Who’s to Blame?

In the collection of the The Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History there is an 1865 diary written by Cyrena Hammond. At the time of Lincoln’s assassination, Cyrena was a 17 year-old resident of North Bergen, a small hamlet located about 20 miles west of Rochester in western New York. While there are many diaries that contain entries regarding the death of Lincoln, Cyrena’s actually speaks very little about the event in her day to day entries. The only mention of it is in her entry for April 19 which including the line, “The whole union is dressed in mourning today.” However, at the end of the diary, on the pages designed for keeping track of one’s money flow, Cyrena included a description of a Sunday school lesson she attended on April 29th. One of her neighbors, a man by the name of Loren Hill, addressed the Sunday school students and made particular comments regarding who was really to blame for Lincoln’s death. The following is an image of the diary pages and a transcription of what it says:

“The 29 of this month, Loren Hill, was trying to entertain the sabbath school with his talk which runs as follows

Every Girl should be brought up in sunday school. I have got four girls. They expect to become wives and in order to make them good wives they must be brought up in the sunday school. Most young girls that are ruined, are the cause of it all. They do more to ruin young men than young men do themselves. Had Mrs Booth been a real genuine woman Wilkes Booth would never have commited the deed he did. as long as I have any controll over my children they will attend the sunday school.

thus run his speech untill every body was disgusted.”

According to Loren Hill, the crime John Wilkes Booth committed was essentially the fault of his mother, Mary Ann Booth.

In Hill’s view, if Mrs. Booth had been a more “genuine” woman, John Wilkes would never had killed Lincoln. Hill preached that most of the ruin suffered in the world is the result of the moral failings of women and that they deserve the blame for whatever crimes their sons and husbands commit. As Cyrena points out at the end of her entry, everybody was disgusted by the overt misogyny of Hill’s preaching.

While I have seen many attempt to put the blame for Lincoln’s assassination on the shoulders of someone other than John Wilkes Booth, this was the first time I had ever read of someone being so callous as to blame poor Mrs. Booth for the crime of her misguided son. But even worse than blaming an innocent parent for the sins of her child was the way in which Hill attempted to use Lincoln’s death to preach that religious failings of women were the cause of men committing criminal acts. Such a sexist attack wrapped in doctrine reminded me of the ways in which enslavers used the Bible in order to justify the continued practice of slavery. Both are examples of the powerful using dogma to subjugate others to their will.

According to the 1870 census, Loren Hill, the women blaming lecturer, did indeed have 4 young daughters as he had stated. Their names were Emma, Francis, Mary, and Nora. Hill was a wealthy farmer in nearby Clarendon, NY with his real estate holdings valued at $12,000 and his personal estate at around $3,300. In the 1860s, he had been appointed as both Clarendon’s Assessor and Commissioner of Highways. He also served as the justice of the peace. Despite such social successes, when Hill died in 1883 he was allegedly completely broke. An 1889 book called the History of Clarendon by David Copeland stated that, “Hill was not worth one penny when he died, although he owned this farm when crops were good and prices high. When justice of the peace he said, in the presence of the author, ‘that he did not know whether his head was on his shoulders or on his feet,’ a lawsuit having turned him upside down in his own estimation.” Unfortunately the text does not give any more information and so we are left to only speculate as to which specific woman Loren Hill undoubtedly blamed for his own financial ruin.

I was introduced to Cyrena’s diary through my current Master’s class on Historiography and used it to discuss social history. As an example of social history, the lives of Cyrena Hammond and Loren Hill demonstrate a story of gender and power in the Civil War era. Mr. Hill, the powerful and influential landowner, sought dominion over his daughters and other women by blaming the moral failings of women for the crimes of men. Cyrena (and apparently others) expressed disgust over these remarks but it appears the rebuke may have only been safe within the pages of a diary. Even the interactions of two neighbors in a rural area of New York at the time of Lincoln’s assassination can be valuable to social historians when viewed through the lens of gender roles and gender norms.

Categories: History | Tags: , , , | 12 Comments

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12 thoughts on “Who’s to Blame?

  1. Michael Plummer

    I remember Wilkes rolling to to his mothers house in Baltimore the slave children and throwing a bag of candies to the ground proudly admonishing to “ grab it you little nigs before the dogs get it!!”. No it was him and he alone. The way he envisioned it the Star Billing! The only flaw in the Justice Dispensary ? Mudd should have been hanged.

    • Graham Baldwin

      I respectfully disagree on two counts. First, even a cursory review of what constituted due process in the middle of the 19th Century will reveal that the military tribunal had little to do with justice. Secondly, the evidence seems rather clear that Mudd was, at worst, an accessory after the fact regarding the attack on Lincoln, for which crime a sentence of life in prison was extreme.

  2. Karen Owen

    I live near North Bergen. I’m in Brockport and Bergen is the next town south of Brockport on the main north/south road. North Bergen is a crossroads hamlet a little bit west of the main road. They still have a North Bergen Presbyterian Church. Clarendon is nearby but in Orleans County not Genesee County.
    They have a historian (Melissa Irelan) and a Historical Society who might be able give you more
    information about Loren Hill. Their facebook page appears to be more active than their home page.
    New York Historic Newspapers through New York State Archives and Old Fulton Postcards are good sources for local New York State history.

  3. Pastor Steve Holley

    Usually, doctrinal teaching requires scriptural support. None exists in Mt, Hill’s presuppositions.
    Secondly, according to the earliest teachings on child training found in Deuteronomy 6, both parents are to be involved in the process.
    Concerning slavery, biblical law in Deuteronomy 15 limited slavery to a 6 year period after which the slave was to be freed in the 7th year. There was no condition by which perpetual slavery should have ever existed in the American colonies or later in the United States. Perhaps the words of Lincoln’s 2nd Inaugural Address that God was exacting blood from the lash being repaid in blood from the war was the equitable repayment.
    And, while we don’t have a biography of Mr. Hill’s life, it may be that his sad conclusion is as much a result of poor theology leading to poor financial decision-making leading to poverty. Many lessons to be learned. Thanks for the post.

  4. Michael Plummer

    expandDr Mudd should have hanged. He knew him the previous December in a potential land transaction “ which was nothing but Confederate Secret Service regarding the kidnap or worse. They signed a Church Directory. He cut Booths boot off and left it under the bed. Criminals Conspirators even then didnt think much. Go read the Wanted Ppster with War Department Orders “any person aiding and abetting assisins will be subject to death. He knew Booth he cant deny it which he did. The soldiers visited upon his home and obviously told him of the most famous murder since Julius Caesar yet he lied to them WHICH AIDED AND ABETTED their escape. One vote saved him from Justice

    • Graham Baldwin

      The evidence against Mudd for conspiracy to abduct Lincoln was significant. However, he wasn’t tried for that offense. Moreover, the fact he was acquainted with Booth months beforehand is irrelevant to his culpability as an accessory after the fact to the murder; and there is absolutely no evidence Mudd knew of the murder plot ahead of the event and so could not have qualified as either a principal or an accessory before the fact to that crime. Wanted posters are designed to encourage the capture of suspects and often use hyperbole to that end. But neither those notices nor in this case, the War Department, was an authority on the substantive law. The fact Mudd may have lied about knowing or having assisted Booth in his escape is of course material to his guilt or innocence but only for the crime as an accessory after the fact and of course Booth only sought Mudd because of the actor’s unexpected tibial fracture sustained after he’d committed the murder–hence there was no evidence which hinted at Mudd being a conspirator in the death of Lincoln.

      • Michael Plummer

        “all persons harboring or secreting or aiding or concealing their escape will be treated as accomplices in the MURDER of the President and shall be subject to punishment by DEATH”- Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton . Mudd lied to officers and aided their escape. He should have been hanged .

        • Graham Baldwin

          Despite the immense power Stanton wielded in the wake of Lincoln’s death, he was an attorney by training and as such he never harbored the notion he could change substantive law. The words on the wanted poster could not change that fact. Even the biased military commission which tried Mudd and heard the evidence, real and concocted, still only meted out a punishment of life imprisonment, which even the vindictive President Johnson approved. Apparently, those generals and the Chief Executive also realized the wanted poster was hyperbole. Presuming the evidence against Mudd was bona fide, the sentence he received was appropriate under the law.

  5. Margaret Ingham

    I find this very interesting as Mrs Booth was my great great aunt and reading between the lines was not a very moral woman having stolen mother man’s wife and left family to move to the US. Having said that we are all responsible for our own actions.

    • Annette Nerone

      Margaret Ingham: I am currently doing research on Mary Ann Holmes Booth? You stated that she was your great great aunt. I am wondering if you have any of her diaries, letters, pictures, etc? She certainly has an interesting story! Thank you.

      • Margaret Ingham

        Sorry I have only come to know about my family’s connection with Mary Ann Booth in th last ten years and unfortunately have no memorabilia connected with her.
        Good luck with your searches,I would be very interested in any findings.
        Best Wishes
        Margaret Ingham

  6. yvonne cox

    of course mrs. booth was not responsible nor should be blamed for the actions of her beloved son wilkes booth… booth was his own man… as for dr. mudd, he should not have even been charged and went to prison for helping an injured person much less hanged.. he was a DR. doing what drs. are expected to do, help the sick, injured and dying. just like today, if someone shoots many people and they are injured themselves, they are taken to a hospital and drs. treat them and try to save their life.
    should drs. today go to prison or be executed for helping ‘killers’?

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