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Friday, May 04, 2012

President Lincoln Has Been Shot!

One of the great things about working at the Rosenbach is getting to meet and work with great folks from other local museums. Last Friday night I volunteered to help the Mütter Museum (our closest museum neighbors) with a really neat event-- Murder at the Mütter 2TM

Courtesy of The College of Physicians of Philadelphia
The idea was to recreate the Lincoln assassination, then have the event participants try and reconstruct what happened, using the evidence that would have been available on the night of April 14, 1865. Some guests worked with the doctor who attended Lincoln, while others were reporters, government officials, etc. who interviewed eyewitnesses and looked for other evidence. After regrouping to share their conclusions, the participants then got to take a look at some of the forensic techniques that could be used today to solve a similar crime.

What did I get to do in all this? I played Clara Harris, who sat in the Presidential Box with the Lincolns and her fiancé Major Henry Rathbone. (Please ignore the photo on the Wikipedia page, which is not actually of Clara) 

You can see me on the far right of this picture, tending to Rathbone, who was slashed in the arm and head as he grappled with Booth. In the actual 1865 event, his arm was cut to the bone and bled quite profusely--most of the blood in the theater that night  was actually Rathbone's, not Lincoln's. This initially confused the doctors at the scene, who assumed Lincoln must have a freely bleeding wound somewhere, and also throws into confusion all of the relics "stained with Lincoln's blood" which have been circulating since1865, since there wasn't actually that much of his blood around.
Courtesy of The College of Physicians of Philadelphia
On an interesting historical note, Clara and Henry were last minute invitations to the theatrical evening. Originally Ulysses and Julia Grant were supposed to accompany the Lincolns, but they declined so that they could take an evening train to visit their children in New Jersey. When interviewed as Clara, I made sure to let people know about the Grants, so that they realized that both Mr. Lincoln and General Grant could have been targets for attack. During the event, reporters also relayed rumors that Sec.of State Seward had been murdered along with his family; thus helping to feed the idea of a wide-ranging conspiracy plot. (Seward was in fact attacked; he and his family survived, but reports of his death did swirl on the night of the 14th).

In the end the participants did a good job reconstructing the sequence of events. Here is Robert Hicks, the Director of the Mütter,  running the debriefing. One thing which was eye-opening to me was how fast it all happened. I even knew that a shot was coming, but I didn't know when, and before I knew it, Booth had leaped out of the box and was on his way out of the theater. I have no recollection of hearing him shout "Sic Semper Tyrannis" although the other reenactors assured me that he did. I can only imagine the confusion that must have reigned on the actual night, when no one was expecting anything and when the violence was real.

Courtesy of The College of Physicians of Philadelphia
If you are interested in the Lincoln assassination, you might want to check out some of the Rosenbach's documents on our 21stCentury Abe site--there are newspapers, letters about the event from an actress, a fake Ford's Theatre playbill (which I also discussed on the blog) and more. These documents and more will also be part of our Today in the Civil War blog, although they won't post until 2015.  I should also point out that the Mütter has an actual piece of John Wilkes Booth, removed by the College of Physicians member who did the autopsy.

 Here's one last photo, from the modern forensic portion of the Murder at the Mütter 2TM. There were eight different stations, discussing everything from ballistics and fingerprinting to shoe prints and fiber analysis. I found out that my silk shawl was in fact silk, although the "100% cashmere" scarf of another guest turned out to be acrylic (she admitted to having gotten it on the street).
Courtesy of The College of Physicians of Philadelphia
 So thanks to all our friends at the Mütter for a fantastic evening of science and history! I believe they may try to do a similar event again in the future, so keep your eyes peeled!

Kathy Haas is the Assistant Curator at the Rosenbach Museum & Library and the primary poster at the Rosen-blog

1 comment:

laurablanchard said...

This was a great event. Like Kathy, I missed the action at the critical moment. I instinctively turned toward the sound of the shot -- by the time I was facing the President's Box, John Wilkes Booth was well on his way offstage.