A Private Look at a Public Death

On September 11, 2001, Martha Hodes was on her way to work in Greenwich Village when she witnessed the South Tower fall. In the aftermath of the terrorist attacks, she joined a city, and country, overwhelmed with heartache. Last week, Professor Hodes, who teaches history at New York University, spoke about national tragedy on a personal level as this year’s Gilder Lehrman Lecturer. Her audience of Chapin community members included the students in Class 7 and Class 11, who listened with great interest.

Professor Hodes did not talk about 9/11 in and of itself. Rather, she explained how the event and the emotional reactions of everyday citizens became a catalyst that piqued her scholarly curiosity and inspired her to examine the past through a similarly intimate lens. Her focus became another infamous date in American history: April 14, 1865, the day President Abraham Lincoln was assassinated by Confederate sympathizer John Wilkes Booth. Lincoln, who was elected the 16th President of the United States in November 1860, shortly before the outbreak of the Civil War, died only days after the Confederate Army’s surrender to the Union troops. 

“Why did I find myself so interested in how people respond to transformative events on an everyday scale?” Professor Hodes asked rhetorically at the beginning of her talk. She went on to describe her long fascination with the personal experiences of loss and grief. That passion led to several years of exhaustive scholarship, culminating in an enlightening book that captures the private feelings around this larger-than-life leader, widely considered the greatest U.S. president, and his untimely death. Published in 2015 by Yale University Press, “Mourning Lincoln” received the Gilder Lehrman Lincoln Prize from the Gilder Lehrman Institute – with which Chapin enjoys a wonderful partnership – and Gettysburg College for “the finest scholarly work in English on Abraham Lincoln.”

While the national reaction to President Lincoln’s death was well documented in newspaper articles, religious sermons and other public platforms, Professor Hodes broke new ground in her examination of the hearts and minds of ordinary individuals coping with the news. “No one thought to read the private messages people wrote,” she said. “It was the multi-vocal din of voices that interested me, even if we cannot give equal moral weight to all of them.”

Seeking to highlight the human struggle of understanding this unfathomable loss, Professor Hodes pored over thousands of accounts written during the spring and summer of 1865 by a wide spectrum of Americans – white and black; Northern and Southern; rich and poor; men, women and even children. She uncovered messages penned in diaries, letters, notes and other personal reflections. To Professor Hodes’ surprise, she found that the American people were not united in grief as public accounts suggested. Viewed in their entirety, these personal documents showed a range of emotions — sadness, shock, anger, fear, confusion and even joy — experienced by Americans at the time of Lincoln’s death. No matter their particular feelings, the citizens all bore witness to an event that would change the course of their lives. As many shared the burden, the magnitude was somehow lessened. “In 1865, it was easier to believe that something terrible could have happened by looking at other faces and seeing shock and sorrow reflected in them,” said Professor Hodes.

On a page listing expenses for sewing supplies, one woman scrawled on the edge of the paper: “President died. Stores closed. Business suspended.” Professor Hodes added, “It was important to her to make a record of this staggering event.”

Americans also resolved to continue with their daily activities, despite not knowing how or if the country would recover. “People participated in the ongoing flow of everyday life. Grief or no grief, they still flocked to the theater. Families tended crops. Women took care of the house. Children played,” she said.

For African Americans, the period after Lincoln’s death was a terribly frightening time. Their advocate, the man who paved the way for the abolishment of slavery, was gone. “There was no unity or closure in the immediate aftermath of Lincoln’s assassination,” Professor Hodes stated. “There was a moment of intense strife. Anxiety about the future was especially acute for African Americans.”

Personal writings reflected this incredible unease. “One six-year-old boy asked if he would have to be a slave again,” Professor Hodes shared. Another private missive expressed profound shock and sadness: “Astonished. Astounded. Stupefied. A horrible dream. A thunderclap from clear blue sky. Even trees are weeping.” Still others, who opposed an end to slavery and disliked Lincoln, described relief over his demise.

After Professor Hodes’ remarks, she welcomed questions from the audience. One Class 7 student asked why she chose to study Abraham Lincoln. “He was a phenomenal leader and also a human being with faults,” she replied. “I love him even more after writing the book.”

By giving voice to ordinary Americans in “Mourning Lincoln,” Professor Hodes offers a unique perspective on a national tragedy and the remarkable man who shaped the course of history. Citing the special guest’s “clarity, precision, passion and inspiration,” Head of School Dr. Patricia Hayot encouraged the students to write their own reflections in order to keep as records of their lives. Perhaps 150 years from now, another historian will follow in Professor Hodes’ footsteps by capturing the sentiments of young New Yorkers in the winter of 2017. Undeniably, this year’s Gilder Lehrman Lecture proved to be a thoroughly engrossing and thought-provoking presentation.

Browse photos from the lecture below: