The Oldest Photographs of the Escape Route

Photography as we know it was only about 40 years old when Abraham Lincoln was assassinated.  Though some photographers had risked life and limb taking battlefield shots of the Civil War, the bulk of a photographer’s business consisted of portraits in their studio.  In the aftermath of Lincoln’s assassination photographers like Matthew Brady and Alexander Gardner took photographs of Ford’s Theatre, the conspirators, and the hanging of the condemned.  When it came to the escape route, however, no cameras attempted to make the trip.  Granted, in those early days no one was completely sure of the route Booth took or of all the places he visited before his death at the Garrett farm.  Newspapermen travelled the route and drew sketches, many of which were later turned into engravings, but none of these can truly capture the detail of a location as well as a camera can.  However, the bulky nature of early photography equipment (such as the required glass plates) made photographing the escape route an undesirable endeavor.

So, what are the earliest photographs we have of the escape route?  The most readily available ones were done by Osborn Oldroyd in 1901, 36 years after Lincoln’s death.  Armed with the newly invented “Brownie” camera from Kodak, Oldroyd walked and photographed the route.  Oldroyd’s book, The Assassination of Abraham Lincoln, is still so popular and historically valuable thanks, in part, to his many photographs of the escape route.

Oldroyd walking the route

Osborn Oldroyd, most likely with his Brownie camera in his pack

But Oldroyd was not the first to photograph the sites of Booth’s escape.  In 1888, Kodak, and it’s founder George Eastman, had released the first box camera using the recently invented “roll” of film.  Like the Brownie that followed, these original Kodak cameras allowed individuals to take their pictures and then mail in their film to Kodak to be developed.  These first, mass market cameras produced a circular image while the later Brownie created a rectangular exposure.

Sometime between 1893 and 1895, a writer for Century Magazine either commissioned someone or took a Kodak camera for a walk himself and photographed part of the escape route.  The writer’s name was Victor L. Mason, and here are some of his pictures:

Mrs. Surratt's boarding house circa 1895

Mrs. Surratt’s boarding house circa 1895

The Surratt Tavern circa 1895

The Surratt Tavern circa 1895

Dr. Mudd's house circa 1895

Dr. Mudd’s house circa 1895

The Garrett house circa 1895

The Garrett house circa 1895

Victor Mason was working on an article about Lincoln’s assassination for Century Magazine.  In addition to these exterior shots of the escape route with a Kodak, Mason also used a more professional camera to take images of several of the trial exhibits in storage at the War Department such as this one:

Trial Exhibits circa 1895

In April of 1896, Victor Mason’s article, Four Lincoln Conspiracies, was published in Century Magazine.  Click here to view the article and look through the pages.  You will notice that while photographs of the conspirators and the relics of the assassination are replicated in the article, the photos of the escape route are not.  Instead, the article contains several drawings of each escape route location “Drawn by Harry Fenn” “From a Recent Photograph.”  Look at the drawings for the Surratt boarding house, the Surratt Tavern, Dr. Mudd’s House, and the Garrett house, and you will see that they are exact matches to the photos above.  It’s clear that Mason’s photographs were turned into these drawings.  Due to this, we can surmise that Mason also photographed Bryantown, Huckleberry, and Cleydael, since there are drawings of those places in the article too.

To my knowledge, these circa 1895 images are the earliest photographs of the escape route.  If any one knows otherwise, or has copies of these images (especially the “missing” ones of Bryantown, Huckleberry, and Cleydael), please comment below or shoot me a message at boothiebarn (at) gmail (dot) com.

References:
History of Kodak
PictureHistory.com
Four Lincoln Conspiracies by Victor L. Mason, Century Magazine, April 1896

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8 thoughts on “The Oldest Photographs of the Escape Route

  1. Rich smyth

    Great story. I had never seen those pictures. In 1888 when George Eastman introduced his new camera it was preloaded with film. When finished, you mailed the whole camera back to Kodak for development.

    • Thanks for the clarification, Rich. It was in 1895, I believe that Eastman produced the first daylight film roll camera which allowed camera owners to switch out the film without the need for a dark room.

  2. Laurie Verge

    We have a copy of the Surratt Tavern photo in our files, but we did not know the date or the photographer.

    • I believe I was the one who sent you that photo, Laurie. I didn’t know the photographer when I found it.

    • Thanks to Richard Sloan for sending me some of his research on Victor Mason:

      “Perh. you would like to mention in your blog my scant research on Mason, to fill readers in on him. He was quite an interesting and popular figure who was considered quite witty, as well as being an eloquent after-dinner speaker, writer, fisherman, and hunter. (Among his other articles was a piece on the flight and capture of Jeff Davis.) My source for all of this (except where noted) is the Memorial Cyclopedia of N.J., which is in the Passaic County Archives and is also online. One has to be careful about certain facts and dates when conducting online research. I cannot corroborate any of this Memorial Cyclopedia material, and have never attempted to do so.
      Victor Mason was b. in D.C. in 1870 from a distinguished Virginia family. He married in 1891. It was while a student at Columbian University (later known as Geo. Washington Univ.) that he wrote his Lincoln conspiracies article for Century. He wrote it in 1896, when he was 26 years-old. However, that would make him 27 when he graduated from that college in 1897. (I have trouble with that.)
      He married in 1891, at the age of 21. He had three children. He and his wife and two children moved to Passaic, NJ in 1907. His son, Louis II, was born there in 1908, when his father was 38, and his parents had been married 17 years.
      Mason served as the private secretary to Russell Alger, Pres. McKinley’s Sec. of War. (Alger became a long-time friend.) He also served in the same capacity for Alger’s successor, Elihu Root. Mason became a successful businessman. He was a delegate at the G.O.P. convention that nominated Taft for President.
      He moved to Passaic, NJ in 1907, where he became very active in local civic affairs and conservation. During a visit to England in 1912 he was invited to take a ride in a monoplane. The pilot, a 24 year-old man by the name of Fisher, had about a year’s worth of flying experience. (Only seven months earlier, Fisher had crashed a plane and as a result had been unconscious for several days.) The monoplane did some circling and suddenly took a nose dive and crashed, killing both Mason and Fisher instantly. (Source — The N.Y. Times, May 14, 1912) Mason was only 42 years of age. His son, Louis, was four years old when his father died.
      In his Lincoln article, Mason wrote that Louis Weichmann “saved himself from the gallows” by virtue of his testimony at the Lincoln conspiracy trial. Weichmann was livid when he read that. In a 1901 ( ? ) letter to Oldroyd he vilified Mason and said that if he ever met the man he’d do him bodily harm. (I don’t recall the exact words as I write this.) (Source — Weichmann correspondence with Oldroyd, from a CHicago college or archives whose name I don’t recall right now. About 28 years ago I donated a copy of both halves of the Weichmann-Oldroyd correspondence to the Surratt House Library.)
      Hope some of the above may be of interest.”

  3. Laurie Verge

    Do you have any idea where there might be more of Mason’s photos over the escape route? In 1961, there was an amateur stage play done at Surrattsville High School concerning The Case of Mrs. Surratt. I was a senior in high school (not Surrattsville) at that time, and as I walked in the door, there was a trophy case to the right that had been converted into an exhibit case about the Lincoln assassination. One of the photographs in the case was of my family home – taken somewhere between 1875 (when the house was enlarged) and 1905 (when the Queen Anne bay was added).

    I knew it was our house, but I didn’t know whom to ask about it at that time. It was not until I started working at Surratt House in 1975, that I met the lady who had put together the exhibit. All she could remember was that a lot of the photos came from the Library of Congress. I contacted them asking about any photos that might be labeled T.B. (location of the house), but never got a response.

    Maybe our house (the Huntt home) was photographed by Mason on his trek…

  4. Rich smyth

    Thanks Mr. Sloan! Rich has a ton of knowledge stored away. Not just on the Lincoln assassination but the Lindberg kidnapping and other historic moments.

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