Abraham Lincoln, the sixteenth President of the United States (1861-1865), is remembered for his vital role as the leader in preserving the Union during the Civil War and beginning the process that led to the end of slavery in the United States. He is also remembered for his character, his speeches and letters, and as a man of humble origins whose determination and perseverance led him to the nation’s highest office.
On April 9, 1865, Robert E. Lee surrendered his Confederate forces to Ulysses S. Grant at Appomattox Court House, Virginia. Although the last Rebel troops would not surrender until May, the Civil War was effectively over. The Union had held. But, a weary President Abraham Lincoln would not live to see the triumphant march of the Army of the Potomac through the streets of Washington. Just five days later, on April 14, 1865, he was shot by a Southern sympathizer, John Wilkes Booth, in Ford’s Theater. He died the next day.
Psychics believe that President Lincoln has never left the White House, that his spirit remains to complete the business of his abbreviated second term and to be available in times of crisis. For seventy years, presidents, first ladies, guests, and members of the White House staff have claimed to have either seen Lincoln or felt his presence. The melancholy bearing of Lincoln himself, and several instances of eerie prescience on his part, only add to the legends of the Great Emancipator’s ghost. The lanky president had paid fanatical attention to even the most minute details concerning the Civil War and felt personally responsible for its outcome. His background was Southern, leading some critics to accuse him of traitorous acts. Mary Todd Lincoln had brothers who fought for the Southern cause.
By the time of his 1864 reelection, deep lines etched his face and heavy black circles underlined his eyes. During his five years as commander in chief, he had slept little and taken no vacations. There may have been more to his sadness than even he would admit. Lincoln dreamed of his own death. Ward Hill Lamon, a close friend of the president’s, wrote down what Lincoln told him on an evening in early 1865: “About ten days ago I retired very late…,” the president told Lamon. “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 alone…I was puzzled and alarmed. Determined to find the cause of a state of things so mysterious and shocking, I kept on until I arrived at the East Room. 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, some gazing mournfully upon the corpse, whose face 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.’” It was not the first time Lincoln “saw” his own death. Soon after his election in 1860,he’d seen a double image of his face reflected in a mirror in his Springfield, Illinois, home. One was his “real” face, the other a pale imitation. Lincoln’s superstitious wife, Mary Todd Lincoln, did not se the mirror images, but was deeply troubled by her husband’s account of the incident. She prophesied that the sharper image indicated that he would serve out his first term. The faint, ghostlike image was a sign, she said, that he would be renominated for a second term, but would not live to complete it. President Lincoln’s morose acceptance of his own mortality was never more apparent than on the morning of his tragic visit to Ford’s Theater. He summoned the Cabinet to the Council Chamber. The president’s face was grave. “Gentleman,” he began “before long you will have important news.” The Cabinet members pressed him to reveal what information he had, but Lincoln demurred. “I…I have no news, but you will hear tomorrow.” He hesitated, his chin cupped in his bony hands. “I have had a dream, the same dream that I have had three times before. I am in a boat, alone on an ocean. I have no oars, no rudder. I am in helpless. Adrift.” The president seemed to be speaking as out of reverie. He scanned the questioning faces before him, then stood up and shambled out of the room. It was possibly the strangest Cabinet meeting ever called by a president of the United States. That night President Lincoln was shot in the back of the head with a single bullet fired from a derringer as he watched Our American Cousin at Ford’s Theater. He died at 7:22 the next morning, April 15, 1865.
A train bore Lincoln’s body home to Springfield. That solemn procession has given rise to another president legend surrounding Lincoln. Each year, on the anniversary of that journey, so the story goes, two ghost trains slowly travel the rails between Washington and Illinois. Aboard the first train a military band plays a funeral dirge. Before the smoke of the locomotive clears, a second steam engine follows silently behind, pulling a coach bearing a coffin containing the body of President Lincoln. The ghost trains never reach Springfield. The shock felt by the nation upon the death of its sixteenth president took years to wear off. Children, too young to have understood the implications of the tumultuous years of the Civil War, saw their parents’ bereavement and wanted to learn more about the man from Illinois. Newspapers responded to this need by reprinting numerous stories about Abraham Lincoln’s early years. Most were true. Others contained more fable than fact.
It is true that tragedy had stalked Lincoln long before his first presidential term. His beloved mother, Nancy Hanks Lincoln, died when her son was nine. When Lincoln’s first love, Ann Rutledge, died of typhoid fever, he lapsed into a melancholy that may have led to his emotional breakdown a few years later. In 1842, at the age of thirty-three, Lincoln married Mary Todd, but the union was not a particularly happy one. Mary had a mercurial temperament and a strong belief in the supernatural. It was her influence that led to her husband’s interest in spiritualism, though he always regarded it with some skepticism. The Lincolns had three sons, but only Robert Todd lived to adulthood. Edward died at age four and young Willie succumbed to a fever during his father’s first term as president. Lincoln was shattered by Willie’s death and often visited the crypt where the child was buried. He would sit for hours, weeping copiously. At Mrs. Lincoln’s urging, seances were held at the White House with the hope of communicating with their dead sons. The results of these seances were not entirely satisfying, and it’s believed that Lincoln attended only two of them.
During the administration of Ulysses S. Grant, however, a member of the household staff claimed to have seen Willie and to have conversed with his spirit. In the Lyndon B. Johnson presidency (1963-69), Lynda Johnson Robb occupied the room where Willie had died, and later, where the autopsy on Abraham Lincoln had been performed. This was also the room in which President Truman’s mother died. Mrs. Robb wrote to the authors of this book that, although she’d never seen a ghost in the White House, “I did live in a room where lots of sad things took place!”
Liz Carpenter, press secretary to Lady Bird Johnson, told author John Alexander that Mrs. Johnson believed she’d felt Lincoln’s presence one spring evening while watching a television program about his death. She noticed a plaque she’d never seen before hanging over the fireplace. It mentioned Lincoln’s importance in that room in some way. Mrs Johnson admitted feeling a strange coldness and a decided sense of unease. This disquieting apprehension has been felt by others. Grace Coolidge, wife of Calvin Coolidge, the thirtieth president, was the first person to report having actually seen the ghost of Abraham Lincoln. She said he stood at a window of the Oval Office, hands clasped behind his back, gazing out over the Potomac, perhaps still seeing the bloody battlefields beyond.
The ghost of Lincoln was seen frequently during the administration of Franklin D. Roosevelt, when the country went through a devastating depression then a world war. When Queen Wilhelmina of the Netherlands was a guest at the White House during that period she was awakened one night by a knock on her bedroom door. Thinking it might be an important message, she got up and opened the door. The top-hatted figure of President Lincoln stood in the hallway. The queen fainted. When she came to she was lying on the floor. The apparition had vanished. Eleanor Roosevelt used Lincoln’s bedroom as her study. Although she denied seeing the former president’s ghost, she admitted to feeling his presence whenever she worked late at night. She thought he was standing behind her, peering over her shoulder. On one occasion, Mrs. Roosevelt’s secretary, Mary Eben, encountered Lincoln’s ghost sitting on the bed in the northwest bedroom. He was pulling on his boots, as if in a hurry to go somewhere. The startled young woman screamed and ran from the second floor. Other staffers of that era said they’d seen Lincoln lying quietly on his bed of an afternoon. Seamstress Lillian Rogers Parks detailed in her autobiography a mystifying experience that she had one summer day in that same northwest room. It had just been freshly painted and she was putting it back in order. The White House was almost empty because the Roosevelts had gone to Hyde Park, taking most of the maids with them. As Mrs. Parks worked, she kept hearing someone coming to the door, but she never saw anyone. In fact, the second floor was deserted. After an hour of listening to the tromping, Mrs. Parks went searching for the source. On the third floor she found a houseman. She asked him why he kept pacing the second floor. He shrugged his shoulders. “I don’t know what you’re talking about,” he said. “I haven’t been on that floor. I just came on duty. That was Abe you heard.”
During Harry S. Truman’s administration, his daughter, Margaret, slept in that area of the White House and often heard rappings on her bedroom door late at night. Whenever she checked, no one was there. She complained to her father and he said the “noises” must be due to dangerous settling of the floors. He ordered the White House completely rebuilt. It was a propitious decision. The chief architect, Major Gen. E. Edgerton, told President Truman that the building had been in danger of imminent collapse! Had the ghost of Lincoln tried to warn the Trumans that the president’s home was ready to fall down?
Thirty years after the rebuilding of the White House, the Lincoln Bedroom was till regarded as a spooky place. Susan Ford, daughter of President Gerald Ford, said publicly that she believes in ghosts and ruing her stay in the White House she had no intention of ever sleeping in that room. Stories of a ghostly President Lincoln wandering the corridors and rooms of the White House persist, but are not officially acknowledged. The gangly prairie lawyer with the black stovepipe hat and the long, sad face was the kind of man around whom legends naturally collect. If one were to believe in ghosts, one would have to believe that the benevolent spirit of Abraham Lincoln, our greatest president, still watches over the nation he fought so gallantly to preserve.
“The Other Tenants at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue” is an excerpt from Haunted America by Michael Norman and Beth Scott. It appears here courtesy of Tor Books.