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An eyewitness account of Lincoln's Assassination

Walt Whitman
Walt Whitman

Walt Whitman is known for a lot of things – outstanding poet, an essayist, and a journalist. He also visited many wounded soldiers in hospitals during the Civil War to provide comfort during their long convalescence. What he is probably not know for is that he was an eyewitness to the assassination of Abraham Lincoln at Ford’s Theater.

Here's what Whitman said of the theater itself and the crowd – “The theater was crowded. Many ladies in rich and gay costumes. Officers in their uniforms, many well-known citizens, young folks, the usual cluster of gas lights, the usual magnetism of so many people, cheerful with perfume, music of violins and flutes – and over all, a suturing, that vast, vague, wonder, victory, the nation’s victory, the triumph of the Union filling the air, the thought, the scent, with exhilaration more than all perfumes.”

Whitman explained the deadly scene as follows: “Through the general hum following the stage pause, with the change of position &c., came the muffled sound of a pistol shot, which not one hundredth of the audience heard at the time –yet a moment’s hush – somehow surely a vague started thrill – and then through the ornamental drapery starred and striped space way of the president’s box, a sudden figure. A main raises himself with hands and feet, stands a moment on the railing, leaps below to the stage (a distance perhaps fourteen or fifteen feet), falls out of position –catching himself, his boot heel in the copious drapery (the American flag), falls on one knee, quickly recovers himself, rises as if nothing had happened (he really sprains his ankle, but unfelt then) and the figure, Booth, the murderer, dressed in plain black broad cloth, bare headed, with a full head of glossy raven hair, and his eyes, like some animals, flashing with light and resolution, yet with a certain strange, calmness, holds aloft in one hand a large knife – fully towards the audience, his face a statuesque beauty, lit by those basilisk eyes, flashing with desperation, perhaps insanity – launches out in a firm and steady voice the words “sic semper tyrannis’ – and then walks with neither slow nor very rapid pace diagonally across the back of the stage and disappears.”

Whitman commented that it was a day in which the lilacs were in bloom as he walked to the theater. And that since then, whenever he smelled lilacs, he found that the aroma reminded him of the events of April 14, 1865 at Ford’s Theater.

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