Posts Tagged ‘John Wilkes Booth’

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.

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The Grave of Charles Forbes

On this lunchtime bike ride I returned to Historic Congressional Cemetery (MAP) on Capitol Hill, one of my favorite lunchtime biking destinations. I like it because even after numerous rides there, there is still so much more history within the cemetery to be discovered and learned. This time I visited the grave of Charles Forbes, who I often think about whenever I make a mistake at work. Let me explain why.

Forbes was born in Ireland around 1835 and at the age of 26 started working at the White House in 1861, shortly after President Abraham Lincoln’s first inauguration. He was one of several house servants assigned to President Lincoln. Quickly becoming a favorite with both the President and Mrs. Lincoln, Forbes became the personal attendant to the President, a position he held for approximately four years. He also occasionally watched out for Mary Todd Lincoln and Thomas “Tad” Lincoln III, as well.

And it was during this time working for the President that Forbes made one of the biggest mistakes on the job that anyone has ever made. Forbes accompanied the Lincolns to Ford’s Theatre on April 14, 1865, the night that Lincoln was assassinated by John Wilkes Booth. That night Booth approached Forbes, who was seated outside of Lincoln’s box, and gave him his calling card. Forbes then allowed Booth to enter the door to the private box. Moments later the President was mortally wounded.

Forbes remains a mysterious figure in the events of that night. He never gave a witness statement nor did he ever leave a written or verbal account of the assassination of the President. But Mrs. Lincoln remained fond of Forbes, bore him no ill will for the evening’s events, and later presented him with the suit of clothes that Lincoln wore that night.

After Lincoln’s death, Forbes became a messenger for the U.S. Treasury Department and later for the Adjutant General’s office. He died October 10, 1885, at his home at 1711 G Street in northwest D.C., leaving his wife Margaret and a daughter, Mary. He was buried in an unmarked grave in Congressional Cemetery until 1984 when The Lincoln Group, a historical society, placed a marker on his grave.

So it was this mistake on the job of Forbes’ that makes me glad that the mistakes I make at work never result in the consequences his mistake did. Even the worst mistakes I could possibly make don’t result in altering the course of history, as his mistake did. So when I mess up, I just think of him and this bike ride, and I feel a little better.

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President Lincoln’s Cottage

On this lunchtime bike ride I visited what’s now known as President Lincoln’s “cottage”, which is a national monument located on the grounds of the “Old Soldiers’ Home,” known today as the U.S. Soldiers’ and Airmen’s Home.  Located in northwest D.C. near the Petworth and Park View neighborhoods (MAP), the Gothic Revival-style residence, a style considered particularly appropriate at that time for country cottages, has a very interesting history.

Originally known as the “Corn Rigs” cottage, it was built in 1842 by wealthy D.C. banker George Washington Riggs, at his 250-acre summer retreat.  The word “cottage”, however, is somewhat of a misnomer inasmuch as it is actually a 34-room country home.  Almost a decade later, Riggs offered to sell his property to the Federal government, which was looking for a place to create a home for retired and disabled Army veterans.  An army committee purchased the estate in 1851 and utilized the house to create the Old Soldiers’ Home later the same year.  Six years later, in 1857, the retired soldier residents moved into a newly-built large stone Gothic building near the cottage. 

With the cottage now vacant, the Old Soldiers’ Home invited President James Buchanan to make his summer residence there.  Accepting the offer, President Buchanan spent a few weeks out of at least two summers at the cottage during the remainder of his presidency.

Presumably on the recommendation of President Buchanan, the next president, Abraham Lincoln, first visited the Old Soldiers’ Home just three days after his first inauguration.  Later, President Lincoln and his family would escape to the cottage between June and November in 1862, 1863, and 1864.   The family would almost certainly have returned in 1865 if President Lincoln had not been assassinated in April of that year.  In all, President Lincoln and his family spent over a quarter of his Presidency there. Each summer the White House staff transported some 19 cartloads of the Lincoln family’s belongings to the cottage. Unfortunately, there is no record of exactly what they brought.

With the Civil War officially commencing just a month after he was inaugurated, Lincoln could not escape the Civil War and his burden of leadership, even at the cottage. Every morning the President rode by horseback to the White House to carry out official business, returning to the cottage every evening.  Today, the drive down Georgia Avenue takes just a few minutes, but in the 1860s the commute through what was then a mostly wilderness area was a little slower and more dangerous.  The cavalry units that were to eventually accompanied him on his commute, as well as the encampments, hospitals, and cemeteries he passed on his was to work served, as constant reminders of the war.

It was while staying at the cottage, in fact, that President Lincoln came his closest to the war.  On July 12, 1864, when Confederate General Jubal Early attacked Fort Stevens, the President brashly went to observe the nearby battle, even though his family had been evacuated to the White House for the four days of the battle.  It was during this time that President Lincoln became the only president ever to come under hostile fire while in office.  During the second day of the battle, as he stood on atop the parapet of the fort to witness the battle, the President came under direct fire of Confederate sharpshooters.  Perhaps saving his life, a young officer named Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., who would eventually go on to serve as a justice on the U.S. Supreme Court, shouted to the President, “Get down, you damn fool!”

Other interesting events for which President Lincoln’s cottage served as the backdrop include the fact that the President was staying at the cottage when he wrote the final draft of the Emancipation Proclamation in September of 1862.  And in August of 1864, a sniper attempted to assassinate the President as he traveled back to the cottage alone late at night.  The lone rifle shot missed Lincoln’s head by inches, but during the attempt the President lost the hat he was wearing.  The following day, two soldiers went looking for the hat.  They discovered it on the path, with a bullet hole through the side.  Also, in the summer of 1864, John Wilkes Booth, who would later in April of 1865 successfully assassinate President Lincoln, formulated his original plot, which was to kidnap the President during his commute from the cottage to the White House.

President Lincoln reportedly made his last visit to the cottage on April 13, 1865, the day before his assassination.  But he was not the last president to take advantage of the healthy breezes at the cottage.  Rutherford B. Hayes spent the summers of 1877 to 1880 there.  And Chester A. Arthur stayed at the cottage during renovations at the White House in the winter of 1882, and spent summers there as well.

In more recent years, the cottage has been recognized for its historical significance. The Secretary of the Interior designated the U.S. Soldiers’ and Airmen’s Home, which includes the pre-Civil War cottage, as a National Historic Landmark in November of 1973.  President Bill Clinton declared the cottage and 2.3 surrounding acres a National Monument in July of 2000.  To this day it holds the distinction of being the only national monument in the country that operates with no Federal funding.  The following year, the National Trust for Historic Preservation began a thorough restoration of the cottage, restoring it to the period of Lincoln’s occupancy according to standards established by the National Park Service. The restoration was completed in 2007.  President Lincoln’s Cottage was then opened to the public for the first time in history on President’s Day in 2008. It remains open today, and is managed through a cooperative agreement between the Armed Forces Retirement Home and the National Trust for Historic Preservation.

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

LincolnCottageTour

Click on this photo to take a virtual tour of the inside of The Lincoln Cottage.

Ford's Theatre

Ford’s Theatre

This bike ride took me to Ford’s Theatre, a building with a rich history, located at 511 10th Street (MAP) in northwest D.C.’s Downtown Neighborhood. The site was originally a house of worship, constructed in 1833 as the second meeting house of the First Baptist Church of Washington. In 1861, after the congregation moved, John T. Ford bought the former church and renovated it into a theatre. It was destroyed by fire in 1862, but was rebuilt the following year. The new Ford’s Theatre opened in August of 1863, hosting various plays and stages performances. But its initial run as a theatre would not last long.

More than any of the plays or performances hosted there, the theatre is perhaps best known as the site where President Abraham Lincoln was assassinated in April of 1865. Just five days after General Robert E. Lee’s surrender at Appomattox Court House signaling the end of the Civil War, President Lincoln and his wife, Mary Todd, attended a performance of a play entitled “Our American Cousin” at the theatre. During the performance, actor and Confederate sympathizer John Wilkes Booth stepped into the Presidential Box and shot Lincoln. Booth then jumped onto the stage, and cried out “Sic semper tyrannis” before escaping through the back of the theatre. The mortally wounded President was taken across the street to The Petersen House, where he died the following day.

Strangely enough, on November 9, 1863 (151 years ago last night), two years before the assassination, Lincoln had been seated in the very same seat at Ford’s Theatre, where he watched Booth perform in the popular play, “The Marble Heart.” An avid theatre-goer, Lincoln was known to have attended at least a dozen performances at the theatre. At this performance, Lincoln was impressed with the young actor’s energy and passed along a message backstage asking if he could meet the actor. Booth, an outspoken supporter of the South, declined the request.

Then on the night on which he would be assassinated, President Lincoln told William Crook, his bodyguard, about a dream. “Crook, do you know I believe there are men who want to take my life? And I have no doubt they will do it. I know no one could do it and escape alive. But if it is to be done, it is impossible to prevent it.” Crook beseeched him not to go to Ford’s theater that night, but Lincoln demurred saying he had promised his wife they would go. Perhaps he knew he would be killed that night for when they departed for the theatre, Lincoln said “goodbye” to Crook instead of “goodnight.” He would be dead the following day.

Following the assassination, the U.S. Government appropriated the theatre, with Congress paying Ford $100,000 in compensation. And less than three years after opening as a theatre, an order was issued forever prohibiting its use as a place of public amusement.

After that, the building was used as an office building, and served as a facility for the War Department. Then in 1893, part of the building collapsed, resulting in the deaths of 22 clerks and injuring another 68. The building was repaired, but was used as a government warehouse after that.

Decades later, and more than 100 years after President Lincoln’s death, it was again renovated, and then re-opened as a theatre in 1968. During the 2000’s it was renovated yet again, opening on February 12, 2009, in commemoration of the bicentennial of President Abraham Lincoln’s birth.

Listed on the National Register of Historic Places, today Ford’s Theatre is administered by the National Park Service as one of two buildings which comprise the Ford’s Theatre National Historic Site, the other being the Petersen House. It remains a working theatre, producing plays, musicals and other works that entertain while often examining political and social issues related to Lincoln’s legacy. And in addition to being an active theatre, it also houses world-class museum, and a learning center named the Center for Education and Leadership.

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Mary Surratt's Gravesite

Mary Surratt’s Gravesite

Mary Surratt was a D.C. boarding house owner who was convicted of taking part in the conspiracy to assassinate President Abraham Lincoln. Sentenced to death, she was hanged on July 7, 1865, alongside three men who were also convicted of playing a part in the plot to assassinate the 16th President, thereby becoming the first woman executed by the United States federal government.

Mary Elizabeth Jenkins was born in Waterloo, Maryland, raised by her mother after her father died when she was still a toddler, and schooled in a Catholic female seminary. She married John Harrison Surratt at age seventeen, and they bought approximately 300 acres of land in Prince George’s County, Maryland, where they built a tavern and a post office.  There they raised three children, Isaac, Anna, and John Jr., on the property which became known at that time as Surrattsville.

After the Civil War began on April 12, 1861, Maryland remained part of “the Union,” but the Surratts were Confederate sympathizers. Isaac Surratt left Maryland and traveled to Texas, where he enlisted in the Confederate States Army, while John Jr. quit his studies at St. Charles College and became a courier for the Confederate Secret Service. And during the war, the tavern was thought to have doubled as a safe house for rebel agents and spies in the Confederate underground network.

When her husband suddenly collapsed and died in August of 1862, Mary found herself in dire financial straits and decided to move to D.C., where she lived in a townhouse her husband had previously purchased. The 39-year old widow rented out the family farm in Maryland, and converted the townhouse’s upper floor into a boardinghouse. Through renting the farm and operating the boarding house, Mary managed to eke out a modest living.

While debate among historians still continues over the role Mary and her boardinghouse played in Lincoln’s death, it is widely accepted that she hosted and possibly attended meetings about the conspiracy convened there by John Wilkes Booth and her son, John Jr.  Mary herself denied any involvement during her trial. After her conviction, attempts were made, particularly by her daughter, Anna, to persuade President Andrew Johnson to commute Mary’s death sentence. He refused, stating, “She kept the nest that hatched the egg.”

On this bike ride I chose to stop by some of the locations in D.C. that were part of both her life and her death. First I rode to the boarding house which she owned where John Wilkes Booth and his accomplices met. The building is still standing, and is located at 605 H Street (MAP) in northwest D.C.’s Chinatown neighborhood. Although the building has retained much of its original character, it is no longer a boarding house. The building is now a Chinese restaurant called Wok and Roll. An historic plaque next to the restaurant’s door reads, “A Historical Landmark, “Surratt Boarding House”, 604 H Street, N.W. (The 541), is said to have been where the conspirators plotted the abduction of U.S. President Abraham Lincoln in 1865, Plaque by Chi-Am Lions Club.”

I also rode to the location where Mary was hanged.  At the time it was the Parade Ground of the U.S. Penitentiary at 4th and P streets (MAP), fronting the Washington Channel in southwest D.C.  Today it is part of Fort McNair, and the courtyard where the hanging occurred is now a tennis court.

Lastly, during today’s ride I also rode to her final resting place, which is in Mount Olivet Cemetery, located at 1300 Bladensburg Road (MAP) in northeast D.C. This was the most interesting part of the bike ride. When I got to the cemetery I stopped at the front office to ask where Mary Surratt’s grave is located. Upon being told by the manager that they do not give out that kind of information, I assumed she did not recognize the name. So I explained that Mary Surratt was the Lincoln assassination conspirator who had been executed nearly 150 years ago. She said that Mary’s grave continued to be vandalized, even to this day, and that the family had specifically asked that information about the location of her grave not be given out.

However, because I was already there anyway, I decided to look around a little before I left.  I knew from researching it that she was buried in Section 31 of the cemetery.  A map at the entrance showed the different sections of the cemetery, but there was no Section 31 listed. So as I was riding around aimlessly looking at the very decorative gravestones of what must have been very wealthy and prominent people of that time period, it occurred to me that Mary Surratt would have been out of place among them. Having been a working class woman who was executed for her role in the assassination of the President, they would not have wanted her to be buried among them in that area of the cemetery. So I rode over to the other side of the cemetery – as far away as I could get from the most ornate gravestones in the cemetery. There I saw a small, very plain-looking gravestone that looked almost out of place for the cemetery. When I went up to it I saw that it read, simply, “Mrs. Surratt.”

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

Note:  Historic photos obtained from the Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division.

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.