Lincoln & Booth

April 14: Abraham Lincoln was shot on this day in 1865, dying the following morning. Walt Whitman's diary records his frequent sightings of Lincoln in Washington during the Civil War. One of Whitman's snapshots describes the President passing by with his cavalry guard, dressed "as the commonest man," his face "with the deep-cut lines, the eyes, always to me with a deep latent sadness in the expression." "When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom'd," Whitman's lament for the nation's "powerful western fallen star," was published several months after the assassination:

Coffin that passes through lanes and streets,

Through day and night, with the great cloud darkening the land,

With the pomp of the inloop'd flags, with the cities draped in black,

With the show of the States themselves, as of crape-veil'd women, standing,

With processions long and winding, and the flambeaus of the night,

With the countless torches lit—with the silent sea of faces, and the unbared heads,

With the waiting depot, the arriving coffin, and the sombre faces,

With dirges through the night, with the thousand voices rising strong and solemn;

With all the mournful voices of the dirges, pour'd around the coffin,

The dim-lit churches and the shuddering organs—Where amid these you journey,

With the tolling, tolling bells' perpetual clang;

Here! coffin that slowly passes,

I give you my sprig of lilac….

Booth also had his eulogists, the anonymous author (perhaps the Texas judge A. W. Tyrell) of "Our Brutus" praising him as a heroic tyrant-killer:

He hath written his name in letters of flame

     O'er the arch way of Liberty's portal,

And the serfs that now blame shall crimson with shame

     When they learn they have cursed an immortal!

The desire for Booth's immortality is reflected in C. Wyatt Evans's The Legend of John Wilkes Booth: Myth, Memory and a Mummy (2004). The mummy in question was in reality that of a frontier drifter, but it toured in carnival sideshows throughout the 1920s, purported to be "JOHN WILKES BOOTH—HIMSELF—MURDERER OF ABRAHAM LINCOLN" and "An Exhibition for the Correction of American History"—the correction being the legend that Booth had eluded his captors and survived for decades.


Daybook is contributed by Steve King, who teaches in the English Department of Memorial University in St. John's, Newfoundland. His literary daybook began as a radio series syndicated nationally in Canada. He can be found online at todayinliterature.com.

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