The Dark, Bloody Morning Lincoln Died

Rain fell upon the mourning crowds that gathered in the streets on the morning that Washington learned that Abraham Lincoln had been assassinated the night before.

AF archive/Alamy Stock Photo

Fred Petersen found his father sound asleep in his tailor shop. Soon they were heading home on the wet clay streets, a cold mist enveloping them as they walked. By the time they returned, [Secretary of War Edwin] Stanton had thrown open the death room windows to let in some fresh air. The president’s face was cold as stone, and the blackness had spread beyond the eyes to the forehead. That wasn’t what threw William Petersen off, though.

When Petersen’s eyes fell on the stinking piles of bloody bandages and leaking mustard plasters, he became unglued. The heaps of medical refuse loomed large in the narrow hallway. The boardinghouse owner stormed into the death room and rudely grabbed the stained top pillow out from under the dead president’s head, terrifying the Ulke brothers. Raising the thick window blinds, he tossed the pillow, possibly still wet with Mr. Lincoln’s blood, out onto the fieldstone courtyard two stories below. As soon as he came to his senses, Petersen loudly explained that his house was a mess, full of blood and mud and unwashed basins. Before the president was buried, Petersen would try to bill the federal government for every single thing he had provided for the president’s makeshift hospital. Even, falsely, for his own time.

Dr. Leale gently smoothed the president’s contracted facial muscles. He moved the fallen jaw upward and knotted the handkerchief to hold it in place. He said he took two silver dollars from his pocket to cover the eyelids, although other men have also claimed they were the ones who placed the 1854 and 1861 coins on President Lincoln’s face. When the coins were in place, Leale drew a white sheet up over the martyr’s face. The doctor had not been seated once since he sprang from his cane-bottomed chair at Ford’s. He was tired and sad, and his shirt was stained with the president’s blood. He left Petersen’s house in a contemplative mood, but he was shocked back to reality by the cold rain dropping on his bare head. He realized he had left his hat inside the theater.

His quick thinking had prolonged President Lincoln’s life for nine hours—long enough to keep the fragile union from falling apart. Not bad for a 23-year-old just 45 days out of medical school. As he walked back to his office in the drizzle, Dr. Leale could hear the hammers of homeowners and shopkeepers putting up mourning crepe to honor the president. The bells of Washington City’s 37 churches broadcast the president’s demise with a rapid tintinnabulation that began about 7:30 a.m. when the news first got out. The two sounds Leale heard gradually spread around the city and, eventually, around the country.

At Petersen’s, Stanton locked the door to the death room and stationed a sentry in front of it. Reverend Gurley was still praying in the front room, where Mrs. Lincoln was lying on a stiff horsehair sofa. Her son Bob was standing at her head.

When Billy Ferguson returned to Petersen’s at 9 a.m., Fred came down to the kitchen to meet him. While the widow was still praying in the parlor, Fred placed a piece of the president’s shirt and a trip of bloodstained linen in Ferguson’s hands.

Most Washingtonians learned who had been assassinated and who had been spared at the breakfast table. The morning papers reported all the details. Papers across the country carried the news the same day, thanks to the new transcontinental telegraph lines, barely four years old. The New York Herald headline blared: “Important!” The Dayton Extra Journal headline was “National Calamity: President Lincoln Assassinated.” The Chicago Tribune reported that people who walked into Petersen House could hear shrieks and cries from the room where Mrs. Lincoln and her son were. It was the first time such sad tidings were instantly sent coast to coast. Ironically, the first president to embrace the new technology of the telegraph was also the subject of the worst news that telegraph operators had ever tapped out.

Exactly 47 years later, the telegraph would figure in another catastrophe when the HMS Titanic tried in vain to rouse a sleeping telegraph operator on the SS Californian on the weekend of April 14–15, 1912.

The city’s weather seemed to match its mood. The beautiful spring day previous had turned dark and cool. Sable clouds hung overhead. As private secretary Al Daggett wrote to his mother that day from his room next door to Petersen’s, “Even the sky is weeping great tears.” In New York City, Gustave Dieterich’s eyes fell upon the morning paper when he was walking to breakfast. It was framed in an unusual deep black border. When he read that President Lincoln had been assassinated at Ford’s and carried to a private house directly across the street, he instantly recalled Anna Petersen’s unlucky feeling.

In Washington, perhaps another wife remembered Friday was her unlucky day. As Mrs. Lincoln left Petersen’s and headed home without her husband, she paused on the iron-railed front porch. Looking over at Ford’s, she blurted out, “Oh, that dreadful house! That dreadful house!” Her life was about to fork.

The widow Lincoln descended the brownstone steps to her carriage, wearing her blood-splattered checkered dress and one of Huldah Francis’s bonnets. She couldn’t find her own. Boarders found it later. They cut it up for souvenirs. By the time she arrived home, a thoughtful servant had preserved the purplish-red coffee cup the president had left on the windowsill for his post-theater supper. Mary’s doctor instructed her to go to bed immediately. Her friend Elizabeth Dixon steered her into one room after another, but each time, she shrank back, crying, “Not there! Oh, not there!” Finally, they settled on a room where the president liked to write.

Back at Petersen’s, Secretary Stanton was still waiting for the custom-built pine box to arrive from the undertaker’s workshop. He was unwilling to leave Petersen’s until his president’s body was in safe hands, but Stanton had work to do. Protocol was never his strong suit, so he called a cabinet meeting at Petersen’s while the corpse still lay across the bed. He had to divine the assassin’s end game.

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In the meantime, an extra-long pine box arrived. The nude corpse was wrapped in an American flag and placed inside the box before it left the boardinghouse at about 9:30 a.m. The flag that cloaked it had 35 stars only because Mr. Lincoln had refused to remove the stars for the states that seceded. The citizens standing vigil in front of Petersen’s in the rain parted into clumps as the narrow hearse wheels struggled through the wet sand. Dark clouds hid the morning sun as six soldiers carried the pine box down the same steps the living president had been carried up the previous night.

Some citizens followed the hearse as it rounded F Street. Many others watched from their doors and windows, their faces stamped with grief. The crowd was, for the most part, subdued, but one man ventured a shout for Jeff Davis. He was set upon and nearly torn to pieces by onlookers.

As the day unfolded, onlookers rushed a street preacher foolhardy enough to say that, if Andy Johnson kept the same policies as the late president, he would be assassinated within two weeks. And later, when a man dared to say he was glad President Lincoln was dead, the words had hardly left his mouth when a bullet from a Union soldier’s pistol went crashing through his brain. Even Booth’s theatrical agent, Matthew Canning Jr., accustomed to writing glowing press releases about his client, began telling people, “Booth has oil in the brain.”

The route back to the Executive Mansion took the coffin near the Church of the Epiphany. Although it had been retrofitted as a hospital in 1862, ironically, it had also once served as the parish of both Jefferson Davis and Edwin Stanton. The Confederate president and his wife, Varina, had stopped attending services when the war began. The Stanton family took over their pew.

After the cabinet members left Petersen’s, a boarder secretly photographed the death room. Maybe as soon as the coffin was carried out, one of the Ulke brothers pointed a large wet-collodion camera at the deathbed. He must have thought he was preordained to take the historic photograph. After all, what were the chances a president would die in a room beneath his own? After convincing Willie Clark not to move a thing, the photographer prepared his plates for the historic photo. He may not have realized that one crucial relic had been moved. There was a bloodstained pillow on the bed, but the small pillow that had propped the president’s head was probably still lying in the courtyard, where William Petersen threw it after he ripped it from under the corpse’s head. Perhaps one of the Ulkes ran to the courtyard and retrieved it, but even if they weren’t trying to evade Stanton’s guard, they would have had to move quickly. Collodion, the flammable, syrupy solution used to coat their glass negatives, dries in ten minutes. The complicated wet process required several difficult steps, but it produced finely detailed brownish photos with a lush, glossy surface. Its main advantage was a negative that could produce unlimited prints. Julius Ulke, who sold small photo portraits to tourists, would have grasped the whopping market for a photograph of Mr. Lincoln’s deathbed.

Tourists were just discovering Petersen’s house that Saturday morning, but the government officials were through with it. Or at least they thought they were until May 3, when William Petersen billed the government $550 in rent and damages to their now-bloodstained linens.

Reprinted with the permission of the University Press of Kentucky.

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Kathryn Canavan, the author of Lincoln’s Final Hours: Conspiracy, Terror, and the Assassination of America’s Greatest President, is a former independent researcher and freelance writer for USA Today and the Philadelphia Inquirer.