On that Saturday afternoon, April 15, 1865, the news reached Seattle by telegraph. President Abraham Lincoln was shot dead by an assassin at Ford’s Theatre on Good Friday evening.
Back in 1865, Washington was a U.S. territory and not yet a state. This meant that people in what is now Washington state weren’t allowed to vote for Lincoln or any presidential candidate. And when Lincoln was elected in 1860, not everyone in the Pacific Northwest celebrated.
Lincoln was a Republican, which meant that Territorial Governor Richard Gholson and others holding federal appointments made by the previous Democratic president would lose their plum jobs when Lincoln appointed replacements.
Also during this time, there were people in Washington Territory who, unlike Lincoln, supported expansion of slavery beyond the southern states. When the Civil War broke out just after Lincoln’s inauguration, Territorial Governor Gholson resigned. Gholson headed back to Kentucky, where he owned slaves, to fight for the Confederacy.
And Gholson wasn’t the only Washingtonian with his heart in Dixie.
Near Olympia, there was a militant group called the Knights of the Golden Circle. Throughout the Civil War, they drilled with weapons, swore an oath to kill Lincoln appointees and fomented a “Pacific Confederacy” along the west coast.
But by the spring of 1865, the Civil War was over and a political campaign was underway in Washington Territory. The one public official that men here could choose was called Territorial Delegate, a non-voting member of the U.S. House of Representatives.
At the time of Lincoln’s death, the battle was heating up between Democrat James Tilton and Republican Arthur Denny for the delegate seat.
Tilton was from back east, and one newspaper described him as a "Copperhead" — a Democrat opposed to President Lincoln and emancipation.
Seattle pioneer Arthur Denny, like President Lincoln, was a Republican and an abolitionist. The two men had even known each other in the 1840s in their native Illinois.
On the day that Lincoln died, a rally for Denny in Seattle became an impromptu memorial for the dead commander in chief. It was Easter weekend and the crowd was the largest in the young city’s history. A man who spoke at the service equated Lincoln with Jesus.
But elsewhere on the west coast the reaction to Lincoln’s death was not so somber. In fact, in some circles, people even celebrated. It got so out of hand with at least one group of soldiers that Army headquarters in San Francisco issued a special order to all troops in the western U.S.:
There have been found within the department persons so utterly infamous as to exult over the assassination of the president. Such persons become virtually accessories after the fact and will at once be arrested.
But back in Washington Territory, opposition to Lincoln was now virtually silent. In public, Republicans and Democrats alike mourned the late president.
In Olympia, the band that was to have played in celebration of “Copperhead” James Tilton switched from dance music to a dirge.
But in Seattle, at the Denny rally-turned-memorial, a man suddenly yelled out, “It’s about time!” and ran from the hall. No one knew who he was, and nobody ever saw him again.
A little over a month later, Arthur Denny defeated James Tilton and won the election for Territorial Delegate. Within a few days, Tilton went to the waterfront and boarded a steamer. He left Washington Territory and never returned.
Special thanks to historian Lorraine McConaghy for her assistance with this piece. Dr. McConaghy is working on a Civil War history project called Civil War Pathways.