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Beck: Hoof Beats

Alec Turner, once enslaved on a Virginian plantation, always maintained that he had heard the hoof beats of John Wilkes Booth’s horse as he fled the scene of his assassination of President Lincoln.

His daughter, Daisy Turner of Grafton , heard him tell this story many times, and repeated it to me...

And then on top of it all, in the very midst of a terrible situation, Lincoln was shot. Shot dead. Well, then Father said, as he, with his group, was getting ready to be mustered out - they heard, my father told it again and again - he heard the hooves of Booth’s horse as he rode running away from shooting Lincoln. They was on the edge of Washington ready to be mustered out. And so Father said, `What a time!’

I felt after listening to her, that I was there, looking through an eisen-glass window.

Alec was on the outskirts of Washington, waiting with a number of former slaves to be issued freedom papers, when they heard the hoof beats of a rider racing by.

A short time later, one of the sentries on guard duty told them Lincoln had been shot and the man who had gone by on horseback was Booth, the man who had killed him.

We can only guess whether Alec heard Booth’s horse, but his conviction that he bore witness to a part of this national tragedy is striking and infuses this story with dramatic power.

It became an important part of his personal saga, something he told repeatedly.

It is a vivid expression of emotion, of loss, and of being in the moment.

He viewed Lincoln as responsible for his social and political freedom, and he experienced the reality of Lincoln's death through his own senses - hearing those pounding hooves as Booth headed for Port Royal, Virginia, ironically Alec’s former home as a slave.

Those hoof beats were emblazoned in his psyche and remained a vivid connection to the loss of a man whom he believed restored his freedom and his dignity as a human being.

Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation was personal. It symbolized his status as a free man, a citizen, rather than a piece of property.

Seldom today do we hear a contemporary voice only one generation removed from events most of us have only read about, speaking with such conviction about what it took to free the slaves…

Otherwise I would be a slave this minute talking to you all!

Jane Beck is the founder of the Vermont Folklife Center.
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