Hello again, History Mates old and new. Here are two new items to chew on:
Assassin on the Loose! While browsing through microfilmed newspapers for some Civil War research recently, I stumbled upon an alert to readers headlined “HIGHLY IMPORTANT: Booth, the Assassin, in Pennsylvania.” The item ran in the Philadelphia Inquirer on April 20, 1865 — six days after the notorious John Wilkes Booth had killed President Lincoln in Washington. A manhunt was afoot that would actually track Booth’s flight south into Virginia, where he was killed. But the Inquirer item, datelined April 19 in Reading, Pa., somehow reported that the killer had been spotted “on the passenger train that left here at 6 o’clock for Pottsville. A gentleman noticed him on the train before it reached here, spoke to him and shook hands with him. During their conversation, Booth colored up several times and appeared annoyed and desirous of avoiding observation. The gentleman is positive it is Booth, he having known him for several years. Why did he not give the alarm at once or before the train left here, I do not know, but just as the train left he notified several of the officers of the road. An extra train was immediately sent in pursuit of the train. Telegrams were sent to all points upon the line of the road. The result is unknown as yet.” The Inquirer stayed with the story — and on April 22 acknowledged that it had been a false alarm. Fake news. “The man who was said to have recognized the individual arrested as Booth denies having any knowledge of him. The individual said to be Booth and arrested at Tamaqua has been discharged from custody.” Nowadays lawsuits would ensue, but the two unnamed gents appear to have just walked away from the mess. Not Booth. He was shot dead in a barn four days later.
And Compared to Today? When I give talks about the abolition and Civil War history in Embattled Freedom, listeners frequently ask me to compare the tensions of that era to today’s polarized politics. I try to go light on the comparisons since I’m there to talk history, but I understand that folks are looking for insights. I got the question again last week. So here’s how I think about it. There is a striking similarity in the weaponizing of the media. Most 19th century newspapers were political house organs that were strident in their rhetoric and trafficked in untruths. Today we’re fortunate to have mainstream media that tries to report the news in a careful and balanced way, but out on the wings are major and minor media that spin mightily. Many of us turn primarily to those lesser media, and they stoke the kind of resentment that does remind me of Civil War era invective. Another point of similarity is the immigrant-sanctuary city issue of today. The fugitive-slave haven my book chronicles can be seen as a sanctuary city of its day because its black refugees were not citizens and the whites who safeguarded them were defying the law. We laud Underground Railroad work today. How different, really, were its refugees from today’s immigrant refugees from violence? Still, on balance, I believe then-and-now comparisons only go so far. We haven’t matched the animosity and violent threats of the 19th century, nor are we fighting over as giant and evil an issue as institutionalized human slavery. People are polarized and angry today, norms are being eroded, and fringe actors are feeling emboldened. I feel as irritated about that as anyone else. But I really don’t see us coming to blows as a society. How about you? Do you agree?
Book news. I’ll be back on the road a few times in the coming months, weather permitting. Yesterday I had the pleasure of speaking at my boyhood church, as reported in this article. On Nov. 13 at 7 p.m., the Lackawanna State Park is bringing me in for a talk at the visitor center in North Abington Township, Pa. The next day at 1 p.m. I’ll be addressing the Wallenpaupack Historical Society, at the Environmental Learning Center in Hawley, Pa. Maybe I’ll see you there.