scorecardresearch Skip to main content

This ‘Wanted’ poster for the Lincoln assassination goes on display at Harvard

The rare poster.Houghton Library, Harvard University

In the days following President Abraham Lincoln’s assassination, the country remained in shock as the War Department sought the suspects involved in the heinous crime committed in front of a crowd at Ford’s Theatre.

With no arrests made, officials looked to the public for help. Using available technology they made a run of “WANTED” posters with spaces for photographs of the men involved, and offered reward money for the capture of the murderer, John Wilkes Booth, and his cohorts, David Herold and John Surratt.

At the time, it was a novel approach that Secretary of War Edwin Stanton hoped would lead to their apprehension. The posters loom large in historical significance, paving the way for the photographic wanted posters that later became ubiquitous, scholars say. But few were printed, and even fewer survived.


Now, an original is on display at Harvard University’s Houghton Library for the first time, as part of an exhibit curated by faculty at the Cambridge school to celebrate the library’s 75th anniversary.

“It’s extremely rare,” said John Stauffer, a professor of English and African American studies at Harvard, who selected the poster for the exhibit. “There were only a limited number published during the hunt for the assassins.”

Lincoln was shot and killed by Booth, a well-known actor and Confederate sympathizer, on April 14, 1865, while attending a performance at Ford’s Theatre called “Our American Cousin,” according to the theater’s website.

The president’s murder quickly set off a manhunt for Booth and his two co-conspirators.

In an effort to warn the public and offer a cash reward for information that could lead to their capture, the War Department created the posters.

The long pieces of paper featured three blank frames at the top, where small portraits were to be placed after the posters were made -- a step made necessary by the technological limits of the time, Stauffer said.


“The half-tone process that allowed photographs to circulate in broadsides, posters, and the press, was decades away,” he said.

Below the slots for the photographs were the words “$100,000 Reward,” with an emoji-like hand pointing toward the offer. That was followed by the words “THE MURDERER,” printed in large, black letters, and, in a less foreboding typeface, “IS STILL AT LARGE.”

There were three rewards that made up the total — $50,000 for Booth; and $25,000 each for Surratt and Herold, whose last names were misspelled on the poster.

Blocks of small text were printed beneath the monetary offerings, and read, in part, “Let the stain of innocent blood be removed from the land by the arrest and punishment of the murderers.”

Six days after the broadsides were printed, Booth was killed and Herold was captured, said Stauffer. Surratt, the last remaining suspect, fled to Canada and later England, he said, and managed to evade arrest for two years.

The poster owned by the Houghton Library was bequeathed to Harvard in 1918 by alumnus and prominent collector Evert Jansen Wendell.

The photographs of the suspects on Harvard’s copy were “tipped-in” after their captures, said Stauffer, possibly by Wendell or a previous owner.

“Someone, whether the donor or someone else, got his hands on this broadside and said, ‘This is unfinished, I have photographs, or I’ll acquire photographs of these suspects and I’ll tip them in myself,” he explained.


The poster was rediscovered among Houghton’s collections in 2012, by Peter X. Accardo, a staff member at the library.

Accardo said he pulled the rare artifact from a less-frequented part of the library’s stack, which houses oversized portfolios of printed ephemera.

The rediscovery — the poster was “something that was never lost, but not easily found,” Accardo said — was prompted by his search for materials for an exhibition on Emancipation that was curated by students in one of Stauffer’s classes.

“It was amazing,” said Stauffer of the find. “I was just blown away.”

Stauffer said only three other repositories own similar broadsides with portraits of Booth and his accomplices tipped-in. The images of the suspects are different in each copy, giving them a unique flair.

Harvard’s broadside will be on display through April 22, alongside an array of items hand-picked by a range of faculty members for the “HIST 75H: A Masterclass on Houghton Library” exhibit.

For Stauffer and Accardo, seeing the broadside up close is worth the visit.

“It’s truly one of the rarest documents,” Stauffer said.

Steve Annear can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @steveannear.