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The Historic Willard Hotel

On this day in 1861, Abraham Lincoln and his entourage were holed up in the Willard Hotel, where they had gone in order to avoid an assassination attempt. So on today’s bike ride, I went by to see the historic D.C. hotel for myself.

The Willard Hotel is located at 1401 Pennsylvania Avenue (MAP), just two blocks east of the White House. It is a luxury hotel, with a history of famous guests over the years. In addition to Lincoln, Presidents Taylor, Fillmore, Pierce, Buchanan, Lincoln, Taft, Wilson, Coolidge and Harding all stayed at the Willard.  President Grant also stayed there, and frequented the Willard lobby during his presidency, where he coined the term “lobbyists.”  And two vice-presidents actually lived there during their terms in office. Martin Luther King, Jr., wrote his famous “I Have a Dream” speech in his hotel room at the Willard in 1963 in the days before delivering it from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial during the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom.  The Willard also hosted Julia Ward Howe, who wrote the words for The Battle Hymn of the Republic in her room at the hotel early one morning.  Among the Willard’s many other notable guests are P. T. Barnum, Mark Twain, Walt Whitman, General Tom Thumb, Samuel Morse, the Duke of Windsor, Harry Houdini, Gypsy Rose Lee, Gloria Swanson, Emily Dickinson, Charles Dickens, and Buffalo Bill.

But it was back in 1861 that the soon-to-be President not only arrived, but arrived at the hotel unexpectedly, and in a disguise. Lincoln had been travelling by train from his home in Springfield, Illinois, to his inauguration in D.C., and had planned to stop in Baltimore on the way. Shortly after departing Springfield, however, his aides received reports of a planned assassination attempt in Baltimore.  Secessionists were planning an attack involving several men armed with knives who would attack when Lincoln walked down a narrow corridor as he switched Baltimore and Ohio Railroad trains at the President Street Station in Baltimore.  So his train was ordered to proceed immediately to D.C.

The plot in Baltimore was uncovered by Lincoln’s head of security, Allan Pinkerton, who would later go on to found the famous Pinkerton private detective agency. Following a contentious election during which slaveholding states threatened to secede from the Union, angry southern conspirators vowed to kill the man they perceived as an abolitionist President before he entered office. Working undercover, Pinkerton met with a secessionist named Cipriano Fernandini, who turned out to be the leader of the assassination plot. During that meeting one of Fernandini’s co-conspirators stated, “That damned abolitionist shall never set foot on Southern soil but to find a grave. One week from today the North shall want a new president, for Lincoln will be dead.”

Even when news of the plot reached Lincoln, he argued for keeping the Baltimore engagement, much to his aides’ frustration. But a stubborn Lincoln finally submitted to his wife’s insistence that he abandon his plans, and the attack was successfully avoided. Lincoln remained at the Willard Hotel under heavy military guard, holding meetings in the lobby and carrying on business from his room, until his inauguration on March 4, 1861, when he became the first President from the Republican Party.

Ironically, Lincoln went on to direct his inaugural address to the South, proclaiming once again that he had no intention, or inclination, to abolish slavery in the Southern states.

Currently, you can stay in the John Adams Presidential Suite at the Willard Hotel for $3,500 per day.  But it was less expensive in Lincoln’s day.  The hotel maintains a small historical display in a hallway just inside the northeast entrance. There you can see a copy of Lincoln’s hotel bill.  Lodging for him and five members of his family totaled $148.50 for their ten-day stay.  Room service, which included private meals, whiskey, brandy and champagne, and other incidental items, comprised the rest of the $773.75 bill.  Lincoln paid the bill with his first paycheck as President.

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[Click on the thumbnails above to view the full size photos]

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