“Now he belongs to the ages” – or maybe to the angels…


Three famous quotations are linked to the assassination and death of President Abraham Lincoln.

Many history and quotation books say that after John Wilkes Booth shot Lincoln on April 14, 1865 at Ford’s Theatre in Washington, D.C. he shouted “Sic semper tyrannis!”

That Latin phrase — which means “Thus always to tyrants!” — was and still is the official state motto of Virginia, one of the Confederate states during the Civil War.

According to some accounts, Booth also shouted “The South is avenged!”

Many history and quotation books also say that when Lincoln died the next morning, on April 15, 1865, his friend and Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton said to the small gathering of people at Lincoln’s bedside: “Now he belongs to the ages.”

However, it’s not actually clear whether these traditionally-cited quotes by Booth and Stanton are accurate. There are different “earwitness” accounts of what they said.

In his painstakingly-researched book We Saw Lincoln Shot, author Timothy Good determined that most witnesses recalled hearing Booth shout “Sic semper tyrannis!” But others — including Booth himself — claimed that he only yelled “Sic semper!” Some didn’t recall hearing Booth shout anything in Latin.

What Booth shouted in English is also muddied by varying recollections. Some witnesses said he shouted “The South is avenged!” Others thought they heard him say “Revenge for the South!” or “The South shall be free!” Two said Booth yelled “I have done it!”

Similarly, there are differing accounts of the words Edwin Stanton spoke when Lincoln died.

The traditional version of Edwin M. Stanton’s quote —  “Now he belongs to the ages” — were the words remembered John Hay, who was Lincoln’s private secretary at the time and in the room when Lincoln died.

That quote was included in a book Hay wrote about Lincoln with John G. Nicolay in 1890. It was also cited in Ida M. Tarbell’s widely-read biography of Lincoln, published in 1900. 

Dr. Charles Sabin Taft, one of Lincoln’s attending physicians, wrote his own account of the President’s death for Century Magazine in 1883. According to Taft, Stanton said “He now belongs to the Ages.”

The Hay and Taft versions vary only in the order of Stanton’s words.

However, as explained in a fascinating article by Adam Gopnik in the May 28, 2007 issue of The New Yorker, there’s another account that uses the word “angels” instead of “ages,” giving the quote a significantly different meaning.

On the night Lincoln was shot, he was taken to a room in Peterson’s boarding house (sometimes spelled Petersen’s). That evening, Edwin Stanton had witnesses to the shooting brought there to report what they had seen.

A Civil War veteran named James Tanner, who lived nearby and could write shorthand, was brought in to record what the witnesses said.

Tanner was also present on the morning of April 15, 1865, when Lincoln died. He didn’t write down Stanton’s words that morning. But he did later. And, according to Tanner, what Stanton said was: “Now he belongs to the angels.”

This has created a debate among historians. Most believe the traditional “ages” version is probably correct. But some, such as James L. Swanson, author of the book Manhunt: The 12-Day Chase for Lincoln’s Killer, side with “the angels.” 

In his New Yorker article, Adam Gopnik concluded:

“The past is so often unknowable not because it is befogged now but because it was befogged then, too, back when it was still the present. If we had been there listening, we still might not have been able to determine exactly what Stanton said. All we know for sure is that everyone was weeping, and the room was full.”

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