Two years ago, Eric Colleary, Curator of Theater and Performing Arts at the University of Texas’ Harry Ransom Center, collaborated with Beth Burns of the Austin based theater company, Hidden Room Theatre, to conduct a staged reading of Richard III based on a promptbook in the collection of the Ransom Center that was once owned and annotated by John Wilkes Booth. The staged reading (which can be viewed by clicking this link) was a great success. Since that time Eric, Beth, and the Hidden Room Theatre company have continued their collaboration and have managed to turn Booth’s promptbook into a full production that will soon take the stage.
For those of you who live in the Austin, Texas area, this is a wonderful opportunity to essentially go back in time and experience live theater as it was in the 1860s. Over the past few months, the entire creative team behind the production has conducted in-depth research on theater history and dramatic techniques in order to make this show as accurate to the period as possible. A few days ago, Eric and Beth took part in a fascinating discussion / question and answer session regarding how their collaboration came about and the impressive work being done to bring it to fruition.
As you can see, despite its title, the upcoming production of Booth’s Richard III is far more than just a re-enactment of John Wilkes Booth’s edits to Shakespeare’s (really Cibber’s) work. Instead, it is a rare look into the type of acting and production that was commonplace in the 1800s but is almost completely lost today. John Wilkes Booth’s promptbook is a time capsule of theater history and it is a rare event to see such a piece of history brought back to life. The Hidden Room Theatre in collaboration with the Harry Ransom Center will be performing Richard III at Austin’s Scottish Rite Theater for only eight performances starting on Friday, June 15 and running through Saturday, June 30. For more information, and to purchase tickets, please click this link or the image below:
For those of you who, like me, are no where near Austin, Beth Burns mentioned in the question and answer session that she is hoping one of the shows will be recorded and later made available online. While I am grateful for that, I know a recorded show will not be able to replace the total immersive effect of witnessing it firsthand. Beth also mentioned her hope that this show may live on in the future as an educational tool for college and university theater companies that wish to re-enact theater history. So there is chance Booth’s Richard III could be do a bit of touring if interest is high. Though I know it is a bit of a pipe dream, I, for one, would love to see this show produced by the Ford’s Theatre Society on their historic stage.
In closing, I would ask that any of you who are able to get to Austin during the show’s run and see Booth’s Richard III to please report back to those of us who were not so fortunate. The comment section will definitely be open. I’d love to hear your thoughts on experiencing 1860s theater just as people like Mr. Lincoln would have.
You may have noticed that this blog has been a little quiet over the last few months. While I have been able to maintain the quick little blips of information on my Twitter account, I haven’t had much time to devote to in-depths postings here on the site. Even the 153rd anniversary of the Lincoln assassination came and went with nary a peep here at BoothieBarn. While my normal duties of being an elementary school teacher and the occasional commitments as a guest speaker do limit my time to research and write, this recent hiatus was due to a more personal matter.
On April 14, 2018, I married my partner in history, Kate Ramirez.
Kate and I got engaged on April 14th of 2017 at Ford’s Theatre. We scheduled our wedding to occur a year later and with the Lincoln assassination as our continued theme. Our wedding ceremony took place at Enon Baptist Church in Supply, Virginia.
A small rural church, Enon was built in 1852 and was the home church of the Garrett family who unwittingly harbored John Wilkes Booth during his final days. Many members of the Garrett family, including Richard Garrett, are buried in the cemetery behind the church. We certainly took advantage of the cemetery for some of our photographs.
In preparation for the wedding, Kate spent months assembling paper flowers for use in our bouquets and decorations. Each flower is made from pages of our favorite history book, American Brutus by Michael Kauffman.
Our wedding party consisted of our siblings and friends, three of whom we met through our involvement in the Lincoln assassination community.
From Enon Baptist Church, our guests then drove over an hour to our reception venue: a tent set up on the grounds of the Dr. Samuel A. Mudd House Museum. Each table inside the tent was decorated with appropriate Lincoln themed centerpieces.
As you might expect, the grounds of the Dr. Mudd House provided some gorgeous backdrops for our photographs.
Not everything was Lincoln assassination themed, however. When cutting the cake, we channeled another of Kate’s interests: Lizzie Borden.
Our first dance was to one of our favorite 1950’s classics, We Belong Together by Ritchie Valens.
And we were even joined by some feathered friends.
We were told there was a little craziness that occurred, but we never saw anything.
Surrounded by our family and friends, it was a truly amazing day. As I said to Kate in my wedding vows, she and I may live in the past, but that’s the perfect place for us to make history together.
An Interesting Artifact
The collection of the Abraham Lincoln Library and Museum in Harrogate, Tennessee contains many fascinating artifacts relating to the 16th President. Among their collections is a cupboard made by Abraham’s father, Thomas Lincoln; a china set owned by the Lincolns in their Springfield home; a lock of Willie Lincoln’s hair taken from his head after his death; and a massive archive of art, books, manuscripts, photographs, and ephemera relating to Lincoln. One of the most famous artifacts in the museum, however, is an ebony cane topped with a sterling silver knob handle which bears the inscription “A. Lincoln”.
Compared to modern canes which are mainly used as functional tools to assist in walking and balance, this 35.5 inch long cane owned by Lincoln was solely a fashion piece. Short canes, or walking sticks, were very common accessories for men during the Victorian era. Many men carried canes as evidence of class and elaborate canes were common affectations designed only to impress or convey prestige. For example, Lincoln’s future assassin, John Wilkes Booth, was often photographed with walking sticks. Since Booth would often give out these photographs to friends and admirers, the cane helped to subtlety reinforce his self-image as a member of high society.
While Lincoln was not known to crave prestige, canes were also often presented as gifts. Visiting dignitaries often received decorative canes as tokens of esteem. There are many accounts of Lincoln being presented with canes during his career as a lawyer and politician.
The question remains then, why is the Lincoln cane at the ALLM one of the highlights of the museum’s collection? What sets it apart from any number of canes that are said to have been owned or presented to Lincoln? Well, this cane is said to have been with Abraham Lincoln when he was assassinated at Ford’s Theatre on April 14, 1865.
The Lincoln cane arrived in the collection of the ALLM on September 10, 1929. It was given to the museum by a former resident of Troy, New York named Joseph Mayhew. In his donation of the cane, Mr. Mayhew included two notarized letters conveying the history of the cane. One letter was written by Mr. Mayhew and the other was by his sister, Emma Cuenin nee Mayhew. The following is from Emma’s affidavit:
“In 1875 my father, Stephen Mayhew, was the proprietor of a grocery and meat market at the corner of Fifth and Ferry Streets, Troy, N.Y. After school I would often wait on the customers who came into the store. This was when I was about 11 years old.
I remember a man and his wife named Phelps trading at the store. Phelps was an actor. He would purchase groceries and meats and then charge them. When his bill amounted to about $40.00 and he was unable to pay he offered father Abraham Lincoln’s cane in lieu of the bill. Father accepted the cane as payment in full.
Phelps related how he became possessor of Abraham Lincoln’s cane, saying that he, Phelps, was an actor having a minor part in the play at Ford’s Theatre in Washington, D.C. on the night President Lincoln was assassinated. In the excitement that followed Lincoln’s being shot Phelps entered the President’s box and seeing the cane in the corner where Lincoln left it he picked it up and kept it as a memento.
Father often carried the cane, making no secret that it at one time belonged to President Lincoln.”
Stephen Mayhew continued to own and display Lincoln’s cane to his friends and neighbors. According to the affidavits, the display of the cane caused jealously among a certain Troy resident who sought to claim the cane as his own.
“Some litigation was started concerning the cane, as a man named Kisselberg though he would like to gain possession of it. My father’s interests in the matter were defended by a lawyer named Palmer. After spending some money and time in the courts Palmer caused the cane to be sold at Sheriff’s sale in order that a clear title could be obtained. It was bought in for my father.
During the litigation a letter was written to Lincoln’s son concerning the cane, in which it was explained how father became possessor of it. Lincoln’s son replied, stating that as long as father had obtained it through an honest debt he was entitled to it.”
Joseph Mayhew’s affidavit contains a bit more detail regarding the legal battle concerning the cane, but fails to mention the detail regarding Robert Todd Lincoln’s involvement in the case:
“At a later date, when it became generally known that my father had the cane in his possession, it was seized by the local authorities. It was kept for a time by the Sheriff of Rensselear County and also in a jeweler’s safe. This jeweler’s name was Kisselberg and his place of business was on River Street in Troy, N.Y.
My father took legal action to recover the cane. He engaged a lawyer, named Palmer. Palmer caused the cane to be sold at Sheriff’s sale and bought it in for my father so that my father would have a clear title to it. The litigation cost my father between eighteen hundred ($1800.00) and two thousand ($2000.00) dollars.”
After recovering his property, Stephen Mayhew continued to own Lincoln’s cane. In 1914, Stephen gave the cane to Joseph. The elder Mayhew died in 1917.
With these two pieces of evidence in hand and a priceless, highly fought over, silent witness in their collection, the assassination cane has been a centerpiece of the ALLM’s collection for years.
Recently, I have been looking through my files relating to my own visit to the ALLM back in 2014. Though I was only able to spend a brief period of time researching in their archives, I was amazed at the breadth of their collection. I previously did a blog post about a letter owned by conspirator Samuel Arnold that is in the museum’s collection. In revisiting my files, I decided it would be worthwhile to publish a quick post about the Lincoln cane with the intention of bringing about some more awareness to this unique artifact. After a bit of research into this cane and the provenance behind it however, I have come to an unexpected conclusion. I do not believe this cane was at Ford’s Theatre on April 14, 1865.
Near the end of Joseph Mayhew’s affidavit he mentions that when his father finally presented the cane to him, it was also accompanied by, “a copy of ‘The Trojan Observer,’ a newspaper dated Monday, January 26, 1880, and published at Troy, N.Y. This newspaper contains an account with reference to the Lincoln cane.” It turns out that the seizure and legal battle concerning the cane was a newsworthy event. The local Troy papers talked about the recovery of the cane and how it would, undoubtedly, be returned to Robert Todd Lincoln. The story of Lincoln’s cane was reprinted across the country. The newspapers, likely getting their information from Stephen Mayhew, reported that the man who recovered the cane was named A. R. Phelps, the stage name of actor Alonzo Raymond Phelps. This name concurs with the Mayhew children’s statements years later. Also helpful to the Mayhews’ statements is the fact that Alonzo Phelps, for a brief period of time in the mid 1870s, did reside in Troy, NY as evidenced by his inclusion in a Troy city directory.
From this point onward, however, the evidence against the cane’s provenance begins to add up. By consulting Thomas Bogar’s impeccably researched book, Backstage at the Lincoln Assassination, one finds that Alonzo Phelps did not perform in Our American Cousin at Ford’s Theatre that night. He was not part of the Ford’s stock company and was not a member of Laura Keene’s visiting troupe. The idea that Phelps was acting at Ford’s Theatre on the night of Lincoln’s death is not supported by the evidence.
The question then becomes, if Phelps did not perform at Ford’s Theatre that night, was it possible for him to be there in the role of an audience member instead? Unfortunately, that does not appear to be likely.
The entry for A. R. Phelps in the 1870 edition of Brown’s History of the American Stage states that, “in 1854 [Phelps] sailed for California, in company with the Denin Sisters, where he opened in ‘Love’s Sacrifice,’ on April 10 of that year. He remained on that coast, playing through California, Oregon, Nevada, etc., until 1866, when he took the overland trip to New York.” Further research demonstrates Phelps’ long residence in California where he worked as both an actor and a theater manager. In 1856, for example, A. R. Phelps and fellow actor Junius Brutus Booth, Jr. leased the Union Theatre in San Francisco. Among the actors the business partners brought in that season was June’s younger brother, Edwin Booth, who was just beginning his starring theatrical career.
Phelps stayed in California during the course of the Civil War and the evidence indicates that Phelps was likely still in California when Lincoln’s assassination occurred. In addition to the entry in Brown’s History of the American Stage which states that Phelps did not return east until 1866, we also find A. R. Phelps’ name in the 1864 and 1865 city directories for San Francisco. Newspaper advertisements also indicate that he was performing at the Metropolitan Theatre in San Francisco as late as March of 1865. With the journey between San Francisco and New York lasting about a month in those days, it is extremely unlikely Phelps was on the correct coast when Lincoln was assassinated. The bulk of the evidence points to him still being in California when Lincoln was killed.
With it having been established that Phelps was not performing at, or likely even near, Ford’s Theatre on April 14, 1865, the provenance of the “assassination” cane is dealt a significant blow. What is interesting, however, is that this is not the first time the authenticity of the cane has been questioned. In fact, the true history of the cane may have very well been established back in 1880 when the initial reports went out about its recovery from Stephen Mayhew. An article, originally published by the Troy Evening Standard and reprinted by other newspapers across the country, gives a different history of where this cane came from:
“Many years ago, when President Lincoln was a poor lawyer in Springfield, Illinois, he carried about with him a plain ebony cane, with a silver ferrule, marked ‘A. Lincoln.’ The cane may have cost $5.
When Lincoln found himself in Washington he still carried the old ebony, being loath to part with his old friend. One day a delegation of friends waited upon and presented him with an elegant modern cane with an elaborately engraved gold handle. He accepted the gift more to accommodate his friends than to please himself. The old cane was given to a trusty valet who often frequented a prominent restaurant in Washington, where nightly assembled many professional men, actors, lawyers and musicians. Among the number was A. R. Phelps, the first manager of the Grand Central Theatre. Hard pushed for money, the valet pawned the cane with the proprietor of the restaurant, and from the latter it passed into the hands of Phelps. In his vocation as a theatrical manager and actor Phelps struck Troy some three or four years ago, and assumed the management of the Grand Central Theatre for Thomas Miller, the proprietor. Finally adversity overtook him. Misfortune fell heavily upon him, and he with his wife and six children was left in the direst distress, and he pawned the cane to a down-town citizen for $25. He then left town and has not since been seen here…”
If accurate, this article paints a very different story as to the circumstances surrounding Alonzo Phelps’ attainment of Lincoln’s cane. Rather than having retrieved the cane from the President’s box at Ford’s Theatre, Phelps is said to have received the cane as a gift from a restaurant proprietor in Washington on an undetermined date. In addition, the article claims that the cane was one purchased by Lincoln himself while living in Springfield and given away by the living Lincoln when he received a different one in Washington. While the article does not provide any sources for the history behind Lincoln’s cane, it is clear that at least some research was undertaken in its reporting. The article gives the circumstances of Phelps’ residence in Troy in the mid-1870s stating that he was the theatrical manager of the Grand Central Theatre. This appears to be backed up by a January 20, 1877 article in the New York Clipper which announced that Phelps was to receive a complimentary benefit at the Grand Central Theatre.
However, there are some small discrepancies in the article as well, such as the amount Phelps owed to Mayhew ($25 vs $40) and the number of children Phelps had at the time (6 vs 5). In addition, the article goes on to recount the involvement of Robert Todd Lincoln in attempting to recover the cane:
“Robert T. Lincoln, son of the dead President, learning that the cane was in this city, corresponded with Chief Markham with a view of obtaining possession of it. Yesterday morning Markham received track of its whereabouts and served a search warrant upon the proprietor of a meat market at the corner of Federal and North Fourth streets. There the cane was recovered. In the police court yesterday afternoon, before Justice Donohue, the matter of the disposition of the cane was taken up, and postponed for two weeks. It is supposed Phelps gave the cane as security for the meat consumed by his family.”
According to this article, Robert Todd Lincoln was taking an active role in the recovery of his father’s cane. This is in contrast to the Mayhews’ statements which claim the seizure of the cane was brought upon by a jealous and covetous neighbor and that it was a letter by Robert Lincoln which allowed them to retrieve the artifact. After some further digging, however, it appears that neither set of these circumstances are true.
Between 1903 and 1926, Robert Todd Lincoln maintained a correspondence with a former journalist named Isaac Markens of New York. Markens was studying Abraham Lincoln and wrote many letters to Robert asking him questions about his father. Markens published a few pamphlets on Abraham Lincoln and was said to have been working on a full biography of the President that was never completed. In the 1960s, the 82 letters written by Robert Lincoln in answer to Isaac Markens’ questions were donated to the Chicago Historical Society. In 1968, the CHS published the bulk of the letters as a book titled, A Portrait of Abraham Lincoln in the Letters by his Oldest Son. While the book does not contain the original letters Markens sent to Robert, it seems clear that at one point Markens came across one of the 1880 newspaper stories regarding the assassination cane and decided to ask Robert about it. The following is part of a letter Robert Lincoln sent to Markens on January 25, 1918 in which he discusses the cane:
“The story about the cane is queer. I think I should have remembered any such events as are described in it if they had occurred, and I do not. I do not think there is a word of truth in the story. I do not own any cane ever possessed by my father, and I never took any interest in any such cane. He never used a cane himself at all. At various times in his life there were presented to him canes. I remember such things, but he never cared anything about them, and gave them no attention. I think it is true that after his death my mother gave away to servants some canes which had come to him in Washington, for which none of us had any regard whatever. Such canes may be in existence, but they possess no real interest in connection with my father.
Very sincerely yours,
Robert T. Lincoln”
In this letter, Robert Lincoln makes it clear that he never had any involvement regarding a cane belonging to his father. This is in contrast to both the newspaper articles and the affidavits from the Mayhews. Nevertheless, Robert Todd Lincoln is a more reliable source on these matters than the other two and his statement must carry the most weight.
We are left with an “assassination” cane whose provenance is full of holes and half-truths. Each piece of the story can be broken down into categories of likely and unlikely.
It seems likely that Alonzo Phelps gave Stephen Mayhew a cane in exchange for a debt the actor owed the grocer. This piece of the story is consistent across all sources and there is evidence that places Phelps in Troy during the applicable time period.
It seems highly unlikely that Alonzo Phelps retrieved the cane from the President’s box at Ford’s Theatre on the night of Lincoln’s assassination. Evidence proves that Phelps was not performing at Ford’s Theatre in direct contradiction to the claims of the Mayhew family. Given Phelps’ established residence in California up until March of 1865, it seems incredibly unlikely that he was even in Washington, D.C. that fateful night.
It is unlikely that this cane was even carried by Abraham Lincoln to Ford’s Theatre on April 14th. For this point we have two pieces of evidence. The first, and admittedly weaker, piece of evidence is Robert Lincoln’s assertion that his father did not regularly carry a cane. Since Robert was not a witness to his father’s assassination, this piece alone does not prove much. However, there was an eyewitness to Lincoln’s assassination who publicly disputed the idea that Lincoln carried a cane with him that night. After the story of Lincoln’s cane was published across the country in 1880, a brief retort was published in Washington, D.C.’s the Evening Star. The article stated, “The story telegraphed from Troy about the recovery of a cane stolen from Mr. Lincoln’s box in the theater on the night of his assassination, is pronounced by Mr. Charles Forbes, who was an usher at the White House at the time, to be false, as Mr. Lincoln had no cane with him.” Though the brief article failed to mention it, Charles Forbes was far more than just a White House usher. Forbes had accompanied the Lincoln party to Ford’s Theatre that night and he was the one sitting outside of the President’s box when John Wilkes Booth approached. Booth presented Forbes with a calling card of some sort and Forbes allowed Booth entry into the box. Forbes is a very reliable witness in this matter and his claim that Lincoln had no cane with him that night is further evidence against the cane’s reported history.
After looking at all of the evidence, I do not believe the “assassination” cane held by the ALLM was ever with Lincoln at Ford’s Theatre on April 14, 1865. The most likely history of this cane, in my mind, was largely laid out by Robert Lincoln. We know that Abraham Lincoln was presented with many canes during his lifetime. The Lincoln Financial Foundation Collection contains an entire file folder of clippings relating to Lincoln canes. In addition to ones gifted to him, Lincoln himself was known to present canes as gifts. In 1864, for example, 19 silver headed ebony canes were purchased by the government and presented to the 19 governors of the Pueblo tribes in New Mexico. Each of these canes were engraved with the name of the governor and also the name of the President “A. Lincoln”. In his letter, Robert Lincoln mentions how, after his father’s death, Mary Lincoln gave away canes that had been presented to her husband. I believe a situation similar to this likely occurred with the cane at the ALLM. Somehow, perhaps from a restaurant owner in D.C. as the newspaper account stated, Alonzo Phelps acquired a cane that had, at one time, been owned or presented to Abraham Lincoln. Phelps cherished the cane until he was forced to part with it in Troy in the 1870s to Stephen Mayhew. Over time, either through outright lies or faulty memories, the story of the cane morphed, giving it a far more dramatic backstory. Lincoln Memorial University was more than happy to acquire this unique piece for their growing Lincoln collection and the two notarized statements from the Mayhew children were provenance enough in the 1920s. However, with the help of modern tools and resources, we can more deeply investigate the provenance behind artifacts like the Lincoln cane. While such investigations may lead to disappointing conclusions, like the debunking of a cherished Lincoln artifact, the process is an important part of evaluating and reevaluating what we think we know about the past.
Abraham Lincoln Library and Museum (ALLM)
Provenance records for President Lincoln’s cane at the ALLM (80.0379)
Backstage at the Lincoln Assassination by Thomas Bogar
San Francisco Theatre Research: Theatre Buildings Vol. XV Part 1 edited by Lawrence Estevan
History of the American Stage (1870) by T. Allston Brown
San Francisco City Directory, Oct 1864 and Dec 1865 accessed via Ancestry.com
“Lincoln’s Cane” Troy Evening Standard article reprinted in the San Francisco Bulletin, February 2, 1880
A Portrait of Abraham Lincoln in Letters by his Oldest Son edited by Paul M. Angle with assistance of Richard G. Case
Charles Forbes Statement in the January, 23, 1880 edition of the Evening Star
Lincoln Financial Foundation Collection: Canes Owned by Lincoln file, Cane – Assassination file
“At the Griswold Opera-House, Troy, N.Y. …The veteran actor and manager A. R. Phelps, and wife, who recently resigned from the Griswold Opera-house, are to be the recipients of a complimentary benefit at the Grand Central.” – The New York Clipper January 20, 1877
Looking for that special gift for the Lincoln assassination aficionado in your life? How about a replica of the diary John Wilkes Booth used during his 12 day escape?
A few years ago, I assisted a prop maker named Pasquale Marsella to create near perfect replicas of John Wilkes Booth’s diary. Using photographs of the diary that were taken during the 1970s, Mr. Marsella was able to reproduce the interior of the diary with amazing detail. The interior of these replicas contained Booth’s own handwriting and duplicated the number of missing and torn pages exactly. Mr. Marsella created only a limited number of diaries and quickly sold out of them. I was fortunate enough to purchase one of the diaries, as did the Surratt House Museum, which keeps the replica on display in their visitor center.
In the years since Mr. Marsella’s first run of diaries, demand for the replicas has been high. In 2015, I was contacted by producers at the Smithsonian Channel who were hoping to get their own replica diary for use in a documentary. I had to inform them that Mr. Marsella had no more left. Instead, I agreed to lend them my replica diary for use in their documentary, Lincoln’s Last Day:
Over the last few years I’ve had several other folks contact me hoping they could purchase diaries, and I sadly also had to inform them that Mr. Marsella had no more left and wasn’t making them anymore. However, Mr. Marsella has recently decided to do another run of his diaries which are available for purchase!
In this second run of diaries, Mr. Marsella has made some improvements from his earlier design. The new replicas utilize a higher quality leather which is softer and gives the diary an older look and feel than previous models. Further, Mr. Marsella is including a more accurate piece of brass on the outer part of the diary. During the last few years, Mr. Marsella has improved his technique for aging paper, giving these new diaries a more authentic “old” look to them. Lastly, the interior pockets marked “Postage” and ” Tickets” are no longer just sewn on displays, but fully functioning pockets like on the real diary.
This second run of replica John Wilkes Booth diaries consists of only 30 diaries, several of which have already been sold. The limited amount is due to the time consuming process of detailing and tooling the leather, which Mr. Marsella does himself.
Mr. Marsella is selling his limited number of John Wilkes Booth diary replicas for $375 each plus $30 shipping. Payment is accepted through PayPal. Due to the nature of his work, Mr. Marsella will need 25 days from receipt of payment to complete each diary. If you are interested in purchasing a replica diary, please email Mr. Marsella directly at email@example.com and he will give you instructions on how to pay through PayPal.
If you have any questions about the diaries feel free to leave a comment below or email Mr. Marsella directly. As an owner of one of Mr. Marsella’s replica diaries, I can say that his workmanship is impeccable. I have used this diary as a prop during my own reenactments as John Wilkes Booth, I’ve brought it along with me to speeches, and I always carry it when I give the John Wilkes Booth escape route bus tour. You should see the interest in people’s faces when I pass around my handmade, Italian crafted (Mr. Marsella lives in Italy) replica John Wilkes Booth diary. Everyone on the bus enjoys leafing through the pages and seeing John Wilkes Booth’s handwriting duplicated exactly. They have no idea that the piece is so exactly duplicated that even the missing and torn pages in the replica match the real McCoy in the Ford’s Theatre museum. My diary has passed through many hands in the 4 years that I have had it and it’s holding up great.
I truly enjoy giving Mr. Marsella some free advertising and assisting him in selling his diaries because he provides such a unique and well-crafted piece that you can’t get anywhere else. Get yours today before they’re gone once more.
In addition to being a school teacher, I also have a part time job giving tours at Historic Port Tobacco Village in Charles County, Maryland. Port Tobacco is the original county seat of Charles County with a long and multifaceted history. The village also plays into the Lincoln assassination story due to George Atzerodt’s residence there and Thomas Jones being offered $100,000 for Booth’s whereabouts in a Port Tobacco hotel. It’s a nice spot to visit and learn some history.
Today, I was fortunate enough to give a tour to a group of four retirees from Pennsylvania. They were in Maryland to visit some of the Booth escape sites which means we got along swimmingly. I provided them insight into the Confederate leanings of Maryland during the Civil War and how Southern Maryland was a hotbed of Confederate sympathizers which worked in Booth’s favor. As we went on, the group asked me about the recent events in Charlottesville and the ongoing removal over Confederate monuments. This was the first time I had been asked to share my opinion about it in public.
I am not someone who shies away from or avoids the uncomfortable or dark parts of our history. I spend most of my time investigating and researching the individuals who murdered our 16th President. Though I am not a professional historian, I always try to look at things with a historian’s eye and understand the context of an event.
And so, with that historian’s perspective, I told the group my heartfelt opinion. The Confederate memorials in our country’s cities should come down. It is not only the right thing to do morally, but also historically.
I’d like to expand on the statement above by addressing some of the reasons I have come across regarding people’s reasons for wanting the Confederate memorials to remain.
1. “What’s the big deal? It’s just a statue.”
A great many people might have this sort of reaction when discussing the removal of Confederate memorials. It derives from either a lack of knowledge on the subject or from a view of “It doesn’t bother me so it shouldn’t bother you.” The former situation can hopefully be remedied by educating oneself about what the the memorials represent. The latter situation speaks to an individual’s inability to empathize and consider the feelings of others. You may not be personally offended by a statue of Jefferson Davis or Robert E. Lee, but one would hope it would not be difficult for you to see why others might be offended. As I teach my third graders, it is important that we attempt to put ourselves in the shoes of people different from ourselves and consider their feelings and points of view. When it comes to the Confederate memorials, it is imperative for white Americans who question the need to remove these pieces to see these statues through different eyes. How would you feel about walking by and seeing these statues if your ancestors were brought over to this country on slave ships and forced into generations of servitude? Or, as a person of color in this country who has to deal with both random and institutionalized acts of racism each day, how would you feel seeing these figures, who fought for white supremacy, in prominent positions in front of your local government buildings? One would hope that morality, understanding and compassion alone would make a compelling case for why these memorials deserve to be removed.
2. “You are erasing history”
This is among the most common reaction I have seen from people who are in favor of keeping the Confederate memorials, despite the moral objections to them. This view holds that the monuments are pieces of history and that they should remain since they represent our past. Some proponents of this view are able to admit that these statues represent a shameful part of our past, but that they still deserve to stay. While, on the face of it, this seems like a reasonable enough opinion, the truth of the matter is that these memorials do not represent the history that the proponents of this view think they do.
Perhaps the thing that has bothered me most in the recent days has been seeing those I considered educated historians fall into the trap of believing that these monuments represent benign figures of history. Below is a wonderful graphic put together by the Southern Poverty Law Center regarding when most of our nation’s over 1,500 public statues and memorials to the Confederacy were erected.According to the SPLC, “The dedication of Confederate monuments and the use of Confederate names and other iconography began shortly after the Civil War ended in 1865. But two distinct periods saw significant spikes. The first began around 1900 as Southern states were enacting Jim Crow laws to disenfranchise African Americans and re-segregate society after several decades of integration which followed Reconstruction. It lasted well into the 1920s, a period that also saw a strong revival of the Ku Klux Klan. The second period began in the mid-1950s and lasted until the late 1960s, the period encompassing the modern civil rights movement.”
The correlation should be evident and speaks to the true purpose of these memorials. The monuments that are coming down were never intended to be benign representations of Civil War history as some would like to think of them. The erection of these statues were direct responses to the efforts of bringing about racial equality and, when viewed in that proper context, we can see the perception of these memorials as being symbols of white supremacy far more accurate then them being symbols of the past. The only history these memorials represent is one of white supremacy, and sadly their removal will not do anything to erase that part of our history or present.
I think it’s important for us to note that the memorials being removed are not historic markers on Civil War battlefields or educational panels inside of museums. Nor are people calling for the destruction of Confederate graves or headstones. The graphic above does not count the, “approximately 2,570 Civil War battlefields, markers, plaques, cemeteries and similar symbols that, for the most part, merely reflect historical events.” As far as I am aware, there have been no calls to shut down the Gettysburg battlefield, stop teaching about the Civil War in schools, or disinter Confederate dead. The Civil War is not going to be forgotten by the removal of these memorials. If you truly feel that that removing these statues will result in the “erasing of history”, I would like to point out to you that there are millions of articles, pamphlets, books, magazines, journals, dissertations, exhibits, maps, songs, documentaries, websites, etc, written about the Civil War that will teach you far more about history than a Jim Crow era statue to white supremacy ever could.
3. “Robert E. Lee (or any other Confederate name) also did a lot of positive things for the country, too.”
I’ve certainly seen this argument. The idea is that the people on the memorial pedestals may have expressed views contrary to the Confederacy, acted with honor, were well respected, helped to bring the nation back together after the war, or contributed to America in other ways. This view holds that it is not fair for statues of these figures to be condemned just for “wearing the Gray”. This is an interesting point of view that I’d like to explore.
Using this view, I would like to propose that a new Civil War statue be placed in D.C.. The figure for the statue would be a man who, in the midst of the secession crisis wrote, “I believe in country right or wrong, but gentlemen the whole union is our country and no particular state. We should love the whole union and not only the state in which we were born. We are all one people, and should have but one wish, one object, one heart.” This man, so against secession, was described personally by his peers as, “a manly man; a term not easily defined, for there are those, blessed by nature, who have lacked the qualities of manhood. [He] was not one of these; he was firm as a rock, honest, sincere, and unassuming in his private associations. If he had not a good word, he never used a bad one, to friend or foe; yet he never brooked an insult or pocketed an affront. Young, impetuous, fearless, true, he was also kind, loving, and sympathetic; he could wile away hours playing with children, like a big boy (he often did so with mine) and the next moment, he was a man among men. His word was his bond, and men that knew him never doubted it.” Lastly, my proposed figure, a man who opposed secession and was so admired by his friends, was described as a “genius” by newspapers nationwide. “The hackneyed term, talent, cannot be used in speaking of this young [man] of such wonderful promise. It is genius in the broadest and largest acceptation of the term.” Doesn’t the man described above sound worthy of a possible memorial? Based on the side of these view points, the answer would certainly be, yes. And yet when I tell you that the man I have described is John Wilkes Booth, the assassin of Lincoln, does it still seem like a good idea to place a memorial to him? Decency would hopefully compel you to say no, but why is that so? It is very much true that John Wilkes Booth opposed secession originally and found himself in trouble while performing in Montgomery, Alabama due to this pro-union view. Booth was loved and respected by practically every single person he interacted with. He was notably fond and good with children. His genius on the stage made it so that Booth was considered one of the country’s greatest actors. Yet, despite all of John Wilkes Booth’s positive attributes one would never put up a statue of him in a public square because he chose what his legacy would be when he shot Abraham Lincoln.
The same can be said for Lee, Jackson, Davis, and all of the Confederate officials. No matter what they may or may not have personally felt about issues like slavery, when they made their choices to fight against the Union, they surrendered their legacies to that of the Confederacy. While one is free to explore the complex histories of these figures, in the same way that this blog explores the histories of those connected in Lincoln’s death, nothing you can find will ever unravel these figures with the cause they sided with. All of the men featured on the memorials that are coming down chose the legacy of siding with the Confederacy. And, lest we forget, the Confederacy’s reason for existing was the perpetuation of racial based rape, torture, and genocide, otherwise known as slavery. That is the legacy of the Confederacy and those who fought to support it.
4. “Of course slavery was wrong but lots of people owned slaves. Are you going to target George Washington and Thomas Jefferson next because they were slave owners?”
Perhaps the most desperate of all of the reasons to keep the Confederate memorials is the above “slippery slope” analogy. It attempts to equate pre-Civil War slave owners such as Washington and Jefferson with the slave owning Confederates. It usually follows that, if we are to remove these Confederate statues, when will it end? Are we going to tear down Mount Vernon and Monticello since they had slaves? Such a false equivalency would be laughable if not for the large number of people who fall victim to it. One is free to compare historic figures such as George Washington and, say, Jefferson Davis. But to put them on equal footing just because they were both slave owners shows a total disregard for the time periods in which they lived and the causes for which they fought. There is no equivalency in the legacies of the first President of the United States and the only President of the Confederate States. The legacies of Washington and Thomas Jefferson are not spotless, but attempting to equate them with those who fought a war to continue the bondage of millions of people is an insult.
Even worse than attempting to equate Washington and Davis or Jefferson and Lee is attempting to equate a Confederate statue on the grounds of a courthouse with educational institutions like Mount Vernon and Monticello. Museums like Monticello should be commended for their continued efforts to explore their owners’ relationships with slavery even when doing so results in uncomfortable truths, such as Jefferson’s sexual abuse of Sally Hemmings. It is also important to note that the efforts of these institutions in addressing the truth of our former Presidents and slavery were widely brought about by activists who demanded that the lives of the enslaved peoples on these plantations not be forgotten.
When museums are done right, they explain the events of the past, both good and bad, providing needed context for those in modern times to understand them. Museums are not in the business of justifying events of the past. These Confederate memorials, on the other hand, were erected for the express purpose of providing pro-Confederate propaganda by appealing to notions of honor, sacrifice, and nobility, in order to appease a white population uncomfortable with the thought of racial equality.
5. “I saw a video of people pulling down a statue. This is just the work of criminals who break the law.”
A few days ago a group of protesters wrapped a rope around a Confederate memorial on the courthouse grounds of Durham, North Carolina and pulled down a statue, which was largely crushed under the weight of its marble base as it fell. The police watched the events but did nothing to stop the protesters at the time. Since then several arrests have been made for the destruction of public property using video footage to identify those present. This morning, over 100 people lined up at the Durham County Detention Center to willingly surrender themselves for contributing to the memorials’ destruction. Many of those who surrendered themselves were not present when the memorial was pulled down but were standing in solidarity with those that did.
Did the protesters break the law by taking matters into their own hands and destroying the Confederate memorial? Yes, they did. Do they deserve punishment for the destruction of public property? I believe that they do. But that instance of vigilantism and the action of of the community today in response to it, speaks to the importance of this issue and that these memorials cannot be ignored. People may not want to see it, but the Confederate memorials are a civil rights issue. The history of their creation and their intended message made it so that they were always were. Unfortunately, it took the murder of Heather Heyer at the hands of overt white supremacists in Charlottesville, Virginia to make others, including me, aware of the fight that has been occurring for decades.
The protesters in Durham tore down a statue and should be punished accordingly, but that doesn’t make them, or their cause, wrong. When Nazis and KKK members are unabashedly marching in the streets to support a Confederate monument and an innocent protester standing up to their hate is mowed down, there should be no question as to which side is in the right. They may have broken the law and others may very well follow them, but the cause of ridding our cities of these symbols of white supremacy is a just one.
This summer, Kate and I visited the Civil Rights Memorial Center in Montgomery, Alabama. We watched the video and explored the exhibits regarding the stories of some of the men and women who lost their lives in the quest for equal rights for all Americans. It was a deeply moving experience which was concluded with a visit to the Civil Rights Memorial. I was struck with how many average white Americans during the 1950’s and 60’s era saw those engaged in the civil rights marches and events as “criminals” and ” law breakers”. By rebelling against racists practices, these individuals broke the law time and time again. They may have been on the wrong side of the law, but they were on the right side of history.
For those of you who may not have been aware of or were confused about the reasons why Confederate memorials were being removed from government properties, I hope this post has been helpful. When I concluded my tour today, the visitors informed me that, while they already supported the removal of the memorials due to Nazis and the KKK being in favor of keeping them, learning the history behind the creation of these public memorials had given then the insight they needed to strengthened their view.
We are not erasing history. Museums, battlefields, historic markers and our National Parks tell the story of the Civil War. The Confederate memorials in public squares do not tell the story of the Civil War. Many still are under the impression that removing these public statues is the same as destroying Confederate grave stones, but that is not what is happening. The statues are not, nor have they ever been, representations of benign history. These memorials are physical representations to the cause of white supremacy both in substance and intent. What we have seen, and what we will continue to see in the coming weeks, are Americans from all walks of life coming together to finally remove these memorials and define what causes are worthy of commemoration in today’s society. These memorials to white supremacy will be taken down. Confederate schools and streets will be renamed. These actions have no impact on the history of the Civil War, for the past has already been written. We are removing these statues for the sake of the future. When Nazis support the heritage of these white supremacist monuments and spill the blood of those who who fight back against their hate, it is up to all people to defy them. Removing these memorials show that we, as Americans, not only acknowledge the tragedies of our past, but understand that their demons still haunt us today. Removing these memorials will not eliminate the demons, but will prove that we will no longer let those demons represent who we are as a society.
For an excellent view on the way the Confederacy is represented in our public spaces, I highly recommend: Whose Heritage?: Public Symbols of the Confederacy by the Southern Poverty Law Center
I also highly recommend the works of Civil War historian, Kevin Levin. He has an entire website about how the Civil War has been remembered over the years which is extremely insightful.
P.S. I have decided to preemptively disable the comment feature on this particular post. By disabling all comments, I can naively believe that everyone who has read this is on the side of morality and social justice. If you have read this post and still do not see several compelling reasons to remove the Confederate memorials, then nothing I, or anyone else can say, will change your mind. Everyone is free to believe what they will, but I will not allow my comment section to become filled with more false equivalences and hyperbole about how removing white supremacist statues is the same as desecrating Confederate dead. I’ve read the other side. I’ve addressed many of their reasons above. If those reasons alone are not enough for you, then you and I have nothing to talk about.
On June 27, 2017, I was fortunate enough to return to the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum in order to speak to their volunteers and members of the public. The topic of my talk revolved around the four conspirators who were executed for their involvement in John Wilkes Booth’s plot against Lincoln. The following is a video of that talk that the ALPLM was kind enough to put on YouTube:
In the process of researching and writing this speech I consulted many excellent books. Specifically, I’d like to point out the vital scholarship of Betty Ownsbey in her book on Lewis Powell and the research of Kate Clifford-Larson in her book about Mary Surratt. These texts are a wealth of information and proved invaluable in preparing for this speech. I would also like to thank Betty Ownsbey and Dr. Blaine Houmes for allowing me to use some of their images in this speech.
The day before the speech I gave a radio interview to WTAX, the local Springfield station, about the speech and my interest in the Lincoln assassination. It’s only about 5 minutes long and can be heard here: https://soundcloud.com/news-radio-wtax/6-26-17-dave-taylor-lincoln-assassination-expert-podcast
I’d like to thank the folks at the ALPLM for allowing me to come back and speak to their volunteers. I must admit that I definitely feel a strong sense of pride at being able to tell people that I’ve spoken at the Lincoln library. Kate and I had an amazing time touring the museum and being taken into the vault to see their treasures.
I hope you all enjoy the speech.
EDIT: For ease of access I’m also going to embed the video of my prior speech for the ALPLM in which I discussed John Wilkes Booth’s history:
Tomorrow, June 21, 2017, Kate and I are taking to the road on what we’re calling the Great Boothie Road Trip 2017 ©. It will be quiet here on the blog for next couple of weeks as we drive out to see family, friends, and of course, Boothie sites from our Lincoln assassination maps! A week from now we’ll be in Springfield, Illinois where I will be presenting at the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library. As a follow up to my speech on John Wilkes Booth last summer, this year I will be speaking on the four conspirators who were executed for their involvement in Lincoln’s death . For those of you who live in the area and might be interested in attending this speech, the ALPLM has free tickets available to those who register. See this site to reserve your tickets: https://alplmfoundation.tix.com/Event.aspx?EventCode=978923 For those of you not in the area, the speech is scheduled to be recorded and I will let you all know when it is put online.
As excited as I am to be speaking at the Lincoln library once again, that speech will only be a small part of our multi-state road trip with many fascinating detours and stops. While we’re hoping to put up a full post about our adventures when we get back, I encourage you all to follow our exploits as we go via Twitter. You don’t have to be signed up for Twitter to see what Kate and I are tweeting. You can either visit my Twitter page, which is accessible by clicking here, or by watching the Twitter bar on this website. For desktop users, the Twitter bar should be somewhere on the right hand side and for mobile users, it should be near the bottom of the page. For those of you who do have Twitter, we are planning on using the hashtag #BoothieRoadTrip if you want to follow along.
Well, you’ll have to excuse me now because Kate and I have a scheduled departure time of 4:00 am tomorrow. It’s time for us to get some rest. We hope you’ll follow us as we experience the Great Boothie Road Trip 2017 ©!