Abraham Lincoln died 153 years ago today at Ford’s Theater, cut down by the rabidly pro-slavery actor named John Wilkes Booth.
With Lincoln on that fateful night were several Irish, including his driver and valet, who played significant roles.
In this extract from his new book “Lincoln and the Irish”-The Untold Story," Niall O’Dowd relates their rarely told history.
An exclusive excerpt from “Lincoln and the Irish: The Untold Story”.
Just six days after Appomattox, Lincoln was shot. Irishman General Phil Sheridan’s boss General Grant stated that the deed was “too horrible to contemplate with composure.”
And so the eternal questions will be forever asked: How had it happened? Why was the president not protected properly? Much went back to the events directly prior to the assassination when Lincoln’s bodyguard, John Parker, disappeared.
Charlie Forbes would also play a huge role that night, a role that has never been explained. On that dreadful night, the man who drove the Lincoln horse and carriage to Ford’s Theatre was Irishman Francis Burke, a controversial figure to this day. Accompanying him as valet was Charlie Forbes, also from Ireland and a Lincoln favorite.
Forbes was a general servant, footman, personal attendant, and occasional driver sometimes charged with looking after Tad Lincoln, the couple’s son. He was beloved by the Lincoln family, and was one of the very few Irish that Mrs. Lincoln tolerated.
Old Abe liked kidding his Irish employees, especially Charlie. A story by Tom Pendel, who worked in the White House for thirty-six years, confirms that. On one occasion, President Lincoln, when riding near the Soldiers' Home, said to his footman, named Charles Forbes, who had but recently come from Ireland, “What kind of fruit do you have in Ireland, Charles?” To which Charles replied, “Mr. President, we have a good many kinds of fruit: gooseberries, pears, apples, and the like.” The President then asked, “Have you tasted any of our American fruits?”
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Charles said he had not, and the President told Burke, the coachman, to drive under a persimmon tree by the roadside. Standing up in the open carriage, he pulled off some of the green (unripe) fruit, giving some of it to Burke and some to Charles, with the advice that the latter try some of it. Charles, taking some of the green fruit in his hand, commenced to eat, when to his astonishment he found that he could hardly open his mouth. Trying his best to spit it out, he yelled, “Mr. President, I am poisoned! I am poisoned!” Mr. Lincoln fairly fell back in his carriage and rolled with laughter.
Forbes would be the footman on the carriage that brought Lincoln to Ford’s Theatre on that fateful night of April 14, 1865. Francis Burke would be the driver.
Mary Lincoln wore a black and white striped silk dress and a matching bonnet; Lincoln himself wore a black overcoat and white kid gloves, and carried an Irish linen handkerchief in his pocket. Lincoln's coat was woolen, specially tailored for him by Brooks Brothers of New York. The weather had changed; it was a foggy, misty night.
In an 1892 affidavit, Forbes briefly described his last ever interaction with Lincoln at the White House:
Tad (Lincoln’s son) had given me a picture that morning and I still had it in my pocket. . . . When the last visitor had departed and I had helped him on with his great coat, I remembered the picture and said. “Mr. President, Tad gave me a photograph this afternoon and I wish you would put your name on it.” “Certainly, Charlie,” replied the president and picking up a pen he wrote his name on the photograph and that was the last writing he ever did. For I accompanied him in the carriage, and was with him from the carriage to the theater.
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In the same affidavit Forbes, writing twenty-five years after the event, remembered he was in the booth with Lincoln but there is no record of that. He was in the anteroom, which he might have considered was part of the presidential box.
Unlike so many others, Forbes never tried to cash in on his fame as Lincoln’s employee, nor did he sell off Lincoln items like other household members did.
Lincoln was also close to his driver, Edward (also called Francis) Burke. When Burke left the White House temporarily on March 4, 1862, Lincoln wrote him a glowing reference and gladly took him back a few years later.
“Edward Burke, the bearer of this, was at service in this Mansion for several months now last past; and during all the time he appeared to me to be a competent, faithful and very genteel man. I take no charge of the servants about the house; but I do not understand that Burke leaves because of any fault or misconduct.”
Burke had been in a spot of bother with Lincoln earlier in his administration, refusing a request from the president's staff to fetch Lincoln a newspaper, saying it was not his job.
Incensed, Lincoln himself went out on the street and bought one from a newsboy. The following morning, he ordered Burke to arrive at six a.m. and bring one of Lincoln's sons to fetch the newspaper. Burke learned his lesson.
April 14th, 1865 should have been a glorious night for Burke’s passenger. "Six hundred thousand Americans had died in the Civil War," James Swanson, who has written two books about Lincoln's death, told NPR. "That war was finally coming to an end. Lincoln had freed the slaves. He had ended secession. There would be no more dying. And Lincoln was filled with joy."
In 1865, Burke gave evidence of his actions on that fateful night.
On April 25, 1865, he gave a statement. It read: "Francis Burns, [sic] the driver of the president's coach, states that on the night of the murder of Mr. Lincoln, he drove him to the theater and stayed at the door until the tragedy occurred. The Special police officer and the footman of the president came up to him to take a drink with them; which he did; but he does not remember anyone else coming up to him in particular, those there were several who asked him questions. He does not know who they were."
The evidence is that Burke, as described, would drop off the presidential party and wait for them to come back at the conclusion of the play.
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Burke was described as a big burly Irish coachman who was known to have a fondness for booze, and it is highly unlikely he just had one scoop at the Star Saloon. He was invited to the bar during intermission by the Irish footman Forbes and, unbelievably, John Parker, the police officer who was supposed to be guarding the president's box.
Parker was a complete misfit, previously disciplined for drinking and insubordination. He was once found in a whorehouse while supposedly on duty, and argued the madam had sent for him. He was one of four Washington policeman assigned on a rotating basis to Lincoln, and fate would have it that he was on duty that night. The President of the United States was being solely guarded by a drunk buffoon, who on the night in question was sneaking off to the nearby bar for secret drinks.
Burke, by his own admission, left the carriage and, in the company of “two of my friends,” went next door to Peter Taltavull’s Star Saloon for an ale. It seems that Forbes and Parker started the drinking session and got Burke to join them. At the trial of conspirator John Surratt in 1867, more than two years after the assassination, there was this exchange between Burke and Defense Attorney Richard Merrick:
MERRICK. Were you on the box most of the night?
BURKE. I was all the time that night, with the exception that two of my friends whom I knew asked me to go in and take a glass of ale with them. I left a man in charge of the carriage until I returned.
MERRICK. At what time did you go in and take a glass of ale?
BURKE. I think after the first act was over.
MERRICK. How long did you remain taking that glass of ale?
BURKE. I suppose about five or ten minutes.
MERRICK. And then returned to the carriage?
BURKE. I then returned to the carriage and went on to the box.
MERRICK. Did you remain there?
BURKE. Yes, sir.
MERRICK. I understand you to say you remained all the time on the box, with the exception of these five or ten minutes.
BURKE. I remained after the carriage first came.
MERRICK. Did you observe anybody coming round your carriage and peeping into it?
BURKE. No; I took no notice. They may have passed by. I saw no one looking into the carriage. I did not see anybody.
MERRICK. You did not go to sleep, did you?
BURKE. Oh, no.
Burke did reveal that his two friends were the “special police officer and the footman of the President.” The ill-conceived drinking sessions may have cost Lincoln his life, as Parker should have been on guard when John Wilkes Booth came to hunt down the president.
Earlier that day, Burke had been privy to the last extended conversation between Mary Lincoln and her husband. With the Civil War won, democracy saved, and slavery defeated, Lincoln had wanted to take a celebratory carriage drive.
He told his wife, “I consider this day, the war has come to a close. We must both be more cheerful in the future—between the war and the loss of our darling Willie—we have both, been very miserable.” Lincoln told her he wanted to see the Pacific Ocean and perhaps after his second term they would move back to his beloved Illinois. He dreamed of a better future and of no longer sending young men to war.
He had saved the Union, and was hell bent on reconciliation and forgiveness. When crowds in the hundreds of thousands turned up on the White House lawn after Lee’s surrender, Lincoln told the band to strike up “Dixie,” the Southern anthem. He would heal, not divide.
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The fact that he did not live to carry out his plans haunts America even today.
On the fateful night night, Lincoln’s party (Burke driving and Forbes seated beside him) arrived at Ford’s Theatre at around nine p.m. The play Our American Cousin had started. There is strong speculation that the assassin watched the coach arrive to verify the president was present. The orchestra struck up “Hail to the Chief,” and a huge standing ovation ensued. There were a thousand people present. Usher James O’Brien escorted the presidential party to the private box.
The star attraction was British actress Laura Keene, who would end up cradling the dying president’s bleeding head on her lap. Ironically, it was an Irish play, The Colleen Bawn, which had made her famous. Written by Dion Boucicault, it had the longest-ever run on the British stage.
She had debuted My American Cousin, ironically written by Tony Taylor, a rabid British opponent of Lincoln who later repented, at the eponymous Laura Keene’s Theatre in New York in 1858 and was showcasing it in Washington with most of the original cast. Henry Clay Ford, one of three brothers who owned the theater, had been delighted to receive the hand-delivered note from Mrs. Lincoln that she and the president would attend that night—and General Grant too, though he later bowed out.
It was one up for the Fords. Their main rival theater was showing Aladdin full of nineteenth century special effects. Tad Lincoln and his chaperone would attend that show.
The early confirmation allowed the Fords to crank up their PR machine, newsboys and posters displayed all over Washington saying that the president and General Grant, just days after Appomattox, would be present. It was Good Friday, usually a hard day to fill a theater, but not this year. It was also Laura Keene’s thousandth performance in the role, a special night for her—and the president would be there!
Lincoln took his seat. The partition between box seven and eight, a wooden construction, had been taken away. The president's rocking chair was ready for him. The lights went down after the ovation and the play continued. The bad days of the Civil War were doubtless on his mind. It had been a very close-run thing, saving this thing called democracy, by the people and for the people
John Parker had been seated as the security outside the box, and then, at intermission, he joined the footman Forbes and coachman Burke in the Star Saloon next door to Ford’s Theatre.
John Wilkes Booth was also in the Star Saloon, plucking up Dutch courage. William Withers, the orchestra leader, also nipped out for a drink. He saw Booth “standing at the bar in his shirt sleeves, his coat thrown over one arm.” Booth was the first person he met. Withers recalled someone made a joke at Booth's expense. "I remember seeing an inscrutable smile flit across his face and he said, 'When I leave the stage for good, I will be the most famous man in America.'”
He drank whiskey with water and smoked a cigar. He was one of the most famous actors in America, almost every woman fawned over him and he was a racist through and through. The thought of the death of slavery and the loss of the slave state that secession would have created incensed him.
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Booth entered the theater he knew so well shortly after ten. The murder plot was set in motion.
Forbes too was back at his place, sitting inside the anteroom to the presidential box. As the president’s valet, he could be called on at any time. The second act began. What Booth saw was Forbes, a 30-year-ol large, hulking Irishman, seated but not blocking the door to the inner vestibule leading to boxes 7 and 8, which had been joined together to make the presidential box.
Booth stopped to speak to Forbes. What they said to each other has never been reported as Forbes was never officially interviewed, which is incredible. What document did Booth use to get past Forbes? Was it a business card or, as some say, a letter? Others say he dropped the name of an influential senator to get access to the box. That scenario would explain why Forbes was never interviewed, or if he was, it was destroyed.
Either way, Forbes, a mere valet, would have recognized the name as that of the famed actor. According to Lincoln historian James Swanson, Forbes had previously admitted a military messenger carrying a dispatch.
Booth was now inside the vestibule leading to the box and was expecting to encounter security, in this case John Parker, the resident bodyguard. But Parker was either still in the Star Pub or was sitting elsewhere to get a view of the play. It has never been confirmed which. Lincoln was defenseless when the assassin approached.
As for White House doorman Tom Pendel, he claims he warned John Parker to be vigilant as Parker was the sole security agent, tasked with being present when the president arrived and leading him safely into Ford’s Theatre.
“John, are you armed?” he asked, before Parker left the White House
Alphonso Dunn, another doorman and part of the Irish clique, stated, “Oh, Tommy, there is no danger.”
Pendel says he replied, “Dunn, you don't know what might happen.”
He was right on that. Pendel would stay at the White House thirty-six years and remarkably would witness the aftermath of two more assassinations, President Garfield and President McKinley. It was Lincoln who was on his mind, however, when he sat for a late-life interview. “What a just man was the president,” he said—an interesting description of the man who saved the Union.
A fellow presidential bodyguard, William H. Crook, held Parker directly responsible for Lincoln’s death. “Had he done his duty, I believe President Lincoln would not have been murdered by Booth,” Crook wrote in his memoir. “Parker knew that he had failed in duty. He looked like a convicted criminal the next day.”
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Crook served twelve presidents and had taken the morning shift on the day Lincoln was assassinated. Eerily, Lincoln told him he had dreamed of being assassinated three successive nights. Crook, worried about his safety, begged him not to go to Ford’s Theatre, but Lincoln dismissed his concerns.
After the passing of the president, Burke drove Mrs. Lincoln back to The White House. She was in a bad way, and repeatedly saying “That house, that house,” while glaring at Ford’s Theater as they left. Even a stone would have wept for her; she would outlive three of her four sons and her husband in her sad life.
After that night Burke faded into obscurity and is buried in an unmarked grave in Mount Olivet Cemetery in Washington, D.C. Forbes was never interviewed by newspapers about his recollections of the night. He too died, and was placed in an unmarked grave; later, a headstone noting his role with Lincoln was erected. Mary Lincoln wrote him a warm letter afterwards, making clear she did not blame him, and Robert Lincoln employed him when he was Secretary of War.
On November 12, 1983, Irish Ambassador Tadgh O’Sullivan officially unveiled a new tombstone over the Forbes grave, noting his role with the Lincoln family at the Congressional Graveyard in Washington. A color guard was present.
But the question will always loom: What did Booth say to Forbes to gain entrance to the presidential box that night? In the end, the Irishman was Lincoln’s last line of defense, but he was his valet, not his bodyguard. Charlie Forbes brought many secrets to the grave with him.
Secretary of War Edwin Stanton decided he wanted the crime scene photographed exactly as it was the moment Lincoln was shot. He called in Irish photographer Matthew Brady to take photographs of the interior of the theater, then the exterior of the president’s box and the approach to the box and the anteroom. Brady had to use all his skill in the dimly lit theater.
It was a far cry from the triumphant days when he had photographed the aesthetically challenged candidate Lincoln in February 1860 and “photoshopped” him so well that Lincoln gave him much credit for winning the White House.
* Niall O’Dowd’s new book “Lincoln and the Irish: The Untold Story of How the Irish Helped Abraham Lincoln Save the Union” is now available to buy on Amazon.