Abraham Lincoln

A contemporary engraving of the Garfield assassination (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

The Witnesses

What do a five-year-old boy, a woman working at a train station and an African American newspaperman have in common? Samuel J. Seymour, Sarah V. E. White and Samuel H. Hatton were little-known Washingtonian witnesses to some of the most influential murders in history: those of U.S. Presidents.

Mary Todd Lincoln with the ghost of Abraham Lincoln behind her

The Legends of Lincoln's Ghost

It makes sense that, of all the ghosts in Washington, Lincoln is the most famous. He’s one of the most noteworthy Presidents, certainly. He lived in the city during a time of great conflict and suffering. He endured his own personal tragedies during his time in office. His family dabbled in the paranormal fads of the day. And, of course, he was shot at Ford’s Theatre, later dying in a makeshift deathbed across the street. The majority of the nation mourned, feeling a collective bereavement that has never quite healed. Altogether, it’s the perfect recipe for an ongoing ghost story.

A General, a Queen, and the President

Tom Thumb, -1883, with wife in wedding costume., 1863. Photograph. https://www.loc.gov/item/2005685454/.

February of 1863 saw one of the most anticipated celebrity weddings of its time—after all, what better to provide a momentary distraction from the realities of the Civil War than a little star gossip? The bride and groom were General Tom Thumb (Charles Stratton) and the Queen of Beauty Lavinia Warren, of P.T. Barnum’s American Museum (which would later become Barnum’s Circus) in New York City. At 12:30 p.m. on February 10, 1863 in Manhattan’s Grace Episcopal Church, Tom and Lavinia wed in the presence of an enormous crowd, which spilled out onto Broadway and for many more miles into the City, thanks to Barnum’s extensive publicizing of the event. People across America were fascinated by Barnum’s Tom Thumb and the President of the United States was no exception. The Lincolns were so enthralled by Barnum’s acts that they invited the newlywed Strattons to the White House for a wedding reception just a few days later.

The Dedication of the Lincoln Memorial

Lincoln Memorial Dedication Birds Eye

To the average visitor, the Lincoln Memorial appears to be a timeless part of the National Mall. However, this classical commemoration to the sixteenth president was dedicated less than one hundred years ago, in the presence of Civil War veterans, Robert Todd Lincoln, two Presidents and a crowd of thousands. 

John Wilkes Booth

John Wilkes Booth's Abduction Plot Gone Wrong

The story is well known: on April 14, 1865, actor John Wilkes Booth assassinated President Abraham Lincoln at Ford’s Theater. Lincoln died the next morning in a boarding house across from the theater. Booth escaped – temporarily -- but was shot 12 days later in Virginia. 

What is lesser known is that Booth did not always plan on killing Lincoln. In fact, the actor’s original plan was not to strike a fatal blow. He wanted to abduct Lincoln, take him to Richmond and exchange him for Confederate soldiers then held in Union prisons.

Ford's Theatre sign. (Credit: Flick user @mr_t_in_dc Licensed via Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 2.0 Generic)

The Curtain Rises Again at Ford's Theatre

As we’ve discussed previously on this blog, President Abraham Lincoln wasn’t the only victim when he was shot by John Wilkes Booth at Ford’s Theatre on April 14, 1865. There were several others who were victimized that night – some hauntingly so. What sometimes gets lost, though, is the impact of the assassination on the theater itself.

Cipriano Ferrandini addresses other members of the Baltimore plot. Image orginally printed in From The Spy of the Rebellion, by Allan Pinkerton, 1883. (Source: Maryland State Archives)

The Thwarted Plot to Kill Lincoln on the Streets of Baltimore

Abraham Lincoln’s election to the presidency on November 6, 1860, was the catalyst for vehement anger in the South, where the wave of secession had already begun to stir. The anger at the president-elect became so great that several conspirators vowed he would never reach the capitol to be inaugurated.

By many accounts, Lincoln was aware but unmoved by the threats that rose around him in early 1861 as he prepared to relocate from his home in Springfield, Illinois to the White House. He planned a grand 2,000-mile whistle-stop tour that would take his train through seventy cities and towns on the way to his inauguration. He was sure to be greeted by thousands of well-wishers, but a more sinister element was also gathering.

Bread Kneaded on Capitol Hill

Union soldiers billeted at the Capitol practice drills in 1861. (Photo source: Library of Congress)

As congressmen convened for a special session in July 1861, they were welcomed into the Capitol by the smell of baking bread. Just months into the Civil War, the building had already seen thousands of troops pass through its doors, and now it was the site of one of the largest bakeries the world had ever known. Twenty ovens, each with the capacity of holding hundreds of loaves of bread, were housed in the basement, and multitudes of men spent hours tending yeast and kneading dough. Having been in recess for less than four months, the congressmen were astounded, and some even annoyed, with this new mammoth bakery occupying their space. But a lot had changed for the country – and for the Capitol – in that short period of time.

Lincoln's Codebreakers

In a previous post, we looked at how Abraham Lincoln utilized the telegraph during the Civil War to supervise his generals in the field and gather intelligence — sometimes by scanning telegrams intended for other Washington recipients. But in addition to working closely with Lincoln, the War Department's team of telegraph operators — who were based at the present-day location of the Eisenhower Executive Office Building, next door to the White House — also were pressed into service to perform another critical function in the war effort. They also worked as cryptographers, encoding sensitive communications for the Union side, and as codebreakers, deciphering intercepted letters sent by Confederate officials and spies.

In an age when the federal government and the national security establishment was vastly smaller than it is today, David Homer Bates and three other operators — Thomas T. Eckert, Charles A. Tinker, and Albert B. Chandler — functioned as the 19th Century equivalent of the Fort Meade, Md.-based National Security Agency, which has an estimated 30,000 to 40,000 employees and an arsenal of supercomputers and other gadgetry at its disposal.

Pages