The Time When a Booth Saved a Lincoln

December 26, 2022

Portrait of Edwin Booth who would later save Robert Lincoln
Edwin Booth as Hamlet

Less than a year before John Wilkes Booth assassinated Abraham Lincoln, Booth’s brother, Edwin Booth, saved Lincoln’s oldest son, Robert Todd Lincoln, from being injured and possibly killed by a train.

Edwin Booth was considered to be one of the great Shakespearean actors of the 1800s. He was the manager of the Winter Garden Theatre in New York City, where many Shakespearean productions were made in 1862. Edwin was a supporter of Lincoln and a Unionist, and he was not close with his brother, who supported secession.

In 1863 or 1864, no one knows for sure, Edwin Booth and Robert Lincoln were both in a train station in Jersey City, New Jersey. Robert was off from Harvard and traveling to Washington D.C., while Booth was going to Richmond, Virginia, with the owner of Ford’s Theatre in Washington D.C., John T. Ford.

The encounter began while Robert was waiting on the platform to board the train. It was crowded, and Robert was close to a train car when it started to move. He fell into the open space between the platform and the train and was caught by his coat collar. Robert was pulled back onto the platform by Edwin Booth before being injured or killed by the moving train. Robert didn’t personally know Booth, but he recognized the well-known actor when he saw his face.

Booth later received a congratulatory letter for his heroism from Ulysses S. Grant, who Robert Lincoln worked for at the time. There is no evidence that Robert ever told his parents about the event, possibly because he didn’t want to worry his mother. It was clear from Robert’s later writings that he appreciated the quick action of Booth at the train station, and it was not an event he forgot about.

A portrait of Robert Todd Lincoln
Robert Todd Lincoln

Robert Lincoln didn’t attend the play the night his father was assassinated even though he was invited. He never forgave himself for declining, according to a memoir of his friend, Nicholas Murray Butler. Robert believed he would have sat at the back of the box where John Wilkes Booth entered, and Booth would have had to contend with Robert to get to President Lincoln.

For Edwin Booth, the assassination devastated him. He was a Lincoln supporter and felt that an honorable man had been killed by his brother. He also felt that his name would be forever tarnished by the crime. According to William Bispham, a friend of Edwin’s, the two things that got him through the trying time were writing his autobiography and knowing that he had saved the life of the president’s eldest son at the train station in Jersey City. Though Booth never recounted the event in writing, Robert Lincoln wrote about it three times while speaking about it twice.

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About the author 

Daniel Ganninger - The writer, editor, and chief lackey of Knowledge Stew, the author of the Knowledge Stew line of trivia books, and editor of Fact World and the Knowledge Stew sister site on Medium, our ad-free subscription sites (you can find out how to join below). I hope you find things here to annoy those around you with your new found knowledge.

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