Biographies & Memoirs


FRIDAY, APRIL 14, 1865 


10:00 A.M.

Mary Lincoln has tickets for a play—and what a spectacular performance it will be. Grover’s Theatre is not only staging a lavish production of Aladdin, or The Wonderful Lamp but is adding a grand finale for this night only, during which the cast and audience will rise as one to sing patriotic songs written especially for the occasion. Everyone is Washington is talking about it.

But Mary is torn. Word has come from James Ford, the manager of Ford’s Theatre, that he is staging the wildly popular farce Our American Cousin. Tonight the legendary actress Laura Keene is celebrating her one thousandth performance in her signature role as Florence Trenchard. This milestone, Ford has politely suggested to Mary, is something not to be missed.

Keene, thirty-eight, is not only one of America’s most famous actresses but also very successful as a theater manager. In fact, she is the first woman in America to manage her own high-profile career and purchase a theater. That theater will later be renamed the Winter Garden, and it is still in existence today at a different location in New York City. Offstage, Laura Keene’s life is not so tidy—she pretends to be married to her business manager, but in truth she is secretly married to a convicted felon who has run off to Australia. During an extended tour of that faraway continent, Keene quarreled mightily with her costar, the equally vain Edwin Booth.

Laura Keene


But onstage Laura Keene is a force. The gimlet-eyed actress owes much of that success to Our American Cousin. At first she thought very little of the script, which places a country bumpkin in the upper class of British society. But then Keene changed her mind and bought worldwide rights. Debuting seven years earlier at Laura Keene’s Theatre on Broadway, it soon became the first blockbuster play in American history. It was performed in Chicago on the same night in May 1860 that Lincoln was confirmed as the Republican nominee for the presidency. Many of the play’s screwball terms, like “sockdologizing” and “Dundrearyisms” (named for the befuddled character Lord Dundreary), have become part of the cultural lexicon, and several spinoff plays featuring characters from the show have been written and performed.

Despite all that, ticket sales for this run of the play have been so sluggish that Ford’s will be nearly empty. But Mary Lincoln doesn’t mind. What matters most to her is that on this most patriotic of evenings, she and the president will celebrate their first visit to the theater since the war’s end by enjoying the quintessential American comedy, on a night that features one of America‘s—if not the world’s—most famous actresses.

The playbill for Our American Cousin from the night the Lincolns were in attendance, April 14, 1865


Aladdin can wait.

With this sudden and impulsive decision to attend one show and not the other, an eerie coincidence will unravel: thanks to the performance that took place in Chicago in 1860, Our American Cousin will bracket both the beginning and the end of the Lincoln administration.

Over breakfast a few hours earlier, Mary told the president that she wanted to go to Ford’s. Lincoln absentmindedly said he would take care of it.

Now, between Oval Office appointments, Lincoln summons a messenger. He wants a message delivered to Ford’s Theatre, saying that he will be in attendance this evening if the state box is available. General Grant and his wife will be with him, as will Mary.

Abraham Lincoln is the undisputed leader of the world’s most ascendant nation, a country spanning three thousand miles and touching two oceans. During the war, he could send men off to die with a single command to his generals. He has freed the slaves. This is a man who has the power to do almost anything he wants. And tonight, if truth be told, he would prefer to see Aladdin.

Yet Lincoln would never dream of contradicting Mary’s wishes. His life is much easier when she is appeased. A volatile and opinionated woman whose intellect does not match her considerable capacity for rage, Mary Lincoln is short and round, wears her hair parted straight down the middle, and prefers to be called “Madame President,” which some believe is pretentious, to say the least. Mary’s rants about some person or situation that has angered her can sidetrack Lincoln’s day and drain him of precious energy, so he does all he can to make sure nothing upsets her unstable psyche.

But to be fair, Mary Lincoln has also suffered the deaths of two young sons during her twenty-two-year marriage. Lincoln dotes on her. A compassionate man, he tries more to ease the lingering pain than to merely keep the peace. Mary Lincoln is almost ten years younger than her husband, and they had an on-again, off-again courtship and even broke off their first engagement when Lincoln had cold feet about marrying her. Mary is from an affluent home, which afforded her an education that few American women enjoyed at the time. Lithe in her early twenties, Mary has put on considerable weight. And though she had many suitors as a young woman, few would now consider her to be good-looking. Nevertheless, Lincoln is enamored. The president considers Mary the love of his life. Some historians believe that because Lincoln lost his mother at the age of nine, he was drawn to women with maternal, protective instincts. Mary Lincoln certainly fits that description.

Mary Todd Lincoln


Lincoln is overdue at the War Department. He also has a cabinet meeting scheduled in just over an hour. He hurriedly steps out of the White House and walks over to see Stanton. Mary demands that he wear a shawl, and so he does, not caring in the slightest that the gray garment draped over his shoulders gives him a decidedly nonpresidential appearance.

Lincoln strolls into Stanton’s office unannounced, plops down on the couch, and casually mentions that he’s going to the theater that night. The words are designed to provoke a reaction—and they do.

Stanton frowns. His network of spies have told him of assassination rumors. Last night, during the Illumination party at his home, Stanton adamantly warned Grant away from going to the theater with the Lincolns. Stanton is no less stern with Lincoln. He thinks the president is a fool for ignoring the assassination rumors and argues that Lincoln is risking his life.

“At least bring a guard with you,” Stanton pleads, once it becomes obvious that Lincoln will not be dissuaded. That statement is the best evidence we have that Secretary of War Stanton did not wish Lincoln ill. If, as some conspiracy theorists believe, Stanton wished Lincoln dead, why would he want to provide him with protection?

The president is in a playful mood. “Stanton,” Lincoln says, “did you know that Eckert can break a poker over his arm?”

Major Thomas T. Eckert is the general superintendent of the Military Telegraph Corps. He once demonstrated the shoddy nature of the War Department’s fireplace irons by breaking the defective metal rods over his left forearm.

“Why do you ask such a question?” Stanton replies, mystified.

“Stanton, I have seen Eckert break five pokers, one after the other, over his arm, and I am thinking that he would be the kind of man who would go with me this evening. May I take him?”

“Major Eckert has a great deal of work to do. He can’t be spared.”

“Well, I will ask the major himself,” Lincoln responds.

But Eckert knows better than to cross Stanton. Despite a barrage of good-natured pleading by the president, Eckert says he cannot attend the theater that evening.

His business with Stanton concluded, Lincoln wraps his shawl tightly around his shoulders and marches back to the White House for his cabinet meeting.

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