Boy at the Hanging Revisited…Your Opinion Welcomed

October 01, 2010: Barry Cauchon

A young boy (left) views the hanging bodies of Mary Surratt and Lewis Powell on July 7, 1865.

This week, I had a series of emails from Professor of History, Martha Sandweiss at Princeton University. She had read my article from March 07, 2009 called Who Was the Boy at the Hanging (Lincoln Conspirators Execution Photos). This features a story by researcher Steven G. Miller based on a 1914 Washington Star article sourced by Michael Kauffmann. The piece focused on trying to identify a boy found in one of the ten Alexander Gardner photographs of the Lincoln conspirator executions. In the photograph, the young boy stands fixated in front of the scaffold gazing upon the lifeless bodies of the four executed conspirators.

Professor Sandweiss complimented the story and says the Miller article is an excellent hypothesis. But she believes that the image of the boy, identified as John C. Collins, seems to show a boy much younger in age (8-10 years old) than Collins was on July 7, 1865. Collins was born on September 19, 1850 which would have made him 14 years old at the time of the executions. Professor Sandweiss believes that there is about a 4-6 year difference in age between the boy in the photo and Collins.

How old is this boy?

As part of Professor Sandweiss’ research into the story about this ‘boy’, she has questioned the reasons for this age difference. She concedes that Collins was probably at the hangings but challenges whether the image is actually of him? Could this be someone else? Are there records of other boys attending the executions?

To answer the last question, I can tell you that there was at least one other boy present. The person I’m referring to was Alfred C. Gibson, one of General Hartranft’s clerks. At the time of the executions, he was probably around 16 years old. In two different newspaper interviews given between October, 1927 and April, 1928 (over 62 years after the executions), Gibson claimed he witnessed the executions and stood about ten feet in front of the scaffold and George Atzerodt’s position. Gibson’s statements should be taken with a grain of salt as some of his ‘memories’ conflict with other first person eyewitness accounts. But if his recollections are true, and that he did indeed stand in front of the scaffold, then it is not far from the location where the ‘Boy at the Hanging’ is found.

As tempting as it is to suggest that Gibson could have been the ‘boy at the hanging’, I personally believe that this is not the case. The main reason is how the boy in the photo is dressed and equipped. Gibson had a room inside the penitentiary so he would not have needed to carry a gunny sack or other field equipment. John C. Collins or another field soldier, would more than likely have needed these items.

Does this help Professor Sandweiss to further her research? Perhaps not, other than to show that at least one other young boy was present at the hangings. Since that is the case, there is no reason to believe that others were not there as well. If this boy was not John C. Collins or Alfred C. Gibson, then I’m at a loss to know who it could be. To date, I have not come across any research that suggests any other boys there that day.

I am sure that some of you are going to point out that the professor’s assertion about this not being John C. Collins, is based solely on viewing just one photograph. It is subjective and based on opinion rather than scientific fact. Other viewers might be perfectly content believing that the boy in the photo is fourteen. These are all fair statements but please let me be clear about why I posted Professor Sandweiss’ challenge here. Especially for you junior researchers, this is an important lesson. Where research is concerned, I am a huge believer in the need to challenge the status quo. Do not take history at face value. Don’t believe one version of history is correct just because it seems plausible without checking and cross referencing as many other sources as you can. I can’t tell you how many times my mind has been changed about something because better evidence was uncovered to disprove my former belief.

When Professor Sandweiss challenged whether the boy was 8-10 versus 14 years old, it wasn’t to be subjective about it. The age conflict didn’t sit right with her and it compelled her to investigate the subject further. And now she is actively seeking the truth. That is one way how research starts. Curiosity. Enlightenment. Challenge. Seek out more information to find the truth. Research, research, research. Cross reference. Challenge your own results. Research, research, research. Always be open to other possibilities. Believe your theory if it is plausible. If doubts remain, challenge those theories again. Never stop looking for answers.

I encourage people to weigh in on this subject. Whether you wish to comment on the story of John C. Collins or discuss research methodology, I’d love to hear from you.

Have a great day.



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4 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. Barry:

    This subject (young boy) might be compared to the adults surrounding him; in other words, contextual clues can offer additional information on his physical dimensions. Height, weight, anatomical features, and maybe even the shoes on his feet could be estimated? Interesting how this child/witness to the execution stares at the condemened. What was he thinking?

  2. Barry,
    After reading the article on the “Boy at the hanging” I would like to adress a point that was made. For starters, to say that Gibson would have a room at the penn. and therefore have no reason to have field equiptment on is incorrect. It was a hot day so i would imagine atleast a canteen would be present. Notice the boy in the picture is wearing either a civilian style shirt or a federal issue doment flannel shirt (its hard to tell in many pictures, especially in this one because both could be white).

    Second off if this boy was on “staff” he would have been expected to be in uniform, FULL UNIFORM, I.E. He wouldn’t be standing there in just a shirt. Compare him to the rest of the soldiers present. He is wearing an 1858 model forage cap, federal issues kersey trousers, the shirt, what i have to assume are issue shoes ( i may be wrong here as i cant get close enough to tell) and what appears to be an officers haversack.
    The soldiers in the crowd are wearing Federal issue frock coats, forage caps, kersey trousers, enlisted mans tarred haversacks, smoothside canteens, leathers (cartridge boxes, cap pouches and bayonet scabbards on belts) and are armed with sharps rifles. (i believe them to be sharps).
    The officers in the crowd are fully equipt as well, carrying swords and in Uniform. What does all this mean? It means if a boy was on military staff he would, by regulation be in uniform. Not in just a cap and shirt. A boy who was a “mascott” and not bound by regulation would be more likely to be seen as the boy in the photo is. Sorry or the rant, but thats my 2 cents.

    Josh K.
    Traverse City MI

    • Excellent commentary Josh. Your two cents are well worth it I assure you. I am of the belief that the photo is in fact John Collins and not Alfred Gibson. All members of General Hartranft’s staff were in full uniform on the day of the executions. It was a formal military event.
      Steven G. Miller, who did the original research and wrote the article in the late 1990s, just yesterday came across a newspaper article from 1924 interviewing John Collins and again he spoke of his experience, and amazement, that he was allowed inside the prison. We will be adding this article into our book.
      I really appreciate your comments and opinion on this subject.
      Have a great day Josh.

  3. […] the plot to assassinate Abraham Lincoln. There she is above, on the left, viewed by a young boy. (Who is that kid?) Anyway, one thing that struck me about the movie is how stubbornly modern it was for a historical […]

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