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Had there been a Warren Commission exactly a century ago, when Abraham Lincoln was shot, its report might have read like the somber, moving, and impressively researched book from which the following narrative is taken
April 1965 | Volume 16, Issue 3
The President just laughed and remarked to Secretary of the Interior Usher, “This boy is a monomaniac on the subject of my safety.” Lamon was crazy, he said. He wanted Lincoln to sit in his lap all day.
He kept giving people his answers on the touchy subject. “I have received a great many threatening letters but I have no fear of them.” “If they kill me, I shall never die another death.” “I determined when I first came here I should not be dying all the while.” “If anyone is willing to give his life for mine, there is nothing that can prevent it.”
He didn’t believe the knife was yet made or the bullet run that would end his life. “I shall live till my work is done and no earthly power can prevent it. And then, it doesn’t matter, so that I am ready, and that I ever mean to be.”
A black mood could fall upon him without warning and bring remarks like, “I shall never live out the four years of my term. When the rebellion is crushed, my work is done.” In a cubbyhole of his office desk, in fact, Lincoln had two letters which he had tied together and labelled “Assassination.” One purported to be written to a man who had drawn the lot to kill “the monster” and was meant to bolster the killer’s courage. The assassin was to get into the monster’s office, “congratulate him, listen to his stories. …” “Abe must die and now. You can choose your weapons—the cup, the knife, the bullet.”
The President had already barely escaped a bullet. During the summer of 1864, just as he entered the grounds of the Soldiers’ Home, riding alone and at night, a hidden marksman had fired at him, but the ball had whizzed through his high hat. He asked that no mention of it be made. “It was probably an accident and might worry my family.”
There was talk around Washington that the cup had been tried too—that castor oil ordered from a pharmacy had arrived deadly with poison, but had had too queer a taste to be swallowed.
In the same category of whispered rumor was the trunk of old clothes taken from yellow-fever victims in Cuba that had been delivered to the White House in the hope that the Lincolns would come down with the disease and that it would be fatal.
A man kept coming to see the President to say he positively knew that a small, square package was being mailed to Mr. Lincoln which would explode when it was unwrapped. Lincoln told him each time, “No package yet, and I promise never to open any small square packages.”
Though the mailed bomb proved a myth, the President regularly received photographs and drawings of himself spattered suggestively with red ink. Usually there was a rope around the neck, stretching up to the branch of a tree. These he minded chiefly because they upset Mrs. Lincoln. She worried constantly over his safety, and he agreed, if it would comfort her, to carry a particularly sturdy cane. But even if he wore a shirt of mail, it would do no good: there were a thousand ways, he remarked, to get at a man if you wanted to assassinate him. He would have to shut himself up in an iron box if he wanted to be really safe.
Explosives had always been prominent in the Lincoln plot scares. Right now, at the war’s end, it was known that an infernal machine was ready to be fastened on crossbars under the presidential carriage—the same one in which Lincoln rode to Ford’s Theatre on the night of the assassination. The train carrying him from Springfield to his first inauguration was to have been blown up as it travelled over a bridge. If by any chance Lincoln was still alive, hand grenades were to have been tossed into his carriage at Baltimore. The President-elect made the last lap of his journey secretly, ahead of schedule, and arrived safely.
On March 4, 1861, came the first swearing-in of an American President under heavy military protection. There were sharpshooters stationed in every window of the two Capitol wings, with their guns trained on the small temporary platform on the steps of the east front. There had been a report that a bomb was set to go olf under this platform, but a search revealed nothing, and Lincoln rose and made his appeal that the country choose peace instead of war.
All the side streets were full of troops, and old General Winfield Scott, who had worked out the plan to guard the President-elect, was only a block away as Lincoln took the oath and kissed the Bible. Scott had expressed himself as determined that Abraham Lincoln should live to be inaugurated, and he considered this the most momentous hour of his long career.
Cavalry officers who escorted the carriage taking Lincoln and Buchanan to the Capitol and afterward to the White House were ordered to spur their animals with pretended clumsiness so that there would be constant unpredictable movement and any bullet fired at the head of the new Chief Magistrate would be apt merely to drill a hole in a horse’s stomach.
No horse was injured on that first inauguration day, but finally, after four interminable years of threats that would have left most mortals raw-nerved, there had been a hole drilled in the head of the man who was, as he had promised to be, ready.