Reluctant Witness to History – Robert Todd Lincoln

Robert Todd Lincoln

Robert Todd Lincoln, eldest son of President Abraham Lincoln, had the unique distinction of being present at three Presidential assassinations. It is a fact that Robert Lincoln was on the scene of three different presidential assassinations, but assassination lore has it that he played a shadowy, almost supernatural role in all three.

The Facts:

In April 1865, young Captain Robert Todd Lincoln, assigned to the staff of General U.S. Grant, returned to Washington, D.C. His parents were going to the theater that night, and invited Robert to join them. Robert declined, saying he was very tired and just wanted to get a good night’s sleep. His parents invited another officer to join them. Robert was awakened later that night and informed of the shooting at the Ford’s Theater. Robert went to his dying father’s bedside. He was still there when his father died early the next morning. Robert felt a certain amount of guilt for the rest of his life, wondering if things might have turned out differently if he had attended the theater with his father.

In 1881, Robert Lincoln was the Secretary of War in the administration of President James A. Garfield. President Garfield had invited Robert to join him on a trip to Elberon, N.J., after which the President was then going to travel to a Williams College reunion. They were to leave from the Baltimore and Potomac railroad station in Washington, D.C. Robert Lincoln was running late, and arrived at the station just as the assassination of Garfield occurred.

Twenty years later, on September 6, 1901, President William McKinley invited Robert Lincoln to join him at the Pan American Exposition at Buffalo, New York. Again, Robert Lincoln arrived just as the President was shot. He joined the group of men surrounding the President shortly after the President had been mortally wounded.

The Lore:

In 1865, Robert Lincoln had just that afternoon arrived from the field where he served on the staff of General Grant. He was hot, dirty, and tired, and wanted nothing more than a good night’s sleep in a soft comfortable bed. He begged off the theater invitation, saying he would spend time with his parents the next day.

It is well documented in the journals and diaries of those around President Lincoln that he was experiencing dreams about his own death. This was well known at the time after President Lincoln’s assassination. In 1881, President Garfield began experiencing similar dreams, and wanted to speak with Robert Lincoln about his father’s dreams. It was for that purpose that President Garfield had asked Secretary Robert Lincoln to join him on the first leg of his trip. Robert was running late, and indeed was going to inform President Garfield that he couldn’t make the trip. Robert Lincoln entered the station just before the assassination. There are different versions, one saying that Robert Lincoln heard the shots but did not see them and the other version saying that Robert Lincoln had actually gotten close enough to see the assassination take place.

In 1901, President McKinley was planning to attend the Pan American Exposition in Buffalo, New York. Robert Lincoln was no longer in government, serving as one of the leading corporate lawyers in the nation. He also served as the President of the Pullman Company. President McKinley had recently begun experiencing the same disturbing dreams. He, too, wanted to speak with Robert Lincoln about the dreams experienced by President Lincoln shortly before his death.

Again, Robert Lincoln was running late. He arrived at the Exposition after President McKinley had started shaking hands in a receiving line. The President’s secretary asked Robert to join the President later at his hotel. Robert went to greet the President before leaving, and as he approached, witnessed the assassin firing the fatal shot. (One version of the story from a witness said Robert Lincoln was approaching the President, but had not yet come close enough to see the tragic event.)

Aside from his four years as Secretary of War, and one period as the U.S. Minister to Great Britain, Robert Todd Lincoln avoided the public life and spotlight. This made it all the more fantastic that he should be the one person tied to all three Presidential assassinations during his lifetime. Was it merely a matter of incredible coincidence? Did these three Presidents experience these dreams about their own deaths?

We know Lincoln spoke of these dreams in the weeks before his assassination. His comments on the dreams are recorded in the journals of his secretaries (John Nicolay and John Hay, later Secretary of State) and several other people. People around Presidents Garfield and McKinley related stories about these two Presidents having similar dreams. No matter what the reason, Robert Todd Lincoln was repeatedly drawn into Presidential assassinations, probably the most dramatic historical events in anyone’s lifetime.