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Posts Tagged ‘Sarah Vowell’

A Son, A Brother, and Assassins

Posted by Laurie Frost on August 4, 2009

jwbMy virtual tag-along on Sarah Vowell’s Assassination Vacation is just about over, but before leaving it behind, I thought we should have a look at some of the folks who made this trip possible and a couple of hanger-ons.

Once again, all photos credits are to the Library of Congress.

John Wilkes Booth (LC-DIG-ppmsca-13706) has name recognition, but what about those executed as his co-conspirators?

At first I had trouble finding a shot of Lewis Thornton Powell, who failed to kill Secretary of State William H. Seward the night Booth shot Lincoln. The Library of Congress prefers one of Powell’s other names, Payne (Vowell mentions that he also went by Paine). Once I got that worked out, I had no trouble finding what I think is the picture (credit: LC-USZ62-130829) of him Vowell talks about:


He smouldered, decked out in a jaunty, crumpled, double-breasted trench coat, staring at the camera dead-on. . . .the way he was reaching into his pocket struck me as gallant, as if he were Cary Grant pulling out a monogrammed cigarette case to offer a dame a smoke. Of course, right after that picture was taken, the government strung up Powell’s pretty neck.

 Booth was killed when apprehended. Of his co-conspirators, four (Mrs. Surratt, Lewis Payne, David Herold, and George Atzerodt) were hanged, and four sent to prison in Fort Jefferson on Dry Tortugas, Florida (Dr. Samuel Mudd, Michael O’Laughlen, Samuel Arnold, Edman Spangler).

 I failed to find a picture of Mrs. Surratt or of Dr. Samuel Mudd at the Library of Congress, but here are the rest, photographed by Alexander Gardner, who also shot Payne/Powell.heroldspanglerarnoldmclaughlin

3a24066r David E. Herold (LC-B817- 7784), who was with Booth when he was caught; Edman Spangler (LC-B8177787), Samuel Arnold (LC-B817- 7778),  Michael O’Laughlen (LC-B817- 7783), and George Atzerodt (LC cph 3a24066), who didn’t follow through on his assignment to kill Vice-prresident Andrew Johnson, but was executed just the same.

Can you recall the names of the other two assassins? Vowell has fun with the way Stephen Sondheim’s musical, Assassins, contrasts these two men’s personalities. Garfield’s was Charles J. Guiteau, who went to the scaffold singing; McKinley’s, Leon Czolgosz, a grim anarchist. So much for lasting noteriety. Photos of these two are less than sparse.


 If you look closely at this collage of nine images you’ll see Pres. Garfield, his doctors, the depot and room where he was shot; the coffin at the Capitol, and Guiteau and Guiteau’s gun (LC-USZ62-80339). 

3b46778rThere are only two photo selections in the Library of Congress of Czolgosz, and for one the rights status hasn’t been evaluated, so we’ll make do with this (LC-USZ62-99204).

Finally, a few pictures of two other memorable characters from Assassination Vacation. Vowell is clearly intrigued by the way that John Wilkes Booth’s brother Edwin’s acting career and social standing survived after his brother killed the much loved (and not least of all by Vowell herself) Abraham Lincoln. She writes of passing Edwin’s statue in Gramercy Park and visiting New York City’s Players Club, which he founded.














Here he is as Hamlet ( LC-USZ62-53046) and out of costume ( LC-DIG-cwpbh-00728).


And then there is Robert Todd Lincoln, or, as Vowell deems him, the “presidential angel of death.” His connection to Lincoln is obvious, but it is his weird coincidental eyewitnessing of Garfield’s and missing by moments McKinley’s assassinations that gains him this Vowellian tag. Moreover, although a fan of his father’s, she isn’t one of his son’s.

Possible explanations for her antipathy:

  • when Mary Todd Lincoln fought his efforts to have her placed in an asylum, son Robert “instigated a nasty public insanity trial.”
  •  as Garfield’s Secretary of War, RTL was responsible for seeing that the relief ship to support the Greely North Pole expedition was dispatched to the 25-man team with supplies for their second year in the Arctic. It was never sent, and 19 died. The remaining six survived by eating their dead comrades. When the cannibalized corpses were discovered, the government claimed that the survivors had used the dead as “shrimp bait.” Vowell notes: “That’s how ugly the scandal was — that turning human flesh into shrimp bait was the positive spin.”
  • during McKinley’s term, Robert served as special counsel to the Pullman company during its suppression of labor negotiators.  
  • yet he survived to represent his family, “clearly enchanted,” at the dedication of the Lincoln Memorial in 1922.
  • rbt todd



Robert Todd Lincoln in 1865 (LC-DIG-ppmsca-19229) and 1922 (LC-USZ62-33031)

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Another Day on the Assassination Vacation

Posted by Laurie Frost on August 1, 2009

When we left Sarah Vowell she was visiting the grave of James Garfield and on the way to William McKinley’s in Canton, Ohio, which she describes as “a gray granite nipple on a fresh green breast of grass.” The website for his home, now the William McKinley Presidential Library and Museum, has copyright notices, but the mausoleum is a national historic landmark, and I found this on a National Park Service webpage.mckinley2

McKinley was in his second term of office when he was assassinated by the anarchist Leon Czolgosz at the Pan-American Exposition in Buffalo, New York, in the Temple of Music, now, along with all but one of the event’s buildings, demolished. But pictures and movies remain. Vowell notes that the Library of Congress has some reels of film by Thomas Edison of the Exposition, and among these is a re-enactment of Czolgosz’s execution in the electric chair.  Here’s a link. (Did you know that the electric chair was first used at New York State’s Auburn Prison in 1890? This is the kind of thing Sarah Vowell knows.)

Beckitemscredit: NPS

For Vowell, the essence of the exposition’s spirit — and of the McKinley administration — is well illustrated by the logo for the event, the allegorical picture of blond North America and brunette South America:

Their handshake takes place in Central America on the future site of the Panama Canal. Miss South America smiles, unaware that two years later, the U.S. Navy would swoop in and hack her arm off at the elbow so that cargo ships could sail through the blood of her severed stump.

In the logo, most of the United States and Canada is blanketed in Miss North America’s billowy yellow dress. But one delicate foot pokes out of the southeastern edge, shaped like the state of Florida, as if she’s poised to step on Cuba.

When the Spanish reportedly blew up the battleship Maine, an initially reluctant McKinley — and an eager vice-president Theodore Roosevelt — found themselves at war in Cuba (Guantanamo Bay is a relic of this Spanish-American War). Vowell finds the optional wars of their time have quite a lot in common with those of ours; considering the Maine monument at the southwest entrance to Central Park is her occasion to recall these lessons unlearned.


credit: Library of Congress LC-B2-2694-9

Now back to McKinley’s assassination. He lived eight days, and since initially he appeared to be improving, Theodore Roosevelt saw no reason not to go hiking in a fairly remote area of the Adriondacks.3b21880r









Left: Lake Tear-in-the-Clouds, Adirondack Mountains, where Roosevelt ate lunch the day before he became president [credit: LC 11134-3].   Right:  Vowell, an eager urban walker but a miserable mountain hiker, says that the Tawhaus Lodge where Roosevelt’s family was staying looks well-maintained today, not that she is eager to hike back up there [credit: LC-D4-16785].

By morning September 13, 1901, it was obvious that the president was dying. A ranger reached the vice-president’s party that afternoon with the news. McKinley was dead by 2:30 the following morning, but it would be 3:30 in the afternoonof the 14th, after a rough night of hard riding down dark mountain roads, before Roosevelt took the oath of office in Buffalo.

In Buffalo, Vowell visits the home of Roosevelt’s buddy Ansley Wilcox, now known as the Theodore Roosevelt Inaugural National Historic Site, where the oath of office was administered in its library.

116259prcredit: LC-HABS NY,15-BUF,12-2

librarycredit: NPS


And here we have the memorial to McKinley in downtown Buffalo, New York, or, as Sarah Vowell calls it, “the-sorry-you-got-shafted shaft” [credit: LC-D4-70292].

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More Postcards Sarah Vowell Didn’t Send You on Her Assassination Vacation

Posted by Laurie Frost on July 29, 2009

We’ve two more dead presidents to go, if we follow Sarah Vowell’s Assassination Vacation.  Sarah is a very big fan of Abraham Lincoln’s; less so of her other two subjects, James Garfield and William McKinley.

Once again, all photo credits are to the Library of Congress.

Garfield was only four months into his first term when he was gunned down July 2, 1881; he died September 19.127765pr lawnfield

He came to Washington from Lawnfield, his home in Mentor, Ohio. When Vowell visits, she imagines the candidate Garfield campaigning from his front porch (LC HABS OHIO,43-MENT,2-9), but feels most sympathetic toward the man when she is in his home library (LC HABS OHIO,43-MENT,2-16).

hancockGiven the shortness of his presidency and his lack of other claims to fame, Vowell is hard pressed to find traces of Garfield in Washington, DC. But she soldiers on, beginning her walking tour at the equestrian statue of the Democratic candidate defeated by Garfield, Winfield Scott Hancock (LC-DIG-npcc-00116).  Then on to the Arts and Industries Museum of the Smithsonian, where Garfield’s inaugural ball was held (LC HABS DC,WASH,520A-5), and then to the bac029510prk entrance of the National Gallery of Art, where the depot of the Baltimore & Potomac  Railroad depot once stood. This is where Garfield was shot, and Vowell is seriously perturbed to find no historical marker commemorating the event.


After a brief stop to recover at the Sherman monument, she carries on to the corner of Fifteenth and F, where the assassin, Charles Guiteau, bought his gun. That building is long gone, but here is the corner, for what it’s worth (LC HABS DC,WASH,512-1).029484pr


Finally, Washington, DC offers this statue of Garfield 042787pr(LC HABS DC,WASH,618-13). Vowell finds it  

exceedingly gay. A life-size, fully dressed Garfield stands on top of a giant shaft. At the foot of the shaft, at eye level, three skimpily clad male figures recline. . . And Garfield looms over them, like a dirty old man pulling up in his car about to take his pick from a lineup of street hustlers.

But there’s more. Garfield didn’t die immediately from his wounds; he lingered on for the summer, and when he appeared out of danger, was taken by train to Long Branch, New Jersey, where he had a beach house. That is gone, too, so Vowell makes do with a visit to St. James Chapel, better known as the Church of the Presidents, popular site for worship by vacationing commanders-in-chief. Garfield’s remains were first taken there (LC HABS NJ,13-LOBRA,4-1).038224pr

And though her visit there appears not in Vowell’s chapter on Garfield, but in the next one, on McKinley, we’ll end today’s tour with the Garfield Memorial, Cleveland (LC-DIG-ppmsca-18119).18119r

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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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