We had been invited to the White House by the Clintons for a dinner in honour of my cousins, the kings of Spain.
Before supper we entered a vast hall. A lady who was accompanying us said:
“It is in this very room that I saw the coffin of President Kennedy”
“And before that,” added a scholar, “it is in this room that the coffin of President Abraham Lincoln was displayed.”
Suffice it to say that this room is not the most welcoming. One might even go so far as to say that it is haunted.
When he was already in the White House, Abraham Lincoln saw one of his sons, Willy, die of typhus. The shock and the pain of his passing were terrible for his parents. From that time on, the President always felt the presence of the child. As for his wife, the strange Mary Lincoln, she thought she was going mad.
Perhaps it was in order to ease her suffering that her husband began to hold séances in the Blue Room of the White House.
A medium came there frequently – it was even said at the time that he remained there as a guest. The President and the First Lady joined hands over a table as the spirits began to move, and, through the medium, spoke to them of little Willy, as well as of his brother who had died prematurely years earlier. They also made pronouncements on the political situation, pointing the way forward, and revealing the secrets of the future.
The presidential couple became all the more fond of these séances as Lincoln himself had the extraordinary gift of clairvoyance. Shortly after his election as President of the United States, when he was looking at himself in a mirror one morning as he washed, he saw his double. Two Lincolns stood side by side, one very clear and alive; the other pale and rather obscured. According to certain beliefs, it is held that to meet one’s double is the worst of omens … Lincoln remained convinced that it had been revealed to him that he would die during his presidency. On many an occasion, he repeated that he was certain to go straight to a terrible end.
A mystic, possessor of a singularly deep spirit; an enigma, Lincoln was an unusual character. This pioneering son who emerged out of a difficult childhood witnessed the heroism of America by fighting the Indians. This self-taught man was experienced in all the trades before finally reaching the bar. From there he moved in a single leap to politics. He climbed up through the ranks until he was elected President at a time when the situation was already particularly tense. The South, which was predominantly agricultural and wanted to retain cheap labour – that is to say – slaves, was angry with the industrialized North, who had less need of their labour and instead advocated emancipation.
The arrival in power of an anti-slavery president in 1860 was sufficient to light the powder keg that had been developing. The southern states seceded; they declared their desire to sever all ties with the North and to form their own state.
Lincoln, who had tried everything to prevent this eventuality, declared war on the South, not so much to secure the liberation of the slaves as to keep the union of the United States. There ensued a long conflict, which proved ferocious and ruinous. At the beginning, the South accumulated victories, and the North came close to defeat. Then the situation, thanks in large part to Lincoln, turned. This is often considered to be the first total war in history; where civilians were as much involved as the military. Like all civil wars, it was also a war of hatred, conducted without mercy. The President, but also his wife, having connections with the South, had been accused of betraying the cause. Lincoln received so many death threats that he no longer bothered to read them, they simply piled up in a huge file entitled “assassination”.
At the beginning of April 1865, he could finally allow himself to breathe more easily. The capital of the forces of the south, the city of Richmond in Virginia, after a long siege, fell into the hands of the forces of the North who triumphantly entered the city. The commander-in-chief of the Southerners, General Lee, conducted a retreat to the west. A week later, on April 9, 1865, he was forced to surrender to General Grant, Chief of Staff of the Northern Armies. The Civil War, which had been ongoing for four years, ended with the victory of those who fought to maintain unity.
In the midst of the general relief, of the general exultation that was going on around Lincoln, he alone remained preoccupied, his mind constantly clouded. So much so that at a dinner, a few days later, his wife urged him to say what it was that was preventing him from rejoicing. The President, after a long silence, spoke:
You are correct; I have indeed been disturbed these last few days by a dream, which remains in my memory up to the smallest detail. About ten days ago, I retired very late. I had been up waiting for important dispatches from the front. I could not have been long in bed when I fell into a slumber, for I was weary. I soon began to dream. There seemed to be a death-like stillness about me. Then I heard subdued sobs, as if a number of people were weeping. I thought I left my bed and wandered downstairs. There the silence was broken by the same pitiful sobbing, but the mourners were invisible. I went from room to room; no living person was in sight, but the same mournful sounds of distress met me as I passed along. I saw light in all the rooms; every object was familiar to me; but where were all the people who were grieving as if their hearts would break? I was puzzled and alarmed. What could be the meaning of all this?
Determined to find the cause of a state of things so mysterious and so shocking, I kept on until I arrived at the East Room, which I entered. There I met with a sickening surprise. Before me was a catafalque, on which rested a corpse wrapped in funeral vestments. Around it were stationed soldiers who were acting as guards; and there was a throng of people, gazing mournfully upon the corpse, whose face was covered, others weeping pitifully. ‘Who is dead in the White House?’ I demanded of one of the soldiers, ‘The President,’ was his answer; ‘he was killed by an assassin.’ Then came a loud burst of grief from the crowd, which woke me from my dream. I slept no more that night; and although it was only a dream, I have been strangely disturbed by it ever since.
The following day Abraham Lincoln was assassinated.
He never did find the peace that continues to haunt the White House. What did he mean by appearing to the Queen of Holland? No doubt he wished justice to be rendered to him, as he had tried to suggest to all those to whom he had appeared.
“For your majesty is not the first to have seen it,” the Roosevelts explained to Queen Wilhelmina. In our time and long before, countless are the inhabitants of the White House, from presidents to simple servants who have sworn to have seen it or sensed its presence.
“As for myself,” Eleanor added, “I have seen it several times. Just a few days ago, my maid Mary rushed into my room, bursting with excitement: “He is sitting on the edge of the bed.” “He is taking off his boots”.
“But who is removing his boots?” I asked him.
“Mr. Lincoln,” Mary replied.
“Do you believe in ghosts, Mr. President?”, asked Wilhelmina.
– There are so many things in this world that we do not understand … I must confess that on several occasions, when I was alone, not in the Rose Room where your Majesty lives, but in the Blue Room, I felt his presence very strongly.
However, it is not the inhabitants of the White House but the people of the small town of Rivertown who were most convinced of the existence of the ghost of Abraham Lincoln. Rivertown is a tiny city in Illinois, the last before Springfield where Lincoln had been the deputy and where he had long resided with his family. The year is of no importance, it’s the date that counts.
Between April 14th and 15th, everyone remains awake until late. In the evening, the people of Rivertown, whatever the weather, come out of their homes and walk silently along the rail line from Washington to Springfield. It was not the noise that alerts them, for in truth there is no great noise to report, it was the abundant smoke that pours out of the locomotive; a very old machine, completely out of date, a museum piece … Slowly the convoy runs past them. Men doff their hats, women curtsy. The last wagon is a simple flat shelf on which stands a coffin covered with the American flag. Neither the locomotive nor the wheels of the wagons give off the slightest sound. The convoy passes, it only has a few kilometres to roll before reaching Springfield, and yet it never arrives because the ghost train that brings back the President’s coffin to Springfield every year has no final destination.