Booth Saves Lincoln from “The Strange Fates of Robert Todd Lincoln”
“Booth Saves Lincoln” can’t be right. Yet it’s true. The Booth is Edwin, brother of John Wilkes Booth, the assassin of President Abraham Lincoln. The Lincoln is Robert, the president’s son. The rescue is one of the “Strange Fates of Robert Todd Lincoln.”
Robert Lincoln’s rescue occurred sometime between late 1863 and 1864—before John Wilkes Booth shot the president on April 15, 1865. Robert recounted the harrowing experience in a 1909 letter to Richard Watson Gilder, editor of The Century Magazine:
The incident occurred while a group of passengers were late at night purchasing their sleeping car places from the conductor who stood on the station platform at the entrance of the car. The platform was about the height of the car floor, and there was of course a narrow space between the platform and the car body. There was some crowding, and I happened to be pressed by it against the car body while waiting my turn. In this situation, the train began to move, and by the motion I was twisted off my feet, and had dropped somewhat, with feet downward, into the open space, and was personally helpless, when my coat collar was vigorously seized and I was quickly pulled up and out to a secure footing on the platform. Upon turning to thank my rescuer I saw it was Edwin Booth, whose face was of course well known to me, and I expressed my gratitude to him, and in doing so, called him by name.
The Booth brothers, both stage actors in a large acting family, were considered close except for their divergent political views. Edwin, the most renowned Shakespearean actor in America, was adamant about the preservation of the Union. John Wilkes, the younger brother, was lesser known an as a Southern sympathizer, he would make his stamp on history as President Lincoln’s assassin. It is ironic that the actor chose the familiar setting of the Ford’s Theater for his treason in the Confederate cause. After he shot the president at close range, he leapt over the balcony with the cry, “Sic semper tyrannis!” (Thus always to tyrants!) The South is avenged!”
After the assassination, Edwin fell into a paralyzing depression.When he learned that it was President Lincoln’s son who he had once saved from certain death, he found some solace. Eventually, he returned to the stage where he played Shakespeare’s tragic hero, Hamlet.
My illustration of Edwin Booth saving Robert Lincoln freezes the moment with an ambiguous dichotomy. Is one figure pulling to save or pushing to harm the other? Edwin, the “good” Booth brother, instinctively charges forward to grab the collar of the imperiled stranger. The drama is intended as the rescue but could also imply the tragic symbol of the fractured Civil War family where the fraternal bond was mixed with the ideological schism.
Booth Saves Lincoln
Susan Bercu, pencil, diorama detail
Crowded Train Platform painted cardboard, Susan Bercu
“Booth Saves Lincoln” from “The Strange Fates of Robert Todd Lincoln”
Diorama 15.5 in. wide x 1 8 in. high x 8 in. deep
Center, top to bottom
Newspaper account of the rescue (pencil)
Booth saves Lincoln (pencil)
Derringer pistol used by the assassin John Wilkes Booth (pencil)
Newspaper clippings about the assassination and chase for the assassin (reproductions from archives)
Right, top to bottom
Edwin Booth as Hamlet (pencil)
John Wilkes Booth, the assassin (pencil)
Center Portraits (copies of acrylic paintings, left to right
Train and crowd (painted cardboard)
The Strange Fates of Robert Todd Lincoln
“There is a certainly fatality about presidential functions when
I am present.” --Robert Todd Lincoln
Robert Lincoln Susan Bercu, acrylic
Robert Lincoln was associated with the assassinations of three American presidents. A couple of years after his rescue by the actor Edwin Booth, Robert would spend the night at the bedside of his dying father, Abraham Lincoln. Robert declined the invitation to attend Ford’s Theater with his parents that night of April 14, 1865 when the assassin, John Wilkes Booth shot the president. In 1881, he witnessed the shooting of James Garfield. In 1901, he would arrive at the train station in Buffalo, NY, moments after President William McKinley was shot at the nearby Pan-American Exposition.
Although Robert Lincoln remained politically active throughout his life, he would repeatedly decline requests to run for the presidency. In 1888, a reporter quoted him saying, “The Presidential office is but a gilded prison.”
Robert had a successful law practice and was president of Pullman Palace Car Company. He made his last public appearance at the dedication for the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, DC on May 30, 1922.
Born in Springfield, Illinois in 1843, Robert was the eldest of the four Lincoln sons and the only one to survive to adulthood. He died at home in Vermont in 1926. The only family member not buried in the Lincoln Tomb in Springfield, Illinois, Robert was interred in Arlington National Cemetery within view of the Lincoln Memorial on the National Mall.
Bonus Strange Facts
Trains Trains were a prevalent mode of travel yet, it is ironic that Robert: 1) was saved from falling off a train platform; 2) was eye-witness to the shooting of President James Garfield at a train station; 3) had just stepped off the train when learning the news that President William McKinley was shot; 4) was president of Pullman Palace Car Company.
Assassin The father of the Booth brothers was named Junius Brutus after legendary Roman statesman Marcus Junius Brutus, one of the assassins of Julius Caesar.
Romance A newspaper account suggested that a romantic rivalry between Robert Lincoln and John Wilkes for the same woman, Lucy Hale, was a motive for the assassination. Robert denied knowing her. A photo of Hale (daughter of Senator John Parker Hale) was found in Booth’s diary. Booth also attended President Lincoln's Second Inauguration as a guest of Hale.
Preliminary Sketch for Silhouetted Crowd on Train, pencil, Susan Bercu