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's 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.
He is also remembered for his untimely death—and his supposed afterlife in the White House.
For 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.
Abraham Lincoln Sees His Own Death
By the time of his 1864 reelection, deep lines etched Lincoln's face and heavy black circles underlined his eyes. During his 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 ... 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 see 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.
On April 14, 1865, President Lincoln was shot by a Southern sympathizer, John Wilkes Booth, in the back of the head as he watched Our American Cousin at Ford’s Theater. He died at 7:22 the next morning, April 15, 1865.
Tragedy Haunted Lincoln's Life
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 four 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. Tad died at 18, after his father's death. 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.
Sightings of Lincoln's Ghost in the White House
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.
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, one of our greatest presidents, still watches over the nation he fought so gallantly to preserve.
Excerpted from Haunted America by Michael Norman and Beth Scott. It appears here courtesy of Tor Books.