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   Volume IV, Issue 1
September 2007   

The search for Lincoln's assassin: History comes alive through a family's personal documents

While rummaging through some of her late husband's belongings, Falvey Memorial Library's Marie Humbert discovered some remarkable items related to the American Civil War. One of Harold 'Bud' Humbert's ancestors, Augustus Humbert, was a lieutenant in the Union Army and participated in the hunt for President Abraham Lincoln's assassin, John Wilkes Booth, and his co-conspirators. Marie found papers relating to Lt. Humbert's service and graciously gave them to Falvey to add to the Digital Library, now available online in the Humbert Collection.

Two items are formal documents pertaining to Humbert's military service. One announces his commission as a lieutenant in the Pennsylvania militia in 1863. Interestingly, the certificate shows his commission was granted by the governor of Pennsylvania rather than the federal government. The other confirms his membership, in 1889, in the Grand Army of the Republic, a veterans' organization for former soldiers of the Union Army.

With these documents Marie found a Confederate twenty dollar bill (seventh and final series, February 17, 1864), complete with pictures of the Tennessee state capitol building in Nashville and Confederate Vice-President Alexander Stephens. Although worn, these items are interesting souvenirs of the Civil War era.

However, even more fascinating are the other items in this small collection. Included are actual orders delivered during the hectic aftermath of Lincoln's assassination on April 14, 1865. The first, a letter by Noah Jeffries, assistant provost marshal general for Maryland, provides a description of Lewis Payne (a.k.a. Lewis Thornton Powell), the man who unsuccessfully tried to assassinate Secretary of State William Seward the same night Booth killed Lincoln. Issued April 15 from Philadelphia, the order calls for the recipient, Major J. Hayden, to "use every exertion in your power and call to you and the entire force under your control to secure the arrest of the assassin." In addition to a physical description, Jeffries describes Payne's manners as "not gentlemanly, but vulgar." Payne was captured on April 17 and hanged with his co-conspirators on July 7, 1865.

The last two items are Special Orders 61 and 66, written on the official stationary of the Military Provost Marshal's Office for the District of Philadelphia. Order 61, dated April 16, commanded soldiers to search all passenger trains arriving in Baltimore from Washington, D.C. Anyone resembling the assassins who could not adequately account for his presence was to be detained.

Augustus Humbert received Order 66, dated April 21, directly. It commanded Humbert to prevent a ship from landing at the Arch Street wharf until he was satisfied John Wilkes Booth was not on board.

Soldiers later killed Booth in a burning barn on April 26. Although those involved in Booth's conspiracy were captured or killed in Maryland, these documents reveal how widespread the hunt for the assassins actually was.

Many attics and cellars hold historical artifacts and records, even if not connected to so dramatic an event as Lincoln's assassination. Fascinating research projects often begin by exploring how such newly-discovered items fit into the overall historical record. The Digital Library @ Villanova University welcomes contributions of other such heirlooms from viewers' family histories, thereby allowing researchers from all over the world to incorporate these items into their scholarship.

Contributed by David Burke