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Found: Photos of King Assassination Scene

Life magazine photographer Henry Groskinsky and writer Mike Silva arrived at the Lorraine Motel in Memphis shortly after Martin Luther King was assassinated there on April 4, 1968. Their unpublished images, posted recently at, painfully evoke the scene. King’s monogrammed briefcase sits open in one shot (below), revealing his shaving cream, his pajamas and his book Strength to Love. A circle of King’s colleagues, including the Rev. Ralph Abernathy and Andrew Young, can be seen having a stunned conversation in the room of their fallen leader. Two pictures show the sweeping up of King’s blood. “When we got there it was very quiet—no police, no crimescene setup,” Groskinsky remembers. “We had complete access, and we did not take advantage. It was like going to someone’s wake.” It’s not clear why the magazine never used Groskinsky’s photos—instead, it ran the now-famous image of King’s entourage pointing from the balcony just after the killing took place.

Found (Part II)

Franklin Treasure Trove. A long-lost group of 47 letters relating to Benjamin Franklin—to, from and about him—have been found in the British Library. University of California, San Diego political science professor Alan Houston discovered the material catalogued under the name of the man, Thomas Birch, who copied the 1755 correspondence because it concerned a British general, Edward Braddock. Franklin alludes to the letters in his Autobiography.

Suffragettes Win Vote

Congress recently authorized the creation of a Votes for Women History Trail in upstate New York that will be a drivable route connecting upwards of 20 sites important in the political movement that led to women’s voting rights. Potential stopping points include the Susan B. Anthony House in Rochester and the Seneca Falls location where the first women’s rights convention was held in 1848.

Miss Manners Channels George Washington

George Washington—first in war, first in peace, first in…social graces? Syndicated columnist Judith “Miss Manners” Martin apparently thinks so. She’s working with University of Virginia students on a guide called “The Civility Project: Where George Washington Meets the 21st Century.” It’s based on principles adapted from 16th-century French Jesuits and studied by Washington in his youth. “What people miss when they laugh at archaic etiquette,” says Martin, “is that good etiquette rules are based on principles of manners that are eternal and universal.” Not that Washington was always exemplary. “There are no accounts of him getting thrown out of parties for high jinks,” says Dennis Pogue, associate director of Mount Vernon, “but his hot temper was well documented.” Nevertheless, Washington seems like the sort of guy who would turn off his cell before sitting down to a formal dinner.

Secret Message Found in Lincoln’s Watch

Family stories sometimes turn out to be true. Just ask Doug Stiles, an attorney in Waukegan, Ill., who recently confirmed that his great-great-grandfather Jonathan Dillon, scrawled a secret note inside the pocket watch of Abraham Lincoln. Stiles heard the tale decades ago, but checked it out seriously only a few months back. A Google search turned up a 1906 New York Times story about watch repairman Dillon that mentioned the inscription, and that persuaded the Smithsonian’s Museum of American History, which owns the timepiece, to look under the dial—an area previously not examined. There, in a tiny scrawl, were these fragments: “April 13 – 1861. Fort Sumpter [sic] was attacked by the rebels on the above date. J Dillon” and “Thank God we have a government.” “I equate it to a time capsule,” says Stiles. “Seeing it was just incredible.”

Peace Pipe Shared at Williamsburg

Colonial Williamsburg has just purchased, and put on display, a rare 1780 medal commemorating peace between whites and American Indians in the new Commonwealth of Virginia. Commissioned by Thomas Jefferson when he was governor, it depicts two men—one white and one Indian—sharing a peace pipe under the slogan “Happy While United.”

Jefferson’s Hideaway Refurbished

Thomas Jefferson was 61, and just out of the White House, when he began to use a hideaway about 80 miles southwest of his more famous home, Monticello. Poplar Forest, which he occupied in 1809, just completed the reconstruction of a service wing built in 1814. It show cases one of Jefferson’s remark able innovations: The “terras” roof covering this corridor of kitchen, storage room, laundry and smokehouse is flat enough to walk upon and enjoy the nearby poplars, and it conceals a system of channels that drain water and prevent rot. Jefferson worked on variations of this system several times, says Poplar Forest director of architectural restoration Travis McDonald, because “he wanted to perfect it. He didn’t just copy old architectural stuff. He was always combining old and new.” Next up: restoration of trim originally done by John Hemings, brother of Jefferson’s slave/mistress, Sally.


Lake Chargoggagoggmanchauggagoggchaubunagungamaugg, the longest place name in the United States, has been misspelled for years on signs at the site in western Massachusetts. A “u” and an “n” were incorrectly replaced by an “o” and an “h.” The 45-letter name apparently comes from the local Nipmuck Indian language, which means, approximately, “Englishmen at Manchaug at the fishing place at the boundary.”

Buried Beads Decoded

Beads found in graves on an island off Georgia—made of materials like Chinese blue glass and Baltic amber—came from all around the 16th- and 17th-century Spanish empire. Now after 20 years of study the American Museum of Natural History has published The Beads of St. Catherines Island, a book-long analysis of the cache. Nearly all of the beads, which were used like money, were buried with members of the Guale tribe. “The Guale were very adept at growing corn,” says Lorann Pendleton, director of the North American archaeology lab at the museum and a coauthor of the book. “They would send surplus corn to St. Augustine [the Spanish capital to the south] and get luxury goods back.” Graves containing more beads indicated people of greater wealth and status.

Philatelists Focus on FDR

Franklin Roosevelt loved stamps—working on his collection virtually every night for a half hour before bedtime—and he wanted them to do more than just pay for shipping. “Delivering Hope: FDR & Stamps of the Great Depression,” an exhibit at the Smithsonian National Postal Museum that runs until next June, shows how the president encouraged the use of simpler designs, brighter colors and the commemoration of New Deal programs. “He would use stamps to reinforce his role in trying to get things done,” says Cheryl Ganz, chief curator of philately at the postal museum. Included in the exhibition are tools Roosevelt used for his hobby, items from his collection and sketches he made for directing the look of stamps.

Mass Grave of Luckless Irish Found

William Watson trained as a medievalist, but his recent project, close by the Immaculata University campus where he teaches history, involves the mysterious 19th century deaths of 57 Irish-immigrant laborers. Just eight weeks after they arrived to help build the Philadelphia and Columbia Railroad, the group was struck by cholera—and through a combination of disease and ethnic violence against the Irish, according to Watson’s research, all were buried in a mass grave. Recently, with the use of subsurface imaging, Watson’s team discovered skull fragments, teeth and pieces of bone—and there are indications that one man suffered blunt trauma to the head. “They were thrown away in the 1832 equivalent of a junk pile,” says Watson. “This isn’t just an academic exercise. These men would have been Catholics, and the goal here is for them to have a proper burial.”

UNESCO Lists Endangered Native Languages

When Marie Smith Jones died last year in Alaska, the Eyak language died with her—and 2009 statistics from the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization indicate that other tongues may fall silent by the end of the current generation. UNESCO found 146 native languages at risk with 75 of them “critically endangered.” Many are spoken by only a handful of tribal elders, and grassroots efforts at education may fall short without increased funding. “We are quite frustrated by the small window of opportunity that exists,” says Inée Slaughter, the executive director of the Indigenous Language Institute ( in Santa Fe, N.M. “For us that means we have to be faster and smarter.”

Diary Reveals Ike’s Ire Toward LBJ

In the 1966 diary newly opened to the public by the Dwight D. Eisenhower Library in Abilene, Kan., Ike vented his spleen about President Lyndon B. Johnson, who was boasting on the midterm election campaign trail about his civil rights advocacy: “Johnson goes to hustings with words that are far from inspiring. He calls Republicans ‘party of fear’. When I recall his weak and cowardly actions when a Senator, I could laugh, except that it’s all so fake. When I was trying for a good civil rights bill he threw every road block he could. He argued for jury trials in contempt cases; he actually, at one point, asked for a secret appointment so that he could beg me to avoid pressing for a continuation of the ‘Civil Rights Commission’! Now listen to the man!!”


Originally published in the August 2009 issue of American History. To subscribe, click here.