Last Surviving Witness of Abraham Lincoln’s Assassination – On a TV Game Show in 1956
Samuel J. Seymour on I’ve Got a Secret, 1956
The above footage really is an interesting treat for anyone interested in American history. In the clip, from a 1950s game show, a 95 year old man – Samuel Seymour – who ‘witnessed’ John Wilkes Booth assassinate Abraham Lincoln shares his story with the nation (and now, thanks to the internet, the world). For a number of reasons this is a really interesting clip but what I find most compelling about it is the inherent question regarding the authenticity of the claims made within it. I should point out here that I have absolutely no reason not to believe Mr. Seymour’s claim that he ‘saw Lincoln shot’ but it is worth pointing out that such claims must be treated with a good degree of scepticism because they are so hard, if not impossible, to corroborate. Not only that, but there have been many historic hoaxers over the years who have made bold claims about what they have witnessed, taken part in, or even who they are. When dealing with big claims, scepticism really is essential.
Probably the most famous example is that of Ollie ‘Brushy Bill’ Roberts who claimed, in 1949, to be deceased frontier icon Billy the Kid. Robert’s claim that he was The Kid, and that he had (thus) not been killed by Pat Garret in 1881, has gained some degree of notoriety over the years and has succeeded in convincing at least some that this (almost certainly false) claim was genuine. In fact, this story allowed the producers of Young Guns II to provide that film with something of a happy ending – no doubt the success of that movie helped to give Robert’s story significantly more exposure and a sheen of legitimacy it did not deserve. In a similar vein, the family of a man named John Miller made similar claims regarding his identity as the true Billy the Kid – again, actual evidence (hearsay and wishful thinking aside) was sorely lacking. To confuse matters further, those who have carried out a DNA test on the relevant body in 2005 have yet to reveal its results, something which should probably lay the matter to rest but which will likely provide producers of cheap documentary and unsolved mystery programs with enough ambiguity and wiggle room to talk about this in the future, should they choose to do so.
The issue is that many people have made many bold and false claims regarding their true identities or the role they played in major events and definitively disproving such claims is inherently problematic due to the fragmentary nature of the historical record available to researchers. When confronted with such claims – as any history enthusiast will no doubt be at some point – I would bring to your attention the words of the great astronomer Carl Sagan: ‘extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.’ Returning to the subject at hand, Mr. Seymour’s claims may very well be genuine (and I like to think that it is) but given that the only real evidence presented in the video is an autobiographical newspaper article which Seymour himself wrote, the best that can – and should – be said is that this clip shows someone who claims to have witnessed Lincoln’s assassination. Such a qualification should not be taken as an attempt to diminish Mr. Seymour or his story. Instead it recognises the extraordinary nature of his story, if not the available evidence necessary to verify such a claim. Still, this video should serve nevertheless serve as a reminder how close we are to events which can seem, at times, to belong in a distant, bygone era.