Citizens Kept Informed About Lincoln Assassination, In the Age of Instant Communications

The Cecil Whig, April 22, 1865, contained complete coverage of the assassination of President Lincoln.  The Civil War era papers are available at the Historical Society of Cecil County.

The Cecil Whig, April 22, 1865, contained complete coverage of the assassination of President Lincoln. The Civil War era papers are available at the Historical Society of Cecil County.

On April 15, 1865, residents of Cecil County awoke to alarming news about the assassination of President Abraham Lincoln.  On that Saturday, as the darkness of Friday night faded and people prepared to celebrate Easter, residents started to go about their early spring business.  However, as they peacefully slept, the telegraph wires across the nation crackled with disturbing messages for military commanders, police authorities, and newspaper editors.

Hours earlier, late on Good Friday Evening, Lawrence A. Gobright, the Associated Press (AP) reporter, sat alone in the AP telegraph room in Washington, D.C.  It was a slow evening.  The City was celebrating, the rebels were defeated, the Presidential Party was attending a play at Ford’s Theatre, and all the dispatches for the morning papers had been sent.

Just after 10:00 p.m., theatergoers from Ford’s Theater suddenly burst through the door, blurting out that the president had been shot.  Gobright sent out a brief flash, according to Today in Media History.  The telegraph bulletin that went to stations all along the network read:  “WASHINGTON, APRIL 14, 1865, TO THE ASSSOCIATED PRESS, THE PRESIDENT WAS SHOT IN A THEATRE TONIGHT AND PERHAPS MORTALLY WOUNDED.”

The keys clattered with urgent orders for the authorities as the manhunt went on.  About 1:30 a.m. on April 15 Secretary of War Edwin Stanton updated the wires with an official bulletin containing the essential facts for the nation:  “War Department, Washington, April 15, 1:30 a.m.  Maj. Gen Dis.  This evening about 9;30 p.m. at Ford’s Theatre, the President while sitting in his private box with Mrs. Lincoln, Mr. Harris, and Major Rathburn was shot by an assassin who suddenly entered the box and appeared behind the president. . . . The pistol ball entered the back of the President’s head and penetrated nearly through the head.  The wound is mortal.  The president has been insensible ever since it was inflicted and is now dying.”

Throughout the long night the death watch went on as the mortally wounded President struggled to live, but his breathing ceased at 7:22 p.m.  The horrible news about the assassination reached Elkton about 6 ½ o’clock Saturday morning, the Cecil Democrat reported.

Most telegraph stations, especially in the smaller towns, signed off the line in the early evening.  At the end of the shift, the operator sent the customary transmission, “Good Night.”  That alerted overnight offices in larger places that the shift was over at many points along the line.

Thus the terrible news wasn’t picked up in Elkton until the telegrapher returned for business the next morning.  But as he began his shift the receiving machine was clicking continuously with those alarming messages and word rapidly spread around town.

The entire community was shocked by the announcement and it was hard for many to realize that such a horrid deed had taken place, the Democrat added.  Across the county there were scenes of disbelief that Saturday when news of the murder of the President became more widely circulated.

Cecil County’s newspaper were weekly during that age, so the publications headlined the story with all the details the following week.  However, between the wires and special editions of the dailies, the county was kept updated about the horrifying news as the search went on for the killer.

In New Leeds, six miles north of Elkton, Judge James McCauley wrote in his diary:  “April 14 Good Friday –  Am at work digging garden – planted some kidney potatoes – Abraham Lincoln President of the U.S. was assassinated in the theater at Washington.”  He apparently went back and penned that line after he heard the news Saturday morning.

On April 19, Judge McCauley penned a note:  “This is the day of the funeral of President Lincoln, which observed in all the cities and towns and is beyond question the most generally observed of any funeral celebrated . . . It is the anniversary of the Baltimore riot of 1861.”

The age of instant communications had arrived in small towns along the northeast corridor decades earlier as the telegraph network stretched between Washington, D.C., and Boston, MA.  These wires carried the first news flash about a President’s assassination within a short time of the occurrence of the tragedy.

The Diary of Judge James McCauley.  source:  Historical Society of Cecil County.

The Diary of Judge James McCauley. source: Historical Society of Cecil County.

The Cecil Democrat carried complete coverage of the assassination of President Lincoln.  This Civil War era newspaper is available at the Historical Society of Cecil County.

The Cecil Democrat carried complete coverage of the assassination of President Lincoln. This Civil War era newspaper is available at the Historical Society of Cecil County.

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