President, Abraham Lincoln, aside from being one of America’s greatest leaders was also probably the country’s most accepting of the spiritual realm. Honest Abe, as he was nicknamed, was a man of great personal convictions. He left a lucrative career in the law to enter politics in order to halt the spread of slavery, a practice he felt abhorrent. He was as equally invested in maintaining the union, and felt the country should not be divided. The Civil War became his personal cross to bear, and accounts describe his dejection at the loss of so many lives. Those who knew the president best verify that he felt the division of the country and the loss of life due to the Civil War keenly, as if each boy lost were his own.
Lincoln’s personal life was no life as no less riddled with tragedy and loss. It was during his presidency that he lost his own son; young Willie. All told, his presidency was a period of extreme personal duress, and sleepless nights and stress quickly took their toll on his already craggy countenance.
As the war progressed the president appeared to withdraw further into himself, and was described as acting melancholy and silent. A man bearing the loss of so many souls could only be searching for answers to the universe’s deeper mysteries, and there is evidence that he did seek out guidance in those years from well-known spiritualists, many of whom were invited to the White House by the first lady herself.
Lincoln’s personal losses were both devastating and life-changing. His mother died when Lincoln was only a child, struck down by a frontier-epidemic called “Milk Sickness.” The willowy, Nancy Hanks Lincoln nursed family friends Tom and Betsy Sparrow who had succumbed to the illness, at which time she herself was infected. Nancy died shortly after, leaving a husband and two children behind. Lincoln, devastated by the loss, reportedly helped to build her coffin, and lower it into the ground. Afterwards, Lincoln buried his head in his hands and wept for hours, despairing that he was now, “completely alone in the world.”
Lincoln funneled his despair into hard work, laboring at odd jobs to pay his way through college and law school. It was in the law that Lincoln developed his greatest talents. He had both an ability for political maneuvering and a genius for oration and debate. Once he established his career he met his future wife, the young Mary Todd. After a rocky courtship beginning in 1839, Lincoln finally married Mary in 1842.
Mary Todd Lincoln
The early years of their marriage were strained, however, with Lincoln’s constant and lengthy absences from home as he traveled on business. Nevertheless, Mary gave Abe four sons, Robert Todd Lincoln (1843-1926), Edward “Eddie” Baker Lincoln (1846-1850), William Wallace “Willie” (1850-1862) and Thomas “Tad” (1853-1871). Eddie lived only to the age of four, and died shortly before the birth of Willie. Incidentally, Robert was the only son of the four to survive to adulthood. He would follow in his father’s footsteps and became first a lawyer and eventually Secretary of War and Minister to Great Britain. Oddly, Robert was probably the son least close to the president. He was born at a time when the Lincoln was constantly away on business and had very little contact with Lincoln as a child. When Robert turned 16 his father won the White House, but Robert was departing for school. Robert later reported that he had had about 10 minutes of the president’s attention while Lincoln was in the White House, as the President was constantly preoccupied.
Lincoln dedicated most of his early years with his own education in the law, and later at establishing his reputation as a lawyer. His law practice was extremely successful, and the more successful he became the further afield he went, trying cases the length and breadth of Illinois. He’d served a stint as a Congressman in the early 1840’s, but gave it up because of the demand on his time. He was adamantly against slavery, but he was satisfied with the Missouri Compromise which made slavery illegal anywhere west than the line drawn by the Louisiana Territory, as he felt that the future of the country resided to the west.
When that same compromise was challenged by a congressional act spearheaded by an old rival, Stephen Douglas, Lincoln felt that the time had come for another run at politics, he threw in his hat for Douglas’s senate seat. A fiercely contested campaign ensued in which Lincoln and Douglas squared off in several heated debates, so heated in fact that they aroused the attention of the news media across the country. Lincoln displayed his finest oratorical talents in eloquent and passionate arguments. At a time when passions throughout the country were running high, Lincoln spoke for reason and compromise. Though he lost the seat to Douglas in the 1858 election, he had garnered the attention of many political pundits including the newly formed Republican Party. In May 1860, in Chicago, Illinois, Abe Lincoln became the Republican Party’s candidate for president.
Lincoln won the presidency handily in the Electoral College. The popular vote, however, revealed a different story; a story of a country divided. Lincoln gained just 40% of the popular vote, and the numbers were even grimmer in the south, where Lincoln won none of the popular votes. He became a minority president.
In his home state of Illinois, however, the day of the election had a carnival atmosphere. There was a parade which wound its way past Lincoln’s house and lasted for hours. Later there was a picnic with tubs of lemonade and roasted whole steers. Clearly Illinois was proud of their presidential hopeful. An evening dinner was held with political allies, and then Lincoln repaired to the local telegraph office to await last minute messages. In the very early hours it became clear that Lincoln had won the election in the Electoral College. After an intense and tiresome twenty-four hour marathon, Lincoln returned home.
The Prophetic President
Lincoln was exhausted. Too tired to remove his clothes, he lay down on the first flat surface he could find, a small settee. Near the couch was a bureau with a mirror on top. Lincoln was shocked at his appearance in the mirror. His face looked wan and thin and bleached of all color. When he later recounted this to his friends they suggested he grow a beard to hide the narrowness of his countenance and to give him a more presidential image. It was then that Lincoln felt he had his first vision, what he felt later was a vision of prophetic import. He realized that when he looked in the mirror what he saw was two distinct images of himself superimposed. He could tell there were two images because they didn’t quite align with one another, and he could tell distinctly that the tip of one nose was about three inches beyond the other. As he stared in the mirror the vision disappeared, but reappeared a few moments later more strongly outlined. Staring at the dual images he realized that one of the images was far paler than the other, as pale as the face of death. The vision disappeared again and Lincoln dismissed it to sleep deprivation and the excitement of the last few days.
He did, however, recall the visions to his wife Mary, who felt she knew the significance of the two faces. The healthier face, Mary felt, was the face of her husband during his first term as president. The fact that the face had more color and appeared healthier she felt indicated that he would live out his first term as president. According to legend, Mary interrupted the second paler face to indicate her husband’s second term of office. She felt he would achieve a second term, but would not live to see it through. Over the course of the next few days, Lincoln apparently tried to recreate the vision in the mirror, which he was able to do on several occasions.
He did scoff at the notion of prophecy later to friends and colleagues saying that it must have been an anomaly in the glass or a hallucination brought on by lack of sleep. However, this apparently was not his only prophetic moment. Shortly before winning the election Lincoln apparently was talking to a group of friends when he said about the probability of the Civil War, “Gentlemen, you may be surprised and think it strange, but when the doctor here was describing the war, I distinctly saw myself, in second sight, bearing an important part in that strife (Taylor, 2003).”
According to union war documents, late one night during his presidency Lincoln burst into a local telegraph office demanding information. He told the operator to immediately contact Lincoln’s union commanders as he was quite sure the Confederates were about to cross federal lines. When the stunned operator asked the president how he had obtained such information the president blurted out, “My God, man, I saw it!”
Tragedy Befalls a President
Mary and Abe’s second son Edward had died in 1850, but it was the death of Lincoln’s third son
Willie in 1862 that nearly derailed the president. Willie was the son that most resembled his father, and therefore was his parent’s favorite. He was reportedly reading and writing proficiently by the age of eight, while his more athletic brother, Tad, did not achieve such distinction until the age of twelve. William Wallace, named for a doctor in Springfield, Illinois, had been a quiet and thoughtful child who excelled in reading and academics. With a wonderful memory, Willie had been able to recite whole bible passages by rote, and often told his parents that he intended on becoming a minister when he grew up.
While so many Americans were losing their own sons to the war, perhaps the death of Willie was a tragedy that resonated with the populace. Even the Confederate President, Jefferson Davis, sent condolences after the death of the boy.
The loss was exceptionally painful to the president. Lincoln reportedly locked himself in his office for several hours after the death and would not answer the door. The boy’s body was supposed to be sent to a grave in Springfield, Illinois. However, a family friend, William Thomas Carroll, offered a place in his family’s tomb where Willie’s body could be put temporarily while Lincoln remained in Washington, and later moved back home. Apparently Lincoln could not suffer to let the boy be too far from him. Reportedly Lincoln returned on two separate occasions demanding the casket opened. The embalmer apparently had done a good job, and Willie looked as if merely asleep.
It is said that after Willie’s death that the President withdrew further within himself. With the gloom of the Civil War upon his back, coupled with his own loss, some speculate that he might have contemplated suicide shortly after the death. He was often said to work at his desk with one eye on the door as if waiting for Willie to come in and give him a hug, as the boy had done in real life. He also began to speak about how he felt the boy’s presence lingering in his office and bedroom. It was perhaps his concerted love that kept the spirit of the boy connected with him throughout what remained of his presidency.
The Spiritualist Movement
It is not surprising that Lincoln would have distanced himself from the Spiritualist Movement of the day, seeing such involvement as being damaging to his political career. Mary Todd Lincoln, however, was a firm believer in the Spiritualist movement and furthermore had lost two children prematurely. Todd Lincoln is often cited as having mediums to the White House for séances. Lincoln, was never officially claimed a member of such, but private diaries and accounts by attendees indicate that he at least occasionally attended.
Some historians have postulated that Todd Lincoln’s involvement with the spiritualists may have caused her mental instability. Certainly the death of two sons would have left her seeking solace from whatever source available. It is noted that after Willie’s death Todd Lincoln never again entered the guest room in which the boy had died, nor would she enter the room in which the viewing had been held. It is reported that she had increasing bouts of headaches, mood swings, and irrational exchanges of temper.
It was during this time that she began to invite mediums to the White House. Nettie Colburn Maynard, a celebrated medium, was invited to the White House on several occasions. During one sitting, Maynard began playing the grand piano in the room when it began to levitate off the ground. According to accounts, both Lincoln and Colonel Simon Kase climbed on top of the instrument only to have it buck and shake, causing them to climb back down. He later referred to the event as, “proof of an invisible force (Taylor, 2003).”
Lincoln may have consulted with mediums at the White House, asking them about the war. He appears to have questioned them for tactical information and troop movements, and noted that sometimes the information they gave him correlated with his own precognitive visions and the events as they happened.
Entering his second term Lincoln appeared to fear some type of doom. Besides his own premonition there were constant death threats that kept his bodyguards on constant alert and himself on edge. At another séance with the celebrated Nettie Colborn Maynard, Maynard reportedly told the president, “The shadows that others have told of still hang over you.” Lincoln apparently replied that he had received letters from mediums all over the country that warned him of the same thing. When Maynard prepared to leave the president graciously extended an invitation for the following fall. Maynard accepted with some hesitation saying, “I shall come of course, that is…if you are still among us.”
Premonition of Death
Ward Hill Lamon had been a colleague from Illinois and close friend of the President for many years. During his White House years Lincoln appointed Lamon his personal head of security. The tireless Lamon was said to take his duties very seriously, often chiding the president for not taking proper precautions when he left to go to the theater or out to dinner. Lamon, unfortunately, was on an errand for the president in Richmond, Virginia on the night of the Ford’s Theater assassination. Many historians have speculated that the assassination may have been thwarted had Lamon been on duty. As it was, Lamon felt bitter regret and personal responsibility for years after the assassination, especially as he had been forewarned of the event by the president himself. Years after the assassination Lamon would recount Lincoln’s words:
“About ten days ago I retired late, and soon began to dream. There seemed to be a deathlike stillness about me. Then I began to hear subdued sobs, as if a number of people were weeping. I thought I left my bed and wandered downstairs. There the silence was broken by the same painful sobbing, but the mourners were invisible. I went from room to room; no living person was in sight, but the same mournful sounds of distress met me as I passed along.
It was light in all the rooms, every object familiar to me but where were all the people who were grieving as if their hearts would break? I was puzzled and alarmed. What could be the meaning of all this? Determined to find the cause of the state of things, so mysterious and so shocking, I kept on until I arrived at the East Room which I entered. Before me was a catafalque, on which rested a corpse wrapped in funeral vestments. Around it were stationed soldiers who were acting as guards; and there was a throng of people, some gazing mournfully upon the corpse whose face was covered, others weeping pitifully.
“Who is dead in the White House,” I demanded one of the soldiers.
“The President,” was his answer. “He was killed by an assassin.”
Then came a loud burst of grief from the crowd, which awoke me from my dream. I slept no more that night; and although it was only a dream, I have been strangely annoyed by it ever since (Taylor, 2003).”
At eleven in the morning of the day that Lincoln was to attend the play Our American Cousin at Ford’s Theater, April 14, 1865, Lincoln called a cabinet meeting. The union was close to winning the war. Just days before General Robert E. Lee had surrendered to Union General, Ulysses S. Grant. Lincoln was awaiting word from North Carolina of a further surrender by Joseph E. Johnston. Word was in the morning paper that Lincoln was to attend the play that evening with General Grant and his wife. Prophetically, Grant’s wife supposedly felt a foreboding of the night’s events, and begged her husband to break the engagement. Lincoln would instead invite Major Henry Rathbone and his fiancé Clara Harris.
Secretary of War, Edwin Stanton missed the first twenty minutes of the cabinet meeting, and arrived with the meeting in full swing. Afterwards in a conversation with Attorney General, James Speed, Stanton noted that the meeting had been very productive. Speed undoubtedly gave Stanton a peculiar look before stating,
“But you were not her at the beginning. When we entered the council chamber, we found the president seated at the top of the table with his face buried in his hands. Presently, he raised it and we saw that he looked grave and worn.
“‘Gentlemen, before long you will h