Sunday, November 24, 2013

Kennedy and Lincoln, Oswald and Booth

Washington, D.C. Spectators at side of the Capitol, which is hung with crepe and has flag at half-mast
Washington, D.C., May 1865. Spectators at side of the Capitol, which is hung with mourning crepe and has flag at half-mast.

In commemoration of the Kennedy assassination, the New York Times put together a wonderful interactive spread of their coverage following the events of November 22, 1963. It included remembrances of past assassinations (four total) including another time a slain President was replaced by a Johnson, on April 15, 1865.

The first President assassinated in office, Lincoln's murder was part of a conspiracy to depose all the leaders of the US government. There were six conspirators, but only two fulfilled their duties, and only two were killed as a result: Lincoln and Frederick William Seward, the son of the Secretary of State.

The country was devastated by the news. Headlines ran "The Great Calamity!" The New York Tribune reported, "every city was draped in mourning, every hotel and almost every house displaying crepe from the doors and windows."

While Lincoln was killed in a theater, Kennedy's assassin, Lee Harvey Oswald, was captured in one just hours after the act. It took eleven days, however, to capture Lincoln's assassin, John Wilkes Booth, who escaped on horseback.

Relying on word of mouth sitings, primarily from disbanded rebels, Booth was eventually tracked down on April 26, 1865 in Bowling Green, VA.

As the New York Daily Tribune reported, Booth was with his accomplice David C. Herold when they were surrounded in a barn.  Ordered to surrender, Booth declared that we would not be taken alive. So, the police decided to burn down the barn.

Once the first match was lit, Herold came out hands raised (he would later be hung for his crimes). Booth remained in the barn "for some time" but when he finally did exit, he was shot in the neck by a police sergeant.

According to the Tribune's recounting, Booth stayed alive for a couple of hours "whispering blasphemies about the government and messages to his mother desiring her to be informed that he died for his country."

Oswald appears to have been similarly motivated. Studying Marxist economic theories, "I could see the impoverishment of the masses in my own mother,"  Oswald told a United Press International correspondent in an interview. His fervor for Marxist ideology was so strong that he attempted to exchange his US citizenship for a Soviet one, spending two years in Russia, and marrying a Russian woman (the USSR denied his citizenship request).

But if Oswald's actions were designed to help his mother, his plan backfired. Upon learning that her son assassinated Kennedy, she told the Star-Telegram that his defection to the Soviet Union made her life lonely, "and now they will turn their backs on me again."

Only Booth admitted to his crime. After firing the fatal shoot he leaped onto the stage and declared with a dramatic flair "sic semper tyrannis" ("thus, always, to tyrants"). On the afternoon of November 22, despite vast evidence to the contrary, Oswald told reporters "I haven't shot anybody."

Fifty years after Lincoln's death, on April 15, 1915, President Wilson declared a national holiday (the Federal Reserve Bank, however, remained open). To honor the Great Emancipator, flags across the country and the world flew at half-mast. The New York Tribune reprinted a poem written for Lincoln by Vermonter and federal judge Wendell Phillips Stafford. Excerpted below.

Look back upon thy people now! 
Behold the world thy hands have wrought--
The conquest of thy bleeding brow, 
The harvest of thy sleepless thought

From sea to sea from palm to pine
The day of lord and slave is done.
The wind will float no flag but thine
The long divided house is one.

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Flannery O'Connor

You shall know the truth and the truth shall make you odd.