Why you should care
Because sometimes the only distinction between good and evil is a brother’s first name.
History is replete with legends and lore, but what of a coincidence so remarkable that most would reject it as apocryphal? Reader, we present the true tale of a man named Booth who saved Lincoln, just a year before another one killed the president of the United States.
A century and a half has passed since Abraham Lincoln was felled by an assassin’s bullet fired by John Wilkes Booth in Washington’s Ford’s Theatre on April 14, 1865, sparking a calamity that would rock the nation and set the course of American history. But just one year prior, Booth’s older brother Edwin, also an actor, randomly encountered the president’s 20-year-old son, Robert, on a train platform in New Jersey — a run-in that yielded a dramatically different outcome.
Acting, like circuses, tends to run in families, and that was particularly true in the 19th century. As James Cross Giblin chronicles in Good Brother, Bad Brother, Junius Booth’s three boys — Edwin, John Wilkes and Junius Jr. — all took after their thespian father, a nationwide celebrity and eccentric often referred to as the “mad tragedian” for his unpredictable but often brilliant performances. In a rather tragic piece of irony, Junius, a vegetarian who would not brand an animal, also tried to instill in his boys a belief that all life is sacred and not even a housefly should be slain.
Edwin Booth was a staunch opponent of the South and had voted for Abraham Lincoln.
Edwin, born in 1833, would follow in his father’s footsteps as a fine Shakespearean actor, the “superior to any man of his day on the stage,” according to one critic. But even before his younger brother shot the president, Booth’s life, like the plays he performed in, had been filled with tragedy, from his personal struggle with alcoholism to the death of his wife and infant child. Shortly after his wife died in 1863, Booth became a national icon with his touching performance of Hamlet in the Winter Garden Theatre he operated in New York. Edwin’s “rheumatic shinbones” (as he put it) may have kept him out of the Civil War, but unlike his brother John, he was a staunch opponent of the South and had voted for Abraham Lincoln.
And it was on his way south from New York that the well-known actor encountered Robert Todd Lincoln, the eldest of the president’s four sons, on a train platform in Jersey City, New Jersey, likely sometime in early 1864, though the exact date is unknown. Robert, on holiday from his studies at Harvard, was headed to Washington to see his family. Back in 1859, with his father a leading presidential contender, the young Lincoln had rather embarrassingly failed Harvard’s admission exams. After a more successful attempt the following year, Robert had managed to enter Harvard Yard shortly before his father gained admission to the White House.
Robert, who had hopped off the train at Jersey City during a brief stop, found himself on a crowded platform with his back pressed against one of the railway cars. Suddenly the train started to move, and, as Lincoln described years later in a letter to the editor of Century Magazine:
“[B]y the motion I was twisted off my feet, and had dropped somewhat, with feet downward, into the open space, and was personally helpless, when my coat collar was vigorously seized and I was quickly pulled up and out to a secure footing on the platform.”
The man who had saved Lincoln from certain injury and possible death was none other than Edwin Booth. Lincoln at once recognized his celebrity rescuer, and thanked him by name, but Booth would not learn the identity of the grateful young man until months later from a mutual friend in the Union Army.
Booth did not dwell on his gallant act at the time, but in the years after the assassination, it would not only bring him a measure of comfort, but its publication would also play a part in rehabilitating the actor’s reputation once a dark cloud descended over the Booth name. Edwin did not return to the stage until 1866, but he continued to act for another 25 years — even through an attempt on his own life, when a gunshot just missed him while he was performing in Chicago in 1879.
Robert Lincoln, though held back from battle in the Civil War, would later serve as secretary of war under President James Garfield. And while the young Lincoln may have had fortune on his side on that Jersey City train platform, he would be the accursed witness to three presidential assassinations. In addition to being present at his father’s deathbed (having declined an invitation to accompany him to Ford’s Theatre that night), he was an eyewitness to Garfield’s assassination in 1881 (at a train station in D.C.) and was in Buffalo, New York, where President William McKinley was shot in 1901. But that set of historical coincidences is a story for another day.