Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Was There A Curse Surrounding President Lincoln's Assassination?

Lincoln, the Railsplitter
U.S., 2009
The world's first commemorative stamp was issued in honor of Abraham Lincoln, President of the United States, in 1866. While postal authorities never promoted the 15-cent stamp as a commemorative stamp, most philatelists treat it as such, since it was issued in honor of America's recently assassinated leader. Lincoln has become a very frequent subject of commemorative and even definitive stamps, both in the U.S. and abroad. In 2009, on the 200th anniversary of Lincoln's birth, the U.S. Postal Service issued four stamps commemorating his birth, which are illustrated throughout this blog entry, bringing the total number of stamps honoring the 16th President of the United States with 74 distinct stamps.

This article will detail some of the events surrounding the assassination of President Lincoln and the odd events that occurred to those connected to that fateful night. Some have even suggested that the events of that night cursed those around it. For those of us who do not believe in curses, there are clearly some odd historical events regarding the participants that make for entertaining reading.


At about 10:15 PM, on April 14, 1865, five people were alone in the Presidential Box at Ford's Theater in Washington, DC, watching the play Our American Cousin. Four of the attendees in the box were busy watching the play; the fifth was an unseen intruder with a nefarious plan to try to affect the outcome of the U.S. Civil War. Within a few short seconds, a mortal wound was delivered to the president and, in the span of a few hours, America was to lose what many believe have come to believe as her greatest president ever. Even though only one life was snuffed out that evening, many of the people surrounding the assassination would meet strange deaths in the following years, leading some to infer that they were cursed. This is the story of the mysterious deaths of those near and dear to President Abraham Lincoln following his assassination.


Lincoln, the Lawyer
U.S., 2009

Abraham Lincoln was inaugurated as the 16th President of the United States in 1861, the same year in which the country slid into civil war. The war, which was to last virtually Lincoln's entire presidency, split the country into two factions -- the northern states, called the Union, and the southern states, named the Confederacy. The Union sought to preserve the nation, while the Confederacy seceded in order to start their own nation. After early Confederate victories, the 4-year-long struggle wore them down and turned the tide toward the more industrial and better financed Union forces.

Late in the war, John Wilkes Booth, a famous actor of the day, grew disgruntled that his beloved South was losing the war, and actively sought ways to change the outcome of the war. He conspired with several others to attempt to kidnap President Lincoln, transport him into Confederate territory, and hold him for ransom in an attempt to force the Union to surrender. After carefully laying out the plans for the kidnapping, a last-minute schedule change by the President thwarted the attempt. Before the plan could be revised, a major army of the South surrendered, dooming the Confederacy to ultimate defeat.

The Assassination

Lincoln, the Politician
U.S., 2009

Booth, stung by the surrender of his beloved side, changed his plans to murder. He, along with some of the original kidnapping conspirators would attempt to assassinate several leaders of the government. Booth believed that a coordinated attack on the political leaders of the Union would create such chaos and disorder that the Confederacy would be emboldened to fight on.

On the night of April 14th, 1865, as President Lincoln watched the play with his wife, Mary Todd, and invited guests Major Henry Rathbone and his fiance, Clara Harris, Booth's plan was put in motion. He would kill the President, a fellow conspirator would murder the Vice-President, Andrew Johnson, and a third conspirator would kill the Secretary of State, William Seward, all at the same time. Only Booth would prove to be successful, and what a terrible blow to the recovering nation it was.

When Booth fired the fatal shot that murdered the President, the stunned crowd in Ford's Theater did not fully understand what was happening. During the ensuing chaos, Major Rathbone, the invited guest of the president, struggled with Booth in the Presidential Box. After critically slashing Rathbone with a sharp dagger, Booth managed to jump to the stage, run across the platform, and escape the theater.

President Lincoln, shot in the back of the head, would never regain consciousness. He was taken across the street to a boarding house owned by William Petersen, a German-born tailor. Through the night Lincoln struggled to survive but the final outcome was without doubt. Mercifully, at 7:22 AM, on Saturday, April 15th, 1865, the President died from his wound. America had lost her 16th President to an assassin's bullet.


Lincoln, the President
U.S., 2009

Following a twelve-day manhunt, Booth was found hiding in a barn in northern Virginia. Surrounded, but unwilling to leave the confines of the barn, hay surrounding the barn was ignited. As the flames intensified, a shot was fired and Booth was wounded. An over-eager, and slightly deranged, soldier named Thomas "Boston" Corbett fired the shot, although there is some minor controversy regarding this claim. Regardless of the source of the bullet, Booth was paralyzed and mortally wounded as well. After lingering for three hours, Booth died.

Thus, the two principal players in a watershed event in American history had died from bullet wounds.

Affected Lives

Many of the individuals in direct or indirect proximity to President Lincoln's assassination would go on to lead troubled lives, or meet untimely deaths.

  • Mary Todd Lincoln - Mary Todd always seemed to be bit daft, but her husband's assassination completely unhinged her. She wore nothing but black clothes as a sign of mourning for the rest of her life, but enigmatically often purchased bright colorful clothes for which she would never wear. These and other extravagant purchases, plus obvious signs of her being disconnected from reality, plus a suspected suicide attempt led her only surviving son, Robert Todd Lincoln, to have her committed to a psychiatric hospital. Following a public outcry, she was released to the custody of her sister, Elizabeth Edwards, at whose house she died several years later.

  • Major Henry Rathbone and Clara Harris - Major Rathbone and his fiancee were not the Lincoln's first choice of theater companions that fateful night. After others had begged off for the evening, Mary Todd invited the young courting couple. Oddly, the major and his fiancee where step-brother and step-sister, as Rathbone's widowed mother had married Harris's widowered father.

    During the assassination attempt, Rathbone was seriously injured by the dagger-wielding John Wilkes Booth. Rathbone struggled to overcome the assassin, but the wound was too deep, resulting in a large amount of blood-loss. Rathbone ultimately survived and in 1867, he and his step-sister wed.

    In 1883, in Hanover, Germany, where he was appointed U.S. Consul, Rathbone's mental health began a serious decline. A few days before Christmas that year, Rathbone murdered his wife/step-sister, Clara, and came close to murdering their three children, before trying, but failing, to commit suicide. He spent the remaining years of his life in an asylum for the criminally insane.

  • William Petersen - Petersen, a German-born tailor, owned the house across the street from Ford's Theater. Following the gunshot to the president, Lincoln was brought to Petersen's boarding house where he was laid across a bed while doctors frantically tried to save him.

    A few years after the assassination, Petersen died from an overdose of laudanum (an alcohol-based mixture with opium). He was found on the grounds of the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, DC. The question remains to this day as to whether it was an accidental death or a suicide. Just four months later, his wife followed him to the grave.

  • Mary Surratt - As the owner of the boarding house where Booth and his comrades met, much has been written of Mary Surratt and whether she had first-hand knowledge of the assassination plot and the plot to overthrow the U.S. Government.

    It is very well documented and accepted by historians that she did know of the plot to kidnap Lincoln. It was at her boarding house that the plot for the kidnapping was hatched. After the kidnap attempt was thwarted by Lincoln's last minute change of plans, Mrs. Surratt seems to have taken a back seat in the conspiracy plot. Many historians question the amount of knowledge that she had of Booth's last-minute change of plans to murder the president, and whether such knowledge was sufficient cause for her execution.

    She was tried with the other conspirators and by the thinnest of margins was condemned to die by hanging. Attempts by her supporters to contact the new president, Andrew Johnson, to plea for mercy on Mrs. Surratt were blocked by several people, including Senators Preston King and James H. Lane. On July 7, 1865, Surratt, along with 3 others involved in the Lincoln conspiracy where hanged. She was the first woman hanged by the U.S. Government.

  • Senators Preston King and James H. Lane - These two senators were part of the entourage who shielded the new president, Andrew Johnson, from attempts to plea for mercy on Mary Surratt's life. Both men died within a little over one year of Lincoln's assassination, some claim due to guilt over their complicity to allow Ms. Surratt to be executed.

    Sen. King chose a particularly morbid way to commit suicide. He tied a bag filled with lead bullets around his neck and jumped from a ferry boat into New York Harbor, where he sunk to the bottom.

    Sen. Lane likewise ended his life, although by a more conventional manner. Almost one year to the day after Mary Surratt's hanging, the senator killed himself with a self-inflicted gunshot.

  • "Boston" Corbett - It's doubtful that a more strange character could have been found to have killed John Wilkes Booth. Corbett was a religious fanatic who had previously castrated himself to prevent succumbing to temptation from prostitutes. He had worked as a hat-maker, a field that exposed workers to mercury and led to many cases of dementia. The exposure to the toxin may have affected his mental capacity.

    In the 1880s, he served as a assistant doorkeeper of the Kansas House of Representatives. Overhearing someone mocking the opening prayer, Corbett pulled out a revolver and threatened violence. Soon declared to be insane, he was sentenced to an asylum, from which he escaped several months later and disappeared from view. He is believed by many to have died in a terrible fire that consumed much of the town of Hinkley, Minnesota, his last known residence.

Special Mention

  • Robert Todd Lincoln - Robert was the sole surviving son of President and Mrs. Lincoln; two of his three brothers died as children, and the third died at age 18. Robert lived to the ripe old age of 82 and lived to see his famous father honored many times.

    Robert had the unusual coincidence of being connected to the assassination of 3 U.S. Presidents. His parents had invited him to attend Ford's Theater on the night of the assassination, but he declined citing fatigue. Later as Secretary of War, he was an eyewitness to the assassination of President James Garfield at a train station in Washington, DC in 1881. Twenty years after that, while attending the Pan-American Exposition in Buffalo, NY, then-president William McKinley was assassinated in 1901. Robert Todd Lincoln was near the first three presidential assassinations in U.S. history, over an almost 40-year span, an event probably unequaled in American History.

    He was reputed to turn down future invitations to be near the president, although he was with President Warren Harding and former President Howard Taft at the dedication of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, DC.

  • Ford's Theater - The infamous locale of the Lincoln Assassination also has a morbid history. Immediately following the assassination, the U.S. Government purchased the theater from its owner, John Ford, for $100,000 (US). The government forbade the building from ever being used as a place of entertainment. (The stipulation has since been overridden as special performances are sometimes held in the theater.)

    Following the purchase of the theater, the building served as a record's warehouse and clerical office for the government. The last bit of tragedy to unfold in the building occurred in 1893, when the front part of the building collapsed, killing 22 clerks and injuring scores more people.

Curse or no curse, the lives and place surrounding the assassination of President Lincoln certainly seem to have a dark shadow clouding them.

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