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Virtual Tag-a-long with Sarah Vowell on an Assassination Vacation

Posted by Laurie Frost on July 27, 2009

Comic historian Sarah Vowell is phobic about driving and not such a hot sailor, but she is an intrepid pedestrian and admirably gifted at cajoling friends and family to cart her around the country enabling one of her favorite obssessions: presidential assassination legends and lore, the subject of her 2005 travel guide/memoir/American history tale, Assassination Vacation (Simon & Schuster).

As I listened to her read about the places she visited to tell the story of why, how and where Abraham Lincoln, James Garfield, and William McKinley  and their assassins’  lives intersected, I thought it would be fun to see how many public domain images I could find to illustrate her travelogue.

Consider these the postcards she didn’t send you.

Part 1: Assassination of Lincoln

Ford’s theatre should have proved easy enough; it used to be administered by the National Parks Service [NPS]– it was when Sarah Vowell visited — but  this July, Ford’s Theatre reopened as a theatrical venue, and now the NPS manages it in partnership with the Ford’s Theatre Society, and there are very few images remaining on the NPS site.

So I returned to the Library of Congress [LC] where I found this shot  of the presidential box, taken in 1968 for the Historic American Buildings Survey  (HABS DC,WASH,421-3). 


loc surratt

The LC dates this picture (LC-USZ62-92592) of  Mrs. Mary Surratt’s boardinghouse, where the conspirators hatched their plans, at 1890-1910. Surratt was the first woman to be executed in the US. WhenVowell saw it, this building housed the Wok & Roll. Speaking of the Library of Congress, remember Vowell’s mention of visiting its display of the contents found in Lincoln’s pockets the night he died? Here it is.  See close-ups of the items here.


The National Park Service did prove to be the place to go for the rest of today’s pictures, and since this is the first time I’ve used them, here is the NPS statement:

All photographs and images on this web site are “public domain” images. You are free to use these images without a release from the National Park Service. However, the photographs and images must not be used to imply National Park Service endorsement of a product, service, organization or individual.

Photo Credits
Credit photographs to the National Park Service.

Sarah Vowell really didn’t enjoy her boat trip to Dry Tortugas in the Florida Keys, but Booth conspirator Dr. Samuel Mudd likely didn’t, either.

drto-ImageF_00001Here is an aerial view (NPS DRTO1562) of Fort Jefferson, which during the Civil War served as the prison for Union soldiers convicted of desertion who were not executed. 

drto-ImageF_00006Remember Sarah and the NPS park ranger discussing the two thousand plus arches in the fort (NPS DRTO1590)?

Let’s stop for today in Springfield, Illinois at the Lincoln National Historic Site, also managed by the NPS. Here’s the home Lincoln left for the White House (NPS LIHO4424),

liho-ImageF_00006 lincoln homeand I can’t be sure, but could this be the wallpaper Vowell deems “hideous” (NPS LIHO1961)?liho-ImageF_00005 hideous


Next time, McKinley and Garfield, but first:

Not in the public domain but Assassination Vacation fans will enjoy these sites:

At  The Booths of Harford County  [Maryland] take the virtual Booth Tour for a look at the 1937 WPA mural by William H. Calfee at the Bel Air post office featuring Edwin Booth, and the Edwin Booth Memorial Fountain outside the county’s courthouse. Or head over to the Surratt House Museum  to get on the mailing list for the 2010 season of bus tours of the Booth escape route. All the 2009 tours have sold out.

Remember Vowell’s excursion to the Mütter Museum to see a fragment of Booth’s brain? There isn’t a picturte of that on its website, but there are a number of  medically macabre bits for your viewing pleasure. 

Annoyingly and inexplicably, the images at the National Museum of Health and Medicine are not public domain. Links to what Vowell got to see: the bullet removed from Lincoln’s brain  and pages from the autopsy report.

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