Researching with Primary Sources

When we want to learn more about the Lincoln assassination, the first place we all start is with the books.  American Brutus by Michael Kauffman, Blood on the Moon by Edward Steers, and Manhunt by James Swanson, seem to be the top three choices for those starting off.  While many other wonderful books have been written on the subject, these three provide the most up to date research and findings about the assassination.  What makes these books the best modern writings on the subject, is their use of primary sources.  The chapter notes in American Brutus, for example, are filled with new discoveries and sources ignored or unknown to previous writers.  That is why, when looking to do research into the Lincoln assassination, it is crucial to use primary sources.  Ten years ago, this would have meant a visit to the National Archives to look through rolls of microfilm.  Today, however, some of the best primary sources have been published as standalone books or digitized.  This post explores using two such resources in tandem to aid in researching and learning about our great American drama.

One source that is absolutely necessary for any serious research into the assassination is, The Lincoln Assassination: The Evidence by William Edwards and Edward Steers.  This book contains practically all of the paper materials involved with the investigation of Lincoln’s murder.  The 1400 page book is filled with witness statements about nearly every aspect of the assassination.  William Edwards transcribed the book one microfilmed page at a time from the original evidence files in the National Archives.  Then, teamed with Edward Steers, they indexed, categorized and annotated the piece.  The sheer work involved in making this book is astounding, and we all owe the authors a sincere thank you for producing it.  While the size of the book increases the price tag (it can be bought cheap for $99 through the Surratt House Museum), it is worth every penny for the convenience and treasures that lay inside.  My copy of The Evidence, sits right next to my computer within arm’s reach, and I reference it practically every day.  The Evidence is not only vastly helpful because it saves me a trip to D.C. to look at microfilm, but it also has an index, allowing me to quickly and easily find the material I am looking for.

Another great resource to find the same materials is through the website,  Previously known as until a recent merger with, Fold3 provides millions of digitized historical documents.  Their partnerships with institutions like the Library of Congress and the National Archives, have allowed them to digitize and present pieces of history to a wider audience than ever before.  Most beneficial for our interest are the Lincoln Assassination Papers hosted by them.  Fold3 has digitized all of the microfilmed pages included in The Evidence and more.  Even better, while most of the site requires a paid membership to view and save images of the documents, the Lincoln Assassination Papers are free to view and (with a free account) free to save.  While Fold3 is a wonderful way to look at the images of the documents themselves, the pages have not been transcribed in any way.  Individual members can go through and annotate and transcribe names and places, but a full digital transcription of these hand-written documents seems unlikely to ever happen.  That is where The Evidence book comes in.

There have been many times where I have found it to be helpful to see the original document that I found in The Evidence.  Unfortunately, the naming used on Fold3 does not match with the original reel and frame number cited in The Evidence.  That is why I created a key that allows me to use the citation in The Evidence to find the actual document on Fold3.  Here is that key:

Click to Enlarge

Looks confusing, huh?  Let me show you how to use it.

First, after you find the statement you want to see in The Evidence, you have to look for the reel and frame citation.  For example, this is the header and citation for a letter written by Richard Baynham Garrett:

This tells me that this letter is found on reel 7: frames 77 – 79.  Then we have to use the key I posted above.  I spilt the key up into three columns.  The first column gives the name that has for its different sections.  The second column gives the reel and frame numbers that correspond to that section.  The third column gives examples of frame numbers from The Evidence and matching page numbers on

So, the Garrett letter was located on reel 7 in The Evidence.  On Fold3, reel 7 is named “Unregistered letters received by Col. H. L. Burnett” so we’d choose that one to view.  Finding the correct page number is next.  If you would click on page 77 under the “Unregistered letters received by Col. H. L. Burnett” reel you would not find Richard Garrett’s letter but instead a letter from J. L. McPhail.  I have the following in my key under this reel:
25:44 (+19)
91:114 (+23)
This means that frame 25 in The Evidence is on page 44 on Fold3, and that frame 91 in The Evidence is on page 114 on Fold3.  After each I placed the differences between them.  Since I’m looking for frame 77 according to The Evidence, this is telling me that I need to add between 19 and 23 to find the correct page on Fold3.  You’ll still have to do a bit of searching to track down the exact page, but this should make it much easier.  Garrett’s letter can be found on page 99 on Fold3, a difference of 22 pages.

One important thing to note is that two of the reels, (Reel 1 and Reel 3) were digitized backwards.  The last page of the reel is page 1 in these ones.  For the Reel 1 (Letters AND Telegrams AND Register of Letters AND Record Book And Endorsement Book) this is alright because the telegrams have page numbers at the top that make it easy to follow.  Reel 3 is harder to navigate, but hopefully this key will give you some idea of where to start in it.

Used together, these two resources, The Evidence and, are a Boothie’s dream.  Publishing and digitizing these primary sources allows all Boothies to read, learn, and discover more than ever before.  As companies like Google, Fold3, and Ancestry continue on their digitalization efforts, more discoveries and insights about the Lincoln assassination will be found.

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One thought on “Researching with Primary Sources

  1. Pingback: The Lincoln Assassination Trial – The Court Transcripts « BoothieBarn

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