Wednesday, February 1, 2017

Surprising Links Between Lincoln and his Killer

Last year I listened through the book Killing Lincoln by Bill O'Reilly. I was hesitant to listen at first because of my love for Manhunt by James Swanson. Since O'Reilly's book came out after Swanson's book, it appeared O'Reilly was trying to ride the wave of Swanson's work, which felt a bit opportunistic to me. But since there are something like 50 biographies published on Lincoln ever year, let's chalk it up as a timing issue and move on.

O'Reilly's book covers the topic of Lincoln's death more broadly than Swanson, also addressing the events leading up to the end of the war and some of the conspiracy issues surrounding Lincoln's death. So it was enough of a different take to make it interesting and compelling.

But what was especially intriguing was the connection between Lincoln's oldest son, Robert Todd Lincoln, and John Wilkes Booth. The connection was mainly through two avenues. 

The first is that they both were sweet on the same girl, Lucy Hale. And though Booth was secretly engaged to Hale, yet Robert Lincoln still kept in touch with Hale, even spending the afternoon before his father's assassination with her. And he was not her only suitor. O'Reilly explains: 
Like Booth, she is used to having her way with the opposite sex, attracting beaus with a methodical mix of flattery and teasing.... among those enraptured with Miss Hale is a future Supreme Court justice, Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr., now a twenty-four-year-ld Union officer. Also John Hay, one of Lincoln's personal secretaries. And, finally, none other than Robert Todd Lincoln, the president’s twenty-one-year-old son, also a Union officer. Despite her engagement to Booth, Lucy still keeps in touch with both Hay and Lincoln, among many others.....
But [by March of 1865]..., their relationship has become strained. They have begun to quarrel. It doesn't help that Booth flies into a jealous rage whenever Lucy so much as looks at another man. One night, in particular, he went mad at the side of her dancing with Robert Lincoln. Whether or not this has anything to do with his pathological hatred for the president will never be determined. (p.28)
The second connection was with John Wilkes Booth's brother Edwin. Like his brother, Edwin was a well-known actor whom Lincoln had seen perform on a number of occasions. But Edwin's value to the President was so much greater than his entertainment value. Again, O'Reilly explains:
During one two-month span in the winter of 1864, [Lincoln] saw Richard IIIThe Merchant of VeniceHamlet, and, of course, Julius Caesar. The actor playing all the lead roles was Edwin booth, John's older brother. In addition to his acting, he did the Lincolns an inadvertent favor by saving the life of their eldest son. When twenty-year-old Union officer Robert Todd Lincoln was shoved from a crowded railway platform into the path of an oncoming train, it was Edwin Booth who snatched him by the collar and pulled him back to safety.
Robert never mentioned the incident to his father, but his commanding officer, Ulysses S. Grant, personally wrote a letter of thanks to the actor. Edwin's brother's reaction to this incident has never been determined – if he knew at all. (p.123)
One Booth saved a Lincoln and another Booth killed a Lincoln. 

Lastly, there's one other fascinating story I've heard a number of times but wanted to capture here, as it almost seems unbelievable. The story goes that when it was time for Grant to accept Lee's final surrender, they needed a place to meet near the final battlefield:
Lee sends his aid Colonel Charles Marshall up the road to find a meeting place. Marshall settles on a simple home. By a great twist of fate, the house belongs to a grocery named Wilmer McLean, who moved to Appomattox Court House to escape the war. A cannonball had landed in his fireplace during the first battle of Bull Run, at the very start of the conflict. Fleeing to a quieter corner of Virginia was his way of protecting his family from harm.
But the Civil War once again finds Wilmer McLean. He and his family are asked to leave the house. Soon, Lee marches up the front steps and takes a seat in the parlor. Again, he waits. (p.78)

McLean's timing was uncanny. And yet even more surprising, was the timing of Lincoln's son once again, who also appeared at the surrender. Nor was this the end of his coincidental appearances, being an eye witness to the assassination of another president: James Garfield, and being nearby when William McKinley was shot. 

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