Posts Tagged ‘Joseph Hazelton’

Joseph Hazelton” “This Man Saw Lincoln Shot”

Wednesday, October 31st, 2018

On April 14, 1865, a schoolboy, with his school books strapped across his shoulder, romped down Tenth Street in Washington DC. As he approached Ford’s Theatre, there standing in front was a tall man with raven black hair and a drooping mustache.

John Wilkes Booth

That man was the actor, John Wilkes Booth; that night, he would change the nation’s destiny. The boy was Joseph Hazelton, a “program boy” and usher at Ford’s Theatre. Shortly before his death in 1936, Hazelton believed he was the only man still living who witnessed the assassination of President Abraham Lincoln (actually, another man who claimed to also witness the assassination, Samuel James Seymore, lived until 1956 (age 96) and appeared on I’ve Got a Secret).

Hazelton was born at Wilmington, New York, on March 26, 1853 but his family later moved to Washington D.C. In the nation’s capital, he served as a Page in the U.S. Senate, and worked as a railroad clerk. He eventually became an actor on the stage, and later in films for over sixty-eight years, appearing in such silent films as Unrest (1914), Please Get Married (1919), and, most notably, in the role of Mr. Grimwig in Oliver Twist (1922) with Lon Chaney.

Joseph Hazelton (far left) as Mr. Grimwig, and Jackie Coogan in Oliver Twist (1922) (click on image to enlarge)

Hazelton would spend his life recalling the memories of Lincoln’s assassination, appearing on radio and lecturing at numerous venues across the country. The following account by Hazelton is an excerpt taken from an article published in Good Housekeeping (February 1927) magazine. The multi-page article, written by Campbell MacCulloch, was entitled, “This Man Saw Lincoln Shot:”

“[In front of Ford’s Theatre, Booth] beckoned me over to him, lifted my cap from my head, ran his fingers through my hair and said: ‘Well, little man, are you going to be an actor some day?’ I replied: ‘I don’t know, Mr. Booth, perhaps.’ 

“Little did I dream at the time that I would spend fifty years of my life in the theatrical profession. Booth took from his pocket a little folder, which contained the coin of the day commonly known as ‘shin plasters’ of the denominations of five, ten, twenty-five and fifty cents. Handing me a ten cent plaster, he pulled my hat playfully over my eyes, patted me on the shoulders and bade me run buy myself something… 

“Well, I went around the Theatre that night, as was my custom…It was a gala night, the play was ‘Our American Cousin’ and Laura Keene was the star. Almost everyone knew that the President would be there… The house was packed, the gold lace of the Army and Navy predominating. The President and his party came late, the second act was on, and as Mr. Lincoln entered the audience rose en masse and cheered, Mr. Lincoln came down to the front of the box…bowed his acknowledgments and took his seat and the play went on. The third act was on and I was standing directly opposite the President’s box, looking up at him…to see how he was enjoying the play. 

“I happened to turn my head toward the main entrance and saw Wilkes-Booth enter. He stopped a moment to say a word to Mr. Buckingham, the door-keeper, then started upstairs to the Dress Circle. As he passed along the side aisle toward the President’s box, I noticed the change in his dress. When he spoke to me in the afternoon he was dressed in the height of fashion…now he was wearing heavy riding boots, spurs, a blue flannel shirt and an army slouch hat. I wondered…what he was doing there on such a gala night dressed in such a garb. 

“I did not have long to wait, there was a flash, a report and President Lincoln has been assassinated. There are not words in the English language to describe the awful hush which fell over the house…no one seemed to take the initiative, until Laura Keene, rushing down to the footlights, cried, ‘Ladies and Gentlemen, the President has been shot!’ then all was pandemonium. 

“When Booth fired the shot he dropped the weapon, a single barrelled (sic) affair, called a derringer, and drawing a Bowie knife ran to the edge of the box. Major Rathbone tried to stop him, and received an ugly wound on his arm. Booth leaped over the rail of the box to the stage, but his spur caught in the American flag which draped the box and he fell to the stage…to my dying day I shall never forget the look of anguish and despair on that man’s face, as he half dragged himself to the center. 

“Then brandishing the knife above his head and with a maniac stare, cried out, ‘Sic Semper Tyrannis’. He managed to get to the stage door where his horse was being held, mounted and rode rapidly away… They carefully lifted the President and carried him across the street to the home of Mr. Peterson, one of our merchants. The building is now being used as the Olroyd Lincoln Museum….” 

At the end of the manuscript, Hazelton describes being under the window of the home where Lincoln’s body was taken, and hearing first-hand that the President had died. On the day that Hazelton told his story to MacCullough, Robert Todd Lincoln, the last surviving son of the martyred President, was laid to rest in a quiet New England community.

In addition, Hazelton would go on the radio every year on the anniversary of Lincoln’s death to tell his story. Click here to listen to Hazelton’s story in his own voice. 

Fascinatingly, Hazelton had some controversial opinions about John Wilkes Booth. He believed that Booth escaped from authorities the evening of the assassination, and fled to South America for a few years, returning to Enid, Oklahoma in 1903. Upon his deathbed, Booth called for a priest and asked for absolution, telling the priest that he was John Wilkes Booth, Lincoln’s assassin. He submitted credentials to the sheriff which indicated that he was Booth.

To corroborate his story, the sheriff was referred to Hazelton, who was living in Hollywood. The sheriff wired Hazelton and asked him if he could come to Enid to identify Booth. As Hazelton was unable to make the trip, he asked the sheriff to wire a description of the man’s right thumb, which was reportedly mangled. Upon receipt of this information, Hazelton wired the sheriff that the man in questions was, indeed, John Wilkes Booth.

Death certificate of Joseph Hazelton (click on image to enlarge)

On Saturday, October 3, 1936, Hazelton was working at Warner Bros. Studio when he suddenly became ill and was rushed to St. Vincent’s Hospital. The following Friday, October 9, he died from pneumonia at age 83. Hazelton had no survivors and his funeral was handled by the Motion Picture Relief Fund through Pierce Brothers mortuary; Hazelton was interred at Hollywood Cemetery (now Hollywood Forever) in an unmarked grave.

The unmarked grave of Joseph Hazelton located in the Garden of Beginnings (Section 2), grave 441.

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