Edwin Booth-Robert Lincoln incident (Article 5)

The final version of my book, “Abraham Lincoln-An Uncommon, Common Man,” does not include this encounter between Robert Lincoln, eldest son of Abraham Lincoln, and Edwin Booth, the older brother of Lincoln’s assassin. However, it is a fascinating irony of the times and deserves a brief narration.

In an odd coincidence, Robert Lincoln was once saved from possible serious injury or even death by Edwin Booth, who was the country’s most famous actor. Edwin’s brother, John Wilkes Booth, who was also an actor but with lesser talent and public recognition, would later murder Robert’s father, President Abraham Lincoln.

The incident took place on a train platform in Jersey City, New Jersey and, while neither man could later remember the exact date, it took place in early 1864, about a year before the President’s assassination in April 1865. Robert Lincoln wrote the following explanation of the encounter:

“The incident occurred while a group of passengers were late at night purchasing their sleeping car places from the conductor who stood on the station platform at the entrance to the car. The platform was about the height of the car floor, and there was of course a narrow space between the platform and the car body. There was some crowding, and I happened to be pressed by it against the car body while waiting my turn. In this situation the train began to move and, and by the motion I was twisted off my feet, and had dropped somewhat, with feet downward into the open space, and was personally helpless, when my coat collar was vigorously seized and I was pulled up and out to a secure footing on the platform. Upon turning to thank my rescuer I saw it was Edwin Booth, whose face was of course well known to me, and I expressed my gratitude to him, and in doing so, called him by name.”

However, it seems that while Robert recognized Edwin and profusely, and nervously, thanked him, Robert evidently failed to introduce himself; not surprising considering his emotional state immediately following the harrowing escape.

After Edwin’s swift rescue actions, but before Abraham Lincoln’s death, Robert was in the Union Army serving as an officer on the staff of General Ulysses S. Grant. Robert recalled the events in a conversation with a fellow officer, Colonel Adam Badeau, who happened to be a friend of Edwin Booth. Colonel Badeau then sent a letter to Edwin, recounting Robert’s story and complimenting the actor for his heroism. Booth later said he remembered that the young man very graciously thanked him but the two separated before being introduced. Until Colonel Badeau’s letter arrived, Edwin had been unaware that the man whose life he had saved on the train platform was the President’s son. Presumably at the request of Colonel Babeau, General Grant also sent a letter to Edwin stating his appreciation for Edwin’s selfless actions.

Following John Wilkes Booth’s assassination of the President, the family and friends of Edwin said that the opportune encounter and quick response to save Robert was of great comfort to Edwin who, while not overly political, had supported the Union cause and admired President Lincoln.

Robert had earlier graduated from Harvard and, after the War ended in 1865, he left the Army and began a legal career. Although he was never a politician, Robert went on to become the Secretary of War under President James Garfield, then became the Ambassador to Great Britain under President Benjamin Harrison, and later a successful railroad executive. He is buried at Arlington National Cemetery.

This is a fine example of the old proverb, “A life saved should become a life well lived!”

contact the author at gadorris2@gmail.com

Lincoln, Black Bill, and the N-word. (Article 4)

In the preface to my book, “Abraham Lincoln – An Uncommon, Common Man,” I wrote the following paragraph (in part) about Lincoln’s avoidance of racially disparaging language contrary to the common norm of the day.

“I have read numerous quotations by Lincoln with the words Negro, Black, and African, but not one validated quote using the pejorative of Negro or any words intended to be disrespectful.”

I was recently reminded by a reader about an incident in which Lincoln used the pejorative of Negro, often referred to these days as the “N-word” to avoid actually using it. The reader was correct. I should have been more clear in the preface because I was aware of Lincoln’s use of the N-word in a slander trial in 1856.

Lincoln agreed to represent as a plaintiff a man named William “Black Bill” Dungy, a dark skinned Portuguese who had recently married a White woman. The brother of Dungy’s new wife began to tell neighbors that he believed “Black Bill” was a Negro, and as was common with the language of that day, chose to use the N-word, as he re-told his suspicions throughout the community. Lincoln knew there were really two issues at stake; first a slander case against the brother-in-law but, even more important, he needed to avoid a criminal trial for Dungy because it was illegal in Illinois at that time for a Negro to marry a White person and the penalty could be severe, in some cases death!

During the trial for slander, Lincoln repeated, in court,  the language used by the brother-in-law and then said, “If the malice of the defendant had rested, satisfied with speaking the words once or twice, my client would have borne it in silence; but when the defendant went gabbling, yes gabbling, about it, then it was that my client determined to bring this suit.”

Lincoln won the slander suit and the brother-in-law was required to pay Dungy $ 600.00 but Lincoln suggested that Dungy agree to only $400.00 as a “gesture of good-will.” The defendant was also ordered to pay all legal fees, and Lincoln asked the Judge and a few other lawyers how much he should charge. He then astounded all of them, including the defendant, when he set his fee at only $25.00 rather than the $100.00 others suggested.

By winning the slander case, Lincoln stated publicly that no other party should bring a criminal case as the point had been made moot in a court of law; and no criminal case against Dungy was ever filed.

Some abolitionists in the 1860’s and other critics of Lincoln from the safe perch in the late 20th century, argued that he should have taken the criminal case to court and attempted to use the subsequent trial (and probable appeals) to change Illinois law. One of Lincoln’s friends later remarked that “I suppose Lincoln didn’t see what good that would do for his client, Mr. Dungy, as a loss would have had terrible consequences for the man and his wife.”

In another irony of history, some of Dungy’s later descendants believed that “Black Bill” was not Portuguese after all.  But, thankfully, in today’s world it wouldn’t be a criminal matter in any event.

So, although Lincoln used the N-word in the trial, I still maintain that he did not use such disrespectful language in his conversations among friends or in public discourse, despite its common usage by many people at that time.

William Seward, then a Senator but later Lincoln’s Secretary of State, once told Senator Stephen Douglas that no man who spells Negro with two G’s should ever be President. I don’t believe Abraham Lincoln spelled Negro with two G’s, and he became a fine President.

contact the author at gadorris2@gmail.com