18 Hours of Breaking News

Editor’s Note: One of our partners for the Remembering Lincoln digital collection is the Newseum. The Newseum has digitized the breaking news about President Abraham Lincoln’s assassination reported by The New York Herald and contributed front pages from other papers across the country. You can see all of these online. In the below post, learn more about The New York Herald editions now on display at the Newseum and what’s remarkable about each of them.

If President Abraham Lincoln were assassinated today, many of the patrons in Ford’s Theatre might power up their cell phones and tweet in disbelief. Some theatregoers might even snap a photo of John Wilkes Booth jumping onto the stage and post it to Instagram.

But 150 years ago, there was no Internet or social media to spread breaking news, let alone phones, radio or television. Americans had to rely on word-of-mouth or newspapers—using the newest technology, the telegraph, to learn the tragic news of Lincoln’s assassination.

To mark this year’s anniversary of Lincoln’s death, the Newseum brings together for the first time all seven editions of The New York Herald from April 15, 1865. The papers, which at that time cost four cents each, provide a fascinating look at how the news unfolded.

President Lincoln is Dead: The New York Herald Reports the Assassination begins with the 2:00 a.m. edition, which contains the first Associated Press report that Lincoln had been shot. It ends with the 3:30 p.m. edition the next day that erroneously reports Booth’s arrest.

What is remarkable in those 18 hours of breaking news is the breadth of the The New York Herald’s coverage and its unrivaled team of reporters. There are the official, concise dispatches from Secretary of War Edwin Stanton (with details about Lincoln’s deteriorating medical condition); eyewitness accounts of the attack; updates on the hunt for the assassin and a $10,000 reward; reactions from the nation’s capital and around the country; details of the assassination plot, the autopsy, the president’s body being moved to the White House for viewing, the swearing-in of the new president, and preparations for a national funeral.

Image of the Ford's Theatre Presidential Box by Carol M. Highsmith.

Admittedly, finding all that news in the Herald’s editions is a challenge. The metal-type printing process made it difficult to remake pages quickly. The result: old and updated stories—sometimes conflicting —appeared on the same page. And when the front page was full, the latest developments—like President Andrew Johnson’s swearing-in—were pushed to the back page.

But if the Heralds layouts and presentation look foreign to us today, one element of its coverage is not: the mistakes. In the rush to report the news—then and now—fact-checking and verification sometimes fall by the wayside. Rumors are reported. The Herald’s errors range from misspelling Booth’s name and falsely reporting his arrest to forgetting to change the date on its sixth edition.

To help students navigate these newspapers, the Newseum’s Education Department has created a gallery guide that touches upon sources, accuracy and the changing look of front pages. And, in a nod to new technology, students are encouraged to take on the role of reporters and tweet events surrounding Lincoln’s assassination.

Ford’s Theatre is pleased to partner with the Newseum on Remembering Lincoln. Check out the many responses to news of President Lincoln’s assassination at www.rememberinglincoln.org. For more information on the Newseum’s exhibition visit www.newseum.org.