A century and a half ago, Abraham Lincoln was laughing at the punchline at a stage play when he was shot once in the back of the head. He never regained consciousness and died nine hours later.
Tuesday, April 14, was the 150th anniversary of day that John Wilkes Booth snuck into the Presidential Box at Ford’s Theatre during a performance of the farcical comedy “Our American Cousin.” Actor Harry Hawk, alone on stage, gave what Booth knew was one of the funniest lines in the play:
“Don’t know the manners of good society, eh? Well, I guess I know enough to turn you inside out, old gal; you sockdologizing old man-trap!”
As always, uproarious laughter followed, and that was when the assassin — an actor himself and a rebel sympathizer — pulled the trigger. At 7:22 a.m. the next day, in a cramped bed in a boarding house across from the theater, Lincoln died. April 15, 2015, was the 150th anniversary of his death.
“Laughing all day”
For a century and a half, Lincoln has been seen as a national martyr, as the final casualty of the Civil War. And that’s how he was viewed in the hours and days following his killing — but not by everyone.
As historian Martha Hodes notes in her new book Mourning Lincoln, there was a significant portion of the American populace, even in the North, happy the President had met his death:
“In Boston, an Irish cook made her politics known in front of her employers by ‘laughing all day’ when the news arrived.”
Even some fire-breathing, antislavery members of Lincoln’s own Republican Party, afraid of the President’s conciliatory tone toward the former Confederate states, were glad rather than sad over his assassination. One disgusted Congressman wrote in his diary: “Universal feeling among radical men here is that his death is a godsend.” Continue reading