Posts Tagged With: Petersen House

The Memorials on Tenth St.

Today, Ford’s Theatre and the Petersen House across the street constitute the “Ford’s Theatre National Historic Site”.  Operated by the National Park Service in partnership with the Ford’s Theatre Society, both buildings exist for the purpose of educating the public about Lincoln’s last hours.  Standing as they are today, it is sometimes difficult to imagine that, historically, they have not always been dedicated to serving Lincoln’s memory.  In fact, it was not until several years after Lincoln’s death that an effort was made to commemorate these buildings in anyway.  The modern museums of Ford’s Theatre and the Petersen House started off quite humbly as mere memorial plaques.

While the site of Lincoln’s assassination and the house in which he died were well known and hardly forgotten sites of Washington history, there was no move to commemorate either one of the buildings until nearly 14 years after the Great Emancipator’s death.  The first building to receive some sort of physical recognition was the Petersen House.  In 1879, it was the home of lawyer and newspaper publisher, Louis Schade.  You can read more about Mr. Schade and his connections to the assassination story HERE.  Schade had bought the Petersen House from the Petersen heirs in 1878.  In August of 1879, a couple of newspaper articles announced the installation of a marble tablet on the exterior wall of the Petersen House commemorating the historic nature of the house:

1879 marble tablet at Petersen House 2

1879 Marble tablet at Petersen House

As reported, the tablet was created and put up by a private citizen, Charles Rousseau.  Mr. Rousseau was a Belgian native who learned the art of sculpture at the Royal Academy of Fine Arts in Brussels.  He made his living carving tombstones and was quite talented at it.  One of Charles Rousseau’s creations is this tombstone for Benjamin Grenup, believed to be the first Washington, D.C. fireman to have been killed in the line of duty when he was run over by the fire wagon:

Charles Rousseau Benjamin Grenup

Whether Mr. Rousseau took it upon himself to make a tablet for the Petersen House, or whether Schade commissioned it, is not known.  Regardless, the tablet with its gold lettering was installed high on the exterior wall, far out of reach.  Here is a picture of the Petersen House as it appeared when Schade lived there as published in John E. Buckingham’s 1894 book, Reminiscences and Souvenirs of the Assassination of Abraham Lincoln:

Petersen House Buckingham 1894

In the image, Buckingham retouched the tablet to make lettering readable:

Buckingham Marble Petersen tablet 1894

This marble tablet remained the only marker on the site for many years.  After the house was sold by Schade to the federal government in 1896, Osborn Oldroyd became its curator and started displaying his Lincoln collection inside.

Petersen House w Oldroyd Marble Tablet

As time went by, the small marble tablet began competing with Oldroyd’s large signs hawking admission to the house to see his collection.

Petersen House Oldroyd Tablet

Almost 30 years passed and the small marble tablet remained fixed high on the exterior.

Petersen Original Marble Tablet Transcription

However, by 1909 the marble tablet was no longer on display.  Photographs during this time only show the three holes and the discoloration of the bricks from where the tablet had hung for so many years.

Petersen House No tablet

Whether Rousseau’s tablet fell or was purposefully removed is unknown. One text states that the tablet was removed because of complaints from visitors who stated it was placed too high up on the wall to read easily. If this is correct, perhaps Oldroyd felt his large museum signs provided the necessary information. Regardless, for a time in the early 1900’s, the only memorials on the Petersen House were the advertising for the Oldroyd collection of Lincolniana.

Meanwhile, across the street, the edifice that witnessed the horrible crime of April 14th, 1865, remained bare of any memorials. No private citizen had adorned the exterior wall of “Old Ford’s Theatre” like Charles Rousseau had done for the Petersen House. Instead, the building had been transformed into an office building, suffered a tragic collapse of the interior in 1893, and talks of demolishing it reappeared every few years or so in the press. Through it all, however, the scene of the crime remained.

It was not until 58 years after the death of Abraham Lincoln that a group of citizens decided it was time to commemorate the site of Lincoln’s assassination. The group, established by the Commissioners of the District of Columbia, was called the Citizens Committee of Historic Sites. With the help of the commissioners, the committee appealed for funds from Congress for the, “erection of suitable tablets to mark historical places in the District of Columbia”. For several years the committee was appropriated $500 and placed bronze plaques at various sites in D.C. On February 28, 1923, their appropriations were renewed and the committee started the design of two new plaques. One plaque was going to take the place of Rousseau’s marble tablet on the Petersen House while the other was to be placed on the long neglected Ford’s Theatre.

The formal unveiling of the new plaques occurred on April 29th, 1924.  I quote from the 1925 book, Abraham Lincoln in the National Capital by Allen C. Clark:

The exercises began at 3 o’clock in the afternoon. The invocation was by the Rt. Rev. Mongr. Cornelius F. Thomas. A History of the Ford Theatre Site was presented by Allen C. Clark. Eloquent addresses were made by the Hon. Henry R. Rathbone and by Frederick L. Fishback, Esq., of the Washington Bar. Mr. Rathbone vividly described and minutely, the scene of assassination. Mr. Fishback touchingly told of the last hours and of the funeral journey to Springfield. The tablet on the Ford Theatre site was revealed by Miss Maud Burr Morris; and Mrs. Osborne H. Oldroyd drew the cord which held the drapery to the tablet on the house where Lincoln died. It was the American flag which draped the tablets. The band from the Military School under the direction of Prof. W. J. Stannard interspersed selections. Frederick D. Owen was in charge of arrangements. Allen C. Clark presided.

As mentioned in the above quote, one of the speakers at the ceremony for the plaques was Representative Henry Riggs Rathbone.  Rep. Rathbone’s father was Henry Reed Rathbone, the army Major who was present in the box when Lincoln was assassinated.  Though the exact details of what he stated do not appear to have been recorded, the ceremony was attended by over 200 people.

Ford's and PetersenTablets - Washington Post 4-30-1924

In addition to this newspaper article from the Washington Post, there is also the following photograph of Rep. Rathbone speaking at the ceremony.  This fascinating photograph of a Rathbone speaking in front of Ford’s Theatre was the genesis for this post:


Rep. Henry Riggs Rathbone speaking at the unveiling of the memorial plaques on Ford’s Theatre and the Petersen House on April 29, 1924. Click to greatly enlarge. LOC

The plaque that the Committee of Historic Sites placed on the Petersen House still stands on the house today.  It is located at a much more readable level than its predecessor, now hanging between the basement and first floor.

Petersen House with plaque

Petersen House Plaque

The plaque on Ford’s Theatre hung on the exterior of the building for many years, marking the location of the great crime of ’65.


In the early 1960’s public support swelled to restore Ford’s Theatre to its former glory as a working theatre and a Lincoln museum.  During the periods of restoration and construction the plaque was taken down for obvious reasons.

Ford's during reconstruction no plaque NPS

When the newly restored Ford’s Theatre was unveiled in 1968, the plaque hung by the Committee of Historic Sites in 1924 was not restored to its place.  While the exact location of the Ford’s Theatre plaque is not known to this author at this time, it is likely that it entered the collection of the National Park Service and is being safely stored away.

The historic nature of a location is rarely appreciated in its time.  In most instances, plaques are markers to note where something historic once was but is no longer.  For many years it was a strong possibility that Ford’s Theatre or the Petersen House could be sold and torn down.  If events had played out differently, the magnificence that is Ford’s Theatre or the emotional impact that is the Petersen House would have been reduced to raised lettering on a piece of bronze.  We are fortunate that the generations that came before us had the forethought to preserve and protect these sites so that they may be enjoyed today.  Still, we also must remember that, like Rome, the structures we respect were not built in a day. The glorious museums on Tenth St. were founded on the actions of private citizens like ourselves and some memorial words on a tablet.

Abraham Lincoln in the National Capital by Allen C. Clark
Restoration of Ford’s Theatre by George Olszewski
William A. Petersen House: House Where Lincoln Died – Historic Structure Report by the National Park Service
Washington Post
Library of Congress
Meserve Collection
Reminiscences and Souvenirs of the Assassination of Abraham Lincoln by J. E. Buckingham, Sr. (1894)
National Park Service

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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.

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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Lincoln Assassination sites via View-Master

One of the great things about being home for the holidays is the chance to engage in some nostalgia. Today, I was looking through some of the old toys that my siblings and I played with as kids. My eyes came across a large container full of old View-Master cards. I found my favorite reels containing images of Mickey Mouse, Muppets, Snoopy, and other childhood characters. After playfully clicking through and looking at the familiar 3D images, I discovered some non-familiar View-Master reels. We probably inherited from my grandparents collection and it’s doubtful that I ever took any interest in these, non character, related reels as a child. Among the different views of national parks and seascapes was a set of three reels entitled the, “Lincoln Heritage Trail”.

Lincoln viewmaster

Though I have not been able to come up with a date for the images or the reels, there were two pictures from the reels that connect to Lincoln’s assassination.

Photo Dec 25, 8 53 21 PM

Ford’s Theatre from the “Lincoln Heritage Trail” View-Master reel

Photo Dec 25, 8 54 23 PM

Petersen House from the “Lincoln Heritage Trail” View-Master reel

I put the other 19 images from the “Lincoln Heritage Trail” View-Master reels up on Roger Norton’s Abraham Lincoln Discussion Symposium. Check them out here.

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Corporal Tanner’s Letter

James Tanner in 1889

James Tanner in 1889

As Abraham Lincoln lay dying at the Petersen boardinghouse, the investigation was already underway in the parlor.  Under the order of Secretary Stanton, witnesses were interviewed and their testimony taken.  Finding the process of taking their testimony down in longhand to be too time consuming, the call went out for someone who knew phonography (shorthand). It was discovered that a boarder at the house adjacent to the Petersen House had studied phonography.  His name was Corporal James Tanner.  Tanner had been seriously wounded at Bull Run when a fragment of shell ripped through his lower legs:

“The boys picked me up,” Tanner recalled, and, “laid me on a blanket – no stretcher being available – and twisted a musket in on each side and lifted me to their shoulders.  Neither of my legs had been entirely severed; my feet were hanging by shreds of flesh.  The blanket was short, and lying on it on my face, I looked under and saw my feet dangling by the skin as they hung off of the other end.  Some kind hearted soul gently lifted them and laid them on the edge of the blanket.”

In the field hospital, both of Tanner’s legs were amputated four inches below the knee.  Tanner was exceeding lucky to survive the recovery process for such a wound.  When he returned to civilian life, he was equipped with artificial legs and learned to walk again with the use of a cane to help steady himself.  He entered business school and studied shorthand.  On April 14th, 1865, Tanner was residing in Washington, D.C. working for the Ordinance Bureau of the War department.

Tanner took the testimony of six witnesses, Alfred Cloughly, Lt. A. M. S. Crawford, Harry Hawk, James C. Ferguson, Henry B. Philips, and Col. George V. Rutherford that fateful night.  Two days after the President’s death, Tanner wrote a letter to a friend in which he recounted his involvement that night.  That letter, which follows below, contains an interesting glimpse at the activities inside the Petersen House and the duties of Corporal Tanner:

Ordnance Office, War Department,

Washington, April 17, 1865.

Friend Walch:

Your very welcome letter was duly received by me and now I will steal a few minutes from my duties in the office to answer it.

Of course, you must know as much as I do about the terrible events which have happened in this city during the past few days. I have nothing else to write about so I will give you a few ideas about that, perhaps, which you have not yet got from the papers.

Last Friday night a friend invited me to attend the theatre with him, which I did. I would have preferred the play at Ford’s Theatre, where the President was shot, but my friend chose the play at Grover’s, which was ‘Aladdin, or the Wonderful Lamp.’ While sitting there witnessing the play about ten o’clock or rather a little after, the entrance door was thrown open and a man exclaimed, “President Lincoln is assassinated in his private box at Ford’s!” Instantly all was excitement and a terrible rush commenced and someone cried out, “Sit down, it is a ruse of the pickpockets.” The audience generally agreed to this, for the most of them sat down, and the play went on; soon, however, a gentleman came out from behind the scenes and informed us that the sad news was too true. We instantly dispersed.

On going out in the street we were horrified to learn that Mr. Seward had been attacked and severely injured while in bed at his house. Myself and friend went up to Willard’s, which is a short distance above Grover’s, to learn what we could, but could learn nothing there. The people were terribly excited. Ford’s Theatre is on Tenth St. between E and F. Grover’s is on the Avenue near Fourteenth St. and just below Willard’s; it is about four blocks up from Ford’s. My boarding house is right opposite Ford’s Theatre. We then got on the cars and went down to Tenth St. and up Tenth St. to Ford’s and to my boarding house. There was an immense throng there, very quiet yet very much excited; the street was crowded and I only got across on account of my boarding there. The President had been carried into the adjoining house to where I board; I went up to my room on the second floor and out on the balcony which nearly overhangs the door of Mr. Peterson’s house. Members of the cabinet, the chief justice, Generals Halleck, Meiggs, Augur and others were going in and out, all looking anxious and sorrow-stricken. By leaning over the railing I could learn from time to time of His Excellency’s condition, and soon learned that there was no hope of him. Soon they commenced taking testimony in the room adjoining where he lay, before Chief Justice Carter, and General Halleck called for a reporter: no one was on hand, but one of the head clerks in our office, who boarded there, knew I could write shorthand and he told the General so, and he bade him call me, so he came to the door and asked me to come down and report the testimony. I went down and the General passed me in, as the house was strictly guarded, of course. I went into a room between the rear room and the front room. Mrs. Lincoln was in the front room weeping as though her heart would break. In the back room lay His Excellency breathing hard, and with every breath a groan. In the room where I was, were Generals Halleck, Meiggs, Augur and others, all of the cabinet excepting Mr. Seward, Chief Justice Chase and Chief Justice Carter of the District of Columbia, Andrew Johnson and many other distinguished men. A solemn silence pervaded the whole throng; it was a terrible moment. Never in my life was I surrounded by half so impressive circumstances. Opposite me at the table where I sat writing- sat Secretary Stanton writing dispatches to General Dix and others, and giving orders for the guarding of Ford’s and the surrounding country. At the left of me was Judge Carter propounding the questions to the witnesses whose answers I was jotting down in Standard Phonography. I was so excited when I commenced that I am afraid that it did not much resemble Standard Phonography or any other kind, but I could read it readily afterward, so what was the difference? In fifteen minutes I had testimony enough down to hang Wilkes Booth, the assassin, higher than ever Haman hung. I was writing shorthand for about an hour and a half, when I commenced transcribing it. I thought I had been writing about two hours when I looked at the clock and it marked half past four A.M. I commenced writing about 12 M. I could not believe that it was so late, but my watch corroborated it. The surrounding circumstances had so engrossed my attention that I had not noticed the flight of time. In the front room Mrs. Lincoln was uttering the most heartbroken exclamations all the night long. As she passed through the hall back to the parlor after she had taken leave of the President for the last time, as she went by my door I heard her moan, “O, my God, and have I given my husband to die,” and I tell you I never heard so much agony in so few words. The President was still alive, but sinking fast. He had been utterly unconscious from the time the shot struck him and remained so until he breathed his last. At 6:45 Saturday morning I finished my notes and passed into the back room where the President lay; it was very evident that he could not last long. There was no crowd in the room, which was very small, but I approached quite near the bed on which so much greatness lay, fast losing its hold on this world. The head of the bed was toward the door; at the head stood Cap. Robert Lincoln weeping on the shoulder of Senator Sumner. General Halleck stood just behind Robert Lincoln and I stood just to the left of General Halleck and between him and General Meiggs. Secretary Stanton was there trying every way to be calm and yet he was very much moved. The utmost silence prevailed, broken only by the sound of strong men’s sobs. It was a solemn time, I assure you. The President breathed heavily until a few minutes before he breathed his last, then his breath came easily and he passed off very quietly.

As soon as he was dead Rev. Dr. Gurley, who has been the President’s pastor since his sojourn in this city, offered up a very impressive prayer. I grasped for my pencil which was in my pocket, as I wished to secure his words, but I was very much disappointed to find that my pencil had been broken in my’ pocket. I could have taken it very easily as he spoke very favorably for reporting. The friends dispersed, Mrs. Lincoln and family going to the White House, which she had left the night before to attend the theatre with him who never returned to it except in his coffin.

Secretary Stanton told me to take charge of the testimony I had taken, so I went up to my room and took a copy of it, as I wished to keep both my notes and the original copy which I had made while there in the house. They will ever be cherished monuments to me of the awful night and the circumstances with which I found myself so unexpectedly surrounded and which will not soon be forgotten.

Saturday night I took the copy I had made to the Secretary’s house, but as he was asleep I did not see him, so I left them with my card. I tell you, I would not regret the time and money I have spent on Phonography if it never brought me more than it did that night, for that brought me the privilege of standing by the deathbed of the most remarkable man of modern times and one who will live in the annals of his country as long as she continues to have a history.

Frank Leslie’s Illustrated will have a good picture of the building there made celebrated by this sad event on that evening. I saw the sketch made by the artist of the theatre, and it was very correct, indeed. He also sketched the inside of the room where the President died, also the outside of the building, as well as the adjoining buildings on both sides. You will see the house I board in has a balcony along the front of the two rooms on the second floor; I occupy both of those rooms.

Drawing of the Peterson house from Frank Leslie's  Illustrated Weekly 5/20/1865.  Corporal Tanner's room and balcony are visible on the building next door.

Drawing of the Peterson house from Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Weekly 5/20/1865. Corporal Tanner’s room and balcony are visible on the building next door.

You can imagine the feeling here by judging of the feeling in your own place, only it is the more horrifying from the fact that the President lived in our midst and was universally beloved by the People.

This morning there was published in the Chronicle the statement of one of the witnesses whom I reported, Mr. James B. Ferguson. You will doubtless see it in your papers as it is most important. I have an idea, which is gaining ground here, and that is that the assassin had assistance in the theatre, and that the President was invited there for the express purpose of assassinating him. The theatre is very strictly guarded now night and day.

Very truly your friend,

James Tanner.

The Life of Abraham Lincoln by William Barton
While Lincoln Lay Dying by The Union League of Philadelphia

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Osborn Oldroyd and his Lincoln Museums

The Abraham Lincoln Home in Springfield, IL and the Petersen House in Washington, D.C. have shared similar histories.

Lincoln Petersen Home

  • Both homes witnessed the death of a Lincoln:

On February 1st, 1850, Eddie Lincoln, the second son of Abraham and Mary Todd, died at the age of 3 at the Lincoln Home in Springfield.

On April 15th, 1865 at 7:22 am, President Abraham Lincoln died at the age of 56 at the Petersen House in Washington, D.C.

  • Both homes had few owners:

The Lincoln Home was built in 1839 for the Reverend Charles Dresser.  The Lincolns bought it from him in 1844.  Robert Todd Lincoln inherited the property from his parents and he subsequently gave it to the government in 1887.  This gives the Lincoln home two owners, Rev. Dresser and the Lincoln family, before it was purchased by the government.

The Petersen House was commissioned by William and Anna Petersen in 1849 and built that same year.  When they died in 1871, the house was inherited by their children.  They sold the house to Louis Schade in 1878.  By 1896, Louis Schade sold the house to the government for $30,000.  This gives the Petersen House two owners, the Petersens and Louis Schade, before it was purchased by the government.

  • Both homes had considerable remodeling done when their namesakes lived there:

The Lincoln Home had about 5 renovations while the Lincolns lived there.  Most drastically was the alteration of the home from a 1 ½ story structure to a full 2 story home, as it still is today.

The room that would later be known as the room where Lincoln died, was not even part of the Petersen House when it was originally built.  That addition was put on in 1858.  Fire gutted it in 1863 and William Petersen rebuilt it that same year.

  • Both homes had renters:

When Abraham Lincoln was elected President and moved into the White House, he rented out his Springfield home.  When Robert Todd gained ownership of the place, he continued the practice of renting the house out until he gave it to the government.

The Petersens ran their home as a boarding house for many years.  From Congressmen to soldiers, to actors, they rented out rooms to  many needy Washingtonians.

  • Lastly, both homes shared a long-term occupant, Osborn Hamilton Ingham Oldroyd:

Osborn Oldroyd

Osborn Oldroyd was a Civil War veteran and a devoted collector of Lincoln memorabilia.  In 1883, 41 year-old Oldroyd succeeded in fulfilling the dream of any man who idols another.  Robert Todd Lincoln made Oldroyd the fifth renter of the Lincoln Home in Springfield since his father left the city to claim the Presidency.  Into this historic house, Oldroyd brought his vast collection of nearly 2,000 Lincoln items.  As had been commonplace since the death of Lincoln, many visitors came to call on the Lincoln Home, seeking to visit the home of the great martyr.  Oldroyd let them in like all of his predecessors had, but was the first to charge them admission.  He turned his collection and rented space in a Lincoln Museum.  Robert Todd accepted this exploitation as long as Oldroyd paid his rent, however, by 1885, Oldroyd was starting to fall behind his payments.  Despite not paying him, Robert Todd did not want to bring a lawsuit against Oldroyd as he feared it, “may easily cause me more personal annoyance than the loss of ten times the money.”  Rumors spread that Oldroyd was also cutting off parts of the curtains, wallpaper, and flooring, selling them as souvenirs.  Robert Todd was getting angry with his tenant whom he referred to as a “dead beat” and “rascal”, when an Illinois legislative committee approached him in 1887 to purchase the Lincoln Home.  A similar offer had been given to him in 1883, but at that time he had declined.  Even though, Robert Todd was fairly certain Oldroyd had been the catalyst for this offer, he decided to donate the property to the state of Illinois.  His donation contained two caveats, however.  “…Said homestead shall be, forever, kept in good repair and free of access to the public.”  This latter requirement was probably meant as a final jab towards his “rascal” of a tenant and his entrepreneurial exploits.  Regardless, Osborn Oldroyd was hired by the state of Illinois to be the first custodian of the house and gave him a salary of $1,000 per year.  Oldroyd undoubtedly used this salary to increase his collection at every turn.

Oldroyd’s tenure at the Lincoln Home came to an end in 1893 when he was fired by recently elected Gov. John Peter Altgeld.  Altgeld replaced him with a political friend named Herman Hofferkamp.  Out of a cushy job and a free place to live, Oldroyd was in trouble.  Meanwhile, in Washington, D.C., the Schade family had moved out of the Petersen House apparently fed up with the number of visitors constantly asking to see the death room of the President.  They leased the building to the Memorial Association of the District of Columbia, a group formed by Congress the year before.   When and how Oldroyd managed to convinced this group to make him custodian of the Petersen House is unknown.  According to a biography about Oldroyd written when he was alive, in 1893 Oldroyd moved his collection to the Petersen House, “at the request” of the association.  The earliest account the NPS has managed to find of Oldroyd residing at the Petersen House is June of 1898.  This was after the government purchased the house outright from the Schades in 1896.  So, whether Oldroyd went straight from the Lincoln Home to the Petersen House, or whether he had five years in between, he ultimately found a new location to show off his collection.

While he lived rent free at the Petersen House, Oldroyd did not receive a salary there.  Instead, he got back to his roots and was allowed to charge admission to his museum.  He made the whole first floor of the house his exhibit floor and he and his family lived upstairs.  The first floor of the Petersen House contained considerably less real estate than what he had previously used to showcase his collection at the Lincoln Home.  He covered practically every surface of the Peterson House with material to make up for it.  Oldroyd also had a lot of changes made to the building while he lived there.  Most noticeably, he had the back wall of the room where Lincoln died, removed.

The following are some pictures of the interior of the Petersen House when it housed Osborn Oldroyd’s Lincoln Museum:

Petersen Museum 1922

This picture was taken from within the front parlor of the Petersen House facing towards the rear parlor.  The door to the right leads into the hallway with the room where Lincoln died at one end and the entrance to the Petersen House at the other.

Oldroyd Museum 1

This photo was taken from within the rear parlor of the Petersen House in the direction of the front parlor.  This photo shows only the front parlor.

Oldroyd Museum 2

This photo was taken from the entrance of the room where Lincoln died. The bed Lincoln died in would have been located in the bottom right hand corner of this photo.

The white X marks the spot where the bed Lincoln died in was.

This photo was taken from the rear of the room where Lincoln died in the direction of hallway and Petersen House entrance. The X marks the location of Lincoln’s deathbed.

Oldroyd in his museum

During his tenure at the Petersen House, Oldroyd continued to collect and correspond with many individuals associated with Lincoln’s life and death.  In 1901, after walking the escape route of Lincoln’s assassin on foot with a camera, he published his book, “The Assassination of Abraham Lincoln”.  This volume contains many of the earliest photographs we have of different parts of the escape route.

Oldroyd walking the route

By 1926, after about 30 years curating his collection at Petersen House, Oldroyd sought the help of Congressman Henry Rathbone of Illinois, to insure its preservation.  The son of Henry Rathbone and Clara Harris, the ill fated pair who joined Mr. and Mrs. Lincoln at Ford’s Theatre that night, managed to pass a bill in Congress authorizing the purchasing of Oldroyd’s collection.  Experts at the Smithsonian noted that the collection “was of little practical value”.  Despite this, Oldroyd was paid $50,000.  Oldroyd later stated that he had been offered far greater amounts for the collection by private individuals but that he wanted the collection to be in the hands of the government so that it would be preserved and enjoyed by the public for years to come.  When offered continued curatorship over the collection Oldroyd replied, “the responsibility would be too much for me to assume at my age of eighty-four years.”  Oldroyd was then given the key to the Petersen House and told that he was free to come and go as he pleased and that his accustom chair would always be there for him.

Osborn Hamilton Ingham Oldroyd died four years later in 1930.  He  is buried next to his wife of over 54 years, Lida, at Rock Creek Cemetery in Washington, D.C.

Oldroyd's grave

He may have been a “rascal” as Robert Todd Lincoln called him, but Osborn Oldroyd was also the epitome of a collector.  He devoted his whole life to acquiring everything relating to Abraham Lincoln.  For nearly half of his life, Osborn Oldroyd made his home in houses relating to the 16th President.  To the collection and study of Lincoln, Osborn Oldroyd’s name is unavoidable, particularly in the study of his assassination.  I find it entirely appropriate then, that in this picture of Rep. Henry Rathbone in front of the Petersen House Lincoln Museum, the presence of Osborn Oldroyd in his favored setting is enshrined forever:

Rathbone in front of Oldroyd's Petersen

Oldroyd in the window

House Where Lincoln Died Historic Structures Report by the National Parks Service
Life of Osborn H. Oldroyd by William Burton Benham
Giant in the Shadows: The Life of Robert Todd Lincoln by Jason Emerson
Lincoln Home National Historic Site
The Lincoln Assassination: Where Are They Now? by Jim Garrett and Rich Smyth

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Petersen House Damages

Aftermath Petersen House

There are several blood relics associated with Abraham Lincoln’s assassination: swatches of Laura Keene’s bloodied dress, playbills and misc papers dipped in Lincoln’s blood as he was carried from Ford’s, and the remnants of the physicians’ cuffs and clothing at Lincoln’s death-bed.  The most intact blood relics, however, come from the Petersen House itself.  From pillows, to sheets, to towels, the Petersens sacrificed a great deal of their household furnishings for the dying President.  In the aftermath, they experienced more loss as relic hunters seized upon their boarding house.  As William Clark, the man who was renting the room in which Lincoln died but was absent the nightof the 14th, wrote to his sister on April 19, 1865:

“Everybody has a great desire to obtain some momento from my room so that whoever comes in has to be closely watched for fear they will steal something.”

The number of items we have today regarding Lincoln’s last moments demonstrates that there was considerable loss on the part of the Petersens. After a few months had passed for national grieving, the Petersens appealed to the government:
Petersen's claim Pacific Commerical Advertiser 9-16-1865
Adjusted for inflation, $550 in 1865 is equal to about $8,000 today. Michael Kauffman, author of American Brutus, states in his book that he could find no record that the Petersens were ever awarded compensation for their claim.   Part of me feels sorry that the Petersens gave so much for the dying President and got nothing in return, while the other part of me feels that the eternal preservation of their former home and name as a part of a national park may be compensation enough.

American Brutus by Michael Kauffman
Pacific Commerical Advertiser 9-16-1865

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Going the Extra Mile…and Then Some

One practically required aspect of studying the Lincoln assassination is to at one point retrace John Wilkes Booth’s route as he escaped south. Nowadays, this is generally done either by yourself in a car, or with a group in a bus and narrator.  The fact is tracing the escape route is really a necessity for all of those interested in the Lincoln assassination. The miraculous invention of the automobile allows us to complete an only slightly abridged version of Booth’s twelve day escape in a mere 12 hours.  However, retracing Booth’s footsteps is not a modern occurrence.  A mere 10 days after his death at the Garrett’s barn, the first official retracing of the route occurred when Lieut. Luther Baker traveled down Booth’s route looking for suspects and items. From that day on, countless people have retraced the escape route by a variety of means. So much of our knowledge, in fact, is based on the early accounts of individuals who retraced Booth’s escape route by foot. One such individual, from whom we get a lot of our knowledge about the escape route, was Osborn Oldroyd.  A noted Lincoln collector who lived in both Lincoln’s home in Springfield, IL and the Petersen House where Lincoln died, Oldroyd retraced Booth’s steps on foot through Maryland and Virginia. Oldroyd brought along a camera, photographing his many stops and, in 1901, published his book containing his travels and a history of the assassination called, The Assassination of Abraham Lincoln: Flight, Pursuit, Capture, and Punishment of the Conspirators.  Oldroyd’s book and walk is very useful and is still cited and read today.

Though such a pedestrian journey commencing at Ford’s Theatre and ending at the Garrett’s farm near Port Royal, VA, seems momentous, this trip was just a drop in the bucket for Mr. Oldroyd. As it turns out, Mr. Oldroyd was an enthusiastic walker as this article from 1913 shows:

Oldroyd takes a walk Evening Star Nov 5 1913

Oldroyd in Newark

For those of you who are interested, I’ve figured out a way to “one up” Osborn Oldroyd.  All you have to do is walk the distance between two of Osborn Oldroyd’s former homes, the Lincoln home in Springfield to the Petersen house in D.C.  According to Google, the walking distance is 756 miles and would only take 249 hours to complete.  Dig out those Nikes folks!

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At Lincoln’s Deathbed

When the unconscious form of Abraham Lincoln was brought out of Ford’s Theatre onto Tenth St., the men carrying the President were unsure of their destination.  The street was chaotic and getting crowded with countless individuals having been drawn to Ford’s doors after hearing the dreadful news being shouted through the streets.  Many would later claim to have been one of the men who transported the Great Emancipator’s frame out of Ford’s and onto the street.  So many in fact, that he only way all of the accounts could be true is if Abraham Lincoln was “crowd surfed” away from the theatre.  The commotion of the citizens and soldiers on Tenth street startled a young boarder across the way named Henry Safford.  Having spent the previous night doing his part, “with the rest of the multitude in the celebration of Lee’s surrender,” Safford was preparing for a restful evening in his rented room on the second floor of the Petersen house.  He threw open the window and called to the crowd of former Ford’s audience members, inquiring about what had occurred.  Their reply of, “The President’s been shot,” startled the 25 year-old man.  Safford was soon down at the door of the house, watching the crowd and keeping a close eye on Ford’s entrance for signs of a wounded, or dead, President.  When the soldiers carrying Lincoln finally emerged, Safford, noticing their lack of a set destination called out, “Bring him in here!”  Lincoln’s body was transferred inside of the Petersen house, and Safford led the troops into a back bedroom on the first floor.  Though Safford would have been more than happy to surrender his own bed and room for the President, climbing another set of stairs to the second floor would have been too inconvenient.  Safford, and other boarders in the Petersen house, would spend the night assisting the doctors by providing hot water and mustard plasters.

Henry Safford

Abraham Lincoln died in the Petersen House at around 7:22 am on Saturday, April 15th.  With his death, a martyr and a shrine were born.  On Sunday morning, 24 hours after Lincoln’s death, an artist by the name of Albert Berghaus arrived in Washington. Berghaus was an illustrator for Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper and specialized in created sketches of historical events from eyewitnesses.  These sketches would be transformed into woodcuts and then published.  Berghaus created this sketch of the events at Ford’s Theatre:

Albert Berghaus’ sketch of the events at Ford’s Theatre

In addition, Berghaus visited the Petersen House in hopes of sketching the room and scene of Lincoln’s demise.  He employed the help of Petersen’s boarders to describe the individuals who were present in Lincoln’s final moments.  His final sketch which was published in the April 29th issue of Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper was this:

“The Dying Moments of President Lincoln” by Albert Berghaus

The drawing was combined with the following affidavit:

“We the undersigned inmates of 453 Tenth street, Washington, D.C., the house in which President Lincoln died and being present at his death, do hereby certify that the sketches of Mr. Albert Berghaus are correct.

Henry Ulke
Julius Ulke
W. Peterson [sic]
W. Clarke [sic]
Thomas Proctor
H. S. Saffard [sic]”

In recognition for their help in helping him create the sketch as accurately as possible, Berhaus included five out of the six above named men in his drawing:

Julius and Henry Ulke – Brothers, photographers, and natural history buffs. It was said the Ulke’s room in the Petersen house would have been unfit for the President as there were too many beetle specimens and scientific instruments cluttering up the space.

William Petersen – German tailor and owner of the house. It was written that Petersen was a great admirer of Andrew Johnson due to the fact that he had been a tailor himself who rose to such a high position in life.

Thomas Proctor – A 17 year-old clerk for the War department.

Henry Safford – 25 year-old War department clerk. According to one source, when Edwin Stanton requested a man trained in short hand to take down statements, Safford recommended a nearby neighbor Corporal James Tanner.

The only member of the Petersen household not illustrated by Berghaus was William Clark, a 23 year-old clerk in the Quartermaster’s department.  This will come into play later.

Countless other artists, period and modern, would draw their own interpretations on Lincoln’s death chamber.  Every drawing, including Berghaus’, would place too many people in the small room.  The 17’ by 9 ½’ back bedroom of the Petersen house has been coined the “rubber room” due to its ability to expand and contain so many people all at the same time.  While Berghaus’ drawing was cited by the Petersen house residents as being the most accurate – mainly due to Berghaus’ level of detail in duplicating the details in the room – Henry Safford was honest about the rubbery-ness in the drawing: “Not all of the noted men pictured were present at the time, but had been within a few hours of the death of Lincoln.”

Fast-forward fifty-six years.  In 1921, the only remaining Petersen house resident was Thomas Proctor.

Old Thomas Proctor

Proctor had moved from Washington, D.C. and had established himself as a prominent lawyer in New York.  He married, was widowed, and in the early 1900’s began a gradual mental decline.  By 1915, he had lost all of his money and had become an inmate of New York’s Blackwell’s Island, a prison and poorhouse.  Still, some of his old friends and acquaintances remembered the stories he would tell of Lincoln’s last night.  On Friday, September 30th, 1921, Thomas Proctor was visited by a reporter from the Associated Press.  They spoke of his experiences half a century before.  The next day, a news article was published across the nation:

Apparently the poor pauper Thomas Proctor was the gracious man who gave up his bed for the dying President.  After reading this story, another living witness to the events of the Petersen house was intrigued.  Dr. Charles Leale, the young army surgeon who first tended to the wounded President, arranged a visit with Mr. Proctor:

As this article demonstrates, Thomas Proctor’s mental state is not what it once was.  Dr. Leale, though older than Thomas Proctor, must have observed the fragile mind of the man he conversed with.  This visit was obviously short, and consisted of Dr. Leale leaving with little in the way of reminiscences.

This news regarding Thomas Proctor as the tenant of the bed in which Lincoln died, was the start of a controversy that stretched nationwide.  At first, some papers tried to completely blow off Proctor, stating that his whole story was the invention of a troubled mind.  Then, when Berghaus’ engraving came forward as evidence to Proctor’s attendance in the Petersen house, many papers declared him vindicated.  Still the debate continued, with two other individuals claiming to have been the occupant of the bed in which Lincoln died.  The most convincing of these claimants was the late William Clark, whose face is not included in the Berghaus engraving but whose name accompanies the affidavit attached to it. Though Clark had died in 1888, his friends wrote to the newspapers about how he was the rightful occupant of the bed and room in which Lincoln died.   Suddenly, 56 yeasr after the fact, there were two legitimate groups vying for the honor of knowing the man who gave up his bed for Lincoln.  The friends of Thomas Proctor used Bergahus’ engraving as evidence, while the friends of William Clark used a letter written by Clark a few days after the assassination as their evidence:

“…The same mattress is on my bed and the same coverlid covers me nightly that covered him while dying…”

The correct answer, as many reading this already know, is that the room and bed in which Lincoln died belonged to William Clark.  The debate that surrounded Thomas Proctor was probably not his own doing.  As we can see from his interview with Leale, Proctor needed to be led in even basic conversation.  The memory of his friends were mistaken that Proctor owned the bed in which the President died and therefore led the practically senile man to that conclusion.  In support of this hypothesis is an 1899 article written about Proctor in which he correctly admits that the room and bed in which Lincoln died belonged to Clark.  In fact, through his own 1899 article and an 1895 article written by Henry Safford, we learn that Thomas Proctor and Henry Safford were roommates in the Petersen’s second floor apartment.  Proctor was there and helped attend to the President, but the honor of the death room belonged to William Clark.

Yet the question remains, why is it that Proctor and all the other members of the Petersen house are included in Berghaus’ sketch, and yet William Clark, the tenant of the sacred room is not?  Berghaus sketched all of Clark’s belongings in the room with such detail, and yet the man who lived there was not included.  In Clark’s letter to his sister, the same one in which he talks about sleeping in the bed where the President expired, he relates the following:

“I was engaged nearly all of Sunday with one of Frank Leslie’s special artists, aiding him in making a correct drawing of the last moments of Mr. Lincoln.  As I knew the position of every one present, he succeeded in executing a fine sketch which will appear in their paper the last of this week.  He intends from the same drawing to have some fine large steel engraving executed.  He also took a sketch of nearly every article in my room which will appear in their paper.  He wished to mention the names of all pictures in the room, particularly the photographs of yourself, Clara and Nannie, but I told him he must not do that as they were members of my family and I did not wish them to be made public.  He also urged me to give him my picture, or at least to allow him to take my sketch, but I could not see that either.”

William Clark

What is interesting here is that Clark seems to have been the only hold out in posing for the sketch.  To me, this seems odd.  Why wouldn’t Clark allow himself to be saved for posterity along with the others who aided the president in his final moments?  For one, Clark was not in his room when the President arrived.  After Clark’s passing, his family attempted to alter the record of his involvement.  They told Lincoln biographer Ida Tarbell, that it was William Clark who told the soldiers to bring Lincoln to the Petersen house.  This was incorrect, and Safford wrote as much to a newspaper after Tarbell’s biography was released.  What’s more, Safford included a letter written to him by Thomas Proctor when the latter was in perfect health and memory:

“Mr. Clark, as you know, of course, was not at the Petersen house – on the evening, or during the night, or any part of it, of Lincoln’s death.  To the best of my recollection he did not show up till the Sunday morning following.  I am positive, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that Mr. Clark was not in the Petersen house at any time during the period in which Lincoln or Lincoln’s body was there, unless he was hidden away somewhere below the first floor, where it would be very difficult for even a cat to secrete itself.”

Safford agrees with Proctor’s idea that Clark was never in the house when Lincoln was there.  The article ends with:

“Mr. Safford thinks that it is quite possible that Mr. Clark wrote letters home giving the impression that he was present at the time of the death.  In fact, he remembers that on Clark’s return to Washington from his visit, that he (Safford) showed Clark a letter which he had written to his relatives and that Clark said he liked it and believed that he would write about the same thing to his own people.  It is possible that he did this, and thus caused the misunderstanding.”

If we are to believe Henry Safford and the younger version Thomas Proctor, William Clark was not present at Lincoln’s death.  He did not return to the Petersen house until the morning hours of Sunday the 16th.  He arrived in time to hear the stories of what had occurred from the Ulkes, William Petersen, Safford and Proctor.  When Albert Berghaus arrived to sketch the room, Clark helped in detailing the many artifacts in his room.  However, when Berghaus sketched those who were present for the event, he did not sketch Clark.  In his letter to his family, Clark said this was by his choice but what if Berghaus chose not to sketch Clark because he knew Clark was not there when Lincoln died?  We are left with two views:

1. William Clark was the only honest man who boarded in the Petersen house with Henry Safford and Thomas Proctor spending years after his death trying to discredit him.  In addition, he must also have been the most humble man in the Petersen house since he was the only one to deny having his face saved for posterity in Berghaus’ sketch.

2. William Clark embellished his involvement in Lincoln’s death to include more than, “he died in my room and bed”.  He listened to the stories from those who were present and placed himself in the narrative.  When Albert Berghaus arrived at the house the day after Lincoln’s death, Clark told him the truth, that he was not there, and therefore was not included in the sketch.

I leave it to the reader to decide what view they feel is most likely.

In the end, the debate about whose bed Lincoln died in sort of puttered out.  The Sunday Herald did a wonderful job of getting to the facts and declared the old memory of Thomas Proctor to have been in error.  Some other newspapers kept up their support for the pauper who gave his bed for the President, but probably just for the headline.  In the end, the mistake was a blessing for the old and confused Thomas Proctor.  The attention that was drawn to his story and involvement in history led to an outpouring of sympathy for his living conditions.  Through the help of a Rev. Sydney Usher, Thomas Proctor was invited to relocate from the New York City poorhouse.  A month after his story first ran he found a new home at the St. Andrew’s Brotherhood Home in Gibsonia, PA.  According to a news article, “In his new home, the aged lawyer will be permitted to enjoy many comforts of which he has been deprived…”

Though Thomas Proctor did not rent the room or bed in which Lincoln died, he was a participant in the events that occurred in the Petersen house that night.  Along with the Ulke brothers and Henry Safford, Proctor helped the doctors in providing hot water and fulfilling other requests.  I have not yet been able to locate when Thomas Proctor died or where he is buried, but it can be assumed that he spent his last years enjoying charity and assistance similar to that he gave the President from those at the St. Andrew’s Brotherhood home.

Not only did Proctor’s mistaken story benefit himself, but it also was used as a seemingly effective advertising campaign for one creative insurance company:

Many articles were consulted to form this post:
Henry Safford’s 1895 account
Thomas Proctor’s 1899 account
Henry Safford’s 1906 account dismissing Clark’s involvement
New York Times article supporting mistaken Thomas Proctor
Mistaken Petersen daughter stating Lincoln died in her bed
Using Safford’s material to reveal Proctor’s error
The Sunday Herald’s article conclusively proving William Clark owned the room and bed
Most images come from

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