Harvard Theatre Collection’s Lincoln Assassination Playbills

By Matthew Wittmann, Curator of the Harvard Theatre Collection

A man in suit, waistcoat, and black tie, clean-shaven with his hair parted in the middle.

Harry Hawk, Our American cousin collage, ca. 1865-1894. MS Thr 888. Houghton Library, Harvard University

Rather unfortunately, an evening performance of Our American Cousin at Ford’s Theatre on April 14, 1865 is perhaps the most remarked upon theatrical event in American history. Harry Hawk, who played the “cousin” character Asa Trenchard, delivered this risible line in Act II: “Don’t know the manners of good society, eh? Well, I guess I know enough to turn you inside out, old gal — you sockdologizing old man-trap.” John Wilkes Booth ostensibly hoped that the ensuing laughter would cover the sound of his gun, and shot the President as he enjoyed a hearty laugh at the scene. Lincoln slumped forward as Booth jumped onstage and made a dramatic escape from the theatre. Although he survived the night, the wound was mortal and Lincoln passed away a little after seven the following morning. In the wake of the President’s shocking death, the public evinced a strong desire for mementos and playbills for the infamous performance proved to be one particularly valued keepsake. Years later and in a similar spirit, Harry Hawk assembled this montage of photographs and documents memorializing the tragic evening.

A collage of materials from production of "Our American Cousin," with photo portraits and playbill.

Our American cousin collage, ca. 1865-1894. MS Thr 888. Houghton Library, Harvard University.

Although the portraits are mostly of theatrical professionals connected to the performance, Henry Polkinhorn, owner of the print shop printer used by Ford’s Theatre is also pictured in the middle of the bottom row. The letter at center by Hawk testifies that the playbill above is an original April 14 bill, but it was in fact printed soon after the fact by Polkinhorn, the giveaway being the broken “E” in the line dedicated to Laura Keene.

Man in suit and tie with large muttonchop sideburns and full mustache.

John B. Wright, Our American cousin collage, ca. 1865-1894. MS Thr 888. Houghton Library, Harvard University.

Indeed, authentic original playbills for the April 14 performance are few and far between amidst the ensuing flood of reproductions. The Harvard Theatre Collection holds a remarkable bound volume of playbills for the 1864-65 season at Ford’s Theatre that was assembled by stage manager John B. Wright. A letter tipped in to the front of the volume explains that there were actually two different issues of the playbill printed on April 14. When Wright was advised of the President’s patronage that morning, he went to Polkinhorn’s shop to have the lyrics for a patriotic song, “Honor to Our Soldiers,” added to the bill. When he arrived, the first version was already in the process of being printed. The press was stopped and the necessary changes to the form were made so that the remainder of the bills were printed with the added stanza. Wright took all of the bills that had been printed with him back to the theatre so both versions were posted and distributed that fateful day. The Harvard Theatre Collection holds two examples of the first type and one of the second issue (below) with the additional “patriotic song and chorus.”

A playbill for Our American Cousin, with the "Patriotic Song and Chorus" added.

Second issue of Our American Cousin playbill. John B. Wright playbills for Ford’s Theatre, 1864-1865. MS Thr 1600. Houghton Library, Harvard University.

Comparison of the unbroken and broken "E" from the two printings of the playbill.

 

Note the fully formed last letter “E” in KEENE here in the original, which stands in stark contrast to the broken top beak of the “E” so commonly found in later reproductions. For whatever reason, when Polkinhorn began reprinting the playbills as souvenirs in the days after the assassination he printed the first issue lacking the stanza rather than the second issue. These initial reprints with the broken “E” and later reproductions of the same are the ones so often confused with the true original playbill. Polkinhorn’s choice essentially saved the second issue from the same confusion. For a full exploration and analysis of the rather convoluted history of this fascinating bit of Americana, see Walter Brenner’s study, to which this post is much indebted.

This post originally appeared on April 15, 2017 in entr’acte, Harvard Theatre Collection’s blog, no longer in publication.

The Legacy of Harold Terrell at Houghton Library

By Peter X. Accardo, Scholarly and Public Programs Librarian

As part of our observance of African American history month, Houghton Library has taken an opportunity to research and reflect on the life and work of the library’s first African American colleague, Harold M. Terrell, Jr. At a time when the Harvard College Library employed very few African Americans, Harold was a notable exception in a career that spanned six decades. This post is intended to honor him and to highlight the lasting contributions he made to the library.

Harold was born in Boston on 20 June 1929, the youngest son of Harold and Mary (Forbes) Terrell.  His father had moved in 1920 from North Carolina to Boston, where he held several jobs through the Great Depression and the Second World War; his mother raised their three children at home. Young Harold attended public schools, graduating from Roxbury Memorial High School in 1947. Two years later he joined the staff of Houghton Library as an assistant in the library’s reading room; a photograph of reading room staff taken in the early 1950s shows Harold as a young man, sporting the fine pencil mustache he wore his entire life.

Five people stand behind a library reading room service desk.

Harold Terrell (far right) in the Houghton Library Reading Room with other staff members. Undated photograph. Houghton Library, Harvard University.

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Introducing Houghton Library’s New Digital Archivist

By Monique Lassere, Digital Archivist, Houghton Library

Hi, everyone. My name is Monique and I am Houghton Library’s new Digital Archivist! I started working at Houghton in May 2020. My job sits within the Manuscript Section and revolves around the born-digital collections Houghton acquires in the form of media like hard drives and floppy disks, or networked content, like websites. While I haven’t yet visited Houghton’s physical space due to the pandemic, there’s been no shortage of work to dive into while working remotely.

Over the last few months, I have spent much of my time digging into the born-digital archival materials we have on cloud storage. I’m able to do this because of the previous work conducted by Accessioning Archivist, Melanie Wisner, and past Administrative Fellow and Project Archivist, Magee Lawhorn, to get born-digital work off the ground at Houghton. Before I arrived, Melanie and Magee captured files from born-digital removable media, like the 3.5” floppy disks in the John Updike, John Ashbery, and Jerry Schatzberg papers, respectively. As a result, I can begin to work with the digital files we have on cloud storage to determine how we can best provide access for researchers to these materials.

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Cosmic Visions: Illuminating Dante’s Divine Comedy

By Madeleine Klebanoff O’Brien

Last summer I conducted independent research at Houghton Library through Harvard’s remote Summer Humanities and Arts Research Program undergraduate fellowship. Inspired by Houghton’s collections, I created an allegorical map of Dante Alighieri’s Divine Comedy.

The Comedy follows Dante through Hell, Purgatory and Heaven. It is a cosmography, a “total vision” of the cosmos. While most Comedy illustrations are episodic or focused on infernal topography, my map spans the entirety of Dante’s cosmos. It embodies a “total vision.”

The ultimate “total vision” is the beatific vision, in which Dante sees “by love in a single volume bound, / the pages scattered throughout the universe” (Alighieri, Dante. Paradiso. Translated by Robert and Jean Hollander, Anchor, 2007. XXXIII, 86-87). My map binds, in a “single volume,” the pages of the Comedy. It promises us a glimmer of Dante’s beatitude.

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Baking with Emily D.

By Emily Walhout, Reference Assistant, Public Services and
Christine Jacobson, Assistant Curator of Modern Books and Manuscripts

Around this time of year, Team Cake’s thoughts turn toward fruitcake. Emily Dickinson’s “black cake” to be precise—a 20-pound cake darkened by molasses and boasting 8 pounds of combined raisins, currants, and citron. The original manuscript of the recipe for this hefty cake, written in Miss Dickinson’s own hand, is housed in Houghton Library’s Emily Dickinson Collection.

Now, fruitcake is not a word that generally elicits delight or happy memories. A more common reaction might be skepticism or even a gasp of alarm. But Emily Dickinson’s black cake is not your average fruitcake. Along with the molasses and brandy, an assortment of aromatic spices goes a long way in giving this cake its memorable flavor.

For the past five years, Team Cake—a troupe of brave and curious bakers at Houghton—has recreated this cake, rigorously adhering to the poet’s recipe, and served it up to colleagues and friends at celebration of the poet’s birthday on December 10. Fruitcakes are traditionally steeped in brandy and stored away for months to mature and ripen, so September is the time to get a cake underway if it’s to be shared in December.

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