Civil War Profiles: George Alfred Townsend reports on ‘The Murder’

Date Published: 
December 13, 2013

An earthshaking event occurred at 10:13 p.m. on April 14, 1865, at Ford’s Theater in Washington, D.C. A popular actor named John Wilkes Booth assassinated the president of the United States, Abraham Lincoln.

In that pre-electronic age, mass communication was mainly through newspapers. The New York Times of April 17 recognized that this “sudden and awful [event] … excites anxiety and apprehension in the public mind.” To reassure its readers, the Times opined that, “Our government is of the people,” and this act “does not interrupt for an instant the grand movement of our republican government.”

Given the magnitude of this story, the New York World assigned their journalist in Washington, D.C., George Alfred Townsend, to follow up on this tragedy. Townsend — a 24-year-old from Georgetown, Del., who had earned a reputation as a perceptive battlefield reporter — over the next three months produced definitive accounts of the assassination and its aftermath in the form of “letters” to the public.

The first of these letters, titled “The Murder,” appeared in the World on April 17, three days after the assassination. Townsend initially explained how, on the morning of the 14th, Booth examined the scene of the crime he would commit. From a ticket agent at Ford’s Theater, he verified that the president was expected to visit the theater that evening.

Booth then went to a stable in the rear of the National Hotel, where he “engaged a saddle horse, a high-strung, fast, beautiful bay mare” that he would call for in the afternoon. The actor proceeded to the Kirkwood Hotel, where he attempted unsuccessfully to obtain “an examination of the vice president’s apartment and knowledge of [his] probable whereabouts the ensuing evening.” Andrew Johnson was also on Booth’s death list.

Later that afternoon, the would-be assassin obtained the mare at the stable and rode to Ford’s, where he left it in a stable behind the theater, in preparation for his escape. Implying the villain needed to bolster his courage, Townsend wrote that Booth’s next move was “to have refreshed himself at a neighboring bar-room.”

About 8 p.m., the president’s wife, Mary, interrupted a meeting Lincoln was having with Speaker of the House of Representatives, Schuyler Colfax, at the White House, saying, “Well, Mr. Lincoln, are you going to the theater with me or not?” Off they went, and arrived at Ford’s Theater about 8:40 p.m.

Meanwhile, Booth retrieved the mare from the stable, left it in the care of a stagehand, entered the theater and coolly performed the well-planned, infamous deed with a Derringer. Fortune remained with Booth as he “leaped then upon the velvet covered balustrade, … fled across the stage, … the back door previously left open at the rear of the theater, rushed through it; leaped upon the horse, … thence rapidly away.”

Townsend reported “a wild apprehension of an organized conspiracy” arose with news of an attempt to kill at his home Secretary of State William Seward, who “was very feeble from recent injuries.” Booth’s accomplice, Lewis Powell, forced entry and “sprang to the bed upon which the secretary lay, stabbing him once in the face and neck.” The assailant mounted his horse and calmly “trotted away.” Seward, however, survived the attack.

Lincoln’s death came “at 22 minutes past seven a.m.” on April 15, in the Peterson house across from the theater. His remains “were placed in a temporary coffin and conveyed to the White House under a small escort.”

Considering the dire nature of Seward’s wounds from the attack, his doctors decided not to inform him of the president’s death. When Seward inquired in anguish, “Why doesn’t the president come to see me?” Secretary of War Edwin Stanton, who had taken charge of events during the vigil prior to Lincoln’s passing, “related a full account of the whole affair.”

Townsend, having sketched the highlights of these tragic and frightening assaults, closed his “letter” with the verification that “the pursuit of the assassins has commenced.” He cautioned, however, “The town is full of wild and baseless rumors; much that is said is stirring, little is reliable.” Therefore, “I tell it to you as I get it, but fancy is more prolific than truth: be patient!”

The energetic young reporter proceeded to gather details about elaborate state funeral preparations for the deceased president of the United States. The next “letter” that we will examine, dated two days later on April 19, appeared in the World under the title “The Obsequies in Washington.”

Bethany Beach resident Thomas J. Ryan is the author of “Essays on Delaware during the Civil War.” Contact him at pennmardel@mchsi.com.