The Hanging in the Museum

I hope that the Newseum opens again. The interactive museum dedicated to the history of news gathering and communications closed its building, which has since been sold, in Washington, D.C. and says it is looking for a new site. The Washington facility had many theaters and galleries, but it had one major flaw for a museum in D.C.

Many Washington museums and institutions are owned by the federal government and have free admission. For someone like me who likes museums but has a limited attention span in them, this is great because I can pop into the National Gallery or the National Portrait Museum for a half hour, get something out of my visit, and move onto something else in Washington.

New York, too, has many museums. A couple of them are federally supported and are free, but most are not and charge admission fees, often steep ones. If I have to pay $20 to walk in, I feel as though I should spend several hours inside, which is often longer than I can concentrate. As a result, I don’t go to New York museums as often as I ought.

 The Newseum is private and understandably charged adults an admission fee. I guess this was not sufficient or the competition with other Washington’s museums was too much. The Newseum ran a deficit, and apparently concluded it had to move out of D.C.

At least on my only visit a few years ago, however, the Newseum held my attention for quite a while. It had many permanent exhibits. I saw lots of television clips of famous news events that I remembered although few of the many visiting school kids seemed to have an inkling of much of this history.

When I was there, the Newseum also had a fascinating special exhibit on the news of Lincoln’s assassination. A New York Herald reporter in Washington almost immediately learned of the shooting and started sending reports back to New York by telegraph, and the museum had copies of the special editions that the Herald immediately published. I may have thought that news moved relatively slowly in 1865, but the Herald turned out seven special editions starting with that fatal night and through the afternoon of the next day. Readers in New York could read about the Washington events in New York only a few hours after they had happened, including the confirmation of Lincoln’s death.

          However, I did get a little testy at this exhibit. A man, presumably a teacher or chaperone, was with four teenage boys. He pointed out to them a picture of a group of hooded people hanging by their necks from a scaffold, a photograph taken in July 1865, showing the execution of John Wilkes Booth and others involved in the conspiracy. With a smirk, the man told the kids, “That that is how we ought to do executions now.” He paused and continued, “Now it is all antiseptic with needles. We should see the executions.”

I don’t usually intercede in other people’s conversation, but I did in this one. I told the boys, “That might be so, but it is widely thought that one of those executed was innocent.” I knew I was overstating the case. The trial, held before a military tribunal of nine men, was not a model of fairness and decorum, but a fairer statement would have been that many people have significant doubts about the guilt of Mary Surratt who was one of those hanged and the first woman executed by the United States. While Surratt ran a boardinghouse where some of the conspirators met, the evidence that she was part of the conspiracy was not nearly as strong as it was against the others. She, however, was a Confederate supporter, and the Union army court easily — perhaps too easily — found her to be a member of the plot. Even so, five of the nine judges petitioned President Johnson for clemency for her. As the picture graphically showed, it was not granted. And historians since have debated the justness of her hanging.Even though I knew that I was ignoring historic subtleties, I still spoke about her possible innocence. I thought that those schoolkids should hear something besides the bloodthirstiness of the man trying to be cool. And perhaps at least one of them might try to find out more about Mary Surratt.But as I walked away, I realized that more than just the fate of Surratt bothered me. Whenever I see a picture of an American hanging, I always think of all the many photographs I have seen documenting America’s shameful history of public lynchings.