Posts Tagged ‘Ford’s Theater’

Robert Todd Lincoln’s Gravesite

On this day in 1926, six days before his eighty-third birthday, Robert Todd Lincoln died in his sleep at Hildene, his Vermont home.  He was the son of President Abraham Lincoln.  And his grandson, “Bud” Beckwith, who died in 1985, is the last person known to be of direct Lincoln lineage.  In observance of the anniversary of his passing, on today’s lunchtime bike ride I went to Arlington National Cemetery to visit the sarcophagus, where he is buried with his wife Mary and their son Jack.

Robert Todd Lincoln was Abraham Lincoln’s oldest son and the only Lincoln child to survive into adulthood. While he didn’t make quite the mark on history that his father did, he did have a pretty interesting life.  The following are some of the most interesting and unusual facts about him.

Lincoln was a witness to the assassinations of three presidents, including his father.  The younger Lincoln was there at The Petersen House, where his father was taken after being shot across the street at Ford’s Theater by John Wilkes Booth.  Years later, while serving as Secretary of War to President James Garfield, he was with the president at the Sixth Street Train Station in D.C. when Charles Guiteau shot him.  Garfield died two months later.  Twenty years after that, Lincoln was a guest of President William McKinley at the Pan-American Exposition in Buffalo, New York, when the President was shot by Leon Czolgosz. McKinley died just over a week later.  After that I imagine that future presidents were quietly glad that these events caused Lincoln to believe he was bad luck, because thereafter he refused to attend state events or accept Presidential invitations.

Lincoln’s life was once saved by Edwin Booth, a famous actor and brother of John Wilkes Booth, the assassin of his father. The incident took place on a train platform in Jersey City, New Jersey.  On a crowded platform, Lincoln fell off into the space between the tracks and the platform.  But Booth pulled him by his collar to safety.  The exact date of when this happened is uncertain, but it is believed to have taken place before John Wilkes Booth’s assassination of President Lincoln.

After having her involuntarily committed to a mental hospital, Lincoln had a strained relationship with his mother.  Mary Todd Lincoln is fairly widely renowned today for being mentally ill, but it wasn’t quite such an open secret when she was still alive. Lincoln, however, realized that his mother needed psychiatric help, so he had her committed following a hearing that declared her insane.  She was eventually able to gain her release.  However, by that point she felt as though she had been publicly humiliated, and never patched up her relationship with Lincoln before her death.

Lincoln was the last surviving member of the cabinets of Presidents Garfield and Arthur.  And he was part of President Grant’s junior staff at Robert E. Lee’s surrender at Appomattox Courthouse to end the Civil War, and was the last surviving witness to that event.

Lincoln was also a graduate of Harvard University, on the personal staffs of three Presidents beginning with Ulysses S. Grant, a successful and eventually wealthy lawyer, peripherally involved in politics, successor to George Pullman as company president and later chairman of the board of the Pullman Palace Car Company, a dedicated amateur astronomer and golfer, and a participant in the dedication ceremonies for The Lincoln Memorial for his father.

The Petersen House

The Petersen House

Just a short bike ride from the National Mall in downtown D.C. sits a 19th-century Federal style row house, located at 516 10th Street (MAP), which is known as the Petersen House.  It was named after William A. Petersen, a German tailor, and his wife Ana.  The couple constructed the red brick three-story and basement house in 1849, where they lived and operated a boarding house.  The house, however, is more famous for who died there instead of who lived there.

The house is located across the street from Ford’s Theater, where on the night of April 14, 1865, President Abraham Lincoln and his wife Mary Todd were attending a performance.  During the performance, John Wilkes Booth entered the viewing box and shot the President in the back of the head.  At the direction of doctors who were tending to him, the wounded President was carried out of the theater to the street, where a boarder named Henry Safford, standing in the open doorway of the Petersen House, gestured for them to bring Lincoln inside.

The Petersen family aided as best they could, but could do little to assist the doctors, politicians, and others in the throng that accompanied the dying President.  So the Petersen family and some of the boarders spent that night in the basement.  Over 90 people would come and go through the house during the night, while soldiers stood guard at the front door and were posted on the roof to keep the growing crowds at bay.  At 7:22 am, April 15, 1865, Abraham Lincoln died in the back bedroom of this humble house.

In 1896, the Federal government bought the house, and since 1933, the National Park Service has maintained it as a historical museum.  None of the furniture is original to the house, but period pieces have been used to furnish three of the rooms and recreate the scene at the time of Lincoln’s death.  The first room is the front parlor, where an anguished Mary Todd Lincoln spent that fateful night with her son, Robert.  The back parlor, where Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton held a cabinet meeting and questioned witnesses, can also be visited.  The remaining room is the bedroom where Lincoln died.  Lincoln died, lying diagonally because he was so tall, on a bed the same size as the one on display in the room.  The bed that Lincoln occupied and other furniture from the bedroom are now owned by and on display at the Chicago History Museum.  However, the bloodstained pillow and pillowcases in the bedroom at the Petersen House are the ones which were actually used by Lincoln.  It was from this bedroom, after the President’s passing, that Stanton announced, “Now he belongs to the ages.”

Today, the Petersen House is administered by the National Park Service as part of the Ford’s Theatre National Historic Site. Admission is free, but requires a ticket.  The dark, narrow town house looks much as it did on that April night in 1865, and takes only about 5 minutes to tour, so it is well worth taking the time to visit.