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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
Besides Robert, the Lincolns had invited at least twelve people to go with them, including General and Mrs. U. S. Grant, Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton and his wife, Speaker of the House Schuyler Colfax, Illinois Governor Richard Oglesby, and Senator Richard Yates (who had been Illinois’ wartime governor). Almost everyone had begged off, for one reason or another, and at the end there were just two acceptances. The Lincolns picked up their guests—Major Henry Reed Rathbone and his stepsister and fiancée, Clara Harris, daughter of a New York senator—at the Harris home and drove them in their carriage to the theatre. Major Rathbone was twenty-eight years old and had only recently been appointed by the President as assistant adjutant general of Volunteers. Obviously he had not had it impressed upon him that he was to watch out for the President’s safety, for he sat on the sofa in the far front of the box, slightly behind Clara but nowhere near Mr. Lincoln.
The presidential party was so late that evening that the curtain had to go up without the Lincolns and their guests. In about half an hour they were seen in the dress circle approaching their box; the play stopped, the audience rose and applauded, and the orchestra struck up “Hail to the Chief.” The First Lady was all smiles, but Mr. Lincoln seemed weary and his face was serious. The audience had settled down for an evening of laughter at a silly play, and now the President’s melancholy mood would be a poor match for the high spirits of the crowd.
It was true that Lincoln had experienced one of his swift changes from confident hope to depression. Late that afternoon he had walked to the War Department with his guard William Crook, as he had done so many times before, and had said something that he had never said before.
“Crook, do you know,” he said, “I believe there are men who want to take my life.” Then he lowered his voice, as though talking to himself. “And I have no doubt they will do it.”
“Why do you think so, Mr. President?” asked Crook.
“Other men have been assassinated,” Lincoln answered. “I know no one could do it and escape alive. But if it is to be done, it is impossible to prevent it.”
And the guard remembered afterward that a little later, when the President left for the theatre in his carriage, Lincoln had said, for the first time, “Good-by, Crook,” instead of the usual “Good night.”
As the performance of Our American Cousin resumed, Mrs. Lincoln laughed openly and heartily at every joke; but her husband frequently leaned forward and rested his chin in one hand, seemingly thinking of something not present. The First Lady was oblivious to the fact that the President’s thoughts were straying from the performance. She was to be questioned closely as to what Mr. Lincoln’s exact last words had been, and she would ultimately take refuge in remembering two completely opposite versions, which she told alternately.
First, she recalled that her hand had been on Mr. Lincoln’s knee and that she had been leaning across the arm of his chair, over very close to him, so close that she had asked rather apologetically, with a look at the engaged couple in the front of the box, “What will Miss Harris think of my hanging on to you so?” The President’s last words were, “She won’t think anything about it.”
But then later Mrs. Lincoln was sure the President had turned to her just before Booth’s shot and remarked earnestly, “How I should like to visit Jerusalem some time!” This was an odd sequence of thought, as the play had been following a less than spiritual course, convulsing the audience as a wildly caricatured American backwoodsman arrived to visit his English cousins. The Lincolns had heard Binny the butler ask the backwoodsman, Asa Trenchard, if he would like to have a “baath,” heard Asa tell Binny to “absquatulate—vamose!…—that he was a “tarnal fat critter, swelling out his bosom like an old turkey cock in laying time.” The actual last speech before the assassination was by the American cousin in answer to the scheming English mother who had just found out he was not a rich catch for her daughter and called out angrily that Asa did not know the manners of good society. Harry Hawk, playing Asa, was alone on the stage, and for the final time Mr. Lincoln heard the sound of a human voice. “Don’t know the manners of good society, eh? Well, I guess I know enough to turn you inside out, old gal—you sockdologizing old man-trap.”