The Night Lincoln Died

At a cabinet meeting on April 14, 1865, Abraham Lincoln reported that he had had a most unusual dream. He had felt himself floating along the ocean, as the sun shone brightly in the background. He was on some sort of ship, drifting, searching for direction. It was the same dream he had had many times since being elected president, and every time, he claimed, it had served as an omen for some major event or disaster.

Nonsense, his cabinet officers proclaimed. The war is over, they noted (Lee had surrendered to Grant on the April 9), what could go wrong now? Still, Lincoln was concerned.

"Perhaps," suggested Assistant Secretary of State Frederick Seward, "at each of these periods there were possibilities of great change or disaster, and the vague feeling of uncertainty may have led to the dim vision in sleep." "Perhaps ..." Lincoln sighed.

He had neglected, however, to tell them about another dream he had had a few days earlier--a much more ominous one. He had described that dream to his wife and some friends, including Ward Hill Lamon, who recorded the president's telling:

"About 10 days ago," the president told them, "I retired very late. I had been up waiting for important dispatches from the front. I could not have been long in bed when I fell into a slumber, for I was weary. I soon began to dream. There seemed to be a deathlike stillness about me. Then I heard subdued sobs, as if a number of people were weeping. I thought I left my bed and wandered downstairs. There the silence was broken by the same pitiful sobbing, but the mourners were invisible. I went from room to room; no living person was in sight, but the same mournful sounds of distress met me as I passed along. I saw light in all the rooms; every object was familiar to me; but where were all the people who were grieving as if their hearts would break? I was puzzled and alarmed. What could be the meaning of all this? Determined to find the cause of a state of things so mysterious and so shocking, I kept on until I arrived at the East Room, which I entered. There I met with a sickening surprise. Before me was a catafalque, on which rested a corpse wrapped in funeral vestments. Around it were stationed soldiers who were acting as guards; and there was a throng of people, gazing mournfully upon the corpse, whose face was covered, others weeping pitifully.

"'Who is dead in the White House?' I demanded of one of the soldiers.

"'The president,' was his answer, 'he was killed by an assassin.' Then came a loud burst of grief from the crowd, which woke me from my dream. I slept no more that night; and although it was only a dream, I have been strangely annoyed by it ever since."

To relieve himself from the stresses of war, Lincoln often liked to attend the theater. That night, he and Mary Todd were to be accompanied to Ford's Theater by Gen. Ulysses S. Grant and his wife, Julia, to see a production of "Our American Cousin," one of Lincoln's favorite plays. At the last minute, however, the general and his wife decided to catch an earlier train out of town, and informed the Lincolns that they would not be attending. In their stead, Mary Todd invited Maj. H.R. Rathbone and Clara Harris, the stepson and daughter of Sen. Ira Harris.

The theater was laced with American flags and packed with a crowd anticipating the president's arrival. When the Lincoln walked out onto the balcony with his entourage, the crowd paid their respects as he nodded and waved politely. A special chair with a slight rocking motion had been put in to accommodate comfortably the president's large frame.

He sat peacefully.

In the bar next door sat another man, sulky and perturbed. John Wilkes Booth had been waiting for this moment, and when he had heard earlier that day of the president's plans to attend the evening performance, he knew that the time was ripe. He hated this man, the destroyer of the South, the tyrannical oppressor. In March, he had led a plan to kidnap the president, but it had failed. Now that the war was just about over, there was only one thing for him to do.

"I'm going to kill the president." he reportedly told someone.

"Yeah-ha-ha ..." they laughed, "Right."

Across town, Secretary of State William H. Seward lay bedridden. He had been in a horse-riding accident earlier, and an uncomfortable leather brace around his neck made sleep difficult. He had just managed, however, with the aid of his daughter, to catch some rest, when a messenger arrived at the house door. "Delivery," the messenger told the servant who answered, holding up a brown paper bag, "Medication."

The servant was unaware of any scheduled delivery.

But the deliveryman was adamant; he had to see the secretary of State at once. The servant, somewhat suspicious, refused to allow him. But the deliveryman was large and strong, and he pushed past the smaller man, and started up the stairs.

Vice President Andrew Johnson was not a well-liked man. He had started off as a tailor's apprentice, and did not even learn to read until his wife taught him at the age of 17. Far from an intellectual, he made his career in politics speaking from the stump in plain language. While his native Tennessee seceded with the South, Johnson remained loyal, despite being a Democrat and a supporter of slavery. He was rewarded with the nomination for vice president in 1864 on a split Republican-Democrat ticket. The idea was that this would increase the stability of the nation once the war was over; it later proved an unwise decision.

A note delivered to the vice president's residence that night read: "Don't wish to disturb you. Are you at home? J. Wilkes Booth."

Johnson was up in his hotel room, unaware of a man named George Andrew Atzerodt, who sat at a bar on the first floor of the hotel, drinking alone. It was his job to kill the vice president.

Edwin Stanton, the secretary of War, was retiring for the night, after a long day of work. Initially, Stanton had been one of Lincoln's greatest critics, even going so far as to call him a "damned fool." ("If Stanton said I was a damned fool, then I must be one," Lincoln had remarked, "for he is nearly always right and generally says what he means.") Lincoln had appointed him despite the criticisms. And, for his part, Stanton had proved worthy of the task, efficiently organizing what was an extremely inefficient organization. In time, he had come to respect Lincoln and even, perhaps, admire him. They had been through the war together, and though he had once judged him incompetent, he now recognized his wisdom.

But he could not think of these things. He was tired, and had to get to sleep.

Frederick Seward was coming down the stairs when he met the "deliveryman," Lewis Powell, alias Lewis Paine. Paine told the secretary of State's son that he had a delivery for his father, and that he must get it to him immediately.

We did not request a delivery, the assistant secretary of State informed him.

Let me just drop it to him, Paine requested, so that I may satisfy my boss.

The son offered to take the delivery.

"No." Paine insisted.

There was a moment of perilous silence, and suddenly the larger man produced a knife. Several swift motions left Frederick screaming and covered in blood, as Paine raced up the stairs. He kicked open Seward's door....

As a well-known actor, John Wilkes Booth did not have a problem entering Ford's Theater. Concealing a one-shot derringer and a knife, Booth slowly crept toward the balcony. The one guard paid him no heed and went on break, and, as expected, it was easy to get to the president's door. Through the keyhole he could see the president. As he had heard, Grant had cancelled and was indeed not there. Booth had to settle for the president without the general. But how to turn the knob without being heard? He would have to wait. He knew this play well, and there was a part in the middle--a joke--that always made the crowd roar with laughter. He would wait for that part....

Atzerodt couldn't take it anymore. When was Johnson going to come down? He hugged his drink....

Paine burst into the room, surprised to see a woman--Seward's daughter--sitting nearby. But it was Seward he was interested in, and there he was, with the covers up to his chin.

Quickly he set upon him, stabbing at his neck. As Seward awoke in a start and turned feverishly away, his daughter leapt upon Paine's back. He struggled with her, then tossed her across the room. But as he went back at the secretary of State's neck, once again she was on him, and once again he tossed her away.

But now time was short. Soon they would be after him. Paine made one final effort. Unaware of the brace upon the secretary of State's neck, he instinctively went for that same target, slashing away powerfully. When finally he fled from the house, there was no getaway carriage. The servant had sounded the alarm. He would have to go on foot.

As the crowd exploded with laughter, John Wilkes Booth carefully turned the knob. There before him was the president's head, rocking back and forth. In a step, he was behind it, and a firecracker sound filled the theater.

Major Rathbone jumped up, as Mary Todd hysterically reached for the limp body of her husband. It happened so fast, that some in the crowd did not even realize what was going on until Booth's knife, originally meant for Grant, slammed down into the arm of Major Rathbone, who had reached out for the killer.

Booth's plan was to jump off the balcony onto the stage. But the pain-ridden arm of Rathbone, swinging fiercely, disrupted Booth's jump, and caused him to fall awkwardly, breaking his leg upon landing. Booth, undeterred, began limping across the stage toward his escape, screaming out (by most accounts) in Latin, "Thus always to tyrants!"

Knowing the theater well, he made a rear exit. There a boy stood holding his horse. A moment later, Booth was gone.

Atzerodt's nerves were shot. It seemed as if Johnson had been up there for weeks and weeks. Where was he already? Surely some government official would come to get the vice president soon now?

He could not wait. Fearfully, he got up and left the bar.

When Stanton was informed by messenger of the night's events, he at first had dismissed it as humbug. He had been with the secretary of State, for one, only hours before. What could have happened in that time?

But, to his fear, he soon heard that the news was quite true. Seward had been attacked and, worse, the president had been shot in the head. Quickly he made his way toward Ford's Theater.

The president had been moved across the street to a rooming house. Too large to fit in the small bed there, they had had to lay him diagonally across, his blood leaking out onto the pillow. Mary Todd was there, grabbing at him hysterically; at times she had to be removed from the room.

Stanton did not want to believe his eyes. He had no doubt now that he loved the man who lay dying before him. As doctors rushed in and out, doing their best in a desperate situation, Stanton remained through the night, refusing to leave the president's side.

At approximately 7:22 the next morning, the great man died.

"Now he belongs to the ages." Stanton remarked, promising to find the men responsible.

Booth awaited news of his team's success, and was disappointed to hear that Atzerodt had chickened out, and that Seward had survived due to the brace around his neck--his horse-riding accident had been a blessing in disguise.

Little sympathy could be found for the conspirators. Southern sympathizers did not rise up, and the government of the North remained stable. Booth did, however, get a doctor to fix his leg. The doctor's name was Samuel A. Mudd, hence the expression "your name is Mudd."

The repaired leg would not help Booth for long. He would head south looking for compassion for his cause. But the message to every Union soldier was clear: find this man.

And they did.

On April 26, 1865, Booth was cornered by Union soldiers near Bowling Green, Va. It is said that he tried to avoid arrest by running away. Perhaps the truth is that a court trial was not desired. He was shot and killed on the spot.

The rest of the conspirators were rounded up within a matter of days. Paine and Atzerodt were hanged, along with a young friend and co-conspirator of Booth's by the name of David Herold. Mrs. Mary E. Surratt, who had allowed the conspirators to meet at her house, was also hanged. Mudd and others received jail time.

Mary Todd Lincoln, who was unstable beforehand, spent a year in an asylum after her husband's death. Ironically, Major Rathbone was later murdered himself.

Lincoln's blood can still be found on the pillow on which they laid his head down to die. It is said that, if we wanted to, we might be able to clone him from the specimen.

But many believe Lincoln is with us still. Grace Coolidge, wife of the 30th president, Calvin Coolidge, claimed to have seen the ghost of Lincoln by the window of the Oval Office. Guests at the White House would later hear noises that they attributed to Lincoln's footsteps. Queen Wilhelmina of the Netherlands, invited to the White House by FDR, purported that she answered a knock at her door one night and found Lincoln standing before her. Norman Vincent Peale related the account of an unidentified actor staying at the White House who heard Lincoln's voice calling out for help, and awoke to see "the lanky form of Lincoln prostrate on the floor in prayer, arms outstretched with fingers digging into the carpet."

Other Lincoln-visit stories have been reported by Eleanor Roosevelt, Ronald and Nancy Reagan and Harry Truman. Even Winston Churchill claimed to have awoken one night to see the ghostly silhouette of Lincoln standing within his room.