Today, my grandfather celebrates his 94th birthday. The son of an Irish immigrant and his Illinois born wife, my grandfather was educated at Illinois Wesleyan University, served as a Captain in the Marines during WWII and Korea, and raised a family of three boys with my grandmother. To me though, he has always been Umpa: the devoted church going grandfather who would take me fishing and was always working his garden. I never knew until I was older that he was a Marine and while he would openly tell me stories about the war, it always brought tears to his eyes. My grandfather taught me that war was always a regrettable thing even when it is justified. He was proud of his service to his country but would never glorify what he had experienced. Nowadays, his life has slowed down quite a bit. He talks less, sleeps more, but is still the kind and inquisitive grandfather I’ve always known. Unfortunately, he will be spending this birthday in the hospital. I’ve logged about 18 hours with him over the last two days after a recent medical setback. As a 94 year-old, it is to be expected. Nevertheless, he still enjoys sharing one fact about his life with the nurses that always throws them for a loop. When asked where he was born, he answers truthfully, “Nani-Tal, India”. The nurses briefly stare at him, before turning to us, his family members, with a worried look that this characteristically Caucasian man has gone senile. We of course respond in the affirmative, and recall how his parents were missionaries and that he and two of his siblings were born in India. My grandfather was almost three years old, when the family returned to America. His memory of India is now just a few Christian hymns in the Hindi language that he sang as a child. Nevertheless, he can still recall all the lyrics to “Jesus Loves Me” in Hindi.
My 94 year-old grandfather’s ability to remember one of his earliest experiences, mirrors that of another 94 year-old man who recounted his experience of Lincoln’s assassination.
Many of us have seen the following episode of the TV show, I’ve Got a Secret which aired on February 9th, 1956. In it, the American viewing audience is presented with the last surviving witness to Abraham Lincoln’s assassination, 96 year-old Samuel J. Seymour of Baltimore:
In the video, the host mentions that they learned about Mr. Seymour due to an article written by him in The American Weekly magazine. That article was published on February 7th of 1954, when Samuel Seymour was 94 years old.
After some searching, I found the original article by Mr. Seymour and transcribed it from the newspaper record. Here it is in full:
“I Saw Lincoln Shot
By Samuel J. Seymour
As told to Frances Spatz Leighton
The only living witness re-creates the drama of that tragic night
This is an eyewitness account of one of history’s great tragedies – the assassination of Abraham Lincoln – told by the only living witness to the fateful drama enacted at Ford’s Theater on the night of April 14th, 1865 – THE EDITORS
Even if I were to live another 94 years, I’d still never forget my first trip away from home as a little shaver five years old.
My father was overseer on the Goldsboro estate inTalbot County, Maryland, and it seems that he and Mr. Goldsboro has to go to Washington on business – something to do with the legal status of their 150 slaves. Mrs. Goldsboro asked if she couldn’t take me and my nurse, Sarah Cook, along with her and the men, for a little holiday.
We made the 150-mile trip by coach and team and I remember how stubborn those horses were about being loaded onto an old fashioned side-wheeler steamboat for part of the journey.
It was going on toward supper time – on Good Friday, April 14th, 1865 – when we finally pulled up in front of the biggest house I ever had seen. It looked to me like a thousand farmhouses all pushed together, but my father said it was a hotel.
I was scared. I had seen men with guns, all along the street, and every gun seemed to be aimed right at me. I was too little to realize that all of Washington was getting ready to celebrate because Lee has surrendered a few days earlier.
I complained tearfully that I couldn’t get out of the coach because my shirt was torn – anything to delay the dread moment – but Sarah dug into her bag and found a big safety pin.
“You hold still now, Sammy,” she said, “and I’ll fix the tear right away.” I shook so hard, from fright, that she accidentally stabbed me with the pin and I hollered, “I’ve been shot! I’ve been shot!”
When I finally had been rushed upstairs, shushed and scrubbed and put into fresh clothes, Mrs. Goldsboro said she had a wonderful surprise.
“Sammy, you and Sarah and I are going to a play tonight,” she explained. “A real play – and President Abraham Lincoln will be there.”
I thought a play would be a game like tag and I liked the idea. We waited a while outside the Ford Theater for tickets, then walked upstairs and sat in hard rattan-backed chairs.
Mrs. Goldsboro pointed directly across the theater to a colorfully draped box. “See those flags, Sammy?” she asked. “That’s where President Lincoln will sit.” When he finally did come in, she lifted me high so I could see. He was a tall, stern-looking man. I guess I just thought he looked stern because of his whiskers, because he was smiling and waving to the crowd.
When everyone sat down again and the actors started moving and talking, I began to get over the scared feeling I’d had ever since we arrived inWashington. But that was something I never should have done.
All of a sudden a shot rang out – a shot that always will be remembered – and someone in the President’s box screamed. I sawLincolnslumped forward in his seat. People started milling around and I thought there’d been another accident when one man seemed to tumble over the balcony rail and land on the stage.
“Hurry, hurry, let’s go help the poor man who fell down,” I begged.
But by that time John Wilkes Booth, the assassin, had picked himself up and was running for dear life. He wasn’t caught until 12 days later when he was tracked to a barn where he was hiding.
Only a few people noticed the running man, but pandemonium broke loose in the theater, with everyone shouting:
“Lincoln’s shot! The President’s dead!”
Mrs. Goldsboro swept me into her arms and held me close and somehow we got outside the theater. That night I was shot 50 times, at least in my dreams – and I sometimes still relive the horror of Lincoln’s assassination, dozing in my rocker as an old codger like me is bound to do.”
Of the many firsthand accounts given in books (like We Saw Lincoln Shot by Timothy Good) I prefer this one by Mr. Seymour. There is an innocence in his account that can’t be found anywhere else. While Major Rathbone and others give more details regarding the actual event, young “Sammy” gives a unique perspective. We become more connected to this child and his young life. We can empathize in his sense of uncertain fear and even feel the disappointment he must have had when he experienced what a “play” truly was. Most of all, I marvel at Sammy’s kindness and compassion. Ignorant of the context of what had occurred, this boy only wanted to help the man that fell.
Mr. Seymour died two months after his appearance on I’ve Got a Secret, possibly related to his fall the day before the show. He died on April 13th, 1956, just a day shy of the anniversary of the event he witnessed. Mr. Seymour is buried in Loudon Park Cemetery in Baltimore, MD.