How the news of Lincoln’s assassination reached Australia

Inspired by having gone to see Lincoln last weekend I thought I’d do some digging to see how the news of Lincoln’s assasination was reported in Australia – more to see the impact of the telegraph link to the rest of the world on news reporting than anything else.

Until the arrival of the telegraph Australia might as well have been Mars, with most settlement in the south eastern corner of the continent meaning that ships bearing news faced a long voyage of several thousand kilometres from Singapore or Java. Even now when flying to Europe from Sydney the first five hours of the 24h  journey are spent flying over Australia.

I’m not an expert on the American Civil War or even American history – most of what I know comes from watching Ken Burns documentaries – but the civil war was remarkable for being the first ‘modern war’ with mass conscription, blockades, steam powered battleships, not to mention the use of railways and the telegraph.

I’ve written elsewhere that the Russo Japanese war of 1905 was the prequel to World War one. It may have been so historically but the American civil war was dress rehearsal for the western front with two large conscript armies mauling at each other, niether capable of a breakthrough.

It was attrition – the South had less yet did not need to invade or secure territory, the North had more but had to secure and hold the areas of the South it captured as well as deny the South access to trade to resupply its armies.

Australia was not untouched. Even though it was half a world away the war had its effects. (Wikipedia has an article that serves as a good jumping off point if you want to know more).

So, how to gauge the impact of Lincoln’s assasination?

Australia has, through the NLA’s Trove a large online collection of digitised newspapers from the 1800’s to the 1950’s. However, searching Trove directly didn’t really work as simple searches tended to throw up articles that referred to Lincoln’s assassination rather than direct reports.

There’s an advert for a geneology company on tv that has the tagline ‘You don’t need to know what you’re looking for, you just need to start looking’. Not true – when dealing with historical events you need to be able to control your query.

This is where Tim Sherratt’s Querypic comes in – essentially it’s a tool that allows you search for a phrase on a year by year basis and plots the relative occurence of the phrase. Very neat, I wish I’d thought of the idea.

So first step – check that we have content from the correct period referring to Abraham Lincoln:


which we do.

Then we need to find the correct phrase – nineteenth century languages and conventions are different from ours. ‘Abraham Lincoln shot’ and ‘President Lincoln shot’ both give quite broad peaks:

abraham_lincoln_shot presidentlincolnshot

However, ‘President Lincoln Assassination’ gives a very clear tight peak in 1865 – meaning that most news reports used the term assasination in preference to shot:


Querypic has this nice feature that you can click on a year and see details of the articles referenced and then click through to the articles themselves.

And what did I find – most news reports are dated to late June despite Lincoln being assassinated on April 15 – puzzlingly even Reuter’s telegram is dated to June 29.

The reason turns out to be quite simple. While I correctly remembered that M’Douall Stewart surveyed the route of the line in 1862, I failed to remember the line was not in service until 1872, meaning that news of Lincoln’s assasination had to come by sea with the mail from England, and the news did not reach Adelaide until late June 1865 at which point it was telegraphed on to Melbourne and Sydney.

So while the telegraph did help spread the news, it was only after the news got to Australia that it had a role to play. Judging by the number of reprints of the Reuter’s telegram and the longer news report it was seen by the editors of newspapers across the south eastern states as a very significant event, even though it was by then ‘old news’.

The other interesting fact is that despite a significant trans pacific trade the news came via England, not San Francisco, begging the question as to when the news of Lincoln’s assasination reached California …


Some more lunchtime digging has more or less answered my supplementary question about getting the news to California.

The American transcontinental telegraph line to Sacramento replaced the pony express in 1862 so we can probably assume that news was in Sacramento within a day or so of Lincoln’s assassination.

Unfortunately the Library of Congress’s Digitised Newspaper collection is incomplete and searching for ‘President Lincoln Assassination’ for 1865 doesn’t throw up any leads so I can’t prove it, but it’s probably a pretty safe bet.

Certainly the news wouldn’t have got any further as the first trans Pacific cable didn’t come into service until 1902 and schemes like the Alaska Kamchatka telegraph line were five or six years in the future.

Official mail would probably have gone via England. However there were whalers and other ships that could have carried newspapers – in the nineteenth century it was quite common practice for ships to drop off newspapers at distant ports, but obviously none did in this case meaning the news had to wait until the mail boat from India got to Adelaide …

About dgm

Former IT professional, previously a digital archiving and repository person, ex research psychologist, blogger, twitterer, and amateur classical medieval and nineteenth century historian ...
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5 Responses to How the news of Lincoln’s assassination reached Australia

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