Culture Magazine

The Strange Workings of Community: in the Wake of Lincoln's Assassination

By Bbenzon @bbenzon
From today's NYTimes:
To Mattie Jackson, a runaway slave, the tidings of Lincoln’s death felt like “an electric shock to my soul.” Many refused to believe it. “I still think we must be the victims of a gigantic street rumor,” a white woman confessed to her mother.
Future disastrous events would bring the disbelieving to radio, television, the telephone and social media, but in the spring of 1865, astounded Americans could confirm reports of catastrophe only by seeking out other human faces.
As soon as Lucy Hedge saw the headlines, she dressed and left her New England home to walk through the streets, where, she wrote later, “gloom and dismay were pictured upon every countenance.” In Louisville, Ky., “distress was visible in every colored person’s face,” said one observer, while in New York, a weeping white man made his way to Wall Street to join “the crowd with sad and horror-stricken faces.”
With so many mourners looking into one another’s eyes, Lincoln’s opponents had to be on guard, for no exhibition of glee among defeated Confederates would be tolerated. In Richmond, Va., the captured Confederate capital that Lincoln had visited a little over a week earlier, “Each man looked sharp at those who passed him,” a Northern missionary wrote to his father.
This is about the transformation of shared information into mutual information. All those people who read about Lincoln's assassination in the newspaper shared that information in common. But they didn't know that each other knew. That only happened when they went out into the street and looked at one another. Then the knowledge of Lincoln's assassination became mutual.
Then came the ritual viewing:
Soon, though, came a shift. Whereas the bereaved at first sought confirmation in as many faces as possible, before long their attention was riveted on a single face: that of the murdered president. On April 18 Lincoln lay in state, inside a walnut coffin resting on a towering and lavishly decorated catafalque, in the East Room of the White House. The funeral took place the next day, and the day after that the body again went on display, this time in the Capitol rotunda. Thousands filed by. What better proof of the appalling turns of events?
From the capital, the body of the slain president traveled for two weeks, across nearly 1,700 miles, with elaborate ceremonies in 11 cities. Everywhere visitors were overwhelmed by the “rush and jam” to see the body, as guards kept the congested lines moving so rapidly that “it was impossible,” one spectator protested, “to obtain a satisfactory view.” Mattie Jackson, for one, knew that she would not be “convinced of his death” until she “gazed upon his remains.”
Yet the ritual viewing of Lincoln’s body — and his face — proved troublesome. When mourners did catch a glimpse of that singular visage, many were disappointed. To one, “his whiskers being shorn off made his face look small”; to another, “the expression was wanting.”

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