It’s the evening of April 14, 1865, and President Abraham Lincoln is sitting with his beloved wife, Mary Todd Lincoln, in their private box at Ford’s Theater in Washington D.C. The happy couple are engrossed in the performance of Our American Cousin that’s playing out below them – but fate has other plans. At 10:15 p.m., you see, a gunman named John Wilkes Booth creeps up behind the president and fires off a round into the back of his skull. Of course, this much most of us know, but it’s the true nature of the Lincoln’s final words to Mary that has been fiercely contested throughout the years.
Lincoln’s assassination actually came hot on the heels of a great victory. The devastating American Civil War had ended only five days earlier, after all. Yes, after the Battle of Appomattox Court House, Confederate General Robert E. Lee had surrendered his army to Union General Ulysses S. Grant. And Booth – the gunman – was a known Confederate sympathizer. So his assassination of Lincoln was part of a three-pronged attack on the U.S. government and was seemingly intended to resuscitate the cause.
Booth had remained in the north during the conflict, despite the fact that the Confederacy was based in the south. In fact, he had pursued his acting career while the war raged for four bloody years. But after Lee surrendered his army, Booth – who had previously hatched a failed plan to kidnap Lincoln – conspired to commit a far more devastating act.
So when Booth discovered that the Lincolns would be attending the theater that fateful night, he subsequently put his plan into action. He also enlisted co-conspirators to kill Secretary of State William H. Seward and Vice President Andrew Johnson – and these two assassinations should have happened as the actor pulled the trigger on Lincoln. Booth apparently believed, you see, that the murders of the president and his two potential successors would likely throw the country into chaos.
Booth felt that Lincoln’s presence in the theater gave him a unique opportunity to get close to the president. And as the former had years of acting experience, he had actually performed there several times himself – and was therefore familiar with the layout of the building. The thespian was also known to the staff and apparently used his connections to gain easier access to Lincoln’s private box.
That evening, Lincoln and his wife were in their box above the stage with army officer Henry Rathbone and his fiancé Clara Harris – the latter being New York senator Ira Harris’ daughter. However, Lincoln and his group had arrived late to the theater. So in response, the orchestra momentarily halted proceedings to play “Hail to the Chief,” and all 1,700 patrons got to their feet to applaud.
But the president wasn’t without security at the event. In fact, a police officer named John Frederick Parker had been assigned the duty of protecting the president’s private box. During the play’s intermission, however, the officer accompanied Lincoln’s coachman and footman to a local watering hole. This left the box unguarded – meaning Booth was able to slip in easily and bar the door behind him to prevent anyone from escaping.
Booth knew the play well, and he timed his attack to coincide with a particularly funny line uttered by actor Harry Hawk. Lincoln was reportedly laughing when Booth snuck up behind him and shot him behind his left ear. The actor used a single-shot .44-caliber derringer pistol, and the bullet passed through Lincoln’s brain – fracturing both orbital plates.
Rathbone turned to see Booth standing over the fallen president and immediately rushed him. However, the young army officer was stabbed in the left forearm in the struggle. Booth then jumped the 12-foot drop from the box to the stage, but he landed badly and hurt his left foot in the process.
The actor then reportedly held his bloody knife above his head and addressed the audience. At this point, most of the people in attendance thought the commotion was simply part of the performance. It’s generally accepted that Booth yelled, “Sic semper tyrannis!” This is the Virginia state motto and means, “Thus always to tyrants!”
The assassin then ran across the stage toward an exit door, stabbing the orchestra leader William Withers Jr. en route. And after Booth escaped from the theater, he mounted a horse that he had positioned in the alleyway ahead of time. He rode off into the Washington night and soon became the subject of an exhaustive manhunt.
Booth’s motivation for slaying the president may still seem unclear, but it was firmly rooted in the role Lincoln played during the American Civil War. You see, the infamous murder can be traced back to the president’s actions during the conflict – and one in particular set Booth on edge.
The conflict played out between two opposing forces known as the Union and the Confederacy. Union referred to the United States of America – or more specifically, the 20 free states and four border ones where slavery was either illegal or in the process of being phased out. And these regions included Washington, D.C., New York, California, Michigan, Illinois and Pennsylvania.
Conversely, the Confederate States of America was formed by the seven states in the lower south of the country whose inhabitants largely didn’t want slavery to be abolished. So as a result, Florida, Mississippi, South Carolina, Alabama, Texas, Georgia and Louisiana seceded from the union and became an unrecognized republic. And in particular, the Confederacy believed slavery was threatened by then-presidential candidate Lincoln. He had run on a platform opposing its expansion into the western part of the country, you see.
Yes, although Lincoln was not an abolitionist, he did believe that slavery was morally wrong and questioned the protections it had been awarded in the Constitution of the United States. And in a three-hour speech in 1854 Lincoln admitted that he didn’t know precisely what the right course of action was regarding slavery.
In 1858 – during a debate with his opponent Stephen Douglas in the Illinois race for the U.S. Senate – Lincoln was accused of supporting “negro equality.” And according to History.com, the future president responded, “I will say then that I am not, nor ever have been, in favor of bringing about in any way the social and political equality of the white and black races.” Furthermore, he went on to argue that African-Americans shouldn’t have the right to vote, hold office, serve on juries or marry white people.
Lincoln did believe, however, that African-Americans had the right to improve their societal position through hard work and enjoy the benefits of their labor. And according to the future president, as slavery made this kind of advancement in society impossible, the institution was morally wrong.
But Lincoln’s views regarding racial equality would grow and evolve over the course of his time in office. On April 11, 1865, for instance – the date of the last speech that he ever gave – he argued that any black man who had served the Union during the Civil War should be granted the right to vote. And this stance seemingly indicates that the president’s position had changed somewhat from the Senate debate seven years earlier.
Lincoln’s position on race has been viewed differently by successive generations, too. After all, even though he successfully freed the slaves, he still held some opinions that many today would consider to be problematic. In 2009 The Root’s editor-in-chief Henry Louis Gates Jr. argued that the president held some surprisingly liberal opinions for that period, though. He said, “By the standards of his time, Lincoln’s views on race and equality were progressive and truly changed minds, policy and – most importantly – hearts for years to come.”
But what of Lincoln’s assassin? Well, Booth came from a prominent family of actors in Maryland. His father, Junius Brutus, and his brothers, Edwin and Junius Brutus Jr., all worked in the trade, and Booth followed in their footsteps. And by the end of the 1850s, he was a genuinely wealthy and famous actor – earning the equivalent of around $570,000 today.
Before the American Civil War began, in fact, Booth was held in high esteem as an actor in the southern states. However, during the conflict, he chose to remain in the north and reportedly grew angry when audiences didn’t react to him as well as they had back home. Booth held strong political views, too, as he had a fiercely outspoken hatred of abolitionists and Lincoln – a loathing that even some members of his family didn’t share.
For instance, Booth apparently didn’t see eye to eye with his brother Edwin during the war. Edwin did not share his siblings’ public support of slavery, for one, and he even refused to perform in their native south. But Booth’s condemnation of the Union was so severe that he was arrested in St. Louis in 1863 and charged with “treasonous” remarks. This came, according to several reports, after he was heard saying he wished that “the president and the whole damn government would go to hell.”
So these extreme differences in political opinion meant that eventually Edwin told Booth that he was not welcome in his home anymore. Yes, apparently the actor’s hatred of Lincoln had only become more intense over time. And according to Asia Booth Clarke’s book John Wilkes Booth: A Sister’s Memoir, he had told her, “That man’s appearance… and his policy are a disgrace to the seat he holds. He is made the tool of the north to crush out slavery.”
In a cruel twist of fate, though, President Lincoln may have actually been a fan of Booth. It was known that the president had watched him perform in several plays. And fellow actor Frank Mordaunt even corroborated a claim that Lincoln had invited Booth to visit him at the White House. But the actor reportedly turned down the invitation, and according to the website Civil War Saga, he apparently told his friends, “I would rather have the applause of a negro to that of the president.”
Yet as Lincoln was doubtless unaware of how April 14 would end, he had begun the day with a cabinet meeting. The topics were the treatment of the defeated Confederate leaders as well as the nature of any economic aid that was to be offered to the south. And the president then had lunch with his wife, Mary Todd, before engaging in more meetings – including one with a former slave called Nancy Bushrod. Afterwards, Lincoln indulged in an afternoon carriage ride with his spouse.
Later that night, the Lincolns’ carriage picked up army officer Rathbone and his fiancé Harris at her father’s home, and the four subsequently made their way to the theater. After the stirring rendition of “Hail to the Chief,” everyone took their seats, and Mary apparently flirted with her husband as she held his hand. And according to Stephen Mansfield’s book Lincoln’s Battle with God, she asked, “What will Miss Harris think of my hanging on to you so?”
Mansfield added that Lincoln’s wife Mary had something of a reputation for being fiercely jealous. She would apparently scream at any woman who dared to walk near her husband, for instance. But this jealousy seemingly didn’t rear its head in the theater, and Lincoln apparently replied, “Why, she will think nothing of it.”
For many years, these were traditionally believed to have been Lincoln’s last words. But in 1882 a friend of the family named Reverend N.M. Miner claimed that Mary had told him her husband’s final words were quite different. Miner wrote about this revelation in a lecture entitled “Personal Reminiscences of Abraham Lincoln.”
And Mansfield wrote that Lincoln told his wife that following the war they would “not return immediately to Springfield.” This is no doubt a reference to where the family had lived before he became president: Springfield, Illinois. According to the author, Lincoln continued, “We will go abroad among strangers where I can rest.” He then leaned in closely to Mary and whispered his next words.
“We will visit the Holy Land,” Lincoln apparently declared. “We will visit the Holy Land and see those places hallowed by the footsteps of the Savior. There is no place I so much desire to see as Jerusalem.” The bullet fired by Booth then did its terrible work, and Lincoln subsequently succumbed to his injuries the next morning at 7:22 a.m.
In his book, Mansfield acknowledged that these final words – which allude to a deep faith – are often not included in works concerning Lincoln’s assassination. The author said, “It is natural that some should doubt. Schoolchildren do not learn them as they do the other facts of Lincoln’s life.”
Mansfield then argued that Lincoln’s last words are likely omitted from most historical accounts because of the hesitancy of scholars to declare him to be a religious man. He added, “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 anti-religion – even anti-God.”
And the author went on, “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.” Mansfield continued, “Surely this is the fruit of bad research and pitiful scholarship: more myth than history.”
Mansfield also argued that prominent Lincoln scholars over the years have attested to the validity of these words – in spite of criticism. After all, it was the president’s wife herself who had apparently relayed the words to Reverend Miner. And as a result, prominent Lincoln scholars such as Allen C. Guelzo, Wayne Temple and Doris Kearns Goodwin apparently regard them as the truth.
Dr. James Cornelius is the curator of the Lincoln Collection at the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library in Springfield, Illinois, and he has referred to Mary’s account of her husband’s last words. He said, “We believe [them] to be substantiated.” Perhaps this really was the last thing that Lincoln said. And, if this is true, it highlights his complicated views regarding religion.
But what happened in the aftermath of Lincoln uttering his last words and passing away the next morning? Well, his body was put in a temporary casket that was draped in the American flag. The cadaver was then taken by armed escort to the White House. Here, an autopsy was conducted, and Mary reportedly requested that a lock of her husband’s hair be removed for her to keep.
The nation went into mourning, too. By the end of the day of Lincoln’s death, for instance, flags all across the country were flying at half-mast and businesses shut down. And when his body was taken by train to Springfield, Illinois, tens of thousands stood by the railroad route – waiting to pay their final respects to the fallen president.
Lincoln was buried at Oak Ridge Cemetery alongside his son William Wallace Lincoln, who had died of typhoid fever three years earlier. And Mary, for her part, was apparently so consumed by grief after losing her husband that she retreated to her bed for weeks. She didn’t attend the funeral and was soon looked down upon by society due to her vocal mourning.
Unfortunately for Mary, women of her high position in society were expected to maintain their composure in public – even during times of grief. Instead of suppressing her emotions, however, Mary displayed them for all to see. A number of modern scholars now believe that she may have been bipolar, but her contemporaries simply ostracized her.
As for John Wilkes Booth, he was found hiding in a Maryland barn after a 12-day manhunt. But he remained inside, even after Union soldiers set the structure on fire to draw him out. Booth was eventually shot in the neck and dragged into the open – where he died three hours later. Four of his co-conspirators were later hanged, too, for their involvement in Lincoln’s assassination. Sadly, because of Booth’s actions, the president never got to see Jerusalem – and we’ll never know what actually greeted him upon his death.
Loss has blighted the lives of other presidential families, too, and the Bushes are no exception. So when George H.W. Bush’s wife Barbara Bush took ill, her loved ones were understandably distraught. Yet before the former First Lady passed, she sent her granddaughter Jenna Bush Hager some touching last words that will stay with her forever – and may even change how you remember the political powerhouse.
Barbara Bush was born in New York City on June 8, 1925. During her childhood, she was just like any other kid and enjoyed athletic activities, such as swimming and tennis. However, when Barbara was just 16, she had a life-changing encounter.
Yes, it was then that the teenager first met her future husband, George Bush, at a Christmas dance in Greenwich, Connecticut. At the time, he was a student at the Phillips Academy in Andover, Massachusetts, and Barbara fell instantly in love with him. He was also smitten, and the couple became engaged just 18 months later.
Soon after, George went to serve as a pilot in World War II. But when he returned to the United States in January 1945, the pair finally tied the knot. And from there, the couple made a formidable pair.
Indeed, Barbara stuck right by her husband’s side as he moved between navy squadron bases across the eastern states. Then, when George later began making a name for himself as an oil tycoon, Barbara stayed at home to raise the couple’s six kids – one of whom, Robin, sadly died at the age of three.
When George entered the world of politics in 1966, Barbara was once again there to keep the Bush boat afloat. She of course cared for the children while her husband was out campaigning. But she also occasionally joined him on the trail and explored her own political interests.
In fact, by the time George ran for presidency in 1988, Barbara had already established herself as an advocate for literacy. And thanks to her family values, she became popular among the American electorate in her own right. So when George was elected as president that year, many people were happy that he had her by his side.
While Barbara enjoyed many highlights during her time as First Lady, she said her family was her greatest achievement. Her five living children all grew up to enjoy successful careers – particularly their eldest son, George W. Bush, who followed in his father’s footsteps to become president, too.
Alongside George Sr., Barbara also became a grandparent 17 times over. Among her grandchildren is writer and media personality Jenna Bush Hager, who in April 2018 revealed her grandmother’s influence had trickled down through the generations of her family. “She’s the best grandma anybody could have ever had… or have,” she told Today.
Unfortunately, when Jenna made that comment, her grandmother was in ill health. Since 1988 Barbara had suffered from various ailments, including Graves’ disease and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease.
Then in April 2018, when Barbara was 92 years of age, her family made a sad announcement. They revealed that the matriarch’s health was failing after “a series of recent hospitalizations.” Furthermore, instead of seeking treatment, Barbara had opted for “comfort care” at home with her family.
Barbara passed away on April 17, 2018, leaving her family and countless admirers devastated. Among the mourners was of course Barbara’s granddaughter Jenna, who paid tribute to her grandmother in the days after her death.
Reading an emotional letter on Today, Jenna said, “You are our family’s rock, the glue that held us together. I hope you know in your final days how many people prayed for you. How many people told me they loved you.”
Continuing to describe the public’s devotion to Barbara, Jenna added, “People stopped me everywhere — in airports, on the street — and declared their love for you. It always felt good. We didn’t mind sharing you with the world.”
Jenna continued, “We called you the enforcer. It was because you were a force and you wrote the rules. Your rules were simple: treat everyone equally, don’t look down on anyone, use your voices for good, read all the great books.”
Later on in her tribute, Jenna revealed some of her grandmother’s last words to her. It turned out that Barbara had sent her an email with the subject line, “You.” When Jenna opened the correspondence, she learned that it read, “I am watching you. I love you. Ganny.”
Barbara was laid to rest on April 21, 2018, at St. Martin’s Episcopal Church in Houston, Texas. Her funeral was attended by people from all sections of society, from former presidents and business owners to, of course, her loved ones.
In fact, the service was well and truly a family affair. Barbara’s son Jeb Bush read the eulogy, and her six granddaughters each delivered readings from the bible. Meanwhile, eight of the former First Lady’s grandsons acted as pallbearers.
But while Barbara’s funeral was invite only, unofficial memorials popped up all over the country. One unique tribute to the former First Lady saw hundreds of people gather on Kennebunk beach in Maine, where Barbara and George Sr. had enjoyed countless summers.
So while Barbara is gone, her legacy lives on through all the people she touched throughout her life. But while most will remember her as a First Lady, to Jenna and the rest of her loved ones she was simply theirs. “I am filled with gratitude because you were ours. We are the lucky ones,” Jenna said.