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The Chilling Curse of Mr. Lincoln’s Washington

First, some necessary background. It was probably 2 o’clock in the morning when I knew that the fella I’d been talking to on the phone for a few weeks would be the one. It had been casual conversation, as usual, and we’d been testing ourselves on just how nerdy we could get with each other. I mentioned having a collection of books on Abraham Lincoln and that I was currently obsessed with Ken Burns’ Civil War. He mentioned that he had a full library of Civil War books, one of which was signed by the War’s late, great historian Shelby Foote. (Classic movie fans? He’s the American history nerd equivalent of Robert Osborne.) I swooned. And it was all downhill from there.

And just to prove I’m not exaggerating on the extreme level of nerdiness: one of our first dates involved watching an episode of Ken Burns’ Civil War.

Yeah.

So. That said, visiting the nation’s capital was something that we knew, almost immediately, had to be something we’d do together. Three years, and one wedding later, it finally happened.

The itinerary? Experience Mr. Lincoln’s Washington as closely as possible. So, with a copy of Doris Kearns Goodwin’s A Team of Rivals in tow, we set out on our mission…and were not deterred by the fact that it was Memorial Day which meant extreme crowds and a highly inconvenient group of 20K bikers … but it was worth it. Also, Martin was rather impressed with my ability to maintain my composure upon seeing things like the Lincoln Memorial for the first time. This is the same girl, after all, who left work early the first day Steven Spielberg’s film Lincoln came out…and who may or may not have had a crush on Mr. Lincoln in 8th grade after watching John Ford’s beautiful Young Mr. Lincoln on AMC. Repeatedly. All summer.

In addition to the historical spots, we also made it a point to visit historical watering holes as well. A mint julep at The Willard Hotel’s Round Robin bar was, of course, a must as the Willard was the hub of political life during Mr. Lincoln’s presidency–our seat under a portrait of Henry Clay, Mr. Lincoln’s hero, was a sign we were being welcomed. The Old Ebbit Grill, too, was a dimly lit time capsule of a place.

The Old Ebbitt Grill

But the highlight, without a doubt, was a nighttime walking tour of Mr. Lincoln’s Washington (just one of several free tours offered in the city). Starting at Lafayette Square, across from the White House, we traced the steps of one of the most tragic night’s in American history and delved deeper into the so-called “Lincoln Curse.” The people involved in Mr. Lincoln’s personal life and political career almost all experienced tragic, unexpected demises of their own. (Think of it as the “Kennedy” curse, only way, way, WAY worse.)

The Rathbones

Colonel Rathbone, the man who jumped to Mr. Lincoln’s aid and fought off John Wilkes Booth, suffering major stab wounds in doing so, lived in Lafayette Square and his beautiful row house is still standing looking almost exactly as it did 150 years ago. As our tour guide explained, Rathbone is just one of the many people said to have been afflicted with the “Lincoln curse.” The events of that night were so tragic that Rathbone spent the rest of his life feeling guilty for not having been able to save the president. (There was, of course, nothing that anyone could have done to save him.) After the assassination, her married his fiance Clara Harris (who was also in the Lincoln’s box that night) and as the years wore on his mental state continued to decline. One night, he turned on his family: he attacked his three children, and shot and killed his wife (who was trying to save them). He then tried to kill himself, but failed, and spent the rest of his life in an insane asylum in Germany.

William Seward

Mr. Lincoln’s Secretary of State, William Seward, also lived off Lafayette Square, but unfortunately his home is long gone and the Federal Court of Claims now stands in its stead, but after the assassination, Seward’s home itself became believed to be “cursed.” First, of course, is the fact that Mr. Seward himself was a victim of John Wilkes Booth plot to dismantle the U.S. government. Attacked by one of Seward’s henchman, he survived that night of April 14th but was seriously disfigured. His wife died 9 weeks later, followed by his daughter the next year. After that, his political career waned and became the subject of great mockery for purchasing the Alaska territory– “Seward’s Folly,” it was called.( Seward died not knowing that his so-call “folly” would turn into the 49th state.)

Mary & Tad Lincoln

Mr. Lincoln’s wife, Mary, and youngest surviving son, Tad, were also not spared the so-called curse.  The tour brought us to Grover’s National Theatre: while the Lincoln’s went to Ford’s Theatre to watch the lively comedy “Our American Cousin,” Tad went to see a show of “Aladdin” at the National, guarded by a member of the Washington police. With pyrotechnics, stage effects, and colorful costumes  galore, the show was perfect for young Tad. After his father was shot, the whole of D.C. erupted into chaos and someone ran into the National Theatre shouting that the president had been shot. Tad, a rambunctious child, would succumb to tuberculosis at just 18 years old.

Mary, whom as even casual history students are aware, had been mentally uneasy since the death of her son Willie and never recovered from her husband’s murder. The experience pushed her over the edge, worsened by Tad’s death in 1871.  She wore black the rest of her life, but compulsively bought bright colored dresses which she would never wear. The Lincoln’s only surviving son, Robert, had her committed but she was released and lived the rest of her life in seclusion until her death in 1882.

Robert Todd Lincoln

Robert Todd Lincoln, unlike the other members of his life, led a long life and managed to carve out for himself a successful career as a politician, even serving as the U.S. minister to the U.K.  Even so, the “Lincoln Curse” followed him, too: he ended up being present at two other presidential assassinations. Lincoln was serving as the Secretary of War under President James Garfield, who asked him to be present at the Sixth Street Station in D.C.,  July 2, 1881. It was there that Garfield was shot and killed by an assassin.  Then in 1901, Lincoln was invited to attend the Pan-American Exposition in Buffalon, New York, at the request of then-president William McKinley. He was not an eye-witness to the shooting, but his presence made him vow to never again accept a presidential invitation of any kind. He said, “No, I’m not going, and they’d better not ask me, because there is a certain fatality about presidential functions when I am present.” The one time he broke vow was in 1922 when President Taft asked him to attend the dedication of his father’s memorial on the Washington Mall.

The Petersen House

The site of the assasination, Ford’s Theathre, and the home where Lincoln died, The Petersen House, were the final stops on the tour and the “Lincoln curse” followed their fates as well. After the shooting, Lincoln was carried out of the theatre: there had been a young doctor in the audience that night, and he knew there was no way the president would survive a carriage ride to the white house. A boarding house directly across the street was owned by Mr. William Petersen, a German tailor, opened his doors and called for the president to be brought inside. It was there in a small bedroom on the ground floor that the president was laid down (diagonally, as his 6’4 frame was too tall for the bed) and, at 7:03 in the morning, he died. Mr. Petersen would later die from an overdose of laudanum, which was a mixture of alcohol and opium. Believe it or not, this toxic and highly addictive “medication” was commonly used at the time. Another of its habitual users? Mary Todd Lincoln.

Ford’s Theatre

Like The National Theatre and the Petersen House, Ford’s Theatre is also still standing and fully functioning. (A production of Ragtime had just finished during our trip.) But there was a long stretch of time in which the U.S. government forbade the place to ever be used as a place of entertainment, in respect of what transpired there. Instead, the theatre became a government an administartive office for the goverment. The top floor of the theatre became a sort of forgotten closet for endless files upon files upon files. So much so, in fact, that in 1893 the floor collapsed entirely. Twenty-two clerks were killed in the accident.

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