Booth at Lincoln’s Second Inauguration

As the writer of this blog, I have access to the visitor statistics.  I can see how many people visit per day, what country they came from, what topics they read, and, entertainingly, what their Google searches were to get here.  Most of the hits I receive through Google come from image searches rather than textual matches.  For this reason, I try to include several pictures when I post.  Looking at the searches today, I see that one visitor got here by searching for “photo of Lincoln’s 2nd inaugural address”.  They found my blog through this search due to my new header image for the blog:

This image is actually a mix of two legitimate pictures of Lincoln’s second inauguration.  I made it in Photoshop to place John Wilkes Booth in his correct place in the crowd, using the best image of him available.

There are several images of Lincoln’s inauguration, but only two (that I currently know of) clearly display John Wilkes Booth in the crowd.  Websites (like Wikipedia) and institutions (like Ford’s Theatre) have incorrect displays of “Booth” at the inauguration due to the fact that they are using the best image of Lincoln, which is also the worst image of Booth.  Before getting into all that, however, let’s discuss the history of these “Where’s Waldo?” photos.

From Booth’s own accounts we know that he was present at Abraham Lincoln’s second inauguration.  He later lamented to his friend, Samuel Knapp Chester, “What an excellent chance I had to kill the President, if I had wished, on inauguration-day.”  While Booth was known for his hyperbole at times, the fact that he actually believed he could have killed Lincoln during such a highly attended event like the inauguration hints towards the fact that he must have been somewhat close to the President.  Then in the February 13, 1956 issue of Life magazine, 90 year-old photography collector and historian Frederick Hill Meserve identified John Wilkes Booth in one of his pictures of the inauguration.  In addition to Booth, Meserve also identified Mary Todd Lincoln, Andrew Johnson, Ward Hill Lamon, John T. Ford, and Lewis Powell.  Now Meserve, as stated in the article, “spent 60 of his 90 years collecting photographs of the Civil War era,” and spent his whole life looking for and cataloging all the images of Lincoln that existed.  He published his compendium with Carl Sandburg and called it, The Photographs of Abraham Lincoln.  In his book, he included two different pictures of the inauguration.  The first one, numbered 89, shows Lincoln seated before delivering his speech.  Here is a scan of that image:

The second one, numbered 90 in Meserve’s book, is Lincoln standing and giving his speech:

This image is the most common photograph of Lincoln’s inauguration.  In fact, practically every search for Lincoln’s second inauguration will provide you with his picture.  Some websites even erroneously state that this is the only photograph of the event because it is used so exclusively.    The reason for its exclusivity is because this is the best photograph of Lincoln.  It shows the President addressing the assembled crowd in all his glory.  Of all the images that were taken of the event, this one was the best.

The problem is while the above picture shows Lincoln at his finest, it does not fully show John Wilkes Booth.  This is the reason why, in 1956, Meserve did not use this nice Lincoln picture to identify Booth.  Rather, Meserve used another photo in his collection, one that he did not publish in his book, to make the identification.  The image he used was not published because a fingerprint or smudge completely obliterated President Lincoln in it.  Since Lincoln isn’t visible in the picture, it is rarely published or seen:

Using this picture however, Meserve identified Booth as being on the balcony wearing a tall silk hat:

This is the man identified by Meserve in 1956 as being John Wilkes Booth.  Admittedly, there is no way to guarantee that this is Booth.  Honestly, the man who discovered it in the first place was quite old when he published it for the first time.  Nevertheless, the man Meserve identified does bear a similar appearance to the dapper,  ivory skinned, mustachioed actor that would later assassinate the President.  While it’s impossible to truly identify him as Booth, historians have accepted Meserve’s identification and have since included fun footnotes in their books about Lincoln and Booth appearing in the same photograph.

While this smudged picture of Lincoln contains a good Booth, it is not the best picture of Booth in the crowd.  That image is found in the rare book John Wilkes Booth Himself by Richard and Kellie Gutman.  Similar to Meserve’s search for all the photographs of Lincoln, the Gutmans tracked down all the pictures of the assassin that were known at the time.  The book itself is quite remarkable and only 1,000 copies were printed in 1979.  It is rare to see a copy up for sale today for less than $450 with a few copies being offered for even more than that.  In this volume, the Gutmans found a image that was very similar to the well known version of the inauguration:

The difference between the common inauguration photo and this one is that the focal point is not on the President at the podium but, oddly enough, on the crowd above him where Booth is standing.  This image provides the best detail of the man who would be Booth.  It is this image, merged with the common inauguration photo, that I used to create the blog’s current header image.

What has occurred over the years is that, while many people knew Booth was in the photographs of the inauguration, they never took the time to look up which one he was or where he could be found.  Instead, they used the best photograph of Lincoln and then just guessed as to which man in the crowd was Booth.  The Ford’s Theatre museum is guilty of perpetrating this.  They have a large wall display of Lincoln’s second inauguration.  As an inset, they have the following:

The man they have highlighted as Booth, is not the same man we have seen in the other photos as being Booth.  This man has longer hair and is wearing no hat of any kind.  Attending such an important event without a proper hat, no matter how much he disliked the President, was a social faux pas that the ornate and vain John Wilkes Booth would never commit.  This man highlighted on the display at Ford’s and on many websites as Booth is not correct.

The question arises then, if the highlighted man is not Booth, then where is he?  In the well known inauguration photo, with Lincoln addressing the crowd, Booth is still standing in the same place where he was in the other photos.  This time, however, he is blocked by the people in front of him:

Booth is partially obscured by the gentlemen in front of him straining to hear.  Only his hat and the top of his head are visible, but he is still there.

I hope that this post outlines the misconceptions about John Wilkes Booth at Lincoln’s second inauguration.  We know he was there and witnessed the event.  There is no guarantee that he is present in any of the inaugural photos, though.  The identification made by Frederick Hill Meserve is a theory, like anything else.  In my eyes, it is a decent one.  The man Meserve says is Booth, looks like Booth to me.  I wouldn’t bet my life on it, but it’s a harmless enough theory to support. 

Update 2/19/2013: Many people have recently come to this page due to the airing of the wonderful docudrama “Killing Lincoln”.  The producers of “Killing Lincoln” created their own composite image of John Wilkes Booth at Lincoln’s second inauguration in the same fashion that I did.  They took the best picture of Booth and placed it into the best picture of Lincoln.  Here is their result:

Booth at Lincoln's Inauguration Killing Lincoln

Humorously, Booth is standing right next to himself in this version of the picture:

Seeing Double

Frederick Hill Meserve’s original identification of Booth in Life magazine
John Wilkes Booth Himself by Richard and Kellie Gutman
The Photographs of Abraham Lincoln by Frederick Hill Meserve and Carl Sandburg – they hold the licensing rights to Frederick Hill Meserve’s collection

Categories: Uncategorized | Tags: , , | 11 Comments

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11 thoughts on “Booth at Lincoln’s Second Inauguration

  1. rsmyth

    Great, great, interesting story. Thanks Dave. Please solve the mystery of what happened to Corbett’s pistol next.

    • Thank you kindly, Rich. There may even be other exposures of Lincoln second inauguration out there that show Booth even more clearly. For now these are the only ones I know of.

      In regards to Corbett’s pistol, I figure if Mr. Miller hasn’t found it by now, it’s lost for good. It’s probably just in some generic gun collection somewhere with complete anonymity.

  2. fantastic post! we share a passion for historic images. please check out the trailer for my upcoming film, Saving Lincoln at

  3. keith price

    great information here…..i have wondered that about the famous lincoln image…..multiple sources have identified different people as booth…….even the pbs 2009 documentary that even features lincoln author james swanson in it even does the photo mix up thing.

  4. Larry Vigus

    Thanks… I helped in a minor way to back the production of Saving Lincoln and appreciate your scholarship.

  5. John C. Fazio


    A question arises as to whom or which we shall give greater credence: unverified suppositions by some, e.g. the Kunhardts, that this or that person in the balcony is Booth, when even the Ford’s Theatre Museum is criticized for getting it wrong, and considering that there were thousands of men in Washington at that time and on that day who wore top hats and who were mustachioed, and probably thousands, too, who resembled Booth in some degree, or the “dozen or more affidavits” (per Oldroyd)attesting to the fact that the man who tried to break through the police cordon escorting the President from the Rotunda to the portico was Booth. The Kunhardts, it should be mentioned, believe they can identify Powell, Atzerodt, Herold, Surratt and even “Edward” (sic) Spangler (who was NOT a conspirator) in the Gardner photographs. It should be mentioned, too, that there is evidence elsewhere that the Confederate underground planned an attempt on Lincoln’s life on Inauguration Day. A dozen affidavits are entitled to more weight than guesswork, are they not?

    John (C. Fazio)

  6. No mention of the conspirators standing near the bottom of the platform where Lincoln spoke? Clearly, John Surratt, David Herald, George Atzerodt and possibly Edmund Spangler are seen.

    • While the book, Twenty Days by Dorothy Meserve Kunhardt expanded on her father’s identification and posits the other conspirators are present in the photos of Lincoln’s second inauguration, there is little evidence that any of the men were there. The men claimed to be Surratt, Herold, Atzerodt, etc. look very little like the conspirators.

  7. I second Dave. This is especially true (for me anyway) due to the identification of Spangler being there with the others. Spangler was not part of this group; I don’t think he even met any of Booth’s “people” (other than Booth himself) until after he was arrested and imprisoned.

  8. Pingback: The Day Lincoln Was Shot: A Visual – The Publican

  9. Jeff Bloomfield

    A fascinating example of careful studying of photos and their presentation. I do believe Booth was at the inauguration, but I have reason to believe that he might have (at some point) been closer to Lincoln than these photos suggest (after all, he was separated by dozens of people on the balcony overlooking Lincoln and the dignitaries and the crowds blocking the exit from the balcony to the main balcony where Lincoln was delivering his speech.

    A number of years ago a large hitherto undiscovered photo of Lincoln on the grandstand before delivering the speech finally showed up – showing his own beard trimmed far closer by his barber than normal. Although the images (by our standards) were blurry, Lincoln, Chief Justice Chase, outgoing Vice President Hannibal Hamlin, and Vice President Andrew Johnson were clearly visible and sitting together up front. But while I looked carefully at the picture, on the side (say within twenty-five feel of the President) is a top hatted man with a moustache who resembles Booth! If it was him, he did get within striking distance of Lincoln.

    Could he have briefly actually been that close to the President? Well, if you think about it from the point of view of the date and Booth’s connections it was possible. Booth, at the time, was engaged to Lucy Hale, daughter of Senator John Hale of New Hampshire, who was a supporter of the administration. He could have gotten a pass for Booth to attend the inauguration, and Booth could have wandered down near the President, but possibly was asked to go to the smaller balcony because that was where his pass entitled him to stand.

    Since the inauguration was in March 1865, the stigma of the assassination had naturally not been connected to Booth yet – it was six weeks later. His dislike of the North and Lincoln might have attracted some attention – but given his connection to the Hales it was somewhat muffled. Also, he had not yet given up on kidnapping Lincoln to help the Confederate cause. When he was near Lincoln (if it was Booth) he would not have been prepared to kill the President – he might just want a close look at him. His comments to Samuel Chester were basically given AFTER he heard the Second Inaugural Address, not before, and while he might detest Lincoln’s abolitionism he was not prepared for Lincoln coming out for support of African-American suffrage and equality. At that point Booth’s fanaticism would have started heading for more murderous solutions. But it still was concentrating on kidnapping until April 2, 1865 when Richmond fell, and April 9, 1865 when Lee surrendered. The scheme still had rapidly weakening possibilities until those dates. I don’t think on March 4, 1865 Booth was ready, despite physical proximity to Lincoln, to kill him.

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