With The Daily News operating out of Houston because of a wartime order for civilians to evacuate Galveston, and with telegraph service disrupted, it took the paper the better part of two weeks to report the assassination of Abraham Lincoln.
Which, as far as Willard Richardson was concerned, Lincoln had had coming.
In an editorial on April 27, 1865, 13 days after a Confederate loyalist named John Wilkes Booth had, on Good Friday, shot the president, the owner and publisher of The Daily News gave voice to his enmity.
“On the 14th of April Abraham Lincoln was weltering in his life blood, and the words sic semper tyrannis” — ever thus to tyrants — “were ringing his death knell,” Richardson wrote. “In the plenitude of his power and arrogance he was struck down, and his soul ushered into eternity with innumerable crimes and sins to answer for.”
Booth would go down in history as a hero, Richardson swore.
“A so-called assassination is regarded with horror by all enlightened people, and our government must be too high-toned and dignified to descend to such means for ridding itself of its enemies,” he wrote.
“Nevertheless we would have no obloquy cast upon the name of the man who committed the deed. Inspired by patriotic impulse, and believing that he was ridding the world of a monster, his name will be inscribed on the roll of truehearted patriots, along with Brutus and Charlotte Corday.”
That would be Marie Anne Charlotte Corday d’Armont, who had assassinated the French revolutionist Jean Paul Marat as he bathed, and who was found guilty of treason and lost her head to the guillotine; and Marcus Junius Brutus, who murdered Julius Caesar on the steps of the Senate in Rome in 44 B.C., and two years later committed suicide.
Booth similarly came to an ignominious end, cornered like a rat in a burning barn and shot dead.
But that’s not how Richardson saw it. No, he wrote, “Caesar was struck down by the hand of an assassin whose name glows along the page of history with even more brightness than that of the great man he laid low.
“It was the principle upon which he acted that has caused history to point out Brutus as the model of a patriot, and the same principle will cause the name of J. Wilkes Booth to illustrate a high type of patriotism in coming years.”
History of course knows no such thing of Booth; rather, he is remembered only for the evil of his action that night at Ford’s Theater, where the president was relaxing from overseeing the ordeal of a war not of his making.
Richardson was a gifted newspaperman, one who breathed life into a floundering paper shortly after its birth, 23 years and three days before the assassination, yet he also was afflicted with the stain of his era: He held a slave.
As owner of the paper, Richardson instinctively knew that secession from the Union would harm his material interests and had argued against it. Yet, once Texas, in 1861, turned against the nation it had eagerly joined just 15 years prior, Richardson wholeheartedly backed the rebellion.
Even after the Confederacy’s great general, Robert E. Lee, surrendered the same month as Lincoln died, Richardson clung to the fantasy that the rebellion was not failed.
After word of the surrender reached The Daily News, Richardson wrote with unintended irony: “All that is now left for us to do is to prove to the enemy that a nation of eight millions of freemen are capable of prosecuting a war of self-defense indefinitely for generations to come and are determined to do so, sooner than accept terms that would disgrace a nation of slaves.”
Soon enough, however, on what came to be known as Juneteenth, word arrived in Texas of the Emancipation Proclamation, news that slavery in the United States had been relegated to the dustbin of history.
And so it was that Richardson’s slave, a man known only as Monroe, was freed.
Throughout the war, Lincoln’s Republican Party had been divided between abolitionists and those willing to abide slavery in states where it existed.
Lincoln was among the latter, and when it was obvious the Civil War eventually would grind to a halt in favor of the Union, he counseled against retribution on the rebellious states.
He urged, in his second inaugural address, “malice toward none with charity for all.”
Yet, Richardson continued to doubt the veracity of the man who had come to be known as Honest Abe.
Lincoln “had not only gloated over our suffering, but was preparing new measures of vengeance to mete out to us,” Richardson wrote. “In the very midst of his headlong career, he was arrested by the imperious hand of fate. He sowed the wind and has reaped the whirlwind.”
Richardson, for his part, lived out the rest of his natural life, yet there is no record that in that ensuing decade he ever rectified his libel against Abraham Lincoln — or, for that matter, his against God.