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