Late last week I went to the CUNY Graduate Center to hear Martha Hodes discuss her new book Mourning Lincoln. Dr. Hodes, a professor at New York University, explained that while writing her book she used the events of 9/11 as a springboard to analyze the Lincoln assassination and especially its aftermath. What she meant was that today, fourteen years after the World Trade Center attacks, the tendency is to think that there was a universal quality to Americans’–and even New Yorkers’–responses to that event. Old photographs she dug up of people congregating at Washington Square reminded her that the immediate response was more complicated than her fading memory. Such is the nature of these types of events.
The ultimate example of this phenomenon is the murder of Lincoln. Today the tendency is to believe that all Americans responded with universal grief and solemnity when nothing could have been further from the truth. Many–and not just below the Mason-Dixon line–were euphoric. This was especially true here in New York City, where Copperhead sympathies predominated throughout the war. No photographs exist of Lincoln’s assassination or the scene at his deathbed. The closest thing we have is artist Carl Bersch’s painting Lincoln Borne by Loving Hands. As far as is known this is the only rendering to have been done by an eyewitness. The provenance is unclear, but Bersch seems to have painted the work sometime later in 1865. It’s what we have.
A friend sent me an article about the ongoing restoration of the painting, which is in the care of the National Park Service. The painting has not been seen by too many people over the past century and a half, though it did go to Russian four years ago as part of an exhibit to mark the parallel lives of Lincoln and Czar Alexander II. The czar had freed the serfs in 1861 and would himself later be assassinated. I would not put too fine a point on it, but in a way Lincoln’s killing can be seen as part of the wave of political assassinations that were so common between his killing in 1865 and Archduke Ferdinand’s in 1914. Bomb-throwing revolutionaries killed Alexander II in 1881, and it was Leon Czolgosz’s shooting of President McKinley twenty years after that that brought Theodore Roosevelt to power. And those are just a few of the most prominent examples. Anyways, here is that piece from the Washington Post about the painting’s restoration. The restoration work began in August and should conclude in early 2016 with the painting going on display at Ford’s Theater.