the injury was mortal and insisted Lincoln should be taken someplace nearby the theater, and so the President was carried across the street to the Petersen house. There is considerable disagreement among the men who carried the President as to whether he was on a stretcher or a board or was simply carried out bodily. But in general the reports are quite consistent.
One Joseph H. Hazelton was five years old and in the audience that April 14. He wrote many years later: "The third act was on and as Mr. Lincoln entered the audience rose en masse and cheered... I was standing directly opposite the President's box and looking up at him and noting with childish delight to see how he was enjoying the play."
Mr. Hazleton also penned this beautiful tribute: "And when the spirit of that mighty man soared its way to that bourne from which no traveler returns, it served to weld an unbreakable link of steel between North and South, making it one grand and beautiful nation..."
"We Saw Lincoln Shot" is fascinating, the outpourings of theater goers who were there and who witnessed an event of incomparable importance, and incomparable tragedy.
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About the reviewer
Pam Sharp (snowleopard88)
I'm a retired botanist with degrees from Smith College and the University of Arizona. I'm currently into designing T-shirts and other items for Zazzle. Am interested in almost everything … more
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On the evening of 14 April 1865 when President Abraham Lincoln was assassinated in Ford's Theatre, an entire audience was witness to the tragedy. From diaries, letters, depositions, affidavits, and periodicals, here is a collection of accounts from a variety of theatergoers - who by chance saw one of the truly pivotal events in U. S. history. Providing minute first-hand details recorded over a span of ninety years, We Saw Lincoln Shot explores a subject that will forever.
be debated. With a sharp focus upon the circumstances reported by one hundred actual witnesses, We Saw Lincoln Shot provides vivid documentation of a momentous evening and exposes errors that have been perpetuated as the assassination has been rendered into written histories.