Bookshelf provides descriptions and notices of recent publications on Pennsylvania subjects.

The Lincoln Assassination Conspirators: Their Confinement and Execution, as Recorded in the Letterbook of John Frederick Hartranft

edited by Edward Steers Jr. and Harold Holzer
published by the Louisiana State University Press, 2009; 179 pages, cloth, $24.95

Pennsylvanian John Frederick Hartranft (1830–1889) was a decorated Union general — he received the Medal of Honor for his actions during the American Civil War — and served as governor of the Keystone State from 1873 to 1879. What many might not realize was the role he played as keeper of the individuals incarcerated at the Washington Arsenal who had conspired to assassinate President Abraham Lincoln in April 1865

Two weeks after Lincoln’s death, on May 1, newly inaugurated President Andrew Johnson appointed Hartranft to command the military prison at the Washington Arsenal where the federal government had just incarcerated the seven men and one woman accused of complicity in the murder of the fifty-six-year-old chief executive. From that day through the execution of four of the conspirators on July 7 and concluding with the transfer of the others in mid-July, Hartranft held the responsibility for the most notorious prisoners in the history of the United States. During his tenure as Military Governor of the Military Prison at the U.S. Arsenal at Washington, he oversaw every detail of the prisoners’ daily lives, from making sure they were fed and kept clean to ensuring that no one communicated with them except on the written orders of Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton.

In The Lincoln Assassination Conspirators: Their Confinement and Execution, as Recorded in the Letterbook of John Frederick Hartranft, editors Edward Steers Jr. and Harold Holzer present Hartranft’s intimate, eyewitness account of the nearly three months that he supervised the confinement of the prisoners. In his letterbook, literally a book containing copies of correspondence, he scrupulously recounted the arrival of each prisoner and described the prison routine, which included three simple meals a day, a twice-daily cell inspection by Hartranft himself, and frequent physical examinations by a military physician.

When the conspirators’ trial began, the nation waited anxiously for news, and many sought retribution against those they held responsible for the nation’s grief. Hartranft resisted cacophonous calls for both vengeance and mercy and continued to treat his infamous charges as humanely as possible, facilitating meetings with clergy and sending letters to and from family members. Yet, as his detached, detailed description of the execution of four of the prisoners — Lewis Payne, George A. Atzerodt, David E. Herold, and Mary E. Surrat (the first female in American history to be executed by the federal government) — illustrates, he did not allow emotion to impede his duty.

The legal and moral issues surrounding the trial — the extraordinary use of military rather than civil justice, the treatment of the accused while incarcerated, and the fine line between swift and precipitous justice — remain volatile, unsettled issues to this day. Hartranft’s keen observations, ably analyzed by Steers and Holzer, add a riveting new dimension to the story of Lincoln’s assassination. The grinding workload and numbing details through which Hartranft negotiated, under intense and unrelenting pressure, during the weeks that followed the assassination, have been generally neglected, overwhelmed by the grander drama of the trial and execution of the plotters. Although consulted by scholars and cited in books, the records of his oversight at the U.S. Arsenal have never before been published in full, and never, until now, subjected to analysis that places his work in the context of the entire Lincoln assassination story and its valuable lessons for the future.

What makes this book of special interest to Pennsylvanians is that Hartranft’s letterbook — long believed to have been lost — is on special deposit at the Pennsylvania State Archives, Harrisburg, through a cooperative arrangement with the National Records and Archives Administration (NARA).


A Country Storekeeper in Pennsylvania: Creating Economic Networks in Early America, 1790–1807

by Diane E. Wenger
published by the Pennsylvania State University Press, 2008; 263 pages, cloth, $55.00

In early America, traditional commercial interaction revolved around an entity known as the general store. Most of these elusive small-town shops disappeared from society without leaving business-related documents for scholars and researchers to analyze. This unfortunate gap in the historical knowledge of America has made it difficult to understand the networks and trade relationships that existed between cities and the surrounding countryside at the time. However, a country storekeeper in Schaefferstown, Lebanon County, left behind a vastly different and greatly enlightening legacy.

Schaefferstown is a small Pennsylvania German village located about seventy-five miles northwest of Philadelphia. Founded in 1758, it is noteworthy for its European-style town square, its early water system, and its many Germanic-style buildings, including two eighteenth-century taverns: the Franklin House, built by settlement founder Alexander Schaeffer and the Gemberling-Rex House, a Fachwerk (“half-timbered”) building that retains a number of early and significant architectural features. Besides their original function as eighteenth-century taverns, what these two buildings have in common is the individual who operated a country store in the former and lived in the latter from about 1802 until his death in 1835 — Samuel Rex (1766–1835).

In A Country Storekeeper in Pennsylvania: Creating Economic Networks in Early America, 1790–1807, Diane E. Wenger emphasizes that Rex was not unique. Hundreds of men (and some women) operated general stores in early America. Nor is the survival of Rex’s store and residence particularly remarkable. What does set Rex apart is the large number of documents that survive from his business, permitting a close analysis of one country storekeeper and his role in the economy and society of the mid-Atlantic region.

Using the cache of Rex’s business papers, the author shows that his affairs were far more complicated than his rural location would suggest. His customers extended from Schaefferstown out into the countryside to farms and iron furnaces, and from there to the merchant community in Philadelphia. The deals that he negotiated in each of these areas created an interconnected network of relations that linked rural and urban producers and consumers with each other and with the Atlantic world of goods and commerce.

A Country Storekeeper in Pennsylvania made use of a vast collection of business, personal, and legal papers that was preserved by the Rex family. The volume of papers from Samuel Rex’s business alone is impressive. Forty-four of his estimated forty-eight daybooks survive, along with three ledgers, two receipt books, an 1807 store inventory, estate records, and letters, bills, and receipts from more than one hundred Philadelphia merchants. Legal documents that Rex wrote for his clients also offer further insight into his ventures, as do the account books of his brother and nephews who followed him in storekeeping.


Bodies of Work: Civic Display and Labor in Industrial Pittsburgh

by Edward Slavishak
published by Duke University Press, 2008; 354 pages, cloth, $89.95, paper, $24.95

By the close of the nineteenth century, Pittsburgh had emerged as a major manufacturing center in the United States. The city’s rise as a leading producer of steel, iron, glass, and coal was fueled by machine technology and mass immigration, developments that fundamentally changed the industrial workplace. Because Pittsburgh’s major industries were almost exclusively male and renowned for their physical demands, the male working body came to symbolize multiple, often contradictory, narratives about strength and vulnerability, mastery and exploitation.

With Bodies of Work: Civic Display and Labor in Industrial Pittsburgh, Edward Slavishak explores how Pittsburgh and the working body were symbolically linked in civic celebrations, the research of social scientists, the criticisms of labor reformers, advertisements, and workers’ self-representations. Combining labor and cultural history with visual cultural studies, the author chronicles a heated contest to define Pittsburgh’s character at the opening of the twentieth century, and describes how that competition was conducted largely through the production of competing images. Slavishak focuses on the workers whose bodies came to epitomize Pittsburgh, the men engaged in the arduous physical labor demanded by its industries. At the same time he emphasizes how conceptions of Pittsburgh as quintessentially male limited representations of women in the industrial workplace.

How did the image of the Pittsburgh body of work change during the period of mechanization and immigration? Bodies of Work considers what happened to the symbolic confluence of work, the city, and the body when work was radically remade. Those who wielded the body as a metaphor attempted to persuade themselves and others about the present state of Pittsburgh with narratives of the past and images of the future. Nostalgia permeated city boosters’ vision of the working body, yet their images were only several of many. The figure of the body at work was part of a visual vocabulary that served as both an anchor and a propeller, slowing the course of change to focus the public’s attention on traditional visions of men at work, yet also pressing forward into new understandings of how industrial change affected life and limb.


These Just In . . .

A number of new and recent books about Pennsylvania history have been received by Pennsylvania Heritage’s editorial staff, which has not yet had the opportunity to review them, but wishes to share news of their availability with readers. Nickelodeon City: Pittsburgh at the Movies, 1905– 1929, by Michael Aronson, published by the University of Pittsburgh Press, 2008; 300 pages, cloth, $35.95.

Nickelodeon City: Pittsburgh at the Movies, 1905– 1929, by Michael Aronson, published by the University of Pittsburgh Press, 2008; 300 pages, cloth, $35.95.

Pittsburgh Signs Project: 250 Signs of Western Pennsylvania, edited by Jennifer Baron, Greg Langel, Elizabeth Perry, and Mark Stroup, published by Carnegie Mellon University Press, 2009; 201 pages, paper, $29.95.

For the Love of Murphy’s: The Behind-the-Counter Story of a Great American Retailer, by Jason Togyer, published by the Penn State University Press, 2008; 279 pages, cloth, $34.95.