Conspiracy theories surrounding Abraham Lincoln’s death abound to this day, just as hearsay filled newspapers the morning after the 16th president’s assassination on April 14, 1865. Among those in Ford’s Theater who actually saw the chaos unfold was one Joseph H. Hazelton, a stage and film actor who was working as a program boy. In 1933, by which time he was the only living witness to the event, Hazelton gave a detailed account of what he had seen at the May Company’s Exposition Hall in Los Angeles. The only remaining recording of his speech — and likely the only audio recording of an eyewitness account of that night — is preserved at the Huntington Library, which, 152 years later to the day, has highlighted the rare treasure in an engaging video, in which you can hear a portion of Hazelton’s dramatic report and watch it come to life.
Created by the institution’s video producer Aric Allen, the eight-minute clip highlights the history of the 16-inch phonograph record. It’s made of shellac, as were many transcription discs from the late 1920s to the early 1930s, and is incredibly fragile — so it resides in the library’s most secure, atomic bomb–proof vault. What’s particularly fascinating about the history preserved on the disc, as curator Olga Tsapina says in the video, is how it relates to the mythology and memory of the assassination and is an early example of the circulation of conspiracy theories.
As Allen notes in the video, “[Hazelton’s] retelling is marred by his insistence on a conspiracy theory that John Wilkes Booth not only escaped but lived into the twentieth century.” Those who attended the free lecture in 1933 would have heard Hazelton talk about watching Booth shoot Lincoln, leap over the railing of the box, and making a dramatic exit to mount his waiting horse and ride away.
Many eyewitness accounts of that evening survive in the form of letters, diary entries, affidavits, and other documents, but listening to one, with vocal inflections just as telling as its content, brings to mind a much more vivid scene. You can hear a sample from the recording (which is available in its entirety here) around the 4:13 mark of the Library’s appropriately lively clip. Considering that Hazelton was an actor, it’s unsurprisingly that he delivered his account as if reading a theatrical script, saying of Booth, “I shall never forget to my dying day the look of anguish and despair on that man’s face as he half dragged and half limped to the center of the stage with a wild maniacal stare, brandished the knife above his head and cried out, ‘Sic semper tyrannis!’”