In April of 1865, the American Civil War was coming to a close. A disgruntled actor took it upon himself to support his cause by assassinating the President of the United States.
But sometime between 1864 and early 1865, a great historical irony occurred. The inverse situation occurred between two members of the Lincoln and Booth families.
While John Wilkes Booth murdered President Abraham Lincoln at Ford’s Theatre in Washington DC, his brother Edwin Booth saved Robert Todd Lincoln, the president’s son, months earlier.
An Esteemed Actor
Edwin Booth was an internationally renowned actor in the mid-nineteenth century. He was born into a theater family. His father and two brothers were also actors, although his brother Junius never achieved the fame of Edwin, John, or their father.
Edwin did, at times, perform with his family, including Shakespearean plays with his father. As well as a benefit performance with his siblings to erect a statue of Shakespeare in Central Park. But they were a family divided.
After the Civil War began and split the nation, Edwin remained loyal to the United States as a Unionist while his brother John was drawn to the Confederate cause. The chasm between them was amplified following John’s assassination of the president.
Edwin disowned his brother, refusing to even let his name be spoken in his house. Eventually, he requested President Johnson return John’s remains to the family. After which Edwin buried the body in the family plot with no marking.
A Legacy Politician
Robert Todd Lincoln was the oldest of four children born to Abraham and Mary Todd Lincoln. He was the only one to outlive both parents. Tad was the only other to outlive Abraham.
He graduated from Harvard during the Civil War but was kept from enlisting for most of the war by his mother. Eventually, Abraham made the point that he should not receive special privileges just because of the circumstances of his birth. Mary reluctantly agreed.
Robert was granted a position as an officer in General Ulysses S. Grant’s staff. This meant that he would be able to largely avoid any frontline combat. He was also able to witness some of the most important moments of the war, including Lee’s surrender at Appomattox.
Thus, Robert survived the war and eventually turned down an invitation to join his family at Ford’s Theatre, where his father would be assassinated. But over the course of his life, he would then witness two other presidential assassinations.
As Secretary of War, he was an eyewitness when James Garfield was assassinated in 1881. He was also in attendance at the Pan-American Exposition when William McKinley was shot.
A Historical Irony
Edwin and Robert met by happenstance in Jersey City at a train station. Edwin was on his way to Philadelphia from New York. Robert happened to be in the same car.
The train was stopped at the station. Passengers were crowding around the door to buy their sleeping car seats from the conductor, who was standing on the platform.
Robert describes how the platform was about the same height as the train car. But it was not completely flush so that the train could pass through. This left a small gap that led to the tracks below.
With the mass of bodies pushing to the doorway of the train car for their tickets, Robert wound up pressed against the wall of the car. When the car suddenly began moving a bit, he lost his footing and spun around, slipping into the gap.
After a brief moment of panic, Robert was yanked out of the hole by his shirt collar. As he turned to thank the man who rescued him, Lincoln recognized him as one of the most accomplished actors of the age. He said “That was a narrow escape, Mr. Booth”, thanked him, and both of them went on their way.
It was not until weeks later that Edwin realized the significance of what had happened. He received a letter in the mail from his friend Colonel Adam Badeau, an officer in the US Army who worked on General Ulysses S. Grant’s staff.
The letter commended Edwin for rescuing the president’s son, who had recently joined the US Army and also worked on Grant’s staff. Robert had shared the story of Edwin’s deeds. He was likely in awe that he was rescued by a national celebrity.
An article in The Century Magazine first documented the incident publicly in 1893 after Edwin told the story to his friend, the editor William Bispham. In 1909, Robert responded with a letter to the new editor Richard Watson Gilder to clarify some specific details of the incident.
Robert’s narration of the events has become the most widely known in the years since the original publication.
The Mixed Legacy of Booth and Lincoln
Although not formally documented, it is said that saving Robert from injury or death eased Edwin’s mind in the years following Lincoln’s assassination. The Booth name was sullied by John’s crimes. And as a loyal Unionist, Edwin was heartbroken not only for his family but also for his country.
Although Abraham was murdered in 1865, Edwin was able to give him time with his son until he died, rather than losing him as the Lincolns had lost their other children. Grant also thanked Edwin personally. But it is unclear whether Abraham ever knew that his to-be assassin’s brother saved his son’s life.
But history remembers the odd historical irony of one Booth killing a Lincoln while another Booth saved one.
Brooks, Rebecca Beatrice. “Edwin Booth Saved Robert Todd Lincoln’s Life.” Civil War Saga, January 3, 2012. https://civilwarsaga.com/edwin-booth-saved-robert-todd-lincolns-life/.
Crotty, Rob. “The curious case of Robert Lincoln.” National Archives: Pieces of History, October 27, 2010. https://prologue.blogs.archives.gov/2010/10/27/the-curious-case-of-robert-lincoln/.
Think on Your Own. “Edwin Booth Saved Abraham Lincoln’s Son, Then His Brother Assassinated President Lincoln, Then Lincoln’s Son Directly Witnessed Two More Presidential Assassinations.” Medium, September 28, 2023. https://medium.com/@alexsutton_49516/edwin-booth-saved-abraham-lincolns-son-then-his-brother-assassinated-president-lincoln-then-113a1ad733d5.