Most famous wanted poster in U.S. history sells for $200k

First printing of poster from assassination of President Lincoln sets record at Heritage

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Assassin John Wilkes Booth was found six days after this poster was printed. (Courtesy: Heritage)

An initial printing of the wanted poster for the assassin and the accomplices of the killer of President Abraham Lincoln sold Friday afternoon at Heritage Auctions for $200,000, a record for a first printing.

The most famous wanted poster in American history was issued by the U.S. War Department on April 20, 1865, five days after Lincoln died. He was shot the night before at Ford's Theatre in Washington while watching a performance of the play "Our American Cousin."

The poster offers a $100,000 reward (more than $2 million in today's money), including $50,000 to capture the assassin, John Wilkes Booth, and $25,000 for his co-conspirators, John Surratt and David Herold, who originally hoped to kidnap Lincoln a month before.

The rush to make the poster resulted in misspellings, on different parts of the poster, of both Surratt and Herold's last names.

The first printing is differentiated from a later second printing by its lack of photos of the suspects. The second poster also has an updated description of Booth's facial hair, acknowledging there is reason to believe he had shaved off his heavy, black mustache.

This particular poster is fresh to the market, having been kept in the same family since 1865. Heritage noted, in its description, that the condition of the poster was good for its age and had shown no signs of restoration.

Last year, two first printing copies were sold, one at Nate D. Sanders for $166,375 and one at Heritage for $187,500. A pristine second printing, without the photos, sold in 2021 for $275,000 at Heritage.

The posters are so rare, not only because they are old, but because there are so few of them.

There was no need for a third printing.

Booth and Herold were found six days after the first printing in a barn in Northern Virginia. Herold, who was involved in a plot the same night to assassinate Secretary of State William Seward, surrendered, and Booth died in a standoff. Herold died by hanging less than three months later. Surratt was tried in 1867, and his case was dropped after a hung jury.

The reward for Booth and Herold ($75,000) was mostly distributed to the volunteer union soldiers who captured them at the barn.

Indianapolis Colts owner Jim Irsay owns both a Booth wanted poster and two tickets to "Our American Cousin," represented as a pair from the theatre that fateful night, that he paid $262,500 for in October 2023. In 2011, Rick Harrison was offered an original first printing of the wanted poster for $150,000 on the "Pawn Stars" show. He turned it down.

Like most rare collectibles, the wanted posters have skyrocketed in recent years. A second printing in 2009 sold at Christies in 2009 for $40,000.

Darren Rovell is the founder of and one of the country's leading reporters on the collectible market. He previously worked for ESPN, CNBC and The Action Network.