'The city was clouded in gloom': Lincoln's assassination aroused heartfelt response from friends, admirers in Quincy

This painting by Alonzo Chappel, “The Last Hours of Abraham Lincoln,” shows Lincoln on his deathbed at the Petersen boardinghouse, where he was taken after being shot inside Ford’s Theatre by John Wilkes Booth.
Posted: Apr. 11, 2015 6:45 pm Updated: Apr. 26, 2015 12:44 am
Abraham Lincoln is shown in a photograph by W.A. Thomson on the day of one of his debates with Stephen A. Douglas in October 1858. | AP Photo

Staff Writer | 217-221-3378 | @EHusarWHIG

QUINCY -- The assassination of Abraham Lincoln in April 1865 sent shock waves across the nation.

Quincy was hit especially hard by the news, because Lincoln had many friends and admirers in the city -- not just during his presidency, but throughout his legal career and his rise in state and national politics.

On April 17, 1865 -- two days after Lincoln died -- an estimated 3,000 people converged in Quincy's Washington Park for an emotional gathering honoring the fallen president. Lincoln had spoken in that same park in 1858 during one of his seven debates with Stephen Douglas while they competed for a U.S. Senate seat, won by Douglas.

"When Quincy mourned Lincoln, the city was clouded in gloom," said Iris Nelson, a local historian and member of the Lincoln-Douglas Debate Interpretive Center's advisory board. "With all of Lincoln's many connections and good friendships here in Quincy, the people were devastated. The mourning was universal, but with many people here -- and in many other cities, as well -- it was a very heartfelt response that this should not happen in our country."

Lincoln was shot in the head at 10:15 p.m. Eastern time on April 14, 1865, while attending a performance of "Our American Cousin" at Ford's Theatre in Washington, D.C. The shooting was carried out by John Wilkes Booth, a well-known stage actor who became the subject of a 12-day manhunt.

Mortally wounded, Lincoln was carried across the street to William Petersen's boardinghouse, where doctors fought to save his life. Lincoln lingered through the night and eventually died at 7:22 a.m. April 15.

News of Lincoln's assassination reached Quincy slowly. Nelson said a telegram announcing the death didn't reach Quincy until the next morning, April 16.

"The telegraph lines all over the country were just jammed," she said.

The telegraph operator in Quincy who received the message delivered it to Quincy's founder, John Wood, who was grief-stricken and immediately tolled the Congregation Church's bell to alert the community that something significant had happened. The same bell was rung to announce the end of the Civil War.

Within an hour, Nelson said, Quincy business owners learning of Lincoln's death began shutting down their stores for the rest of the day. Storefronts were draped in black, and community residents soon were wearing black armbands and black bands on their hats. Churches tolled their bells and convened special services.

The next day, April 17, Wood led the mass meeting in Washington Park, with 3,000 people showing up for the tear-filled gathering.

"It was a very strong, heartfelt response to the news of his loss," Nelson said. "Quincy was a microcosm of the mourning that was done universally in cities across the country."

Quincy, however, had unusually close connections to Lincoln.

One of them was Orville Browning, a Quincyan who served with Lincoln at the state capital in the 1830s and went on to become one of Lincoln's most trusted advisers. Nelson said Browning had stopped at the White House hoping to see Lincoln on the night of the assassination, but Lincoln had already left for the theater.

Browning was an honorary pallbearer at Lincoln's funeral.

Another Quincy resident also is remembered for playing a role in Washington after the assassination. After Lincoln died, George Rutherford, an Army colonel, was ordered to guard the president's body at the Petersen house. He also escorted it back to the White House.

Rutherford later provided Quincyans with a detailed account of the assassination in a letter to the Quincy Whig and Republican. In that letter, Rutherford recounted how he was directed by Secretary of War Edwin Stanton to place coins over Lincoln's eyelids upon the president's death, a common tradition at that time.

"The performance of so small a function in connection with so great a man is an honor which cannot but be intensely gratifying to the doer," Rutherford wrote.

Two weeks after the assassination, about 300 people from Quincy traveled by train to Springfield to attend a special funeral service for Lincoln. The large turnout showed that Lincoln had touched the lives of many Quincy residents in a big way, and the extended outpouring of grief upon his death "indicates the strength of those bonds," Nelson said.