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The Day Lincoln Died Again

Sometimes you just have
to take that history field trip

Lincoln funeral poster For all our pretensions to being an historic region, when push comes to shove, our Seacoast still plays in the minor leagues. There's never been a textbook battle here, no truly famous son or daughter, no world-renowned natural disaster, no earth-shattering discovery. We've had our fair share of tragedy and triumph -- shipwrecks, fires, colonial uprisings, homecomings and celebrity visits. Ben Franklin installed a lightning rod. Paul Revere delivered a message. Washington slept here. We repeat these familiar local stories like a sacred mantra.

Don't get me wrong; that's not a bad thing. Our relative obscurity has acted as a sort of preservative, coating the region with what passes for an historic varnish that is centuries thick. Our collective memory is strong, and each generation paints another thin protective coating. That's the main reason people visit here today. Compared to most historic destinations, this place is practically untarnished.

Who cares if none of the three world leaders actually showed up for the Treaty of Portsmouth in 1905? Who's counting when 400 local men defeated an army of only six British soldiers at Fort William and Mary? So what if the most famous guest at Wentworth-by-the-Sea was President Eisenhower's brother Milton? It's our history, durn it, and that's all that matters.

This was going to be a column about Abraham Lincoln's connections to the Seacoast, and unlikely as it may seem, there are plenty. I'm not just talking about Lucy Hale of Dover again, fiancé to John Wilkes Booth who assassinated the President. There was also Lincoln's campaign trips to the Seacoast, the ones some say built his New England popularity that eventually won him the election. He used the trips as an excuse to see his son Robert Todd, who was then a student at Phillips Exeter Academy here.

This column was going to be about the odd Seacoast link to Wilkes' brother actor Edwin Booth, who ironically, once saved Robert Todd Lincoln from stepping in front of a speeding train. It isn't about the Lincoln saddle in a glass case on the third floor of the Woodman Institute in Dover, or the Lincoln House were Todd visited with his dad in Exeter.

No, sometimes even a diehard cowboy has to get out of Dodge to take his bearings, and so I found myself standing last week at the foot of the bed where Abraham Lincoln died. You probably toured the famous Peterson House in Washington, DC with your fourth grade class. I was sick and missed that field trip by about forty years. But I know the story like my own name, how Lincoln was carried across the street from Ford's Theatre to this 10-by-15 foot boardinghouse room, the assassin's .44 caliber bullet still lodged in his brain just above the eye.

It took nine hours for the powerful frame of the President to give up its battle, the final battle of the long horrific Civil War. Doctors worked to remove blood clots from the wound and the medical debate about whether Lincoln could have been saved rages on uselessly to this day. Booth's derringer is in the basement museum of Ford's Theater across the street. The hunting knife is there too, the one Booth used to slice open the arm of Major Rathbone who just happened to be sitting with the President and his wife in the balcony box on April 14, 1865. The bullet, some hair, and a fragment of the poor president's skull, I understand, along with the doctor's blood-stained shirt cuffs are on display at Walter Reed Army Medical Center just down the road in Washington, DC.

Tourists still file into the Peterson House from the street in an endless parade as they have from the first hours after the body was removed. Back then they were less orderly. Julius Elke, a boarder at Peterson's took a fuzzy photograph of the bloody bed where the president had lain, placed diagonally to accommodate his lengthy frame. Then the souvenir hunters swarmed in, grabbing up everything in sight - clothes, bedding, furniture, even shredding bits of wallpaper and carpeting.

Today visitors still climb a few steps and turn into a dark hallway where a young US National Park ranger with a walkie-talkie smiles and directs the flow of traffic to the left, through the parlor where Mary Todd Lincoln screamed and cried uncontrollably at the news of her husband's death. Visitors file through another small room which, for a few short moments, served as the seat of the US Government as the mantel of leadership passed on. Booth had intended to cripple the North by assassinating the vice president and secretary of state as well, but his rag-tag troupe of conspirators failed by inches.

Had I been in fourth grade like the 21st century kids who pushed past me in line, shoving their way from the boring old parlor and into the death bed room, things might have been different for me. "Where's the blood?" one wanted to know. "Are those his real boots?" another asked. But maybe nothing changes. They stopped, like I did, mouths hanging just a little open and there was a silence in that room. It hung forever, like the sound of a coward's derringer held inches from a great man's skull. It ended in a second, like it must a thousand times a day there at the Peterson House.

Lincoln death bed Like everyone, I snapped the obligatory photos of an empty wood-poster bed. It looks for all the world like the one in Julius Elke's picture - same spread, same striped wallpaper. There are at least three famous paintings of the deathbed scene I know, and in each the room grows larger. Like history, the room expanded to accommodate all the lesser known faces that mingled aimlessly at the edge of importance.

I know it isn't the real pillow, but I touched it just the same. Don't ask me why. I wasn't in that room a full minute before the clot of pilgrims washed me out the door, down a stairway, along a long hall and back into the street. To the left a life-sized cardboard Bill Clinton smiled from the doorway of the Souvenir Factory. Past T-shirt booths to my right (3 for $10) the red neon sign of the Lincoln House Bar and Grille popped my catatonia. I was back in America.

Unlike most tourists, I did Ford's Theatre second, snapped my obligatory picture of the assassination scene and gaped even further at the relics in the basement. They have the door in a glass case there, the one Booth rigged with a peep hole and a stick, so that he could enter silently unseen. Booth was a great actor remember, and knew Ford's Theatre well, better even that history buffs like me. There was, as I had long hoped, the carte d' visa of Lucy Hale, the pictures of her and four other women Booth had in his pocket when he was shot in the spine at Garrison's barn twelve days later. I saw the authentic white hoods worn by the conspirators when they were hung months later in an explosion of anger following the war and the death of their newly sainted President.

From Ford's I hopped a trolley to the Lincoln Memorial. After seeing Lincoln laid so low and human, I needed that giant statue there to pump his memory back to its impossible proportions. I watched for half an hour or more as one tiny person after another stood, staring up at the Colossus of Illinois, the barefoot boy from the log cabin who became a minor god.

We need these national deities still, real or imagined, to measure ourselves and our local history against. Some day, when our culture is more mature and each of us self reliant -- like the characters in Star Trek: Second Generation -- such pilgrimages may not be so necessary. Me, I'm happy to spend my days on this planet as a perpetual fourth grade student, jaw hanging open, eyes bugged out, my head cocked to hear the brief meaningful silences on this awesome field trip of life.

Lincoln Photo from Library of Congress Virtual Lincoln Archive and picture of Lincoln bedroom by J. Dennis Robinson for SeacoastNH.com

© 1999 SeacoastNH.com

For a ton of Lincoln Internet Hotlinks
including the official Peterson House link CLICK HERE

Our related sites:
Death of George Washington
Death of John Paul Jones

Don't miss Dennis Robinson's new column "Seacoast Rambles" every other week in Foster's Sunday Citizen at your local newsstand.

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