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April 26, 2023

Rare John Wilkes Booth 'wanted' poster that hung in Philly area after Lincoln's assassination to be auctioned

Bids for the artifact, believed to be one of five in existence, start at $100,000 and will be accepted online through Thursday evening

History Auctions
john wilkes booth wanted poster Provided Image/Nate D. Sanders Auction

A rare reward poster for John Wilkes Booth that originated in the Philadelphia area will be auctioned on Thursday for a minimum bid of $100,000.

In the days between the assassination of President Abraham Lincoln and the death of his killer, John Wilkes Booth, a desperate search was launched to nab the criminal. To aid in the hunt, posters were distributed far and wide, offering lofty rewards for the capture of Confederate sympathizer Booth and two of his conspirators. 

A first printing of that "wanted" poster was displayed on a tree in the Philadelphia area, and could soon fetch a huge sum of cash itself when it is auctioned online by Los Angeles-based Nate D. Sanders Auctions on Thursday, April 27. Bidding for the rare item, believed to be one of five in existence, begins at $100,000.

Described by the auction house as a "museum worthy piece," the poster reads "$100,000 REWARD / THE MURDERER / Of our late beloved President Abraham Lincoln, / IS STILL AT LARGE" in bold type. Reward money for Booth is listed at $50,000, and the reward for two of his conspirators, John H. Surratt and David E. Herold, is listed at $25,000 each.

The appearances of the three men are described at the bottom. According to the poster, Booth is: "Five Feet 7 or 8 inches high, slender build, high forehead, black hair, black eyes, and wears a heavy black moustache." Surrat is described at length, while Herold, misspelled as "Harold" in this iteration, is described bluntly as "a chunky little man, quite a youth, and wears a very thin moustache." 

The poster was printed by the War Department in Washington, D.C., on April 20, 1865, five days after Lincoln died and six days before actor-turned-murderer Booth was killed by authorities in a tobacco-curing barn near Port Royal, Virginia. Ever since the poster was pinned to a Philly tree, the artifact has been passed down through the same family, and this will be the first time it is sold or auctioned.

"These posters, in general, are extremely rare; the time between when Lincoln was assassinated and when Booth was captured was 11 days, not a huge amount of time," said auction manager Laura Kirk. "These posters ... were not outside for very long, less than two weeks. So, because of that, and because a lot of them were posted outside and subsequently destroyed, there's not a lot of them that are available." 

There is an especially small amount of the first printing, as compared to its two subsequent iterations. Three printings of the poster were circulated in the days following Lincoln's death, with subtle changes to each. For example, the second printing contains three woodcut frames at the top for photographs of Booth, Surratt and Herold. Later printings also warn that Booth may have shaved off his mustache. 

The posters have become a point of interest in the tragic tale of the president's death and culprit's disappearance. They have been covered by the History Channel, featured on "Pawn Stars" and put on display in university collections

Second printings of the poster have sold several times for more than $200,000 in recent years, including in 2013 when one fetched $225,000. But there are no records of recent auctions for the extremely rare first printing, and haven't been for ages. 

"You do see some of the second printings and third printings come up for auction not infrequently, a few times a year maybe; this first printing is so rare, that one has not been sold in decades," Kirk said. "It's just incredibly rare. We don't even know how many are still in existence. ... So it's just a rare, original document from that time period that thankfully hasn't been lost."

While the bidding starts at $100,000, Kirk estimates the object could sell for as much as $300,000. She said it would be an "ideal" purchase for a museum specializing in American history.

Bids will be accepted online through Thursday at 8 p.m. EST.

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