The Assassination of President Lincoln

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The Assassination of President Lincoln
Currier and Ives
14 x 17 in.
Chicago History Museum

This is a shocking, violent picture! It depicts John Wilkes Booth shooting Abraham Lincoln at Ford’s Theater, Washington, D.C., on April 14, 1865. The war had only ended two days before. 

The makers of this print—New Yorkers Nathaniel Currier and James Merritt Ives—produced best-selling lithographs of sports, landscapes, natural wonders, and famous people. Paintings and sculptures were expensive, but lithographs could be made by the thousands, and so were very cheap. At first these lithographs were printed in black-and-white, then hand-colored in assembly line fashion by young immigrant women; later, Currier and Ives were able to print them in full color. From the mid-1830s to beyond 1900, the firm produced over a million prints, all designed for people who wanted art, but who weren’t rich.

Normally, the firm took weeks to produce a print, but this one came out in just ten days. This image was really more like news than a picture to be hung on a wall. Whoever made the drawing for the print was likely not a well trained, professional artist.  The heads are a little too large. Other “mistakes” include showing Major Henry Rathbone on his feet during the shooting (he wasn’t). And Lincoln actually faced the other direction when he was shot, and did not grab the American flag. None of this mattered for the printmakers. No American president had ever been assassinated and the essential thing was to help the people “see” what had happened. The North plunged into grief as a giant manhunt got underway for Booth.

1. Why would the artist show Lincoln grabbing the American flag?  What meaning does that suggest? And why does it make sense for the picture to have Major Rathbone lunging toward Booth? 

2. Can you imagine a time when there were no television, movies, or computers? How do you think this picture would have made people feel in those days? 

Further reading: “Abraham Lincoln’s Assassination.” Accessed July 22, 2011.

Steers, Edward. Blood on the Moon: The Assassination of Abraham Lincoln.  Lexington: U. Press of Kentucky, 2005.

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