Memories From an Earlier Tragedy

‘They Have Killed Papa Dead!’ Vividly Recalls Lincoln Assassination

Posted January 5, 2009 at 4:18pm

Dozens of books on Abraham Lincoln are being released this year, the bicentennial of the birth of our 16th president. And while it would be impossible to read all of them, a new work by writer Anthony Pitch does one thing particularly well: It transports readers into the moment-by-moment world of 19th-century America, into a time when Washington, D.C., was a rough and informal city, and a president felt he could move about freely.

“‘They Have Killed Papa Dead!’ The Road to Ford’s Theatre, Abraham Lincoln’s Murder, and the Rage for Vengeance” opens in 1861 with President-elect Lincoln’s preparations to travel by train from Springfield, Ill., to Washington for his March 4 inauguration. He would have to pass through treacherous Maryland, a state full of slaveholders and Southern sympathizers.

Lincoln was stubborn, almost fatalistic, about the very real threats against his life, refusing offers of bodyguards. Yet the situation in Washington, Pitch writes, “was a combustible mix ready to ignite.”

From that breathtaking start, “They Have Killed Papa Dead!” keeps up a sense of urgency with a fast pace that also weaves in fascinating new details based on Pitch’s access to previously unpublished letters, diaries and firsthand observations. Here is a picture of a living, breathing man and his world, far different from the gigantic marble statue on the Mall.

For instance, the threat of an attack on Lincoln’s train to Washington was so great that 200 armed men were deployed to guard the bridges along the train line between the Susquehanna River and Baltimore, even painting the bridges with “half a dozen layers of whitewash heavily dosed with salt and alum to make them almost fireproof.”

It’s hard to forget the vivid scene where Lincoln is finally convinced that to thwart threats on his life, he should disguise himself as an invalid and sneak out of Philadelphia on a different train into Washington: “Lincoln wore a muffler around his neck, a soft black Kossuth hat on his head, and an overcoat over the shoulders of his six-foot frame, with sleeves dangling free. He carried a traveling bag in one hand and leaned with the other on [detective Allan] Pinkerton’s arm, stooping to disguise his height as they walked toward the end of the train where the sleeping berths were located.”

Lincoln actually kept some of the threatening letters that he received in a desk drawer in the White House, storing them in an envelope marked “Assassination.” Mary Todd Lincoln had apparently spent about $1,000 on black mourning clothes a month before her husband’s death.

The White House was so loosely protected that thieves once stole into the East Room, ripped off wallpaper and snatched a lace curtain. During the inauguration itself, Benjamin Brown French, public buildings commissioner, pushed back a scowling John Wilkes Booth, who had burst out of the crowd just as Lincoln walked through the Capitol.

Even though we know the tragic outcome, it’s hard not to feel one is reliving the terrible days and weeks surrounding Lincoln’s assassination. Did we know all of these details? Yes and no. So many of the moments of Lincoln’s last days have been faithfully recorded, and documents have been pored over as if they were the Dead Sea scrolls. But this book brings the days alive again. We know when Booth ate oysters and what the city looked like just after the surrender of Robert E. Lee, with celebratory candles twinkling in every windowsill. We watch as Booth sneaks into Lincoln’s box at Ford’s Theatre and hides a wooden shaft so that he can jam the door to the box and delay any help the president might receive. We hear the lame joke that Lincoln tells his Cabinet just before he ends his final workday.

We watch Lincoln die slowly, and we see his body laid out in the East Room of the White House, which had been transformed into a “silent and sepulchral chamber.” We see Booth and one of his accomplices on a boat on the Potomac River, trying to get to Virginia but ending up again in Maryland. We read Booth’s self-aggrandizing diary entry as he hid in the Maryland woods: “And yet I, for striking down a greater tyrant than they ever knew, am looked upon as a common cutthroat.”

And finally, as the conspirators to Lincoln’s killing await hanging in a horrible Washington prison, we see Mary Surratt’s daughter Anna barging into the White House to plead with President Andrew Johnson for her mother’s life. She is prevented from entering the president’s office and “lay crumpled at the foot of the stairs, loudly proclaiming her mother’s innocence. … Some of the military guards could no longer hold back their tears. Eventually, when Anna quieted, she was coaxed into a seat in the East Room where Lincoln’s body had lain. Whenever a visitor entered, she rose in expectation of good news or to waylay the stranger for help.”

Johnson, however, refuses to pardon the owner of the boarding house where Booth and others planned the assassination, and we are given a graphically vivid image of her death, along with three other conspirators.

While there’s very little that is new here, it’s all new, in a larger sense. With “They Have Killed Papa Dead!” (the words of Lincoln’s son Tad), we can mourn the former president anew with our fellow citizens and hope that a tragedy of that scope will remain in our history.