A brief note on why the details of Lincoln’s assassination night can differ


Someone has asked: “Why are there the various accounts of Lincoln’s assassination so different in certain aspects?” That’s a good question- and one that deserves an answer. One would think that with approximately 1,600 people in the audience that night on April 14, 1865 at Ford’s Theater that there would be no question as to the details of the event. Wrong. Interestingly enough, no one in the theater saw the shooting of Lincoln. One audience member stated he saw the flash of the weapon as it occurred, so maybe one person witnessed the shooting (other than Booth, of course). But getting back to the answer to the question-many variables can account for different versions of what happened:

1)      Not everyone in the audience saw the same thing- what they focused on varied from person to person.

2)      Eye-witness accounts were also subject to memories that may have changed over the process of time. Some of the remembrances were told many years afterward.  

3)      Some of the persons recalling the assassination may have had certain motives for slanting their particular reports-perhaps to protect reputations, etc.

4)      Some audience members were simply incorrect in what they thought they saw or heard.

5)      Certain observers of the event may be considered more reliable than others, because of proximity to President Lincoln, reason for being in the theater, and other factors.

There are additional explanations (not listed), to be sure.  So when considering an event-any event, one must at least give pause for reflection to these kinds of things. When it comes to the “Lincoln story”-including the assassination, it is not uncommon for there to be multiple viewpoints-some of them different in detail and/or quite opposite. Sometimes, it’s a matter of “best guess” as far as what to accept. Perhaps, the safest bet is to look for preponderance of evidence in making the decision. Also, the source of the statement/claim should be considered. For instance, is the account given by someone who was actually there, or is it someone writing about the event generations later (although that is not necessarily a bad thing). Another question to ask oneself is: What do the scholars think?  In the Lincoln world of scholarship- is there a concensus? Or is the viewpoint being offered largely panned by the experts? At times, there is no certainty to be had about something. New evidence may turn up to enlighten and inform. If not, or until then, its sound practice to know what the viewpoints are. A particular viewpoint can be favored until demonstrated to not be valid or as likely. History is not an exact science-it is dynamic and changeable. Far from being discouraging, the search for further clarity should always be stimulating and exciting! Who said history was boring?

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