American Civil War, Researching Historical Fiction

Abe Lincoln Dead — Film at 11

President Abraham Lincoln was assassinated 150 years ago today, and nearly 60 years ago, the last surviving eyewitness appeared on a TV game show called “I’ve Got a Secret.”

Samuel J. Seymour was 96 when the show aired. The Atlantic posted a video clip of his appearance, and Robbie Gonzalez picked it up on the i09 website. Despite the crunchy quality, the clip is fascinating to watch.

The show’s host references Seymour’s first-person account in the Milwaukee Sentinel on February 7, 1954 (available here). According to Seymour, he was five years old on April 14, 1865, when he traveled to Washington from rural Maryland with the Goldsboros, on whose estate his father worked. He said he was scared by the sight of so many men on the streets carrying guns and was unaware that the city was in a celebratory mood because Robert E. Lee had surrendered a few days earlier.

As a treat, Mrs. Goldsboro took him to a play at Ford’s Theatre. She lifted him up so he could see President Lincoln when he arrived, smiling and waving to the crowd from his box seat.

Seymour had settled down and was enjoying the play when he heard the shot.

Someone in the president’s box screamed. I saw Lincoln slumped forward in his seat. People started milling around, and I thought there’d been another accident when one man seemed to tumble over the balcony rail and land on the stage.

Seymour called out to the grown-ups to help the man who had fallen, but John Wilkes Booth had already picked himself up and was “running for dear life,” which couldn’t have been easy with a broken leg.

At the end of his account, Seymour said:

That night I was shot 50 times, at least, in my dreams—and I sometimes still relive the horror of Lincoln’s assassination, dozing in my rocker as an old codger like me is bound to do.

On i09, Gonzalez talks about the human and technological wormholes that allow us to collapse time and see a video of someone who had witnessed such a momentous event in the days long before TV or 24-hour news cycles. It would be unbelievably good fortune for a historical fiction writer to be able to quiz someone who could tell you what it felt like to have been at Ford’s Theatre that night—the sights, sounds and smells. Priceless!

Incidentally, the old CBS radio show “You Are There” dramatized Lincoln’s assassination in a program first broadcast in 1947. It is chock full of fascinating historical details, complete with snippets of the play being performed at Ford’s, and evokes the pandemonium of that night in April 1865.

Click below for an audio recording of the program; it runs about 30 minutes.

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