Abraham Lincoln: What You Didn't Know About His Iconic Death

Updated on November 9, 2018
Liz Hardin profile image

Liz studied the life and legacy of Abraham Lincoln and Civil War history during her undergraduate studies at Lincoln Memorial University.

From his reputation as "Honest Abe," to his Gettysburg Address, to his job as a railsplitter, Abraham Lincoln is one of the best known U.S. presidents worldwide. Despite his accomplishments during his lifetime, he is most iconic for his death. On April 14, 1865, Lincoln, escorted by his wife Mary, walked into the Ford’s Theater. In all the mayhem and madness of the tragedy that occurred that day, an item belonging Lincoln was left behind, only to later be found by an actor: his walking cane.

As Lincoln and Mary entered the Ford’s Theater, Lincoln placed his walking cane in the corner of the Presidential Box. This cane is made of ebony, standing at 36.5 inches tall. The cane itself is solid black and plain, with a knob handle made of sterling silver with the words “A. Lincoln” etched into its floral design. Forgotten amidst all the panic during his assassination, the cane was later found by Phelps, an actor of the Ford theater. He would later sell it to a grocer, Stephen Mayhew, to repay a forty dollar debt. Mayhew’s son, Joseph, later donated this artifact to the Lincoln Memorial Museum.

As the cane was owned and used by Abraham Lincoln himself, this cane is very unique and valuable. However, what this cane represents, and how it portrays Lincoln, is why it holds such an important place in the Lincoln Memorial Museum. As Lincoln strolled into Ford’s Theater during his final moments, he was under the assumption that he would be strolling right back out after the play was over. As this was not the case, Lincoln’s cane has become a symbol of his death, one that no one saw coming. If his cane could speak, one can be sure it would have a lot to say, being that it is one of the only artifacts that was actually present during his assassination.

Lithograph of the Assassination of Abraham Lincoln. From left to right: Henry Rathbone, Clara Harris, Mary Todd Lincoln, Abraham Lincoln, and John Wilkes Booth. Rathbone is depicted as spotting Booth before he shot Lincoln and trying to stop him as B
Lithograph of the Assassination of Abraham Lincoln. From left to right: Henry Rathbone, Clara Harris, Mary Todd Lincoln, Abraham Lincoln, and John Wilkes Booth. Rathbone is depicted as spotting Booth before he shot Lincoln and trying to stop him as B | Source

On the morning of his death, Lincoln foresaw his own fate and didn’t even realize it. Lincoln looked to his body guard, William Cook, and said, “Do you know, I believe there are men who want to take my life. And I have no doubt that they will do it.” This was no coincidence, as just three and a half months after his election, there were plans to make an attempt on his life in Baltimore, before he made it to the White House. In 1863, an actual attempt was made, only to shoot off his tall hat and spook his horse.

On the day of Lincoln's death, he wasn’t in the greatest of physical condition. He was around thirty pounds underweight, had chronic indigestion, and his skin was yellow from jaundice. His presidency was taking its toll; for a man in his mid-fifties, he appeared to be in his seventies. The stresses of the Civil War could be seen not only in his physical appearance, but also in his mental state. Lincoln suffered from depression, a term he often referred to as his "melancholy." His law partner, William Herndon, even said “His melancholy dripped from him as he walked." However, being a strong willed man, he learned to cope with this depression as time moved on.

Lincoln knew he wouldn’t live much longer after the war. In fact, he confided this information in Harriet Beecher Stowe, the author of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, when he told her, “Whichever way the war ends, I have the impression that I shall not last long after it is over." What many people do not know, however, is that hidden away in his desk drawer was a file labeled “Assassination." This file contained eighty counts of threats on Lincoln’s life.

The "Gettysburg Portrait." Head-on photograph of Abraham Lincoln taken on November 8, 1863; two weeks before his Gettysburg Address.
The "Gettysburg Portrait." Head-on photograph of Abraham Lincoln taken on November 8, 1863; two weeks before his Gettysburg Address. | Source

Another odd instance in which Lincoln looked death in the face was in a dream on March 19th, 1865. As Lincoln was entertaining some friends, he recalled to them a dream that he had on a previous night. “There seemed to be a death-like stillness about me," he said. He goes on to reveal that he dreamed of attending his own funeral. In the dream, he asked one of the soldiers attending the funeral, “Who is dead in the White House?” This soldier replied, “The President. He was killed by an assassin.” Lincoln suffered from severe nightmares, and although it was only a dream, Mr. Ward Hill Lamon was frightened, and suggested to Lincoln that he should no longer go out at a late hour, and allow extra protective services to be with him. Lincoln saw no point, and declined the suggestion.

On the following Good Friday, Lincoln's morning was relatively normal. He went about having the usual breakfast of eggs and coffee, and had a warming conversation with his family at the table. He talked about the war with his oldest son, Robert, who had actually served under General Grant. Mary, Lincoln’s wife, was more concerned about the events to come in the evening. She had tickets for a celebration at the Grover’s Theater, but truly wanted to attend the play “My American Cousin”, which was held at Ford’s Theater in Washington, D.C. Lincoln, who had learned his lesson over time not to argue with her, agreed to attend this play. Little did they know how this decision would come to impact all of their lives.

As these events transpired, somewhere in a corner perhaps, sat the cane. This cane would be chosen to accompany Lincoln in his trip to Ford’s. Lincoln, being the President of the United States, had many canes to choose from, but this one was selected. It would be this cane that sat through one of the most pivotal moments in history, and become one of the most prized possessions in the collection of Lincoln memorabilia.

At about 8:00 p.m. on April 14th, the Lincolns were readying themselves for the performance at the Ford’s Theater. Mary sported a low-necked white dress with a pink flowered bonnet. Lincoln, who was consistently less concerned with his appearance, was wearing the same clothes he had been wearing all day, with the exception of a silk hat. He picked up his cane and accompanied Mary to their awaiting carriage. At 8:10 p.m., Abraham Lincoln walked out of the White House for the last time.

Modern-day Ford's Theater in Washington, D.C.
Modern-day Ford's Theater in Washington, D.C. | Source

On this night, Lincoln was incredibly content. He was happy in realizing that the war and the associated issues were finally coming to a close. Mary, surprised by his attitude, said, “You almost startle me by your great cheerfulness.” Lincoln, with a smile, replied “I never felt so happy in my life.”

As they arrived at the theater at 8:25 (almost late), the only guard for Mr. Lincoln was Parker. Earlier that day, following protocol, Parker went into the presidential box where Lincoln would be seated, and declared it as safe. As Lincoln and Mary entered, Lincoln left his cane in the corner of the room. They take their seats as the orchestra begins to play. Lincoln, with a smile, reaches over and takes Mary’s hand to hold- a sight few people ever witnessed.

Time went by smoothly, and Lincoln and Mary really enjoyed themselves. Parker saw that there was no immediate danger and decided to retire for the night and head to a local bar for his own enjoyment. At 9:30 p.m., an unexpected guest entered the theater and changed the course of American history. This man was Mr. John Wilkes Booth, nicknamed "the most handsome man in the world.”

Booth was a well-known actor at the time, and had heard that Lincoln would be attending this play at Ford’s. He was an ardent Confederate sympathizer, and still had hope that the South would rise from the ashes. This idea served as his motivation to end the life of the Union leader. When he arrived to Ford’s that night, he was welcomed with open arms by all. He slipped into the theater without pay, and his plan began to unravel.

He quietly snaked his way to the president’s box and waited for the perfect moment to take action. The actor on stage began to tell his joke, which was what Booth was waiting for. As he hit the punch line, the crowd stood up and cheered, and the shot was hardly heard. Booth shot Lincoln in the head, just behind the left ear with a single-shot derringer at 10:13 p.m.

The last known photograph of President Lincoln alive. Taken on the balcony at the White House, March 6, 1865.
The last known photograph of President Lincoln alive. Taken on the balcony at the White House, March 6, 1865. | Source

That was it. That almost unheard pull of the trigger mortally injured one of America’s most successful leaders. Standing nearby, Major Henry Rathbone intervened and momentarily grappled with Booth, only for Booth to stab him and escape. As people gradually started to realize that something had happened, chaos filled the air. Everyone scrambled to the exits, and in such a panic, many items and belongings were left behind and forgotten, including Lincoln's cane.

Booth was on the run for 12 days before being tracked down on a farm in Virginia and killed. They dying president Lincoln was taken across the street to the Petersen House, where he became comatose. He finally died at 7:22 a.m. the next morning. Eyewitnesses report he passed with a smile on his face. Lincoln's cane was later recovered from the theater and changed hands many times before finally coming to rest at the Lincoln Memorial Museum as one of the collection's most valuable pieces. Despite the unfortunate events that lead to Lincoln's death, one could argue that since the war was finally ending, he had finally fulfilled his life's purpose and was able to die happy.

Sources

"Abraham Lincoln’s Assassination." History.com.

Cottrell, John. “Anatomy of an Assassination.” New York: Funk & Wagnalls, 1968. Print.

“Lincoln Ebony Walking Stick”, Abraham Lincoln Library and Museum, Harrogate, TN.

Carson, Jerome, and Elizabeth Wakely. "A Curse and a Blessing." History Today 63.2 (2013): 10-16. Academic Search Premier.

Bishop, Jim. “The Day Lincoln Was Shot.” New York: Harper, 1955. Print.

“John Wilkes Booth." Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th Edition (2013): 1. Academic Search Premier.

Personal notes from Lincoln: Life and Legacy undergraduate history courses at Lincoln Memorial University.

© 2018 Liz Hardin

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    • profile image

      Sam Fraser 

      7 days ago

      I have to say, the words "Despite his accomplishments during his lifetime, he is most iconic for his death" is a bit insulting. To say he is renowned for his achievements, but more known for the maner of his death is an insult to great men, especially one whose lives were ended in a violent maner.

    • profile image

      Sam Fraser 

      3 months ago

      It is true; Abraham Lincoln died, according to press reports, with a smile on his face.

      Abraham Lincoln’s death can be described as bittersweet. As he died his breathing grew quieter, his face more calm. According to some accounts, at his last drawn breath, on the morning after the assassination, he smiled broadly and then expired. Historians, most notably author Lee Davis have emphasized Lincoln's peaceful appearance when and after he died: "It was the first time in four years, probably, that a peaceful expression crossed his face." Assistant Secretary of the Treasury in the Lincoln Administration, Maunsell Bradhurst Field wrote, "I had never seen upon the President's face an expression more genial and pleasing." The President’s secretary, John Hay, saw "a look of unspeakable peace came upon his worn features".

      It also seems appropriate that at the theater Lincoln was laughing when the fatal shot was fired. He had also suffered the death of two sons, one while carrying the burden of the war, and for the first time in four years he was relaxed. When he finally gave up the struggle for life at 7:22 A.M., his face was fixed in a smile, according to one bedside witness, treasury official, a smile that seemed almost an effort of life. Lincoln has passed on smoothly and contentedly, his facial expression suggesting that inner peace that prevailed as his final state of mind.

    • Liz Hardin profile imageAUTHOR

      Liz Hardin 

      4 months ago from Tennessee

      Thanks, Norma! And no, I had no idea he had caught smallpox after Gettysburg. You learn something every day!

    • profile image

      Norma Jean Morrissey R.N. 

      4 months ago

      Interesting article! As a retired nurse I have pursued in depth study of the Civil War, especially the people. Doctors, medical treatment injuries & d iseases. Of course Lincoln is at the top my list! Speaking of disease, did you know that he had a mild case of smallpox after his speech at Gettysburg? I look forward each day to hours of reading and watching history videos. Thanks for yor artticle. Norma Jean

    • Liz Hardin profile imageAUTHOR

      Liz Hardin 

      13 months ago from Tennessee

      Thank you! Yes, I really felt the cane needed some attention, as it seems to be an excellent metaphor for him as a person.

    • Liz Hardin profile imageAUTHOR

      Liz Hardin 

      13 months ago from Tennessee

      Thank you, Howard!

    • Readmikenow profile image

      Readmikenow 

      13 months ago

      This is a brilliant piece of writing. I've read a few books about Abraham Lincoln, not one mentioned the cane. I really enjoyed this, it is a great read.

    • profile image

      Howard Schneider 

      13 months ago from Parsippany, New Jersey

      Very interesting and poignant Hub about Abraham Lincoln's final day. It is remarkable that he instinctively felt that this world was not long for his presence. Still, to this day, his humanity lives on. Excellent work, Liz.

    • Liz Hardin profile imageAUTHOR

      Liz Hardin 

      13 months ago from Tennessee

      Thanks for reading, Rochelle! Yes, I think the cane complimented him perfectly, a good metaphor for him.

    • Rochelle Frank profile image

      Rochelle Frank 

      13 months ago from California Gold Country

      I think the cane suited him perfectly. It was plain, strong and unadorned, though straightforward and elegant in its simplicity. It didn't attract a lot of attention until after people realized its significance.

    • Rochelle Frank profile image

      Rochelle Frank 

      13 months ago from California Gold Country

      Fascinating account of a famous event. I enjoyed your insights.

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