John Stauffer: Wanted Posters, Photography, and the Search for Lincoln’s Assassins

In this episode of Houghton75, we speak with John Stauffer, Professor of English as well as African and African American Studies, about the wanted poster that was integral to finding and capturing the assassin (John Wilkes Booth) of President Lincoln and his conspirators. The poster was one of the first to have photographs, but those on Houghton’s copy aren’t quite what they seem. The poster is on display in our current exhibition, where it can be viewed through April 22, 2017. Find out more about the exhibition and Houghton Library’s 75th anniversary celebrations at
Transcript and detailed music notes:

Louis Moreau Gottschalk’s “The Union (Fantasy on Patriotic Airs)” played by Alan Marks, from

“Booth Killed Lincoln” sung by Bascom Lamar Lunsford from the Library of Congress

Podcast Transcript

[Title sequence background music: Fireworks, Igor Stravinsky, performed by the Harvard-Radcliffe Orchestra]

Alex Csiszar: Houghton is just this amazing place.
Deidre Lynch: It’s fascinating.
Stephen Greenblatt: It’s yours for the asking, and that is incredible!
Stephanie Sandler: Plus it’s cool.

James Capobianco (JC): Welcome to Houghton75. I’m James Capobianco.

Hannah Ferello (HF): And I’m Hannah Ferello.

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JC: Houghton Library opened its doors at Harvard in 1942. Throughout 2017, we’re celebrating the library’s world-class collections, and support of research and teaching over the last 75 years.

HF: This podcast is only one of the ways to participate in our year-long program of events that promises a unique glimpse of some of Houghton’s most treasured holdings and the way they inspire scholars and students. Visit for more information.

[background music: Louis Moreau Gottschalk’s “The Union” played by Alan Marks. Disc 2, Track 8 on Gottschalk: Piano Music for 2 and 4 Hands from Nimbus Records and Wyastone Estate Unlimited]

JC: We all know the story. It was April 14, 1865 at Ford’s Theatre in Washington, D.C. President Abraham Lincoln was watching the play Our American Cousin when John Wilkes Booth crept in and shot him from behind. Lincoln died the next morning, the first American President to be assassinated. Booth disappeared.

HF: As the nation mourned, Secretary of War Edwin Stanton leapt into action. Determined to locate and prosecute Booth and his conspirators, Stanton created a wanted poster featuring images of Booth, John Surratt, and David Herold, as well as a large financial reward. Although Surratt, managed to flee the country and avoid capture until November of 1866, Booth, Herold, and the remaining conspirators were captured or killed by the end of April 1865. Stanton’s wanted poster, now iconic, played a large role in these successful arrests.

JC: We spoke with John Stauffer, Professor of English as well as African and African American Studies here are Harvard, about this wanted poster and it’s impact. Professor Stauffer selected Houghton’s copy of the poster for our current exhibition, where it can be viewed on display through April 22.

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John Stauffer (JS): It was Edwin Stanton, in an attempt to capture Booth and conspirators, that created this poster with the huge reward and especially with photographs. And this then becomes the tradition of the wanted poster in the 20th century and even today. Now it’s usually on television or video, and this is the first. There is no wanted poster that predates this with images.

It was the era before the half-tone process, which meant that to mass produce this poster the Stanton administration would have had to hire an engraver to cut an engraving from the photograph so that it would be printed. It would take a very good engraver a day to engrave and then make it possible to mass produce it on the poster for each one, so they would have had to hire three engravers and if they hired three engravers, maybe a day at the very shortest. And he wanted this out immediately, which is why I suspect in the mass production of the broadside he left these blank and he tipped in the actual carte-de-visites. But it took a while. So if Gardner had the negative you could mass produce it, but it would take several hours to get additional prints. So, you’d have to be printing all day to get enough to really disseminate a broadside with the photographs in a way that you wanted to capture the conspirators.

[background music: Louis Moreau Gottschalk’s “The Union” played by Alan Marks. Disc 2, Track 8 on Gottschalk: Piano Music for 2 and 4 Hands from Nimbus Records and Wyastone Estate Unlimited ]

HF: Quick distribution was important to Stanton. He wanted to release the poster as soon as possible. Booth was a well known actor and his face was widely recognized, but the others were hardly famous.

[end music]

JC: With the circulation of the wanted poster, the names and images of David Herold and John Surratt were soon infamous across the region. Professor Stauffer believes this was integral to their quick capture.

JS: Without this wanted poster, without these photographs, people didn’t even really know who the conspirators were! In fact, Herold’s name is misspelled here. The actual spelling of Herold is H-E-R-O-L-D, here it’s spelled H-A-R-O-L-D. And there were also the newspapers. Some of the newspapers misspelled Surratt’s name as well. So they were not well known figures. They were rabid confederates. They received aid from the Confederacy and in fact Booth and some conspirators met with an intelligence officer from the Confederacy in Canada. Initially, Booth’s plan was to kidnap the President and use the kidnapped President as a ransom to demand the release of all Confederate troops. Then after Lee surrendered to Grant at Appomattox on April 11th that idea of kidnapping no longer made sense, so Booth decides to kill Lincoln and his conspirators agree with him.

[background music: Louis Moreau Gottschalk’s “The Union” played by Alan Marks. Disc 2, Track 8 on Gottschalk: Piano Music for 2 and 4 Hands from Nimbus Records and Wyastone Estate Unlimited ]

HF: This particular copy of the wanted poster has an interesting backstory. While it had been a part of our collections for many years, no one was aware of it because it had not been fully cataloged. Cataloged is library-speak for described.

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JC: We knew that we had a collection of broadsides from the Civil War, but they had not been described individually until our colleague Peter Accardo happened to stumble upon them while working with a group of students and Professor Stauffer! Peter also joined our conversation to tell us about the surprise and excitement of discovering such an item hidden in the collection.

Peter Accardo (PA): One of the things that both John and I like about this object is the fact that it’s one of these things that has always been here but not easily findable. For years I had been working in the back stack at Houghton, and there was a large broadside portfolio of Civil War era broadsides such as this one. And because of their unwieldy format, they’d never enjoyed item-level cataloging. One general collection that might have said “A collection of Civil War broadsides” was all you got. Not many search terms would allow a patron to find it easily. You would have to be very lucky indeed to have found that portfolio of broadsides, and probably would have been as amazed as we were to have found this iconic piece of American history. So while it’s never been lost, it had never really been found until this class.

JS: And Peter discovered it. In fact I was with the class and all of the students and I were in the main exhibition hall, and Peter goes into the stacks and he comes out with this broadside (laughs). It was an amazing moment for me because I knew how rare these were! And I had actually never seen – I had never seen the real thing. And when Peter brought it out, within the previous week, I think, it was front page news that Princeton had discovered its broadside but without the photographs. That’s how rare it was.

[background music: Louis Moreau Gottschalk’s “The Union” played by Alan Marks. Disc 2, Track 8 on Gottschalk: Piano Music for 2 and 4 Hands from Nimbus Records and Wyastone Estate Unlimited ]

JC: The discovery of a Booth wanted poster, even without the photographs, is a rare event. To find one with photographs is very exciting!

HF: But the Houghton copy is distinctive. It isn’t quite like the others…

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JS: This broadside is immensely rare, but this is possibly unique in that the images of each of the three conspirators, Booth, Herold, and Surratt, are not the representative images that one sees in the other extant broadsides. And we just found out that according to Mark Katz, who has the fullest to date biography of Alexander Gardner, the Herold carte-de-visite is an Alexander Gardner carte-de-visite that was taken on April 27. Which suggests that someone who was interested in collecting acquired the broadside, had the spaces blank, collected the cards, and tipped it in.

PA: And the broadside itself would have been printed in great number, just like a playbill. You wouldn’t think of that as a particularly rare thing they printed so many, but finding one with the photographs – that’s a little different because they were learning as they went. They needed these images immediately. They obtained them within a few days of Lincoln’s death. And these made their way, no doubt, into public places. The idea that any would survive at all is just a little short of remarkable.

[background music: Louis Moreau Gottschalk’s “The Union” played by Alan Marks. Disc 2, Track 8 on Gottschalk: Piano Music for 2 and 4 Hands from Nimbus Records and Wyastone Estate Unlimited ]

JC: Earlier in the podcast, you heard Professor Stauffer mention Alexander Gardner. Gardner was a well-known Civil War photographer. He famously took what is considered to be the final living photograph of Lincoln a short 5 days before his death, and photographed Booth and conspirators following their arrest.

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JS: Alexander Gardner ran Brady’s studio in DC, and after the Battle of Antietam in September of 1862 he went out to the studio, about 4 or 5 days after the battle, and photographed the dead at Antietam. They are some of the most grotesque, bloodiest images of the dead that you would see. In fact, in the 20th century they would have been completely censored. No newspaper would have published them because of how close he got. I mean, some of these images the camera is about a foot or two feet away from the dead bodies. So Gardner took numerous photographs of the dead.

They were shown in Brady’s studio both in Washington, D.C. and in New York. There were thousands of people who saw the actual photographs, and then Harper’s Weekly published a centerfold. The centerfold of Harper’s Weekly was titled ‘The Dead at Antietam,’ and they were engravings cut from these photographs of the dead. So they circulated to the millions. And the anti-war sentiment absolutely spiked. From that moment until the end of the war, not another photograph appeared in the illustrated press as an engraving. Not one, despite the fact that Gardner and many other photographers photographed the dead at Gettysburg, the dead at numerous battles. But not another engraving cut from a photograph appeared in the illustrated press.

And I’m certain that the Lincoln administration censored it because they recognized that if you put a photograph of a dead body on the front page or the centerfold of an illustrated press, you’re going to lose the civilian effort because people are going to recognize that war is about killing people. And it was brand new, because the Crimean War was actually the very first war that was covered by journalists. Before the Crimean War, wars were covered by the military itself. Once journalists cover the war, if you don’t control what they say you can lose the home front. Which is actually what happened in Crimea. It led to a regime change, the new Prime Minister came into power on an anti-war reference and as soon as he did he ended the Crimean War.

HF: You know what they say, a picture is worth a thousand words. But it wasn’t only the press who utilized the power of photography.

PA: You know, at the same time, you’re seeing the appropriation of photographic images of candidates for the first time. Running for office. Little buttons where you find very small images of Edward Everett and Lincoln, Bell…

JS: Frederick Douglass said that Brady’s famous photograph of Lincoln, “the portrait elects the President.” The photograph circulated. It was the front page of Harper’s Weekly before the Republican nomination, it circulated as campaign buttons, it became ubiquitous. It was a time in which Americans wanted to be able to visualize their candidate, and Lincoln was a dark horse. The two front runners were William Seward and Salmon Chase. Everyone knew what they looked like. Their images had circulated for years as engravings or as lithographs. They had been well known politicians for a few decades. Lincoln was a dark horse. In fact in 1860, east coast journalists would still misspell his name. Abram rather than Abraham. The fact that they now had a photograph in which they could visualize this person… In fact according to Mathew Brady himself, Lincoln thanked him and told him “your photograph elected me.” Now you have to trust Brady, but (laughs). So that’s part of this newfound understanding of how powerful photography and the illustrated press and these broadsides could be.

[background music: “Booth Killed Lincoln” sung by Bascom Lamar Lunsford. Library of Congress, 1952]

JC: We’d like to thank Professor John Stauffer and our colleague Peter Accardo for joining us today.

HF: The soulful song you are listening to now is “Booth Killed Lincoln,” sung by the folklorist Bascom Lamar Lunsford. Thanks to the Library of Congress for this gem.

JC: Earlier on in the podcast you heard parts of Louis Moreau Gottschalk’s “The Union (Fantasy on Patriotic Airs)” played by Alan Marks. Thanks to Nimbus Records and Wyastone Estate Unlimited for their kind permission for this wonderful piece and rendition.

HF: We hope you will come by to say hello, and view the poster and other items on display in HIST75H: A Masterclass on Houghton Library.

JC: We hope you’ll join us for the next episode of Houghton75.

[music continues to end]