Lincoln’s assassination occurred at a time of flux and uncertainty. The Civil War was a close one, and by early April 1865, it seemed possible either that Union victory was at hand or that the Confederacy was secretly planning a march on Washington. Everyone had a deep desire for the latest news, but accepted interpretations of how events might develop were few and far between. There was a sense that anything could happen. With the assassination on April 14th, this uncertainty intensified.
To make things more complex, the Civil War took place in the early years of a communication revolution. Up until the mid-19th century, the fastest way to send a message a long distance was to send a messenger galloping on horseback. By the mid-1860s, though, new technologies like the telegram were making it possible to send information much more quickly. Still, these technologies were so new that people were not used to them and sometimes relied on older ways of communicating. Important news was often still communicated by word of mouth, with neighbors knocking on one another’s doors to let them know the latest news, or by reading newspapers which took hours to be printed.
At first, misinformation and lack of information reigned after Booth shot Lincoln, and Booth was able to literally outrun the news that the president had been shot on his galloping horse. The lack of authoritative sources led to deep confusion the night Lincoln was killed, as two groups of people, one coming from Seward’s house and the other spreading outwards from Ford Theater, argued about the target of the attack, not realizing that both Seward and Lincoln had nearly simultaneously been attacked. They also mistakenly said that Seward was dead. It took several days for the general public to come to understand what had actually transpired. The prevalence of misinformation early on had an impact on how quickly the manhunters were able to home in on their targets.
Eventually, however, the situation began to clarify. The first step was for Secretary of War Edwin Stanton to begin to use the technology of the telegram to clarify the situation and communicate with manhunters in far-flung states. Then, once the newspapers had printed their accounts of the killing and word of mouth had been circulating for several days, the picture became clearer. By the end of the manhunt, the authorities marshalled the evidence they had collected to home in on the killers by spreading good, correct information to the public and the many well-informed manhunters spreading out across the country.
Indeed, something much more important became clear during the manhunt than just the location and identities of the assassin and his co-conspirators. The news of Lincoln’s death and the coverage of him as a martyr for the cause of national unity had the effect of making the final conclusion of the four-year war seem more apparent. The North became determined to finish the job that Lincoln had started, while the disturbing accounts of the assassin’s action in the newspapers more fully demoralized Confederate sympathizers. Although the final battles of the war would take another six months to wrap up, the understanding that Lincoln’s death meant something had a unifying effect on many in the country.
News, Information, and Misinformation ThemeTracker
News, Information, and Misinformation Quotes in Chasing Lincoln’s Killer
"Fondly do we hope—fervently do we pray—that this mighty scourge of war may speedily pass away….With malice toward none; with charity for all; with firmness in the right, as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in; to bind up the nation's wounds; to care for him who shall have borne the battle, and for his widow, and his orphan—to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace, among ourselves, and with all nations."
At this supreme moment, the people cheered the man who, after a shaky start in office, learned how to command armies, brought down slavery, and became a most eloquent and moving speaker. And as he promised he would, he had saved the Union. Lincoln stood in the box and bowed to the audience.
Within a few minutes of the assassination, the news began spreading, first by word of mouth from Ford's, then by messenger. It traveled no faster than a man could run on foot or ride on horseback. Between 10:30 and 11:00 P.M., more than fifteen hundred people spilled out from the theater onto the streets. They fanned out in all directions, like an unpaid army of newsboys shouting, "Extra!"
The nation could hardly bury its martyred Father Abraham with a lead ball lodged in his brain. They cut it out, marked it as evidence, and preserved it for history. His blood, according to a newspaper report, was drained from his corpse by an embalmer, transferred to glass jars, and preserved. When they were finished, Mary Todd Lincoln sent a request: Please cut off a lock of his hair for her.
Whatever papers Booth read, they all condemned him for his heinous act. Even worse, Booth saw the beginning of a change in how Abraham Lincoln was viewed by America. Lincoln was transformed from a controversial and often unpopular war leader into a martyr and hero. Stories reported in the papers condemned Booth by name in the most unforgiving, vicious language.
While Booth and Herold tarried, the government pursued them with new energy. The evidence gathered at Mudd’s farm, plus alleged sightings of the fugitives southwest of his farm, suggested that the assassins were making for Virginia. They knew Booth was lame, on crutches. They knew he had shaven off his mustache. Horse-mounted couriers and telegraph wires were alive all day with instructions to troops to enlist the help of fishermen and others on the river to capture the fugitives.
Young John Garrett, back from an errand at a neighboring farm, reported that the U.S. government was offering a $140,000 reward for Abraham Lincoln’s assassin. The family discussed the assassination with Booth, speculating on why the murderer did it. The actor, still masquerading as a Confederate soldier commented on his own crime and analyzed for the Garretts the motives of Lincoln’s killer!