Wilhelmina couldn’t sleep. She tossed and turned for hours in the large bed. She was preoccupied, she didn’t feel comfortable. All in all, the White House, which is spoken so highly of, is much smaller and much less comfortable than her European Palaces. However, since the independence of the United States, much of History has been made and remade, and at times undone, from this very home. Wilhelmina examined the heavy and gloomy furniture of her room, lit by the bedside lamp, paying particular attention to the enormous, overelaborate bed, weighed down by the rich red fabric of the drapes. Despite being called the Queens’ Room, there is nothing elegant or light like the name suggests. Thinking of Holland, her home, she was overcome with nostalgia. A queen, chased from her country following the German invasion. It is 1942, and the aging exiled sovereign has been invited to stay at the White House by Roosevelt. Insomnia conjures up images of the past. Her memory, replaying them over and over for hours, going further back, back until 1879.
It was in this year that her father, King William III, in his sixties and a bit past his prime, realized he was without an heir. He had married the young Emma in a hurry, from which a single daughter was born, in favor of whom the Salic law of succession that excluded women from the throne was abolished. Wilhelmina was 18 went her father died, her mother had assured her Regency.
Wilhelmina quickly forged a formidable personality. She was still young when war broke out in South Africa in the early 20th century. English Imperialism was face to face with the Boers, the first wave of colonists of Dutch origin. Braving the wrath of England, the young queen sent a Dutch ship to retrieve their leader, the famous Kruger. During World War I, in the face of German pressure, she kept her country neutral, and spared her people the horrors experienced by their neighbors. What followed was a succession of liberal governments that built Holland into an industrial power. The Queen was not absent from this new prosperity, her innate genius guiding her to make significant investments in oil. It was rumored the all the decisions taken by the oil company, Royal Dutch, were made from her office.
Unfortunately, success didn’t always bring happiness. She was forced to marry for dynastic reasons. She was wed to a German prince who constantly cheated on her. The small queen, short and thick, possessed every quality except beauty. Eventually she had a daughter, Juliana, who in turn was married and produced daughters of her own; the succession was guaranteed.
Then World War II broke out and Nazi Germany invaded Holland. Despite a heroic defense, the small but valiant Dutch army was destroyed by the colossal Nazi force. Certain ministers wanted Wilhelmina to stay in Holland, to try to hold talks with the Nazis. She refused categorically: “We don’t talk with our enemies, we fight them!”
She left her native land at the last moment and took refuge in London. She was told that it would be difficult to assure her safety, she really didn’t care. She sent her daughter and granddaughters to Canada, out of harm’s way, but she stayed behind, wanting to remain on the other side of the North Sea, as close to Holland as possible. Each day she took to the radio, speaking to her occupied country. Her voice conveyed hope to the countless, clandestine listeners; she gave them courage and encouraged their resistance.
President Roosevelt and his wife Eleanor wanted to honor and pay homage to this beautiful example of bravery, so they invited Wilhelmina to the White House. She accepted, going to plead once more for the cause of her country, where she didn’t have many problems, as the Americans were sympathetic to the plight of Holland and showed nothing but esteem and respect for the Queen. It was a long and tiring voyage through precarious conditions for the Queen, now in her sixties. The Roosevelts prayed for sympathy for her and promised their support. This didn’t stop her from thinking night and day about her martyred country. The Nazis were brutal, with their arrests, camps, and executions; massacres were becoming part of daily life. The people grew hungry. The Jewish community could only watch while it was ruthlessly exterminated. The resistance was hunted down and tortured as they fought in the name of their Queen.
How do I appreciate this calm, this luxury that surrounds me, she said asked herself, how to I relax when all that I adore, when Holland is falling further into this nightmare?
Lost in these sad somber thoughts, a noise startled her. She perked up her ears. Someone had knocked on the door to her room. At so late an hour? Perhaps it was a message from Holland? “Enter” she cried in a loud, strong voice. Nothing. Again a strong, loud knock on the door. Curious, Wilhelmina got out of bed and without even bothering to put a robe over her canvas nightshirt she rushed and opened the door. The hallway was well lit, which allowed her to see clearly the man standing before her. He was tall, thin, dressed in black and wore a top hat. His face was long and bony, prolonged by a black beard. His look was fiery. The queen stared at him, she recognized him immediately, then promptly fell to the ground unconscious.
When she came to, finding herself in her nightshirt on the floor, she wondered what had happened. The door to her room was still open. The hallway was empty. The bedside lamp still lit the room with the same soft light. Not a sound, all was calm. She climbed back into bed and closed her eyes. Soon the vision of the man returned to her. Sleep was now out of the question. Hours passed. She waited motionless, her mind sharper than ever. She sought to understand what had happened, what she saw. Suddenly, in the peace of the night she trembled.
In the morning she was brought her breakfast, early as was her habit. She was perfectly well rested and calm. She set out for the day’s program: lunch with the Roosevelts, a visit with the Dutch community, meetings with politicians and member of the Senate, then tea with the wives of the Representatives of the House. It wasn’t until late in the day when she could finally relax. She joined the Roosevelts in the salon before heading to the table for dinner.
An intimacy began to develop between the queen and the first family, based upon mutual admiration. Wilhelmina was fully aware of all that the president had accomplished. It was Franklin Delano Roosevelt who had pulled his country from the dreadful economic crisis of 1929-1930. It was by his own initiative that the United States had entered the war, supporting a free world which he refused to see fall before the feet of fascism. He painstakingly occupied himself with the war. Signs of fatigue and illness began to show. His wife, Eleanor, tall and imposing, was a force of nature, a personality almost as dynamic as the Queen of Holland. The two women were full of energy and initiative and got along marvelously.
During the entire day, Wilhelmina had kept quiet about the previous night’s events. She had dropped a few crumbs among her entourage, but kept secret the whole. Despite the banality with which she voluntarily cloaked her account, Roosevelt was nonetheless informed. During cocktail hour the President approached the Queen and inquired with concern about the incident.
“Your Majesty, it has come to my attention that you were not feeling well last night…”
Eleanor Roosevelt anxiously awaited the response of her illustrious friend. Wilhelmina didn’t hesitate, she never did.
“I know this is going to sound ridiculous, but I heard a knock on my door in the middle of the night, and when I got out of bed and opened the door, standing right in front of me was Abraham Lincoln. A few moments later everything went black and I fainted. When I woke up I was on the floor. I was alone.”
Roosevelt and his wife looked at each other, neither one showing any sign of surprise at learning that the Queen of Hollande had just met a former president who had been assassinated sixty years earlier.
Pensively, the queen added, “We have many ghosts in Holland. I don’t know if I believe in them or not. In any case, they don’t really interest me. I have too much to do with the living! Nevertheless, I am certain that I wasn’t dreaming when I saw Abraham Lincoln before me.”
No sign of skepticism on the faces of the first couple, to the contrary. “The fact is, Lincoln lived intensely within these walls,” President Roosevelt said. “He stayed in the same room as you, Your Majesty. And we mustn’t forget the tragic nature of his death.”
“He himself believed in ghosts,” Eleanor added, “and was very receptive to the occult.”
After moving into the White House, Abraham Lincoln watched one of his young sons die of typhus. The shock and pain were unbearable for the parents. The President resented the presence of the child. As for the strange Mrs. Lincoln, about whom there is much to say, she believed she was going crazy. Perhaps the séances the President began to have in the Blue Room of the White House were meant to appease her. A medium frequently visited, and, it is rumored, even lived there for a time. The President and the First Lady held hands upon the table, the spirits were made manifest, and through the medium they spoke to their young son Willy, as well as his brother, who died prematurely years earlier. These spirits also expressed themselves regarding the political situation, showing a path to follow, unveiling the future.
The Lincolns became increasingly passionate about these séances. Lincoln himself had an extraordinary sense of clairvoyance. Shortly after his election, while looking at himself in a mirror, he saw his double. Two Lincolns standing next to each other, one clear and lively, the other pale and shadowy. Now, according to some beliefs, seeing your double is the worst of omens. Lincoln was convinced it was a sign, that he would die while in office. He frequently repeated his belief that he would meet a terrible end.
Séances of this sort always leave behind traces, the Roosevelts assured the Queen. So it isn’t altogether shocking that she saw the ghost of Lincoln, even if she did not believe in ghosts. The Queen smiled. The Queen kept quiet the fact that it had been told to her, rumored, that the Roosevelts themselves were no strangers to these type of séances, even at the White House. She was even told the name of their medium. These séances too, left behind their traces. So quite naturally, over the years, the presidential residence has become particularly “charged”.
Lincoln was unique, a mystic, a singularly profound individual, an enigma. The child of pioneers, he knew a difficult childhood and fought for America in its war against the Indians. A self-taught man of every trade, he ultimately passed the Bar. From there he made his jump into the world of politics. He climbed the ladder to the highest echelons, being elected president at a tense, precarious moment. The South was determined the maintain slavery at all costs, the industrial North was moving towards abolition. The arrival of an avowed anti-slavery president to power in 1860 added fuel to the fire. The South succeeded, cutting all relations with the North and forming their own state.
Lincoln, who had tried to avoid this eventuality, declared war on the South. His aim was not to free the slaves, but to reestablishing the unity of the Unites States. What ensued was a long, brutal, ruinous war. At first, the South proved superior, winning victory after victory, pushing the North to the brink of defeat. Then, largely thanks to Lincoln, the tides turned, but at an enormous cost. In reality, it was History’s first total war, involving civilians just as much as soldiers. Like all civil wars, it was fought without mercy. The President and his wife, both having contacts and relations in the South, accused them of betraying the cause. Lincoln received so many death threats he stopped reading them, he simply placed them all in a box labeled “Death.”
In early 1865, he could finally breath. After a long siege, the southern capital of Richmond, Virginia fell to the North. General Lee ordered the Southern army to retreat to the west. A week later, on the 9th of April, 1865, Lee was forced to surrender to General Grant. The Civil War, after four long years, come to an end. A victory for those who wanted to maintain unity.
During the general respite that followed, everyone congratulated Lincoln. He was celebrated, his name exulted. Lincoln however remained preoccupied. A few days later during dinner, his wife pressed him on what was preventing him from celebrating this victory. He was surrounded by family and friends, and his secretary Ward Hill Lamon. Lincoln said a little prayer to himself, then after a long silence he spoke, “You are right. I have been very troubled these past few days because of a dream I had. I remember every detail. A little more than ten days ago, I retired very late. I was waiting for news from the front. I was in bed for a shirt time when I dozed off from exhaustion. I had a dream. It was like I was the victim of some supernatural paralysis. I heard sobbing, as if a large crowd were in tears. I got out of bed and went down to the first floor. Still, I heard the sobbing, but those in tears remained invisible. I went from room to room, there was nobody. The rooms were well lit, I recognized everything. Everywhere I heard the same cries and sobs. Where were they coming from, who were these people, why were their hearts broken? I was deeply troubled. What could it possibly mean?”
“Determined to find the cause of this mysterious situation, I made my way to the East Room. I went in. I was shocked at the sight before me: an alter upon which rested a body, dressed in burial garments. All around the body soldiers were posted like sentinels. A crowd of gloomy mourners stood around the body, the face of which remained covered. “Who died?” I asked one of the soldiers. “The President,” he replied, “he was assassinated.” At that very moment, the grief and sorrow of the crowd was so intense I woke up. I couldn’t fall back asleep. Though it was only a dream, it left me strangely troubled.”
On the morning of April 14, 1865, President Lincoln got out bed at at seven, just like any other day. This spring day promised to be radiant. The dogwoods were in bloom, the perfume of each and every flower mingled in the spring air. In the parks and the gardens, heavy willow branches cast shadows along the banks of the Potomac. Before breakfast, Lincoln took his place behind his walnut desk and began to work. At eight, he joined his wife and two sons for breakfast. Mary Lincoln informed her husband that she had tickets for the Grover theater that evening, but that she would prefer to see “Our American Cousin” at the Ford theater instead. The comedy was the talk of the capital. “The Ford it is!” the President declared.
At eight o’clock in the morning that very same day, the young John Wilkes Booth opened his eyes at the National hotel in Washington, room number 228. Born twenty-seven years earlier, to Julius Booth, a famous American actor. The son followed in his father’s footsteps, playing a role in Shakespeare’s Richard III while still an adolescent. His success grew over time as he traveled the country, winning women and fortune along the way. He was a handsome young man, charismatic, with a look that women couldn’t ignore.
When he started out, a bohemian, he had his palms read. “You will break hearts, but you have in your hand a swarm of enemies. Not a single friend. You will end poorly. But many will love you afterwards. You will have a short life, but full and grand. I have never seen a worse hand…” The Civil War had left its impression upon the young Booth, whose sympathies were with the South. He was once arrested for speaking out against the government. He promised his mother he would never enlist. Some say he supported the South by other illegal means, such as supplying them with medicine, but these are only rumors. These trifles didn’t compromise his career, a few months later he was once again on the Washington stage, playing the role of Duke of Pescara in the Apostle.
At nine in the morning, finally ready, Booth left the hotel dressed in a dark suit and a top hat. Wearing pale colored gloves, he gently hung a heavy coat over his arm, and carried and elegant cane. He visited his fiancée, Lucy Hale. He had collected many mistresses by the time he decided to marry Lucy, the daughter of a Senator. Perhaps he would change his playboy ways for her; he was in love.
Sometime later, Lincoln received John Hale, the father of Lucy, who had just been named ambassador to Spain. At eleven, Lincoln entered the reception hall and formally open the meeting with his secretaries. The meeting focused on the situation in the South. The President wanted to provide aid to these states, enemies for so long, to help them recover as quickly as possible economically and socially, knowing that the victory of the North was only the first step in a long process of recovery. The true victory would not come cheaply. Despite the objections of some of his advisors, an accord was reached. The victorious North would aid the defeated South.
At the same time, the handsome actor Booth was arriving at the Ford theater to fetch a package that had been sent to him. He ran into the owner, Henry Clay Ford, who he knew quite well. He learned from him that the President and his wife would be in attendance that night for the performance of Our American Cousin. From the theater, Booth went straight to the stables at 224 C Street. He rented a roan mare that was to be ready for him at four o’clock. At exactly four, he returned to the Pumphrey stables to fetch the mare.
Towards five o’clock, Abraham and Mary left the White House for their daily walk. During these relaxing moment, the President told his wife that following his second term he wants to visit Europe, and then go even further, to the Middle East, a pilgrimage to Jerusalem.
Booth returned to the theater, where he invited a number of the employees out for a drink at the neighboring bar, the Taltavul’s Star.
At seven, Lincoln met with the Speaker of the House, Colfax, to inform him that he would not convoke an extraordinary session to discuss the reconstruction of the South, but that he would act through decree.
At the same time, Booth was changing back at his hotel room. He wore a freshly pressed black suit, mid-length boots with new spurs, and a black hat. He carried in his pocket his private journal, a compass, a small single shot 44 pistol, with a hunting knife shining in his belt.
Shortly after eight, Abraham Lincoln called an end to his workday. He was running late owing to some urgent, last minute work. The President, in a black frockcoat and white gloves, his wife in a white and black evening gown with a matching hat, exited the White House through the main door and climbed into the waiting carriage. The temperature had changed from the beauty of the earl morning. Night had fallen, the air was chilly and misty. They stopped to pick up two friends on the way, then arrived at the theater. It was eight-thirty, the play had already begun. An attendant was ready to meet them, and guided them to their official box. Entering the box, the actors stops, and the orchestra began to play Hail to the Chief. The spectators rose and applauded. The President sat towards the back, then the actors resumed their rolls. Between acts, the President and his wife remained with their friends, however the guard, John Parker, took this time to go grab a drink at Taltavul’s Star.
Booth was in the neighboring bar. An old theater regular recognized him, and rather insolently declared, “You will never be the actor your father was!”
“When I leave the stage, I will be the most famous man in America!” Booth replied.
At ten o’clock, the second act of Our American Cousin began. Mrs. Lincoln pulled her chair towards her husbands and took his hand. Although married nearly thirty years, they were still deeply in love with one another.
Seven minutes later, Booth entered the foyer of the theater. He climbed the stairs to the first floor and found the white door he was looking for. Charles Ford, the footman of the President, was standing guard. The young actor handed him a card and the valet let him pass. Cautiously, he opened the door and entered the dark outer room of the box. He silently closed the door behind him then moved on to the door that opened to the theater box itself. It was now 10:15. Booth knew the play by heart, and knew that at that very moment Harry Hawk was in the middle of his reply, “Don’t know the manners of good society, eh? Well I guess I know enough to turn you inside out…”
The audience broke out in laughter, just as Booth had anticipated. He drew his revolver and placed it behind the left ear of Lincoln and pulled the trigger. Because of the laughter, nobody heard the shot. “Sic semper tyrannis!” Booth cried, “Thus always to tyrants.”
One of the President’s friends witnessed everything. He rushed to Booth, who pulled the knife from his belt and stabbed. Booth climbed the balustrade of the box and jumped down to the stage. One of his spurs caught the curtain of the balcony, he lost his equilibrium and landed awkwardly on the boards, breaking his fibula just above the ankle. He forced himself up, and brandishing his knife he made his way across the stage and out the back door of the theater.
In the instants that followed, Lincoln, mortally wounded, dropped his head on his chest. His wife began to scream and cry. A doctor, Charles Leale, at the time only 23 years old, was in the audience and soon arrived at the President’s box. After a superficial examination he concluded, “The wound is fatal, he will not survive.” Lincoln fell into a coma.
He was transported to the closest house, the home of the Petersens just across the street. He was brought into one of the bedrooms. And so began a long night of agony. The news had traveled, and doctor after doctor showed up ready to offer their services. A huge crowd began to form outside the Petersen home. Lincoln’s breathing became weaker and weaker. He survived for nine hours, dying at 7:22 in the morning, on April 15, 1865. He was only 56 years old.
Meanwhile, Booth, despite his broken leg, mounted the mare he had rented earlier in the day. Although the bridges were being guarded, he was able to slip past a checkpoint without being stopped or asked any questions. Shortly after midnight he arrived at the Surattsville tavern that belonged to on of his accomplices. There he resupplied and was soon on his way. A three in the morning he arrived at the home of a sympathetic doctor, where he received treatment for him leg, then continued south. He finally reached the Garett Farm, accompanied by a friend who had been with him from the beginning. They finally felt somewhat in the clear.
They didn’t count on the detectives that were following close behind, who easily followed their trail. At daybreak on the morning of April 26, the detectives and a group of soldiers had the farm surrounded. Booth refused to come out when summoned. The soldiers set fire to the tobacco fields surrounding the barn Booth was holed up in. Through the flames they saw Booth move in the building, pistol and shotgun in hand. At that moment, Boston Corbett aimed his revolver and fired at Booth. He fell to the ground. The soldiers closed in and they pulled Booth, still alive, from the now blazing barn. The bullet had hit his neck. Laid out on the porch of the farmhouse, he had just enough strength left to murmur, “Tell my mother I died for my country. Useless. Useless.”
While his accomplices were being rounded up, Booths body was brought to Washington. One might be willing to consider the case closed. However, a strange development occurred. Upon seeing the body, some who had known Booth, claimed to not recognize the man before them. “This body is not that of Booth”, they repeated. Was it not Booth who the soldiers had killed at the Garett Farm? Doubts began to grow. What if the real Booth had escaped? What if he was allowed to escape? But why? To cover the tracks of the true political conspiracy that had taken root among those close to the President.
The authorities, who didn’t want anything to do with these subversive rumors, affirmed that they had found and killed the assassin. As for the accomplices, they were the stars of a sensational trial, after which they were all condemned to death by hanging. This included Mary Suratt, the owner of an inn that Booth had stopped at while on the run. She was the first woman executed in the United States.
“I walked with a firm step through a thousand of his friends, was stopped, but pushed on.” Booth wrote in his journal when he arrived at the Garret Farm, a few hours before his death. “I shouted Sic semper before I fired. In jumping broke my leg. I passed all his pickets, rode sixty miles that night with the bone of my leg tearing the flesh at every jump. I can never repent it, though we hated to kill. Our country owed all her troubles to him, and God simply made me the instrument of his punishment… After being hunted like a dog through swamps, woods, and last night being chased by gunboats till I was forced to return wet, cold, and starving, with every man’s hand against me, I am here in despair. And why? For doing what Brutus was honored for.”
The mystery surrounding the fate of the assassin continues to this very day. But what about the assassinated? He has never found peace. What is the significance of him appearing before the Queen of Holland? Without a doubt, he wishes for justice, for himself, which he tries to communicate to those he appears to…
“Your Majesty is not the first to see him,” the Roosevelts explained. “From well before our time here, many Presidents and staff alike have sworn to have seen or felt his presence.”
“I myself,” Eleanor added, “Have seen him on many occasions. Can you imagine, only a few days ago my chambermaid came rushing into my room all excited, she said ‘He is upstairs, sitting on the bed. He is taking off his boots.’ Who is taking off their boots, I asked. ‘Mister Lincoln’, she replied.”
“Do you believe in ghosts, Mr. President?” Wilhelmina inquired.
“I don’t believe it is wise to affirm that one does not believe in that which one cannot measure or prove is verifiably false. There are many things in this world we do not know. I admit that on a number of occasions, while at work alone, not in the Queen’s room where you are staying, but in the Blue Room, I have felt his presence, strongly.”
Nevertheless, it’s not those in the White House but rather the inhabitants of the modest Rivertown who are most aware of the ghost of Abraham Lincoln. Rivertown is a small community in Illinois, the last stop before Springfield, where Lincoln had been a deputy and lived with his family. The year doesn’t matter, it is only the date that counts. Between the 14th and 15th of April, the whole town stays up late. At some point over the course of the night, they all make their way down to the train tracks, lining the path that goes from Springfield to Washington. It is not the noise that alerts them, for all is silent, but rather the plumes of smoke coming from the locomotive, a very old, outdated, and obsolete train. Slowly, the train steams by them. Men take off their hats, the women cross themselves. The last wagon is a simple platform, upon which rests a coffin draped with an American flag. Neither the train nor the wheels make any sound at all. The train passes, only a few miles to go until Springfield, and yet the train never arrives. The train that each year carries the coffin of the President towards Springfield is itself a ghost train.