From the Archives, 1865: The assassination of President Abraham Lincoln

On April 14, 1865, US President Abraham Lincoln was shot by an assassin while in his private box in Ford’s Theatre in Washington, D.C., and died the following morning from his wounds.

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First published in The Age on June 27, 1865




A close-up of an 1865 portrait of Abraham Lincoln by W.F.K. Travers Credit: Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery

The following is the official telegram from Mr Secretary Stanton, furnished to the United States Legation in London: –

(Via Greencastle per Nova Scotian)

Sir, – It has become my distressing duty to announce to you that last night his Excellency Abraham Lincoln, President of the United States, was assassinated, about the hour of half-past ten o’clock, in his private box at Ford’s Theatre, in the city.

The President, about eight o’clock, accompanied Mrs Lincoln to the theatre. Another lady and gentleman were with them in the box. About half-past ten, during a pause in the performance, the assassin entered the box, the door of which was unguarded, hastily approached the President from behind, and discharged a pistol at his head. The bullet entered the back of his head, and penetrated nearly through. The assassin then leaped from the box upon the stage, brandishing a large knife or dagger, and exclaiming, “Sic semper tyrannis,” and escaped in the rear of the theatre.

Immediately upon the discharge, the President fell to the floor insensible, and continued in that state until twenty minutes past seven o’clock this morning, when he breathed his last.

About the same time the murder was being committed at the theatre, another assassin presented himself at the door of Mr Seward’s residence, gained admission by representing he had a prescription from Mr Seward’s physician, which he was directed to see administered, and hurried up to the third story chamber, where Mr Seward was lying. He here discovered Mr Frederick Seward, struck him over the head, inflicting several wounds, and fracturing the skull in two places, inflicting, it is feared, mortal wounds. He then rushed into the room where Mr Seward was in bed, attended by a young daughter and a male nurse. The male attendant was stabbed through the lungs, and it is believed will die. The assassin then struck Mr Seward with a knife or dagger twice in the throat and twice in the face, inflicting terrible wounds.

The statue of President Abraham Lincoln at the Lincoln Memorial, in Washington.Credit: J. Scott Applewhite

By this time Major Seward, eldest son of the Secretary, and another attendant reached the room, and rushed to the rescue of the Secretary; they were also wounded in the conflict, and the assassin escaped. No artery or important blood vessel was severed by any of the wounds inflicted upon him, but he was for a long time insensible from the loss of blood. Some hope of his possible recovery is entertained.

Immediately upon the death of the President, notice was given to Vice-President Johnson, who happened to be in the city, and upon whom the office of President now devolves. He will take office and assume the functions of President today.

The murderer of the President has been discovered, and evidence obtained that these horrible crimes were committed in execution of a conspiracy deliberately planned and set on foot by rebels under pretence of avenging the South and aiding the rebel cause; but it is hoped that the immediate perpetrators will be caught. The feeling occasioned by these atrocious crimes is so great, sudden, and overwhelming, that I cannot at present do more than communicate them to you.

At the earliest moment yesterday the President called a Cabinet meeting, at which General Grant was present. He was more cheerful and happy than I had ever seen him, rejoiced at the near prospect of a firm and durable peace at home and abroad, manifested in marked degree the kindness and humanity of his disposition, and the tender and forgiving spirit that so eminently distinguished him. Public notice had been given that he and General Grant would be present at the theatre, and the opportunity of adding the Lieutenant-General to the number of victims to be murdered was no doubt seized for the fitting occasion of executing the plans that appear to have been in preparation for some weeks, but General Grant was compelled to be absent, and thus escaped the designs upon him.

It is needless for me to say anything in regard of the influence which this atrocious murder of the President may exercise upon the affairs of this country; but I will only add that, horrible as are the atrocities that have been resorted to by the enemies of the country, they are not likely in any degree to impair the public spirit or postpone the complete final overthrow of the rebellion. In profound grief for the events which it has become my duty to communicate to you, I have the honor to be very respectfully, your obedient servant,

Edwin M. Stanton.

The news took over two months to reach Australia and was first reported in The Age in June 1865.

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