The sun was bright and hot as Alexander Gardner tended to his equipment on July 7, 1865. The noted Civil War photographer had brought two cameras with him, one wet plate and one stereoscopic, with which to capture the day’s event. Gardner was lucky, due to his prestige he was able to set himself up in the cool shade of a nearby building overlooking the scene. From his vantage point, facing out of two windows on the second floor of an old shoe factory on the property, Gardner could take in the entire scene.
Men began trickling into the courtyard below. Most were soldiers on assigned guard duty, but there was also a notable contingent of civilians. Many were newspapermen, here to commit to writing what Gardner would record on glass. A few others had come, in spite of the oppressive heat, to see justice meted out. Gardner focused his cameras on the object around which all the men had gathered – a hastily built gallows. Over the course of the next thirty minutes or so, Gardner would take at least 10 photographs of the proceedings. Through his lens, the execution of Mary Surratt, Lewis Powell, David Herold, and George Atzerodt was recorded in haunting clarity.
By using high resolution versions of Alexander Gardner’s photographs available through the Library of Congress, one can splice most of the execution photographs together to recreate the final moments of the four condemned conspirators in Abraham Lincoln’s assassination in vivid detail. NOTE: The animation is below but is a bit large so it might take a second to load, especially on mobile devices.
Alexander Gardner’s photographs of the hanging provide us with a glimpse of the past that no newspaper report can equally replicate. Combined with modern technology, these photographs bring realism to a story whose epilogue was written 153 years ago today.