At the August 2017 ROADSHOW in Portland, Oregon, a guest named Mary brought in a family letter written in 1865 by her grandfather (yes, that's right!) John E. Bingham, then a young man of 19, who was an eyewitness to John Wilkes Booth's assassination of President Abraham Lincoln at Ford's Theatre in Washington, D.C., on April 14 of that year.
"[The assassin's] face is impressed on my mind so strongly that I think I never will forget it. His eyes gleamed like fire, his skin almost white to transparency and his jet black hair waving in accordance with his motions. ... Such a sight as I saw there was enough to touch the heart of a savage."
In the letter dated April 21 and addressed to his uncle, Bingham describes how he had decided to go with a couple of friends to Ford's Theatre the previous Friday evening in hopes of catching a glimpse not of President Lincoln, whom he had recently stood in the rain to see deliver a speech on the country's post-war future, but of Gen. Ulysses S. Grant, the hero of the Union cause, who had received General Lee's unconditional surrender of Confederate troops at Appomattox the previous Sunday, April 9.
Bingham did not get to see the general, for perhaps luckily Grant did not attend My American Cousin after all. But as the account written a week later attests, the grave and shocking events Bingham did witness that night at Ford's Theatre affected him deeply.
Books & Manuscripts expert Ian Ehling was clearly moved at the experience of reading such a vividly written — and previously unknown — historical document, remarking that "You can't get any closer to the tragic events of that day. ... This description, it just makes my hair stand up — just unbelievable." He appraised its auction value at between $10,000 and $15,000.
Read Bingham's full letter below.
Letter from J. E. Bingham to his uncle, April 21, 1865
Washington D.C. April 21, 1865
You must excuse my negligence in not writing oftener of late, but the excitement which has prevailed for the last week has totally incapacitated me for any kind of labor. Day after day passed and every day brought with it good news and a prospect of the speedy termination of the war. Our cup of happiness was filled to the brim, and nothing could exceed the excitement with which the news of the Surrender of Lee's army was received.
Mr. Lincoln had been pressed on several occasions to make a speech and finally did, taking for his subject the future prospects of the Country — the reconstruction of the Union, &c. I was present and heard it although it was raining, and now when I think of it I can almost see him delivering his address. On last Friday, just one week ago, I was told that Grant & wife would accompany the President to the Theatre[.] I must confess that I never yet have seen Grant, and as I was anxious for a glimpse I accompanied a couple of friends to the theatre[.] Considering the object of our going we took greater pains in trying to get a full view of the box and its contents, than in getting a good position for witnessing the performance. At about half past eight the President entered accompanied by his wife, Miss Harris and Major Rathbone.
We were all very much disappointed on not seeing General Grant but we certainly had good cause to be thankful afterwards ("Harpers Weekly" contains a tolerable good description of the assassination, with the exception that the President and his wife occupied a different position and that the assassin fired with his left hand.) The assassination took place I think shortly after ten o'clock. Shortly after the shot was heard Booth sprang to the stage. As soon as he recovered himself he drew a large knife and shouted "sic semper tyrannis" the motto of Virginia. Looking up to a man seated near me, who afterwards proved an acquaintance, he said "I have done it." By that time he had crossed the stage and partly turning he waved his dagger on high and shouted, "The South's avenged!" This was the last we saw of him.
His face is impressed on my mind so strongly that I think I never will forget it. His eyes gleamed like fire, his skin almost white to transparency and his jet black hair waving in accordance with his motions. But to continue. After hearing the motto I thought that something serious had happened and I with the rest rushed to the box. Such a sight as I saw there was enough to touch the heart of a savage.
Mr. Lincoln was stretched on the floor with his head pillowed in the lap of Miss Laura Keene. His brains were slowly oozing out into her lap. Mrs. Lincoln was frantic, screaming "O my God! They have killed him, they have killed him!" He was taken to a house opposite where everything was done but to no avail. Hour after hour the crowd wailed and lingered thinking perhaps he might be spared, but when they were told "he is dead" they all turned away each to his home. Some crying, some praying but most of them cursing the wretch who took his life.
I never saw anything that would compare with the obsequies of last Wednesday. The procession was more than two hours passing, and I have heard it spoken of and do not doubt it myself that there were one hundred and fifty-thousand people in the Avenue and fifteenth street. I am exceedingly sorry to hear of Jim Caruthers' death, and sympathize with Pheobe Jinnci [?] & all.
The weather here is exceedingly pleasant. You can rest assured that Todd is safe. None but Cavalry were engaged in that fight.
Your loving nephew
J. E. Bingham