Biographies & Memoirs

CHAPTER THIRTY-FOUR

FRIDAY, APRIL 14, 1865 

WASHINGTON, D.C. 

7:00 P.M.

William Crook stands guard outside Lincoln’s office door. The twenty-six-year-old policeman and presidential bodyguard has had a long day, having arrived at the White House at precisely eight A.M. His replacement was supposed to relieve him three hours ago, but John Parker, as always, is showing himself to be lazy and unaccountable. Crook is deeply attached to Lincoln and frets about his safety. How this drunken slob Parker was designated as the president’s bodyguard is a great mystery, but Crook knows that the president does not involve himself in such things.

After their carriage ride, the Lincolns eat dinner with their sons, and then Crook walks the president back to the War Department for a third time, to see if General Sherman has sent a telegraph stating the disposition of his troops in the South. Lincoln has become so addicted to the telegraph’s instant news from the front that he still can’t let go of the need for just one more bit of information, even though the prospect of another great battle is slim.

Then Crook walks back to the White House with Lincoln, his eyes constantly scanning the crowds for signs that someone means his employer harm. He remembers well the advice of Ward Hill Lamon, the walrus-mustached, self-appointed head of Lincoln’s security detail, that Lincoln should not go out at night, under any circumstances. “Especially to the theater,” Lamon had added.

But tonight, Lincoln is going to the theater—and it’s no secret. The afternoon papers printed news about him attending Our American Cousin with General Grant and their wives, almost as if daring every crackpot and schemer with an anti-North agenda to buy a ticket. Indeed, ticket sales have been brisk since the announcement, and—recent outpourings of affection notwithstanding—Lincoln’s status as the most hated man in America certainly means that not everyone at Ford’s will be there out of admiration for the president.

Lincoln, however, doesn’t see it like that. Even though Mary says the carriage ride gave her a headache that has her second-guessing the night out, the president feels obligated to go. He might feel differently if he hadn’t missed the Grand Illumination last night. That, plus the fact that the Grants aren’t going, makes Lincoln’s obligation all the more urgent—he knows his constituents will be deeply disappointed if both of America’s two most famous men fail to appear.

And then there’s the minor issue of disappointing the Grants’ last-minute replacements. Just when it seemed like everyone in Washington was terrified of attending the theater with the Lincolns, Mary found guests, the minor diplomat Major Henry Reed Rathbone and his fiancee (and stepsister) Clara Harris, who watched Lincoln’s speech with Mary three nights before. Mary is deeply fond of Clara, the full-figured daughter of Senator Ira Harris of New York. They enjoy an almost mother-daughter relationship. Just as important, Major Rathbone is a strapping young man who saw service during the war; he has the sort of physical presence Lincoln might need in a bodyguard, should such services be required.

The president doesn’t know either of them. When he received news that this unlikely couple would be their guests, he was enjoying a quiet dinner with Tad and Robert. Lincoln’s response was neither joy nor disappointment but merely a silent nod of acknowledgment.

William Crook is a straightforward cop, not one to search for conspiracies or malcontents where none exist. Yet the bodyguard in him wonders about the tall, athletic Rathbone and whether or not he poses a security risk. What better way to kill the president than shooting him in his own box during the play?

Finally, Crook hears feet thudding up the stairs. Parker ambles down the hallway, patting the bulge in his jacket to show that he is armed. He is a thirty-four-year-old former machinist from Frederick County, Virginia, and the father of three children. Parker served in the Union army for the first three months of the war, then mustered out to rejoin his family and took a job as a policeman in September 1861, becoming one of the first 150 men hired when Washington, D.C., formed its brand-new Metropolitan Police Department.

Throughout his employment, Parker’s one distinguishing trait has been an ability to manufacture controversy. He has been disciplined for, among other things, swearing at a grocer, swearing at a supervising officer, insulting a woman who had requested police protection, and being drunk and disorderly in a house of prostitution. At his trial, the madam testified that not only was Parker drunk and disorderly but that he had been living in the whorehouse for five weeks before the incident. Apparently, the authorities chose to ignore that testimony. The trial took place before a police board, rather than in the criminal courts. The board found no wrongdoing by Parker and quickly acquitted him.

And so Parker continued his questionable behavior. He appeared before the police board just two weeks later for sleeping on duty. Ninety days after that, another police board: this time for using profane language to a private citizen. Both charges were dismissed.

His innocence proven again and again, Parker had no qualms about putting his name into the pool when, late in 1864, the Metropolitan Police Department began providing White House bodyguards. It was prestigious duty and kept him from being drafted back into the army. Mary Lincoln herself wrote the letter exempting him from service. So far, the only blemish on Parker’s record while serving the president is a penchant for tardiness, as Crook knows all too well. So when Parker finally appears several hours late for his shift, Crook is upset but not surprised.

Crook briefs Parker on the day’s events, then explains that the presidential carriage will be stopping at Fourteenth and H to pick up Major Rathbone and Miss Harris. The presence of two additional passengers means that there will be no room for Parker. “You should leave fifteen minutes ahead of the president,” says Crook, pointing out that Parker will have to walk to Ford’s Theatre—and that he should arrive before the presidential party in order to provide security the instant they arrive.

As Crook finishes, Lincoln comes to his office door. A handful of last-minute appointments have come up, and he is eager to get them out of the way so he can enjoy the weekend.

“Good night, Mr. President,” Crook says.

He and the president have repeated this scene a hundred times, with Lincoln responding in kind.

Only this time it’s different.

“Good-bye, Crook,” Lincoln replies.

All the way home, that subtle difference nags at William Crook.

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