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150 Years Ago, The AP Wrote The Worst Lead Ever For Lincoln’s Death

On April 14, 1865, an Associated Press ran a story with the following opening sentence:

“President Lincoln and wife visited Ford’s Theatre this evening for the purpose of witnessing the performance of ‘The American Cousin.'”

Reading further, one learns that General Ulysses Grant was supposed to accompany the president, but wasn’t able to attend. One also learns that the play was crowded, the audience found it funny, and that during the third act a strange man ran across the stage while waving a dagger before fleeing the scene.

It’s only in the third paragraph that the story drops a small, but important tidbit: That the President of the United States was shot by an unknown assassin. Only in the fourth paragraph does one learn that he was shot in the head, and that “that some of his brain was oozing out.” Mentioning that Lincoln’s wound was fatal takes until paragraph 7.

The entire, sad mess of news reporting can be seen on the Associated Press’s website, which is running the article to commemorate the 150th anniversary of Lincoln’s assassination.

Besides burying its most important facts, the article’s second paragraph also contains this massive 100-word run-on sentence:

“During the third act and while there was a temporary pause for one of the actors to enter, a sharp report of a pistol was heard, which merely attracted attention, but suggested nothing serious until a man rushed to the front of the President’s box, waving a long dagger in his right hand, exclaiming, ‘Sic semper tyrannis,’ and immediately leaped from the box, which was in the second tier, to the stage beneath, and ran across to the opposite side, made his escape amid the bewilderment of the audience from the rear of the theatre, and mounted a horse and fled.”

Despite burying the lede so badly one suspects he was a Confederate sympathizer, author Lawrence Gobright was actually a staunch Unionist and a trusted friend of President Lincoln. While his drawn-out writing could be a fireable offense today, he was one of the most experienced journalists in Washington at the time, and the piece does show some impressive on-site reporting for the period. In an era with no cell phones or any other trappings of modern technology, Gobright identifies the weapon used to kill Lincoln, finds out where Vice President Johnson is along with the other key members of Lincoln’s cabinet, and describes the order of events that day almost perfectly.

Now, if only he could have gotten to the point faster.

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