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Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Some very neat photos of American history

HBO's John Adams miniseries has left me still feeling both floored and haunted. If only everything else on television could be so powerful...

Ever since Sunday night when the finale ran, my interest in real American history (as opposed to the fake pageantry of, say, the current election cycle) has been stoked. Not that it ever went away or anything, but I guess that after becoming so cynical about what America is turning into, I felt a need to look back at what we used to be, and what we could still be again.

So one thing led to another and I found myself looking for the earliest photographs of Presidents that we know are in existence. I wasn't expecting to find any of John Adams (photography was invented the year he passed away and it would be some time before the process was perfected) but I did find this daguerreotype of his son John Quincy Adams: as the sixth President, he's the earliest for whom we have a photograph. This was taken in 1848, not long before he died while serving Massachusetts in the U.S. House of Representatives.

As you study this picture, think about something: you're looking at a photo of a man who was not only the son of John Adams, but who also knew George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin, and most of the other Founding Fathers. Look into his eyes and realize that he looked into their eyes. This isn't some artist's fanciful rendition, but the actual image of a real person who was very familiar with those great statesmen.

Suddenly, 1776 doesn't seem that long ago after all.

Thomas Lincoln was born the year before in 1775. A photo exists of him also. So far as I've been able to find, this is the only one of Thomas Lincoln. But his son Abraham ranks as the most photographed man in the world up to the time of his death.

Speaking of Abraham Lincoln, here's the photo of him delivering his second inaugural address in 1865 on the steps of the Capitol. It might take you awhile to find him ('cuz it did me too) but if you look very carefully, you can make out one other very well-known visage of the time: that of the famous actor John Wilkes Booth.

Which brings me to the real inspiration for this post. That I wanted to share one of my all-time favorite "interesting" photos from history. Ever since I first saw this as a high school student, something about this one has greatly captivated me. After Lincoln was assassinated by Booth, his body was embalmed and put on a black funeral train that would make a 1,700-mile long winding route back to Illinois for burial. At various stops during the trip, his casket was taken from the train and then carried in a procession to some location where he would lay in state so that mourners could file past and pay their respects.

On April 25th, 1865, Abraham Lincoln's casket was solemnly carried through the streets of New York City...

There was such a demand to watch the procession, that the owners of many houses along the route charged $100 for people to come into their homes and watch from the windows.

So, you see that house on the left-hand side of the street in the above photo? On the side of the house immediately facing the camera, in the second story window, you can see two small figures watching as President Lincoln's casket goes by.

Those are two little boys peering out of that window of their grandfather's house. One of them - presumably the taller - is six-and-a-half year old Theodore Roosevelt, with his younger brother Elliot.

35 years and another assassination later, "Teddy" would be sworn in as the twenty-sixth President of the United States. When he took the oath of office after his own election in 1905, Teddy Roosevelt wore a ring embedded with a lock of hair that had been posthumously taken from Abraham Lincoln as he lay on his deathbed across the street from Ford's Theatre.

For many years I've heard that there might also exist a photograph of John Wilkes Booth, dressed in uniform, at the hanging of radical abolitionist John Brown. If anybody knows if that's true and where it could be found, I'd sure appreciate having you drop me a line about it :-)

So many other photos that I could talk about here. I need to wrap this up 'cuz I've plenty of stuff on my plate today. But before I do, there's one other photo that I'll share with y'all. This one isn't necessarily a "famous" pic but the person it depicts is certainly... interesting.

Boston Corbett, born in 1832 in England and then his family moved to the United States. Died... well, no one knows. In 1858, in order to avoid "sinning", Boston Corbett castrated himself with a pair of scissors! He then went straight to a prayer meeting, which he soon had to leave in order to go see a doctor because he was feeling faint from loss of blood (Gee ya think?!?).

A few years later, as a sergeant in the Union Army, Boston Corbett defied orders and fatally shot John Wilkes Booth. When interrogated by his superior officers (who had been trying to take Booth alive), Corbett explained that "God Almighty directed me" to open fire.

Ya see, if they'd just let us teach this kind of history in the schools, we'd have no problem getting the kids interested in their education :-)


Eric Wilson said...

I don't remember seeing a pic of Booth at John Brown's hanging, but I DID see a pic of Booth at Lincoln's "swearing in" at the beginning of his second term (shortly before he murdered him)... It was a huge crowd, but once pointed out, you realize it was, indeed, him. I sends chills up your spine. This pic is actually referenced in the last chapter of Ken Burn's 'Civil War'.

Anonymous said...

Regarding the Lincoln assasination, the last living eyewitness, Samuel J. Seymour, (died in 1956) made an appearance on the game show "I've got a secret", shortly before he died (he's in the part 2 segment):

Part 1:




Part 3:


Anonymous said...

Here's is Seymour's wiki page: