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'Our hearts bleed as we write': Montana's reaction to news of Abraham Lincoln's death

'Our hearts bleed as we write': Montana's reaction to news of Abraham Lincoln's death
Illustration of the assassination of Abraham Lincoln

An 1865 illustration depicts the assassination of President Abraham Lincoln at Ford's Theater.

The anniversary of the assassination of Abraham Lincoln was nearly two weeks ago, on April 14. 

But April 28 marks the anniversary of the news reaching far-flung Montana. In 1865, Montana was just a hinterland territory — so distant that news traveled slowly. It took nearly two weeks for the tragic news to arrive, and the only contemporaneous accounts of the assassination were published in the only newspaper in the entire territory — a territory itself created by Lincoln just a few years previous.

The accounts of the assassination hit The Montana Post in its Saturday, April 29, 1865 edition.

Horrible assassination of President Lincoln and Secretary Seward

The headline read "Horrible Assassination of President Lincoln and Secretary Seward." 

But, by Page 2 of the paper, Seward was recovering peacefully.

The Montana Post, squarely Republican in its leaning, was doleful and respectful in tone, chronicling the reaction of the community. Yet, the Post and its politics were almost certainly in the minority. Virginia City had originally been named "Varina" after Confederate President Jefferson Davis' wife. Vigilante, tax assessor and first superintendent of Yellowstone National Park Nathaniel Pitt Langford recalled that most people around Virginia City were secessionists, "more disloyal as a whole than Tennessee or Kentucky ever was."

Further details of the great calamity!

"At the very moment when the chalice of victory was being placed to his lips, a cruel hand has dashed it away. At the very time when he was apparently about to enjoy the full fruition of those hopes for which he had so desperately and determinedly labored during the last four years, the murderer's weapon has snapped his thread of life," The Montana Post's account of Lincoln's murder began.

Telegram announcing Abraham Lincoln's death is up for sale

This photo shows a handwritten notification of President Abraham Lincoln's death. The telegram was written inside a home where Lincoln was rushed after being shot at Ford's Theater on April 14, 1865.

For the most part, the Civil War had ended less than a week before the assassination when, on April 9, Robert E. Lee had surrendered at the courthouse in Appomattox, Virginia. 

The assassination shattered an uneasy peace that could be felt even in Virginia City, more than 2,100 miles from the nation's capital.

A theater performance scheduled for that Saturday night in Virginia City was cancelled because of the "sadness and deep gloom now pervading the community." Ticketholders for the unnamed performance would see the production on Monday night.

Details of the assassination filled three pages of the four-page newspaper of that week, as conflicting reports were added without much attempt to discern the truth.

Some stories provide firsthand accounts of Ford's Theater from the assassination.

"The screams of Mrs. Lincoln, first disclosed the fact to the audience that the President had been shot when all present rose to their feet, rushing towards the stage, many exclaiming, 'hang him!' The excitement was of the wildest possible description. Of course there was an abrupt intermission of the theater performance. There was a rush toward the President's box when cries were heard, 'stand back! Give him air! Has any one stimulants?'

"On a hasty examination it was found that the President had been shot through the head above and back of the temporal bone and that some of the brain was oozing out."

That portion was next to the advertisement for John A. Nelson's wholesale liquor store in Virginia City which advertised that he "has on hand a choice lot of old rye whiskey which makes up splendidly in Hot drinks. He respectfully requests the public to give him a call and examine his stock on Wallace street, opposite California Exchange."

Liquor ad

It would be easy to believe that sentiment and sympathy for what had happened in the nation's capital and government was respectful. But next to the columns of Lincoln's assassination and the attempt on Secretary of State William Seward, there was news from Helena. 

One man had observed that as Judge Jones and Wilbur F. Sanders, two well-known Republicans, were walking down the streets of the future capital, someone hissed, "There goes some of the vampires of the government."

The paper's correspondent decided to let the remark pass, saying, "The speaker was a regular secesh (secessionist) who had probably just heard of the fall of Richmond and felt so bad, so, poor fellow! I took pity on him and let him go."

Next to the columns of death and assassination were reports from around the territory about the abundance of mining prospects, including one from Last Chance Gulch in Helena.

"I have examined them thoroughly and find that wherever there is rough, loose, shell bedrock, they are very rich in all the gulches around this locality; when the bedrock is clay, they do not pay so well. Taking them all together, however, they pay well, probably as well as Alder Gulch ever did and they would do better if they had more good miners, but the gulches in this vicinity were mostly taken up by the 'tenderfooted' pilgrims that come out last season ... and they know more about raising wheat on the prairies, digging ginseng in the 'Big Woods,' gathering cranberries in Minnesota swamps or logs in the pineries than using the pick and shovel."

In that same edition of the Montana Post, at the bottom of the front page, it told about a new metal that had just been discovered, magnesium. "It's made quite a sensation among scientific and commercial circles. It gives, when ignited, the brightest light yet known."

A new discovery — magnesium

Lightbulbs were still 15 years in the future.

The Montana Post outlined each of its six newspaper columns in black as a typical sign of mourning for the times. Many newspapers across the country had done the same, days earlier. The president had personally appointed many of the territory's highest-ranking leaders, including Gov. Sidney Edgerton, and had signed the legislation that split Montana into a separate territory. The president had done that hastily because of fears of confederates siphoning the gold to finance its own war effort. 

Though some have recorded what the average person thought in letters or diaries, the editors of The Montana Post wondered aloud about the assassination in newspaper's editorial columns beneath the headline, "The Dark Day."

"The black record is written on the pages of history and the earthly tenement of as pure a soul as ever animated a mortal frame, and as noble a mind as ever planned the salvation of a people — is today but a clod of the valley," the editors lamented. 

Black marigns

Surely Lincoln, who made a practice of self depreciation, would have blushed at such a description. 

"Our heart bleeds as we write; but our sorrow is not for these men, but for the people of America. With all his triumphs garlanding his brow; with the sweet incense of a nation's gratitude floating around him; embalmed in memories of his countrymen; the theme of their poets; the hero of their songs; his name the talisman of the oppressed in every clime; the story of his acts told by the mother tho the listening child, for centuries to come, can we pity Abraham Lincoln as he looks benignly down upon the people the he died to save from the topmost niche in the temple of fame? No. For him we rejoice as for one who has received the reward which he earned so nobly. The fair record of the past is his; no blush mantles the cheek of the angelic scribe as he pens the story of his life, and a tear falls on the unsullied page as he closes the book. The noblest work of God — an honest man — was Abraham Lincoln."

Jesus Christ had competition in 1865, obviously.

The newspaper recorded events from around the country, including several people who were met with violence when they expressed support for the assassination.  

Accounts tell about Washington soldiers shooting a man who rejoiced at the news of the death of Lincoln.

"Three rebel prisoners were hung in Indianapolis for expressing gratification at the success of the assassins," a separate item noted. 

The Montana Post described the scene around Bannack, including the reaction of Edgerton. 

Flags were at half-staff and were lined with black fringe, and business was suspended. A public meeting was called for 3:30 p.m., and the Chief Justice of the Territory, Hezekiah Hosmer, as well as Sanders and Thomas Dimsdale, the author of "The Vigilantes of Montana" spoke.

"Upon the whole, the demeanor of the population well became American citizens who mourned the loss of two men (thinking Seward was killed) — one of whose places at least can hardly be as worthily filled again."

Court was adjourned for a day, and the local legal bar sent a declaratory resolution to Washington, D.C., which said, "the safety of any people in time of war as in time of peace can only be based upon a careful adherence to the Law — military or civil — and deeming these atrocities a violation of both, have met to testify their unqualified condemnation of the deeds and their abhorence of the perpetrators.

"Those who differed from the President yet conceded to him sincerity of heart, singleness of purpose and through devotion to the great labor which he had been called by the suffrages of the nation...

"We do not despair of the Republic but feel assured that the American people are equal to the great occasion and out of all this trouble they will bring the Ship of State in  safely through all the storms of war into the haven of a blessed and unending peace."

U.S. PRESIDENT: Abraham Lincoln

Rick Tuma portrait of Abraham Lincoln, a U.S. president. 

The news of Lincoln's death filled so much of the paper that otherwise more notable items got short-shrift.

"Man Killed — Yesterday evening about 11 o'clock, the rearward half of the roof of the California Exchange fell in while the dance was proceeding in the adjoining room. The cries of those in the neighborhood were at first mistaken for a fire alarm and the wagons turned out. John Gardiner, better known as Old Phil was buried in the ruins and violently struck by a heavy log above and between the eyes. Doctor Brown and Professor Dimsdale used every means to restore the man but he breathed only once."

That notice was not far from an item in the April newspaper complaining of pot holes. 

"Mend Your Ways! Right in front of the office of the Post there is a mud-hole of such portentous dimensions, adhesive tenacity of material and uncertain profundity that we cannot help thinking the Street Commissioners might see it without a spy-glass. A crossing is necessary at this point and apart from the sorrows of what the boardinghouse keepers call 'transient' gentlemen, the ladies are compelled to make a long and muddy detour, involving an elevation of the skirt not relished by the most valued and respected of the sex."

Mend Your Ways

The columns, dressed in a black outline, still had a feel of normalcy even though the news was anything but.

"NOTICE: Whereas my wife, Sarah Shell, has left my bed and board without cause or provocation, I therefore forbid all persons trusting her on my account, as I shall pay no debts contracted by her. George Shell, Silver Bow City, Montana Territory, April 14, 1865."

In addition to divorce, potholes and a dancing tragedy, there was plenty of evidence of Virginia City's rough edges. There's little wonder it took so long for the news of the assassination to travel.

Montana Post, Saturday, April 29, 1865 A1

The cover of The Montana Post on April 29, 1865 announcing President Abraham Lincoln's death. 

"An individual primed and loaded with the abomination of the Good Templars being moved with indignation at the perusal of one of the notices of the U.S. Assessor to the tax payers tore down the offending document Sheriff X. Biedler started in hot pursuit after the fugitive who took to his heels on being discovered. Drawing his revolver, he ordered the offender to stand or he would shoot. This terrible announcement, enforced by the click of a navy relaxed all his muscles and he brought up all standing like an oyster boat on a sand bar. The fine for the offense committed is $500 and two years imprisonment, but in consideration of the physical evidence of his mental suffering, and also his being in a state of whisky, he was reprimanded and discharged upon paying costs."

A week later, Virginia City had returned to mostly normal. The news included updates — the very latest it purported on the assassination, including the hot pursuit of John Wilkes Booth, even though by then, Booth had been dead for 10 days. 

But, a letter from Helena to the Post's editor noted that the community had just learned the news.

"The news of the death of the president which we received by the extra saddened every loyal heart among us, and we fully endorsed your editorial on the subject," the letter from "Gleaner" began.

Quickly, though the news moved on.

"Provisions are ranging at very high prices at present. No flour at any price. But we gladly hear, and hope it will prove true that a small supply is almost here and we soon anticipate to greet some nice warm biscuits as ocular evidence thereof."

For the following two weeks — throughout the month of May 1865 — the Post was replete with copies of letters sent to Mary Todd Lincoln, the president's widow. It also published poems and editorials meant to eulogize the slain leader.

In Nevada City, a committee of three leaders, drafted a lengthy resolution.

"The preamble to the resolution is, we regret, too long for insertion in our columns, owing to the press of other matter which cannot be postponed," The Post said.

However, the committee mentioned that any "outward manifestations of exultation or joy" at the assassination or "any person who shall be guilty of using language expressive of the same" would be held "amenable to loyalty for his conduct, and visited with prompt and severe punishment."

That was probably no trifling language for a place synonymous with vigilantes.

It's also reasonable to believe, from the local reports, that not everyone was as sad as the paper's editors that Lincoln had been shot. The May 13 edition of the post recounted a poem that was left posted to the door of its Prickly Pear offices:

"Glory enough for one time!

"Old Abe has gone to Hell!

"Hurrah for Jeff. Davis!

"Grand Reception of Old Abe in Hell!

"Big Dinner!

"The Devil's Band played 'Welcome the Chief!'"

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