Stranger Than Fiction: Booth Rescues Lincoln

Robert Lincoln in 1865

Robert Lincoln in 1865

One evening in 1863, Robert Lincoln, the eldest son of President Abraham Lincoln stood on a platform at the Pennsylvania Railroad Station in Jersey City. A crowd of people began gathering around the conductor to buy sleep car reservations as an even larger crowd jammed the train entrance.

The young Lincoln slowly made his way to the train preparing to board when suddenly the train started with a jolt. As the anxious crowd began to push forward, Lincoln found himself being pushed toward the train. As he stumbled nearer he slipped and fell with his feet trapped between the loading platform and the moving train. The train began moving slowly forward trapping young Lincoln. He could be seriously injured or, if dragged down the track, he could be killed.

Suddenly, he felt a firm grip clutch his collar and begin pulling him upward. He turned his head and realized that a brave Samaritan had climbed through the railing, at great personal risk to himself, in an attempt to save the hapless young man. This selfless individual had wrapped one of his legs around the rail post and held the rail with one hand while attempting to pull the young man up with his other hand. Once he was pulled to safety, Lincoln was overcome with a feeling of relief. Trembling nervously, he turned to thank his rescuer and was shocked by the man’s presence. Robert’s rescuer was none other than Edwin Booth, one of the greatest actors of his day.

Edwin came from a family of legendary thespians. His father was Junius Brutus Booth, one of the greatest tragedians of his era. His brothers were Junius Booth and an up and coming John Wilkes Booth. Robert thanked his rescuer as a crowd gathered around. Edwin’s fame was widespread and most Americans recognized him. He was nearly as well known as the president himself. Many wanted to shake Edwin’s hand. Ironically, everyone recognized Edwin but none in the crowd, including Edwin, recognized Robert. Edwin quickly lost himself in the crowd. It would be several weeks before he learned the identity of the man he rescued.

Weeks later Edwin received a letter from General Ulysses Grant commending him for his bravery and thanking him for his selfless act of courage. Grant went on to tell him that if he could ever serve Edwin in any way he would be glad to do so.

Two years later, Edwin’s brother, John Wilkes Booth, assassinated Robert’s father, Abraham Lincoln. Two weeks following the assassination, John Wilkes Booth was hunted down and killed in a shootout with soldiers. His body was then buried under the Old Federal Prison.

Edwin Booth pictured with his daughter Edwina

Edwin Booth pictured with his daughter Edwina

By 1869, Booth’s mother, Mary Ann, was in failing health. She wanted her son’s body returned to the family before she left this world. She asked Edwin to speak to President Johnson to get John’s body released to the family so that it could be buried in the Booth family cemetery. Edwin met with General Grant and reminded him that he owed him a favor. Grant, in turn, spoke to President Johnson. He reminded him of Edwin’s heroism. For that act of heroism alone President Johnson agreed to release John’s body to the family.

He stipulated that the body could only be moved at night. It must be moved in secrecy. There could be no public funeral service and no marker could be placed on Booth’s grave. This was due to Johnson’s fear that Booth’s birthday might become a southern holiday and his grave might become a Confederate shrine. He is buried in his hometown of Bel Air, Maryland.

This is one of 50 strange but true stories in a new book written by Michael Williams. The book is entitled “Stranger than Fiction: The Lincoln Curse.” The stories will leave the reader convinced that perhaps Mark Twain was right when he said “truth is stranger than fiction.”

Michael Williams has written for more than 30 newspapers and magazines including the Civil War Times Illustrated, The Civil War Courier, the Associated Press and the Knoxville Journal.

The book is 187 pages in a softbound edition with numerous photos. The book can be purchased from for $19.95 plus shipping and handling or you can save shipping cost and save $2 on the purchase price by ordering a signed copy directly from the author. Send $17.95 to P.O. Box 6421 Sevierville, TN. 37864.

Source: Michael Williams, Jefferson County Post Staff Writer