Among the memories of those who lived through that dreadful April day so many years ago was the way the afternoon sunshine quickly descended into evening gloom. With darkness had come fog and a gentle mist that dampened the nation’s capital. A chill followed, an unwelcome surprise after the warmth of day. Then there was the moon. It appeared late on that Friday night, leaving the hours just after sunset dark and unusually dreary. It announced itself first in the silvered edges of clouds and then, unhurriedly, came fully, brightly into view. In the years after, more than one man swore that before the night was done, the moon had turned bloodred. If true, it was a fitting banner over the events unfolding below.
At the White House, the Lincolns dined together. The president and First Lady listened as their son Robert, a young officer on General Grant’s staff, excitedly described the siege of Petersburg and the magnificence of Lee’s surrender at Appomattox. The Lincolns’ other son, twelve-year-old Tad, felt slighted by the attention trained on his older brother and misbehaved to correct the injustice. It worked. Mrs. Lincoln scolded him for neglecting his meal and then, prompted by the mention of the Grants, told her husband that she had invited that lovely Clara Harris, daughter of Senator Ira Harris of New York, to accompany them to Ford’s Theatre later in the evening. Young Miss Harris had thrilled at the chance to attend the play Our American Cousin with the First Family and had assured Mrs. Lincoln that her fiancé, Major Henry R. Rathbone, would cherish the opportunity as well. It was settled, then. The Lincolns would collect the young couple at the Harris home on H Street near Fourteenth.
Lincoln answered the news with a nod, but must have winced inwardly. He knew the truth: Miss Harris and Major Rathbone were to accompany the Lincolns because the more distinguished names in Washington had refused to attend. This, Lincoln had long understood, was his wife’s fault. He genuinely loved Mary, but she was not an easy woman to abide. One of her traits in particular haunted his life: she was notoriously jealous. She screamed viciously at any woman who dared even to walk next to her husband. Many a Washington official’s wife had been humiliated in public by the enraged First Lady, who thought nothing of making loud and tearful allegations of impropriety no matter who looked on. After one such scene, General Grant’s wife swore she would never be in Mary Lincoln’s presence again. So the Grants had excused themselves from this night at the theater, as had half a dozen of the city’s eminent couples. This left the president of the United States and his First Lady to an outing with a junior officer and his date. It was galling to Lincoln, particularly on this night—when victory was in the air and the president was the toast of the Union. All of Washington knew that Mary’s antics kept her husband from the honor due him, and they marveled at Lincoln’s love for his wife.
Still, it had been a good day. After breakfast and the usual early visitors, there had been a cabinet meeting, this one attended by the victorious General Grant. As always when Lincoln’s cabinet assembled, there was fierce debate. Today, the topic was the way Confederate leaders should be treated after the war and what economic aid ought to be offered to the Southern states. Lincoln listened, commented almost absentmindedly from time to time, and then turned with eagerness to General Grant. The president was desperate to know: What had it been like at Appomattox five days before? What kind of man was General Lee, and how had he handled himself in surrendering? With each word Grant spoke, Lincoln grew increasingly peaceful, ever more satisfied. There had been so much horror, so many years. He could be forgiven for reveling in the details of the end.
After a lunch with Mary, he had endured a series of still more meetings—with Vice President Johnson, with the assistant secretary of war, and with Nancy Bushrod, a former slave. Before the day’s paperwork was done, he had pardoned a deserter who had been sentenced to death. “I think the boy can do us more good above ground than underground,” he quipped.
This was the mood that pervaded as the Lincolns left the White House for Ford’s Theatre at 8:05 that evening. From their carriage, they waved to well-wishers along the road in the black, wet night. They were joined by their guests at Senator Harris’s home and arrived finally at the theater sometime shortly after 8:30. The play had already begun.
It didn’t matter. When the president’s party entered the second-story viewing box reserved for them that evening, the orchestra’s conductor took note, raised his baton to interrupt the actors on stage, and signaled the start of “Hail to the Chief.” The more than sixteen hundred people in the theater exploded into applause. Lincoln bowed in response, his hand over his heart, and then bowed again when those below continued their grateful cheers.
Order returned and the play resumed. Not overly interested in the happenings onstage, the Lincolns quietly continued the flirty intimacy they had kindled earlier that afternoon.
“What will Miss Harris think of my hanging on to you so,” Mary asked, referring to her grip on her husband’s hand.
“Why, she will think nothing about it,” he assured.
This teasing continued. Unnoticed was the figure who had just stepped through the outer door of the president’s box. The man was deliberate, even graceful in his movements. He locked the door behind him and then braced it shut with a board he had placed nearby during a visit to the theater earlier that day. Turning then to the inner door, he peered through a hole he had bored just hours before with his pocketknife. He could see what he needed to see: the back of the president’s head.
Unaware of the man and enjoying a newfound tenderness with his wife, Lincoln returned happily to the theme he and Mary had touched upon during their lovely afternoon carriage ride. In a gentle whisper, the president assured that after the war, “we will not return immediately to Springfield. We will go abroad among strangers where I can rest.”
The figure at the door now stepped silently into the president’s box. He paused and took stock of the mere four feet between himself and the president. Slowly, smoothly, the man pulled a .44-caliber derringer pistol from his pocket and waited. He was listening for lines from the play on the stage below. They would signal his next move.
“We will visit the Holy Land,” Lincoln continued, leaning toward Mary so as not to disturb the others.
Now, hearing what he had been waiting for in an actor’s words, the stranger—himself an actor named John Wilkes Booth—stepped forward and lifted his pistol toward the president’s head.
In the sacred seconds that remained, Lincoln spoke again—before the assassin’s shot entered his brain just inches behind the left ear, before the blood and the confusion and the manhunts and the grief, before the ages took him and the great soul left its earthly home to hover over a nation still struggling to be born. Lincoln spoke once more.
“We will visit the Holy Land and see those places hallowed by the footsteps of the Savior,” the president said.
And then, nearly as the Derringer ball cracked the air, “There is no place I so much desire to see as Jerusalem.”
Or are they? It is natural that some should doubt. The words are rarely included in accounts of Lincoln’s assassination. Schoolchildren do not learn them as they do the other facts of Lincoln’s life. Indeed, the sentiments are too religious for most teachers to dare include in their lessons. Scholars tend to exclude this episode also, usually because of a similar hesitation about religion.
It is understandable. Lincoln was, after all, a religious oddity. He never joined a church. In fact, he went through periods in his life when he was openly antireligion—even anti-God. In his later years, he spoke often of God but rarely of Jesus Christ. That he was attending a bawdy play on Good Friday—the day Christians set aside to contemplate the crucifixion of their Savior—seems perfectly consistent with the image of Lincoln that has come to us through the years. It is reasonable to doubt that he would call Christ the Savior and declare himself eager to see the Holy Land in the last moments of his life.
Surely, critics will say, to insist that these words are true or that they are any reflection of Lincoln’s faith is part of a religious re-working of his life, part of a misguided attempt by the pious to refashion him into a gleaming religious icon of some imagined national religion. Surely this is the fruit of bad research and pitiful scholarship—more myth than history.
Yet there the words are, and they are no invention. They come to us, indirectly, from the only person who could know with certainty: Mary Lincoln. Apparently, in 1882, Mrs. Lincoln reported her husband’s last utterances to Noyes W. Miner, the pastor of the First Baptist Church in Springfield, Illinois. Miner reported his conversations with Mary Lincoln in a manuscript entitled “Personal Reminiscences of Abraham Lincoln,” now kept at the Illinois State Historical Library. We might be suspicious of such a religiously charged remembrance retold by a clergyman were it not that respected scholarly volumes, such as the oft-consulted Recollected Words of Abraham Lincoln, include the Lincoln/Miner version of Lincoln’s final words in its pages. Eminent Lincoln scholars—such as Allen C. Guelzo in Abraham Lincoln: Redeemer President and Wayne Temple in Abraham Lincoln: From Skeptic to Prophet—regard the words as true. The popular Doris Kearns Goodwin alludes to them as well in her best-selling Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln. As important, Dr. James Cornelius, curator of the Lincoln collection at the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library in Springfield, Illinois, in referring to Mary Lincoln’s account of her husband’s final utterances, has said, “We believe the words to be substantiated.”