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Mathew Brady, Alexander Gardner, and the Race to Photograph the Story of the Century
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Mathew Brady and Alexander Gardner were the new media moguls of their day. With their photographs they brought the Civil War — and all of its terrible suffering — into Northern living rooms. By the end of the war, they were locked in fierce competition.
And when the biggest story of the century happened–the assassination of Abraham Lincoln–their paparazzi-like competition intensified. Brady, nearly blind and hoping to rekindle his wartime photographic magic, and Gardner, his former understudy, raced against each other to the theater where Lincoln was shot, to the autopsy table where Booth was identified, and to the gallows where the conspirators were hanged. Whoever could take the most sensational — or ghastly — photograph would achieve lasting camera-lens fame.
Compelling and riveting, Shooting Lincoln tells the astonishing, behind-the-photographs story of these two media pioneers who raced to “shoot” the late president and the condemned conspirators. The photos they took electrified the country, fed America’s growing appetite for tabloid-style sensationalism in the news, and built the media we know today.
— Sunday, February 5, 1865 —
THE PRESIDENT LOOKED like he was already dead.
The bags under his eyes resembled the piles of bodies stacked on Civil War battlefields across the North and South. His face was sunken. His lanky frame looked downright skeletal. His wiry salt-and-pepper hair jutted from his head in a tangled mess—untouched by a comb from yet another restless night. His wrinkles crisscrossed deep in every direction, offering a reminder that Abraham Lincoln wore the scars of war on his rugged rail-splitter flesh.
This was not a good day for Lincoln to get shot. The Confederates were on the run. The air was filled with the whiff of surrender. The busy president, not yet into his second term, had unfinished business. But there he was, seated on a Queen Anne–style chair under a skylight in the direct aim of Alexander Gardner. Lincoln's mischievous eleven-year-old son, Tad, rustled about nearby.
Washington was in a cold snap. A snowstorm was on the way.1 Lincoln sat corpse-like, as frozen as the weather outside. On the streets, business was deadlocked. Nobody wanted to operate until the country's future became more clear, the Washington Evening Star noted.2 Time stood still. The quiet was broken only by the clang of church bells—two dings noting it was two o'clock in the afternoon.
Gardner, a burly Scottish immigrant with a wild beard, didn't have a gun trained on Lincoln's cavernous face. He had a wooden box with a glass lens, which required Lincoln to be still. He was conducting a photo shoot of the wartime president at his upstairs studio at Seventh and D Streets in Washington, a few blocks from the White House. Outside, men around the country dreamed about making it Lincoln's last—and at least one was preparing to make sure of it.
Assassination attempts weren't new to Lincoln. He had lived with the threats ever since he was elected. In Baltimore he narrowly avoided an attack years earlier while taking a train to his inauguration. At the moment, though, Lincoln was more concerned with ending the war he had overseen since 1861. The president was traveling throughout Washington with little security. A few months before, Ward Hill Lamon, the marshal of the District of Columbia, scolded Lincoln for slipping out to a local theater without protection. "I regret that you do not appreciate what I have repeatedly said to you in regard to proper police arrangements connected with your household and your own personal safety," Lamon wrote. "You are in danger.… And you know, or ought to know, that your life is sought after, and will be taken unless you and your friends are cautious; for you have many enemies within our lines."3
The days and months ahead would be shrouded in myth, talked about and investigated by researchers for the next century and more. But one thing was obvious right then and there. The president was careless about his personal safety. And the man who pioneered the use of photographs to develop his political persona cared even less about how he looked.
AS GARDNER DIRECTED Lincoln in different poses, John Wilkes Booth, a famous actor, was working on his conspiracy. For the moment, he had settled on capturing Lincoln—not shooting him. Possibly at the nearby Ford's Theatre.
Booth knew the theater well. He had stood on its stage sixteen days earlier in a performance of William Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet. The handsome, baby-faced Booth played Romeo. A few days before, he was at the theater, eyeing its exits and pathways for a potential abduction of Lincoln, a fan of comedies and a known guest of the place. John Sleeper Clarke, Booth's brother-in-law and famed American comedian, was performing the play The Rivals at the theater the following day.4 Perhaps Lincoln would show.
The twenty-six-year-old Booth wasn't the type one expected to plan a political coup. He was from a famous theatrical family. His brother Edwin, also a famous Shakespearean actor, once saved Lincoln's son from getting hit by a train. When Edwin scooped him off the train platform, the son, Robert Todd, recognized Edwin's face from pictures he had seen.
But John Wilkes Booth was not like his brother. While he was an accomplished actor, he was also a drunken Confederate sympathizer who despised Lincoln. At the moment, the public saw otherwise. "As earned by his Romeo, we hasten to add our laurel to the wreath which the young actor deservedly wears; to offer him our congratulations, and to say to him that he is of the blood royal—a very prince of the blood—a lineal descendant of the true monarch, his sire, who ranks with the Napoleons of the stage," a critic for the Washington Daily National Intelligencer wrote. "We have never seen a Romeo bearing any near comparison with the acting of Booth on Friday night."5
Booth's own life was headed for tragedy, just like the Shakespeare plays he headlined. Despite outward appearances, he was broke and angered by Lincoln's continued prosecution of the war. The Confederacy was in its darkest days. The end was near. General William Tecumseh Sherman had wasted Georgia and was lurching north through South Carolina, the jewel of the rebellion. Lincoln and his cabinet were starting to focus on how to put the fractured country back together again. Since the South couldn't handle Lincoln in battle, Booth figured he had to do it himself.
Booth lived on and off at the National Hotel, a place popular with Southerners in a city built at the crossroads of North and South. The hotel, a series of six connected townhouses, was a Washington landmark that housed all the greats, from Lincoln to Dickens.6 By now, however, it had developed a sordid past. In 1857 the hotel hosted a preinaugural ball and lodged President-Elect James Buchanan. During his stay, Buchanan grew ill with an upset stomach. A few weeks after the inauguration, Washington was gossiping about a strange disease overtaking the hotel's guests.7 People quickly panicked.
The newspapers didn't help. The scandal-loving reporters offered detailed accounts of hotel guests who grew sick during their stays. Several posited that the illness was attributable to poisoned rats that died in a water reservoir. Just about any rumor or theory made it into print. The Columbus (GA) Enquirer later reported that President Buchanan was near death. "The disease contracted by [the president] at the National Hotel appears to be hastening the president's fate," the newspaper reported, based on an account from an unnamed "very distinguished democrat."8 The New York Times downright speculated that the disease was the result of a botched assassination attempt on the president by radical abolitionists. None of that was true. But it goes to say: the National Hotel was a great place to hatch a conspiracy.
BOOTH HAD BEGUN tracking Lincoln's movements throughout the capital city, but there was no indication he knew Lincoln was at Gardner's studio. Gardner had photographed Booth there before, as he had so many other celebrities and politicians and generals. He and his old boss, famed photographer Mathew Brady, had perfected the wet-plate process, which allowed them to duplicate photos and sell them to the general public. Many of their famous subjects wound up on small card stock. Americans traded them like baseball cards.
Gardner was a realist. He was not in awe of celebrities like Brady. Still, his studio was packed with famous faces. Grant. Sherman. Lincoln. But in recent years, Gardner's gallery had become dominated by the Civil War itself. The three-story building's brick exterior wore a large sign with big block letters reading: VIEWS OF THE WAR.
Gardner, who appreciated the news value of his work, had seen bloody battles and captured their aftermath countless times. His gallery displayed large images of the war, everything from Antietam to Gettysburg. Dead trees. Dead horses. Dead soldiers. The realities of war were on full display, showing the public brutal truths that the partisan newspapers could not. Or at least so viewers thought. Technology limited Gardner to taking photos after the battles had ended. Gardner, one of photography's early pioneers, wanted to create something more alive. Something with motion. That chance would have to wait.
Regardless, the war was good for business. Soldiers wearing both blue and gray flocked to photography studios before they hit the battlefield. It was, if prayers went unanswered, the last chance to give their worried families a memory before they died. Gardner had broken away from Brady and established his own studio with help from some other Brady apprentices. Now his best photos, unlike in the past, weren't branded "Photo by Brady."
As the war wound down, Gardner spent more time in Washington, building relationships and preparing to photograph the aftermath. Connections were important in getting access to the best subjects and events. And Brady, Gardner's old mentor, still had a lot of them. The two were rivals now. Although Gardner had photographed Lincoln more than anyone else, he hadn't done so recently.9 Lincoln's tall shadow hadn't graced Gardner's lens since 1863.
Lincoln was a popular subject—and a vexing one. John Nicolay, Lincoln's private secretary, later wrote: "Graphic art was powerless before a face that moved through a thousand delicate gradations of line and contour, light and shade, sparkle of the eye and curve of the lip, in the long gamut of expression from grave to gay, and back again from the rollicking jollity of laughter to that serious, far away look that with prophetic intuitions beheld the awful panorama of war, and heard the cry of oppression and suffering. There are many pictures of Lincoln; there is no portrait of him."10
Lately, Lincoln had been sitting at Brady's studio on Pennsylvania Avenue, built near the place where Revolutionary-era portrait artist Gilbert Stuart enshrined the likenesses of America's founding fathers in oil paint. Gardner had opened the studio for Brady, a New Yorker, there in 1858. Washington was the epicenter of the war, and the war was the epicenter of photography. Brady began spending a lot of time in the city, often living at the National Hotel and sending his camera operators, including Gardner, into battle. The stretch of Pennsylvania Avenue was aptly nicknamed "Photographer's Row."
Brady fashioned himself an artist and identified with the painters who came before him. He viewed his work more as commemorative rather than capturing history as it happened. Thus, he had long-lasting friendships with portrait artists, especially Francis Bicknell Carpenter, a painter who gained Lincoln's trust and lived at the White House for six months. The result was an American masterpiece: 1864's First Reading of the Emancipation Proclamation of President Lincoln, depicting the president and his cabinet with the document that freed America's slaves. Carpenter labeled Lincoln's pen stroke "an act unparalleled for moral grandeur in the history of mankind."11
While at the White House, Carpenter made sketches of Lincoln and his cabinet at work. He often invited Brady and his new Washington studio operator, Anthony Berger, Gardner's replacement, to come over and photograph Lincoln. He would use the results as an aid. The White House was an often chaotic environment to take pictures, a painstaking process. Berger used a closet at the executive mansion as a darkroom. One day Lincoln's son Tad locked Berger out of the closet during a photo shoot and ran away with the key. Lincoln jumped from the chair, left the room, found his son, and returned with it.
But Tad gave Brady and Berger an enduring image. In 1864 Berger captured a heartwarming portrait of a bespectacled Lincoln reading from a book to his youngest son. As always, Berger's boss, Brady, got the credit. "No greater compliment can be paid an artist than so often paid to M. B. Brady, the first of photographists,…" wrote the Washington Morning Chronicle. "What a world of significance is in the picture which will appear in our Weekly Chronicle of tomorrow, in which our… [president] is seen in the company of his son, examining an album. Both picture and album are the works of Brady. In fact, the studio of the artist… is overflowing with gem pictures, and an hour is well spent in viewing them."12
The forty-three-year-old Gardner did not take a picture of Lincoln the entire year of 1864. But he had his chance on that cold February day. With Tad in his studio, he sought to create his own image of Lincoln as father. It was his chance to outdo his rival. Navy Secretary Gideon Welles had commissioned a new portrait of Lincoln from artist Matthew Wilson. The busy president opted to sit for Gardner and have the artist work from the images. That day, as one researcher would note, Lincoln looked "steadily toward the camera but his hands fiddle impatiently with his eyeglasses and pencil as if to remind the photographer that he had more important things to do."13
He did have better things to do. That evening Lincoln planned an important cabinet meeting. He had just returned from the Hampton Roads peace conference in an attempt to end the war. At the meeting, Lincoln intended to float a controversial idea: to compensate slaveholders in return for freeing their slaves. Peace was within reach. And despite Lincoln's outward appearance, there was a hopeful glint in his eyes to match his prairie-lawyer smile.
Gardner moved the camera and directed the president, attempting to capture him at his best. Tad leaned on an ornate wooden table looking toward his father—almost like an adult. Lincoln held a book in his hand. Gardner captured the moment. But his most memorable photo from the day was yet to come. The photographer made a close-up of the president, focusing on his shoulders, chest, and head. Finally, the president was done. Time for him to scurry out onto Washington's unpaved streets, where enemies were all around. No one could be sure how the pictures would turn out. Gardner hoped for the best.
Soon Lincoln would start having nightmares, envisioning his own death.14 Soon the investigators would come to Gardner's studio, seeking photos of Booth. Soon they would be printed and placed on posters across the country. And soon Gardner and his rival Brady would be thrown into their own chase of history, playing a role in capturing Lincoln's enemies who stirred about Washington and enshrining the heart-stopping moments for centuries to come.
But for the moment, Gardner's job was to develop his pictures. He put on the large coat he customarily wore to protect himself from the harsh chemicals used in photo production. He drenched the photos in a chemical bath, bringing the images to life. At one point, a glass plate of his final close-up cracked. Gardner fitted the fractured glass pieces back together and made one print. He threw the negative away. In the photo, a line moving left to right traced over the top of Lincoln's head. Soon, so would a bullet.
The Great Exhibition
— July 1851 —
MATHEW BRADY WAS somewhere across the Atlantic and didn't yet know the fate of Louis Daguerre. The twenty-nine-year-old Brady was making the ocean voyage to London from his home in New York, intent on later traveling to France to meet Daguerre, the father of modern photography—an old man now known to the world as a magician. Brady, already a celebrated photographer in America, was a student of Samuel Morse, of telegraph fame. And Morse was a friend of Daguerre, whose name is synonymous with the most popular photographic process of the day: the daguerreotype. Brady had become a master of the Daguerre magic, a process dictionary pioneer Noah Webster said made images appear "as if by enchantment." The technique uses silver plates and chemicals to create sharp images. Before Daguerre, people remembered their loved ones through portraits or memory. Now they had pictures.
The Great Exhibition in London tugged Brady on his travel to Europe, where his daguerreotypes were part of the first-of-its-kind international competition. Two of his competitors back in the States—M. M. Lawrence and John A. Whipple—would be there, along with dozens more from around the world. Brady wanted to win. The competition, he hoped, would be a crowning achievement that cemented his reputation in America and stretched it across the globe. Plus, it would give his studio back home a financial boost—something that was always needed to flush his ambitious and luxurious pursuits with cash—and give the busy Brady a chance to rest. A visit with Daguerre would be an added treat, if not a necessity. Brady loved to use famous names in advertisements for his growing gallery back home. What could be better than an endorsement from Daguerre? And maybe, just maybe, he could make a picture of him, providing his gallery with a dash of international flair. That wasn't to be.
The waves crashed in the North Atlantic as Brady's steamship headed toward England. He hoped his time away from New York brought healing to his weak eyes and a brighter future to his business. Everything seemed as limitless as the deep water floating beneath him. "Mr. Brady is not operating himself, a failing eyesight precluding the possibility of his using the camera with any certainty," wrote the Photographic Art Journal, before Brady left. "But he is an excellent artist, nevertheless, understands his business perfectly, and gathers about him the finest talent to be found." Brady left his study in the hands of George S. Cook, a talented South Carolina photographer who would later capture his own fame as the "Mathew Brady of the South."
Brady traveled in luxury with his newlywed wife, Julia, a golden pedigreed young woman distantly related to George Washington. Brady, who himself came from Irish immigrants, was married to a patrician. Nothing but the best for the great Brady of Broadway. "[Brady] likes to live pretty fast life & spends money freely," reported R. G. Dun & Company.
His fast life was also one of mystery. Even his year and place of birth were shrouded in myth. He himself placed the date between 1823 and 1824, but he didn't like the subject. "Never ask that of a lady or a photographer; they are sensitive," Brady once told a reporter. "I will tell you, for fear you might find it out, that I go back to near 1823–'24; that my birthplace was Warren County, N.Y., in the woods about Lake George, and that my father was an Irishman." Civil War draft records show Brady originally said his birthplace was Ireland but later changed it. Why? Brady needed people to think he was a red-blooded American. It was better for business in a city struggling with immigration. In the 1850s, the Know-Nothings stalked the streets of New York, and American politics frothed with anti-Irish sentiment.
But Brady appeared to tell the truth about his occupation. On the same draft records, he listed himself as an "artist," which is how he identified ever since he was a kid. On the ship to England was William Page, a noted American painter and portraitist whom Brady had known since he was young in rural New York. "He took an interest in me and gave me a bundle of his crayons to copy. This was at Albany. Now Page became a pupil of Prof. Morse in New York City, who was then painting portraits at starvation prices in the University rookery on Washington Square. I was introduced to Morse; he had just come home from Paris and had invented upon the ship his telegraphic alphabet, of which his mind was so full that he could give but little attention to a remarkable discovery one Daguerre, a friend of his, had made in France."
Also on the ship was James Gordon Bennett, the founder of the New York Herald and a major figure in journalism. Brady was a collector of great friends. He always enjoyed the company of the important and influential. They were his lifeblood. Famous names and faces were important to his success. Brady's easy hand and pleasing style lured them into his studio. "In those days a photographer ran his career upon the celebrities who came to him, and many, I might say most, of the pictures I see floating about this country are from my ill-protected portraits," Brady later remembered.1
Daguerreotypes were a booming business. Galleries were springing up all over America, with people clamoring to sit and have their pictures taken. First, they were frequented by the rich. Then by just about everyone. Life expectancy being what it was—thirty-eight years old—it was the perfect way for a mother to remember a dead child or a son to remember his father headed off to war. Death was always on the mind.
In 1840, just a year after Daguerre shocked the world with his tantalizing photographic process, zero people labeled themselves as professional photographers. By 1850 there were 938, a number that would triple by the end of the decade.2 They were known to households across the nation. In 1851 Nathaniel Hawthorne made a photographer the protagonist in The House of the Seven Gables.3
While photography was considered a science, it was also quickly becoming an art form. Brady was leading the way. He had distinguished himself from the other photographers by making pictures of great Americans. Everyone who was anyone. Presidents. Senators. Generals. Actors. Writers.
Brady had planned to show his images to Daguerre. The Daguerrean Journal reported that Brady had brought along "some exquisite specimens of daguerreotypes for Daguerre… [that] will establish his reputation for exquisite pictures in Europe as generally as it is here." Perhaps Brady would show him his portrait of popular author James Fenimore Cooper, who Brady later claimed had planned to put him in a novel.4 Or perhaps he would showcase his unpublished daguerreotype of Dolley Madison, the wife of President James Madison, who famously saved Gilbert Stuart's legendary painting of George Washington before the White House was torched by the British in the War of 1812. Or maybe he would show him the White House itself. Brady had taken its first-ever picture.
Daguerre would have had an interest in seeing pictures of the men who lived in that house. He had lived through the French Revolution, the upheaval that came after the American rebellion—events that enabled modest men like Brady and Daguerre to achieve extraordinary heights. Perhaps Brady could show him his portrait of John Quincy Adams—the first president photographed—who was just a schoolboy during America's independence but lived until 1849. "Had he been thirteen years earlier he could have got John Adams and Jefferson, too; and he missed the living Madison and Monroe and Aaron Burr by only four or five years," reporter George Alfred Townsend once observed. Maybe Brady could show Daguerre former president Andrew Jackson, a photo Brady had arranged a few years back, just before Old Hickory died. "I sent to the Hermitage and had Andrew Jackson taken barely in time to save his aged lineaments to posterity," Brady told Townsend, knowing his job was to preserve history.
And then maybe Brady could convince Daguerre to sit for that daguerreotype. It wouldn't be easy. Ironically, the father of photography was camera shy. But Brady had his ways. He had spent years learning how to cajole powerful and accomplished men. He was always deferential. Almost servant-like. "I never had an excess of confidence, and perhaps my diffidence helped me out with genuine men," Brady remembered.5
None of that was to be with Daguerre. The burgeoning master of the art would never meet its inventor. As Brady drifted across the Atlantic, daydreaming about the future, and crowds admired daguerreotypes at the Great Exhibition, Daguerre was taking long walks and tending to his garden at his home in the Paris suburb of Bry-sur-Marne. In his early sixties, Daguerre had largely retreated from public life. On July 10, he unexpectedly collapsed while eating lunch with his family.6 Within an hour he was dead from an apparent heart attack.
Brady arrived in London and was greeted with the news, which made few waves in the busy city. While France mourned Daguerre's death—and the entire village of Bry-sur-Marne attended his funeral—it took more than a month for American newspapers to notice. And when they did, they mentioned a sad coda to Daguerre's life: he was broke. Despite Daguerre's creating a revolution of the age, poor financial decisions surrounding his invention had rendered him destitute. The French gave him a bailout in the form of an honorary pension of ten thousand francs a year.7 They made sure the patriarch of photography wasn't a peasant. Daguerre's misfortune should have been a warning for the fast-spending Brady. Fame, which Brady lusted, didn't make Daguerre rich.
None of that mattered at the time. There was a competition to win.
THE SHARP-DRESSED MATHEW Brady arrived in London and stayed at the city's best hotels. Rich Americans opted for Minart's or Fenton's or Morley's, all charging five to ten dollars a day, whereas a good boardinghouse was ten to fifteen dollars a week. Brady soon made it to Hyde Park, a large park near Kensington Palace with green grass, lush gardens, and a brand-new building. His bad eyes squinted through his thick eyeglasses. He was looking at the future.
Its skin of plate glass, stitched together with cast iron, projected the wonder of the day. Some said its mere existence was akin to the same magical powers used to create pictures. The building towered over the park like a fairy-tale giant. A sight to behold, unlike anything Londoners had ever seen or imagined. The clear walls and ceilings reached 128 feet tall, with a rotunda that exceeded the size of St. Peter's in Rome. On cloudy days, the hulking mass looked ghostly. But when the sunlight hit the structure just right, it earned its name: the Crystal Palace.
Built for the Great Exhibition of 1851, the Crystal Palace was said to rival the Great Pyramids of Egypt in terms of its construction.8 Sir Joseph Paxton, an English landscape gardener noted for building greenhouses, was its architect. His aim: to connect nature with form and function while showcasing the power and might of the expanding British Empire.
Brady was more refined than the backwater Americans often depicted in the British press. He recognized the use of glass construction. In fact, he used it himself. Large skylights lit his posh Manhattan studio, enabling him to use the sun's bright rays as a paintbrush to take photographs of prominent citizens and turn them into famous faces. Paxton's Crystal Palace, of course, was on a much grander scale than Brady's studio on Broadway—or anything else in America. One observer wrote that the building "combined advantages of lightness, strength, and security, without the aid of brick, stone, or mortar ! their places more efficiently and more economically filled by wood, iron, and glass. Yet so it was; a self-taught genius waved the wand with which he had before effected wonders, and up rose The Crystal Palace."9
The exhibition, organized by Prince Albert, husband of Queen Victoria, was the first of what would become the World's Fair, a celebration bringing geniuses from every corner of the globe to showcase their craft. And like all things British, it had a fancy, formal title: "the Great Exhibition of the Works of Industry of All Nations."
"Shooting Lincoln is a fascinating look at a war within a war, when two rival photographers battled to chronicle the Civil War. Nicholas Pistor's gripping saga carries the reader onto battlefields and alongside the hangman's noose while chronicling the birth of modern photojournalism. A fascinating read that sharpens our focus on how much that war remains relevant today."--Scott McGaugh, author of the New York Times bestseller Surgeon in Blue: Jonathan Letterman, the Civil War Doctor Who Pioneered Battlefield Care
"Nicholas Pistor has written an engaging account of Civil War-era photographers Mathew Brady and Alexander Gardner and the birth of American news photography. Pistor's riveting narrative of Abraham Lincoln's assassination and its aftermath is by itself well worth the read."--Joseph Wheelan, author of Terrible Swift Sword and Their Last Full Measure
- "A remarkable history of Civil War era journalism."—Midwest Book Review
- "A gripping read...[written with] urgency and flair."—Wall Street Journal
- "An engaging read."—Washington Independent Review of Books
- "Pistor makes a convincing case that the efforts of Brady and Gardner consciously and often heroically documented history."—Santa Fe New Mexican
- On Sale
- Sep 19, 2017
- Page Count
- 272 pages
- Da Capo Press