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Ancestor witnessed history
Dixie diva
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It was the summer of 1865, which — according to Charlie Tinker’s diaries — had been a summer of oppressive heat. Its airless steaminess was made more miserable by the heavy sorrow that Charlie and his colleagues shouldered following the death of their commander-in-chief, Abraham Lincoln.
Lincoln, who made several daily visits to the telegraph office where Charlie and three others deciphered frequent dispatches from the Civil War battlefields, was like a family member — especially to Charlie, whom Lincoln had befriended years before when both lived in Illinois. He was the first American president to be assassinated. The shock stunned a nation and particularly devastated those who knew him.
In the month that followed, Charlie, trying to assuage his grief, took time to return to Chicago and visit old friends. He later returned to Washington, D.C., to watch a review of Sherman’s army as it paraded through the city streets. Charlie also bought a beautiful bay horse with a white star on her forehead for $100. The horse, to my chagrin, participated in Sherman’s brutal campaign through Georgia. There still are things about Charlie’s diaries that make me cringe.
“She had taken the march from Atlanta to the sea,” he wrote, “and, though thin, was full of mettle.” Through his entries, it is clear that Charlie loved that horse, which he named Lizzie, after his wife.
His writing about a sweltering July day brought forth an interesting piece of historical knowledge, perhaps unknown until now. The morning of July 7, 1865, dawned hot and grew increasingly unbearable. It was a memorable aspect of a historic day.
“Maj. Johnson attained a pass for himself and I to witness the execution of the assassins,” Charlie wrote.
John Wilkes Booth was dead, but four others had been convicted in a military trial that ended 10 days earlier. Mary Surratt, who owned the boarding house where Booth and his co-conspirators met to plan the assassination of Lincoln and Secretary Seward (who lived despite a severe stabbing), would become the first woman in U.S. history to be executed.
“We went to the arsenal and were admitted to the penitentiary yard, where we found the scaffolds already raised and a regiment of soldiers guarding the enclosure.”
Mrs. Surratt and the others were brought from their cells, white hoods placed on their heads, and each prayed over by a minister of individual choice.
“At 12 p.m.,” Charlie recorded, “all was ready and at a special signal from the officer in command, the props were removed and the drops fell, launching all four into eternity with hardly a struggle. The closing scene was horrible, but it was an end of justice fully warranted. I was anxious to see this execution and am satisfied. I never want to witness another.”
It was, perhaps, Charlie’s obvious seriousness and complete devotion to Lincoln that brought him an unexpected assignment. For reasons he doesn’t detail and quite probably didn’t know, Charlie, 28 years old at the time, was given the nooses that had strangled the co-conspirators and asked to dispose of them. Imagine that! Perhaps no one in history has ever asked, “What happened to the death-rending nooses?” Yet, now we know. Charlie Tinker, in his normal, matter-of-fact manner, took them home, chopped them into tiny pieces, and burned them for kindling in his fireplace.
In stoic Tinker manner — they are men of graceful determination — Charlie served his country, then moved on. That afternoon, he rode out to the country to visit with Secretary Stanton, the man after whom he would name his son.
Charlie Tinker never forgot that day. He had a front-row seat to history, ranging from a friendship with Lincoln to the Civil War to the hanging of those convicted.
Thanks to his diaries, we are able to see what he saw.

Rich is the best-selling author of “There’s A Better Day A-Comin.’” Go to to sign up for her newsletter.Editor’s note: This is the third installment of a three-part series on Charlie Tinker, Ronda Rich’s husband’s great-great-grandfather.

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