What Surprising Connection Did Abraham Lincoln Have to John Wilkes Booth?

Here's a headline that never ran but is nevertheless true: Booth saved Lincoln's life. No, we're not talking about the assassin John Wilkes Booth, who shot President Abraham Lincoln in 1865, but rather his brother, Edwin Booth. Nor are we referring to the president, but instead to his oldest son, Robert Todd Lincoln.

Edwin Booth, brother of John Wilkes Booth, saved the life of Abraham Lincoln’s son on a train platform.
Edwin Booth, brother of John Wilkes Booth, saved the life of Abraham Lincoln’s son on a train platform.

The event took place in Jersey City, New Jersey, in the midst of the Civil War (likely 1863 or 1864). Robert Todd Lincoln was on his way to Washington, D.C., during a break from his college education at Harvard, and acclaimed actor (and Lincoln supporter) Edwin Booth was traveling to Richmond, Virginia. While standing on the train station platform, waiting to board, Lincoln was jostled by the crowd and almost fell onto the tracks. But in the nick of time, Booth reached out and grabbed Lincoln by the coat collar, then pulled him to safety.

Although printed accounts of the rescue appeared shortly after the president's assassination, much of the detail was either wrong or exaggerated. Fortunately, Robert Todd Lincoln gave an account himself in a 1909 letter to the editor of "The Century Magazine."

The other Booth and Lincoln:

  • Robert Todd Lincoln was the only child of Abraham and Mary Todd Lincoln to live to adulthood; he died in 1926.

  • Edwin Booth was an avid supporter of President Lincoln. Famous for his role as Hamlet, he was often referred to as the greatest American stage actor of the 19th century.

  • In a strange coincidence, Robert Todd was either near to or on his way to meet both Presidents Garfield and McKinley shortly before their assassinations.

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