Using slides and an eclectic and almost encyclopedic knowledge of the subject, Derby resident Tony O'Connor spoke to a small gathering at the Holland Historical Society on Sunday. "My talks tend to be more popular when people don't know who I am," Mr. O'Connor quipped before
Civil War buff Tony O'Connor of Derby displays a replica of the Philadelphia Derringer John Wilkes Booth used to assassinate President Abraham Lincoln. Mr. O'Connor spoke of the Lincoln assassination with an endearing combination of fact and humor at the Holland Historical Society on Sunday afternoon.
Photos by Richard Creaser
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This article by Richard Creaser, courtesy of the Barton Chronicle, www.bartonchronicle.com. Published September 28, 2011.
O'Connor explores the weird history of Lincoln's assassination
Under ordinary circumstances there is little that is amusing regarding the assassination of Abraham Lincoln on April 15, 1865. Until Tony O'Connor of Derby enters the mix, that is.
Mr. O'Connor gave a presentation to the Holland Historical Society on Sunday afternoon focused on the dramatic events leading up to and beyond that fateful day. It's a presentation that he has given in the past and stems from his own personal fascination with all things Civil War."
"I've been doing more stand-up comedy and less Civil War these last few years," Mr. O'Connor acknowledged before his presentation. "Why comedy? I guess it's because no one wants to hear a stuffed suit talk about the Civil War."
Mr. O'Connor came to appreciate the history of America's war between states later in life than most. History lessons in school did little to foster an interest in the subject, he admits. Enter a cartoon mouse. Back in the 1980s, Mr. O'Connor and his family had taken a trip to Disney World. After a week in the company of Disney's ubiquitous mouse, Mr. O'Connor had endured all he could take of that small world. Loading the family into the car, he declared that he was headed north with nary a stop in between.
"By the time we got to Fredericksburg, Virginia, my wife told me we either stop or we're getting a divorce," Mr. O'Connor said. "Stopping was cheaper."
During the enforced layover Mr. O'Connor visited the historic Fredericksburg battlefield and spent considerable time reading the informational plaques around the site.
"I didn't believe half of what I read," Mr. O'Connor said. "I knew there was more to the story so I went home and started researching it on my own. I guess you can say it all started there."
Mr. O'Connor hesitates to call himself an expert on the Civil War or even the Lincoln assassination. What he is, he said, is someone who has spent a lot of time reading about it. He has also spent considerable time experiencing the events surrounding the assassination firsthand following the trail of the president's assassin, John Wilkes Booth.
Mr. O'Connor's talk centered on the well-known facts surrounding the fateful day and repeatedly debunked a popular myth that John Wilkes Booth broke his leg fleeing across the stage of Ford's Theater. His leg was broken during his flight from the nation's capitol when his horse stumbled and fell climbing Good Hope Hill after crossing the Navy Yard bridge, he said.
The original plan was for Booth and his coconspirators to kidnap the president and ransom him back in exchange for Confederate prisoners held by the Union. That plan was altered by Booth's obsession with fame and his desire to slay a man he perceived as a tyrant.
An interesting side note was the fact that General Ulysses S. Grant and his wife had been scheduled to attend the evening performance of Our American Cousin alongside the Lincolns. At the last minute the Grants declined the invitation, possibly sparing them harm in the assassination attempt, a decline credited to Julia Dent Grant's personal dislike of the First Lady Mary Todd Lincoln, Mr. O'Connor said.
"You can be sure that Julia reminded the general of that decision every single day after," Mr. O'Connor quipped.
Even the circumstances after the assassination attempt were fodder for dark humor in Mr. O'Connor's telling. Not knowing what to do, the president was set atop a door removed to serve as a make-shift stretcher.
"What do you do with a dying president on a door?" Mr. O'Connor asked. "The people carrying him didn't know. So they took him across the street to the house where he would later die."
According to accounts following the shooting, more than six thousand people claim to have been there when the president died. This despite the fact that the room he died in measured 16 by 8 feet in dimensions, Mr. O'Connor said.
"But it was written in the papers and so it must be true," he added.
The entire plot was filled with a variety of unexpected coincidences which included Booth's brother Edwin saving the life of Abraham Lincoln's son Robert Todd Lincoln from death or serious injury after falling onto railway tracks in New Jersey some time prior to John Wilkes Booth's slaying of the president. Equally intriguing is the fact that the man credited with killing Booth, Boston Corbett, was himself spared a lynching following an engagement between the Sixteenth New York Cavalry and Mosby's Rangers. The man who ordered that Corbett be spared was none other than Lewis Powell, aka Lewis Paine, one of Booth's coconspirators.
"You can't make this stuff up," Mr. O'Connor said. "It just goes to show how funny history can be."
No matter how John Wilkes Booth is remembered, be it as assassin or southern patriot, his grandest desire had been to be remembered for all time. A long, slow tour through the theater prior to the shooting coupled with his mad dash across the stage only reinforced the notion that he wanted his role to be known, Mr. O'Connor said.
"If you want to kill someone, you don't take your time strolling through the theater making sure to be seen," Mr. O'Connor said. "That would be the equivalent of someone famous today like Brad Pitt or Tony O'Connor walking through a room. People are going to notice."
Booth's choice of weapons was equally dramatic. The Philadelphia Derringer was a small hold-out pistol favored by gamblers and women. It was also notoriously unreliable and prone to misfires, Mr. O'Connor said.
"He had a perfectly good Colt six-shooter on his horse but he still chose to use the Derringer," Mr. O'Connor said. "That speaks of supreme confidence."
Just as his interest in the Civil War had started with a mouse, so too did Sunday's talk end with another mouse-related yarn. Having learned that Lewis Powell used the alias Paine to spare his family reprisal, Mr. O'Connor discovered that Mr. Powell's skull had been buried some miles north of Orlando. Being in Florida for another visit to Disney and, having reached the limit of his endurance for the mouse, he made a dramatic offer to his family.
"I told them 'you can come with me to see where Lewis Paine's head was buried or you can stay here with the mouse,’" Mr. O'Connor said. "I went alone."
Perhaps in time Mr. O'Connor's passion for the Civil War will catch on with his children. After all, he was late in coming to it himself.