Errol Morris is at it again, publishing book-length blog posts for the NY Times. This time, he's examining the photograph evidence of Abraham Lincoln and, I think, what those photos might tell us about Lincoln's death. Here's the prologue and part one (of an eventual four).
My fascination with the dating and interpretation of photographs is really a fascination with the push-pull of history. Facts vs. beliefs. Our desire to know the origins of things vs. our desire to rework, to reconfigure the past to suit our own beliefs and predilections. Perhaps nothing better illustrates this than two radically different predispositions to objects -- the storyteller vs. the collector.
For the collector the image with the crack [in one of Lincoln's photographs] is a damaged piece of goods -- the crack potentially undermining the value of the photograph as an artifact, a link to the past. The storyteller doesn't care about the photograph's condition, or its provenance, but about its thematic connections with events. To the storyteller, the crack is the beginning of a legend -- the legend of a death foretold. The crack seems to anticipate the bullet fired into the back of Lincoln's head at Ford's Theater on Good Friday, April 14, 1865.
It should have a name. I call it "the proleptic crack."
It seemed a little too jokey for a proper business card, so I tracked the card to its source, The Library of Congress. The card was likely printed in 1864 by the Democratic committee as a campaign souvenir and implies Lincoln would be defeated in the '64 election and on his way back to Illinois to practice law (and split rails).
The whole Springfield Gazette was one sheet of paper, and it was all about Lincoln. Only him. Other people only came into the document in conjunction with how he experienced life at that moment. If you look at the Gazette picture above, you can see his portrait in the upper left-hand corner. See how the column of text under him is cut off on the left side? Stupid scanned picture, I know, ugh. But just to the left of his picture, and above that column of text, is a little box. And in that box you see three things: his name, his address, and his profession (attorney).
The first column underneath his picture contains a bunch of short blurbs about what's going on in his life at the moment - work he recently did, some books the family bought, and the new games his boys made up. In the next three columns he shares a quote he likes, two poems, and a short story about the Pilgrim Fathers. I don't know where he got them, but they're obviously copied from somewhere. In the last three columns he tells the story of his day at the circus and tiny little story about his current life on the prairie.
Put all that together on one page and tell me what it looks like to you. Profile picture. Personal information. Status updates. Copied and shared material. A few longer posts. Looks like something we see every day, doesn't it?
Lincoln even tried to patent the idea.
Lincoln was requesting a patent for "The Gazette," a system to "keep People aware of Others in the Town." He laid out a plan where every town would have its own Gazette, named after the town itself. He listed the Springfield Gazette as his Visual Appendix, an example of the system he was talking about. Lincoln was proposing that each town build a centrally located collection of documents where "every Man may have his own page, where he might discuss his Family, his Work, and his Various Endeavors."
He went on to propose that "each Man may decide if he shall make his page Available to the entire Town, or only to those with whom he has established Family or Friendship." Evidently there was to be someone overseeing this collection of documents, and he would somehow know which pages anyone could look at, and which ones only certain people could see (it wasn't quite clear in the application). Lincoln stated that these documents could be updated "at any time deemed Fit or Necessary," so that anyone in town could know what was going on in their friends' lives "without being Present in Body."
Man, I hope this isn't a hoax...it's almost too perfect. Also, queue Jesse Eisenberg saying "Abe, if you had invented Facebook, you would have invented Facebook". (via @gavinpurcell)
Update: Ok, I'm willing to call hoax on this one based on two things. 1) The first non-engraved photograph reproduced in a newspaper was in 1880, 35 years after the Springfield Gazette was alledgedly produced. 2) The Library of Congress says that the photograph pictured in the Gazette was taken in 1846 or 1847, a year or two after the publication date. That and the low-res "I couldn't take proper photos of them" images pretty much convinces me.
Update: That same year, Seymour gave an interview about witnessing the assassination to the Milwaukee Sentinel. His father was an overseer on a Maryland estate and his boss, Mr. Goldsboro needed to travel to Washington to check on "the legal status of their 150 slaves". Seymour got to go along.
It was going on toward supper time -- on Good Friday, April 14, 1865 -- when we finally pulled up in front of the biggest house I ever had seen. It looked to me like a thousand farmhouses all pushed together, but my father said it was a hotel.
[...] When I finally had been rushed upstairs, shushed and scrubbed and put into fresh clothes, Mrs. Goldsboro said she had a wonderful surprise.
"Sammy, you and Sarah and I are going to a play tonight," she explained. "A real play -- and President Abraham Lincoln will be there."
After Lincoln was shot, Seymour saw Booth fall from the balcony and run off.
William Gladstone was very nearly Abraham Lincoln's exact contemporary, both born in 1809 (Lincoln was 10 months older), only he was born in Liverpool, not Kentucky. He was a legendary orator and liberal lion, like an approximation of Lincoln and Ted Kennedy. He served as a member of parliament for almost 50 years, including as Prime Minster four times, before retiring in 1894. (Could you imagine if Lincoln had lived until 1894?)
He also had a great nickname: G.O.M., for "Grand Old Man." His Tory counterpart Disraeli called him "God's Only Mistake."
The request that you have done me the honour to make - to receive the record of my voice - is one that I cheerfully comply with so far as it lies in my power, though I lament to say that the voice which I transmit to you is only the relic of an organ the employment of which has been overstrained. Yet I offer to you as much as I possess and so much as old age has left me, with the utmost satisfaction, as being, at least, a testimony to the instruction and delight that I have received from your marvellous invention. As to the future consequences, it is impossible to anticipate them. All I see is that wonders upon wonders are opening before us.
Edison hired an actor to re-record Gladstone's lines
Gladstone sent someone else to read for him
and Edison either:
passed it off as Gladstone's voice anyways or
collectors later falsified it or got confused.
Anyways, the following clip has been put forward as a more credible candidate for being an actual recording of octogenarian Gladstone (reading the same text, which if true throws doubt on the whole "he sent somebody else to read it" theory):
Actually, I can imagine this scenario:
Gladstone records his voice
Edison's unhappy with the quality, asks Gladstone to re-record it
Gladstone sends a friend to tell Edison to sod off,
Edison says, fuck it, let's loop it, who knows what Gladstone sounds like anyways
Numerous accounts have revealed that Lincoln underwent a noticeable change in his physical appearance beginning in January 1841 as a result of a grave emotional crisis. This coincides with his reported failure to go through with his scheduled marriage to Mary Todd, leaving her literally waiting for him at the altar. (They were married the following year.) This emotional crisis, just one of a series of such episodes to plague him throughout his life, was the cause of Lincoln losing a considerable amount of weight.
And then he hugs me and I think, 'Abe Lincoln hugged me. He smells like Old Spice.' I ask him who he supports in the election, and he smiles and says, "Believe it or not you're the first person who's asked me that this year; of course I support Barack. These so called Republicans remind me of Copperheads." And then he laughed sort of sad a deep ha ha ha laugh and I woke up.
The Copperheads were a group of Union Democrats who opposed the Civil War engineered by Lincoln's Republican administration. An anti-Lincoln pamphlet produced by the Copperheads -- titled Abraham Africanus I. His Secret Life as Revealed Under the Mesmeric Influence. Mysteries of the White House. -- brings to mind the ham-fisted attempt to characterize Barack Obama as a Muslim and terrorist.
The new photos are enlarged details from much wider crowd shots; they were discovered by a Civil War hobbyist earlier this year in the vast trove of Library of Congress photographs digitized since 2000, and provided to USA Today. They show a figure believed to be Lincoln, white-gloved and in his trademark stovepipe hat, in a military procession.