Curator's Choice tells the stories behind prized objects and artifacts from the collections of historical organizations and cultural institutions in Pennsylvania.

Although little recognized today, John Frederick Hartranft (1830-1889) did make his mark in the history of the Commonwealth and the nation as governor and as general. Born near Norristown, Montgomery County, he attended college, practiced law, and in 1861 entered the Union army at the outbreak of the Civil War. His dedication to the military was unswerving. He was commissioned colonel of the 51st Regiment, Pennsylvania Infantry, in 1861 and promoted to brigadier general of volunteers three years later. He was promoted the following year to brevet major general.

On April 28, 1865, Hartranft was appointed Commander of the United States Arsenal, Washington, D.C., while it was being used as a military prison. It was a day and an appointment he would never forget. After President Abraham Lincoln’s assassination, Secretary of War Edwin M Stanton made Hartranft responsible for the incarceration and treatment of prisoners – seven men and one woman – found guilty in the conspiracy to assassinate the president, Vice President Andrew Johnson, General Ulysses S. Grant, and Secretary of State William H. Seward. On July 7, 1865, Hartranft personally escorted four conspirators who were con­demned to death on the gallows in the prison yard.

After these executions, Hartranft returned to the Keystone State where he launched his political career. He was elected the Commonwealth’s auditor general and re-elected three years later. In 1872, he was elected governor and served two terms. His administration was marked by remarkable incidents and events; for instance, he dealt with bitter railroad and coal strikes, helped crush the Molly Maguires in the anthracite region, and welcomed world vis­itors to the 1876 Centennial Exhibition in Philadelphia. Following his second term, he was given command of the Pennsylvania National Guard. In 1879, he was appointed postmaster of Philadelphia, and from 1881 to 1885 he served as collector for the Port of Philadelphia. He never became – as did many of his peers – ­a senior statesman; by 1889, at the age of fifty­-eight, John Frederick Hartranft had died of kidney failure. But immortality was not to elude him.

In June 1995, a selection of papers docu­menting Hartranft’s service as Commander of the United States Arsenal was placed on de­posit with the Pennsylvania State Archives in Harrisburg by the National Archives. Previously loaned to Gettysburg College by descendants of Hartranft, the documents were deposited with the State Archives to settle a heated dispute over their custody and ownership.

An agreement among the college, the National Archives, and members of the Stockham and Shireman families also makes the Pennsylvania State Archives an affiliated archives of the National Archives.

The collection consists of an order book and a letter book relating to the operations of the arsenal and fifty-one unbound items, including correspondence and orders by Hartranft, Secretary of War Stanton, and General Winfield Scott Hancock, between April and July 1865. Entitled “Records of Brevet Major General John Frederick Hartranft as Special Marshal for the Trial and Execution of the Assassins of President Lincoln,” the collection also includes daily reports, general and special orders, passes, and vouchers which detail the special arrangements, directives, and routines that Hartranft oversaw and enforced regarding the treatment of the conspirators in his custody.

For information about the holdings, programs, and services of the Pennsylvania State Archives, write: Pennsylvania State Archives, Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission, P. O. Box 1026, Harrisburg, PA 17108-1026; or telephone (717) 783-3281.