Alonzo Chappel’s The Last Hours of Abraham Lincoln

After being fatally shot at Ford’s Theatre, the unconscious body of our 16th President was carefully carried across the street to the home of William Petersen.  He was brought into the bedroom of boarder William Clark, who was out of town for the night, and laid diagonally across the bed.  It would be in this room that Abraham Lincoln would pass away at 7:22 am the next morning.  During the almost nine hours that Lincoln spent in the Petersen boardinghouse, dozens of Washington’s elite made an appearance at his death chamber to pay their last respects.

Room In Which Lincoln Died

 Those who have visited the restored Petersen House across from Ford’s know that the room the President died in is small.  It measures 9′ 11″ wide by 17′ 11″ long.  Despite its small size, the room in which Lincoln died has gained the moniker of the “Rubber Room”.  This is due to the way in which the small room stretched to unrecognizable proportions in the various engravings, lithographs, and prints that were made following Lincoln’s death.  There’s a wonderful chapter in the edited book, The Lincoln Assassination: Crime & Punishment, Myth & Memory by Lincoln authors Harold Holzer and Frank Williams that explores the “Rubber Room” phenomenon in detail.  In summation, the various artists of deathbed illustrations were forced to make the room appear larger and larger in order to cram more and more dignitaries  into one, defining scene.  Here are just a few depictions of how the small bedroom photographed above became a massive hall for the mourners.

Death of Abraham Lincoln Kellogg

Death bed of Lincoiln Brett

Death of Lincoln Ritchie

As fancifully large as these depictions are, they all pale in comparison with the magnitude of a painting by Alonzo Chappel.  His piece was a collaboration with another man by the name of John B. Bachelder, who served as the massive painting’s designer.  Entitled, The Last Hours of Abraham Lincoln, Chappel and Bachelder wanted to depict all of the notable people who visited Lincoln that night at the same time and, in doing so, stretched the rubber room into unparalleled proportions:

The Last House of Abraham Lincoln by Alonzo Chappel (Click to enlarge)

The Last House of Abraham Lincoln by Alonzo Chappel (Click to see an enlarged view)

In all, the painting contains the images of 47 people in the back bedroom of the Petersen House.  The room has grown so much to accommodate all of these souls, that the walls started duplicating themselves.  It appears that the known lithograph that hung in the room “The Village Blacksmith” gave birth to a smaller, mirrored version of itself as the walls stretched out:

The Village Blacksmith & son Chappel

Just for fun, let’s say that all of the individuals pictured in Chappel’s painting were present in Lincoln’s death room at the same time.  Using modern measurements, William Clark’s room has an area of 177 square feet.  We’ll subtract 20 square feet for the bed on which Lincoln died since that is the only piece of furniture that we know had to remain in the room.  That leaves us with 157 square feet.  We’ll divide that by the 46 visitors in Chappel’s painting (we’re not including Lincoln since he was laying on the bed).  That gives everyone in the room a cozy 3.4 square feet all to themselves.  To give you some perspective, in a well ventilated, outdoor setting like a crowded rock concert, the accepted bare minimum amount of space per person is 7 square feet. For many interior settings the common rule of thumb is at least 9 square feet per person.  If everyone in this painting tried to get into William Clark’s room at the same time, they would be literally crammed together like sardines in a can.   What’s more, this imaginary calculation does not include the other furniture in the room, the large amount of space that the women’s hoop skirts would require, and the measurements by Osborn Oldroyd which, if correct, would lower the room’s original square footage from 177 sq. ft. to 161.5 sq. ft.

Despite the laughable morphing power of the small bedroom, Chappel’s painting was considered one of the best depictions of the death chamber of Abraham Lincoln.  The details for each person were exquisitely done and so life like.  Of course, there was a very good reason why Chappel was able to paint such realistic versions of the many people who visited Lincoln that night.  The designer of the piece, John Bachelder, had convinced many of the people in the painting to sit for photographs in the poses that Chappel wanted to paint.  Notable figures like Andrew Johnson, Edwin Stanton and even Robert Todd Lincoln posed in Mathew Brady’s studio in ways that the painting would later recreate.

Robert Todd Lincoln Alonzo Chappel

In addition to the cabinet members and politicians who posed for Bachelder and Chappel, there were also two individuals whose presence at the Petersen House was never questioned but, for some reason, they did not appear in other depictions of the President’s death.  These two neglected people were Mr. and Mrs. Lincoln’s guests for the evening, Major Henry Rathbone and Clara Harris.

Major Henry Rathbone and Clara Harris (composite by the author)

Major Henry Rathbone and Clara Harris (composite by the author)

Both Henry and Clara posed for their own photographs and were worked into the painting.  Clara is given a degree of prominence in the painting standing just behind the grieving Robert Todd Lincoln:

Clara Harris in Chappel's Last Hours

Henry, on the other hand, is removed from the chair he posed in and is literally sidelined to the far left of the painting.  He is almost obscured by the dark edge and frame, perhaps an ironic foreshadowing of the darkness that would later compel him to murder Clara and try to take his own life.

Major Rathbone in Chappel's Last Hours

Alonzo Chappel’s work, The Last Hours of Abraham Lincoln, is a work of contradiction.  The painting simultaneously contains the most detailed and accurate depictions of the individuals who visited the dying President while also demonstrating extreme hyperbole and imprecision with the seemingly ever expanding walls of William Clark’s bedroom.  It’s a beautiful yet unbelievable painting and it exemplifies the “Rubber Room” phenomenon in a truly unsurpassed way.

References:
Civil War Art Entry for The Last Hours of Abraham Lincoln
Library of Congress print of The Last Hours of Abraham Lincoln (slight differences)
Looking For Lincoln: The Making of an American Icon by the Kunhardts
The Lincoln Assassination: Crime & Punishment, Myth & Memory edited by Harold Holzer, Craig Symonds, and Frank Williams

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5 thoughts on “Alonzo Chappel’s The Last Hours of Abraham Lincoln

  1. Richard Sloan

    This painting is displayed in the Chicago History Museum. A smaller one, Chappel’s original study for it, is somewhere else. Chappel is buried in a cemetery in Middle Island, NY (Long Island). He died in 1887. (A photo of his grave is on “find-a-grave.”) For the last two years I have wanted to visit the grave, which is only about a 40-45 min. drive from my home, but have just never gotten around to it. If I recall correctly, he spent his last years there. I think it was an artists’ colony. He may have even started it.
    Chappel’s painting is my favt. one of the deathbed scene, and I vividly remember seeing it briefly on display on the south wall of the old Lincoln Museum of Ford’s Theatre. near the entrance, around 1957, the occasion of my first visit.
    I have wanted to acquire a good photo copy of “The Death of Lincoln, and have some info somewhere –from the Chic. museum — about how to order a disc. Then I would take to a place that would bvlow it up to a nice big size. (I have a perfect spot to display it, on the wall along a long staircase. It would only be visible from the seconfd floor and upon reaching the middle of the staircase. (That way my wife wouldn’t see it. She says that’s an “OK” place, where it wouldn’t be visible from downstairs! Of course, I’d rather display it in our living room, but of course she’d say, “Over my dead body!”) However, I don’t have confidence that any studio would do a good job. (I’m very fussy.) Well, just two weeks ago I found a local guy just seven mins. away who will do it and he does amazing work. So I am finally getting ready to order the disc, now that I have someone I have confidence in.to make the print for me. (If anyone is interested in any of this, I’ll give them all the necc. information in a couple of weeks.)
    There are also a couple of firms that claim to be able to paint a reproduction of it, in a fairly large size, unframed, for around $220. (A frame and a mat doing it justice would likely cost another couple of hundred dollars!!)Their web sites make it seem as tho they are terrific in doing this, but I have serious personal doubts that I’d be happy with their results, and I dont think I could get my money back if I don’t like it. (You can see their websites by simply Googling “Alonzo Chappel’s ‘The Death of Lincoln’ !).
    A smaller version by Chappel also exists, but I don’t recall where it is displayed. It was briefly on view at one of the D.C. museums abut five years ago. I viewed it at that time. I brought a small tape measure with me to the museum to measure it, (The kind you can put on a key ring.) I walked over to it and opened up my tape measure to get an approximate height x width measurement. I thought that standing five feet from it would be a safe distance. However, the guard, standing about fifty feet away, hollered out for me to back off, and I immediately acquiesed. He told me that he had no objections, since I was standing far enough away, but that his superiors — watching us on a TV monitor — wouldn’t approve, and he’d get in trouble.
    (Around that same time I saw Jonah Hill playing the guard with the flashlight in the “American Treasures”movie about finding Booth’s missing diary pages. I thought of what it might have been like had I challenged the guard the way Ben Stiller challenged Hill in the movie! (Can you imagine me, in the Ben Stiller role, asking Hill if he knew how to twirl his flashlight?! It’s my favorite scene in the movie) SO give me a couple of weeks and I’ll get you the info if you want it. Perhaps there are others who would also like it. The painting is not available as a poster. The largest I have ever seen it reproduced in color is in a recent Lincoln calendar. (Please forgive me for making this post so long!)

  2. Tom K

    From all the drawings I have seen of the Lincoln deathbed not one is accurate. I give thumbs up to Chapel for painting all the people in there but he should have painted the scene at different times throughout the night. A good drawing of the Lincoln deathbed scene should include a) the accurate layout of the room (for a better idea see the photo taken by Julius Ulke minutes after Lincoln’s body was removed) and b) if it is 7:22 Mary wasnt present at the time of his death.

  3. Jim Jett

    “Lincolns Last Hours” This is a very interesting FREE kindle book written by Charles Augustus Leale. Just go to amazon and download to your kindle. It’s quite short. It describes in great detail Lincoln’s injuries and fight for life. Dr. Charles Augustus Leale M.D. (March 26, 1842 – June 13, 1932) was a surgeon in the Union Army during the American Civil War. He was the first doctor to arrive at the presidential box at Ford’s Theatre on April 14, 1865 after John Wilkes Booth fatally shot President Abraham Lincoln in the back of the head with a Philadelphia Deringer pistol. His quick efforts temporarily saved President Lincoln’s life, which allowed Lincoln to live until the next morning.

  4. Tom K

    If you haven’t seen it yet the Fords Theater NHS Brochure provides an accurate depiction of the death scene in the Al Lorenz art “Events Of April 14-15 1865”

  5. Pingback: The Day Lincoln Was Shot: A Visual – The Publican

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