April 15, 1865 – Death of President Lincoln – A Poetry Month Perspective

On April 14, 1865, fears for the President’s life were on the increase among his friends and advisors. He planned to attend a play that night, the comedy “Our American Cousin” at Ford’s theater, but several aids sought to dissuade him from going. Secretary of War Edwin Stanton pleaded with the president not to go. His body guard, William Crook, “almost begged” Lincoln not to go to the theater. Crook then asked if he could go along as an extra guard. Lincoln rejected both suggestions, shrugging off Crook’s fears of assassination. Lincoln knew that a guard would be posted outside their box at the theater.

Nevertheless, when John Wilkes Booth slipped into Lincoln’s box with his derringer, the guard was nowhere to be seen. (Apparently he had slipped off to a bar across the street, whether intentionally or not, no one ever knew.) Booth had no impediments to killing Lincoln.

The President never regained consciousness, and died the next morning on April 15 at 7:22 a.m.

Lincoln often had premonitions of his death (not unreasonable, considering the number of threats he received).

Critically acclaimed bestselling author and poet Julianna Baggott composed this lovely poem, reproduced below, to express the concerns of Lincoln and the dark visions that haunted him. It is written as if by Lincoln to his wife Mary:

An Open Letter to Mrs. Lincoln by Julianna Baggott

I see ghosts of myself

veiled remnants of former selves
caught in whirls as if seen through moths
or bedsheets

through the delicate clockwork of age
the paling of this life — the dust of children,
the lint of love in my pockets.

It’s an omen
that we all know too well. Death, Mrs. Lincoln,
it’s upon us.

It lurches in the molded kitchen.
It’s caught in the lame dog’s funnel.
(Don’t bite the sutures.)

It’s restless in the meadow of our discontent.
(There are no more meadows. There is only
discontent.) I am wearing the tall hat of my
decay — a fallen hat, so

calicified, bent in two —
arthritic hat — oh scoliosis — how the back brace
didn’t fix me then and nothing will fix me now.
For here, on display

in the box seats, you and I sit —
Mrs. Lincoln, we were once wee pretty things that
grew squat with fever and madness and loss.
The shot will ring out. We will hear it before anyone
else because we know the chamber, the bullet.
Omen after omen after omen. We collect them
like snow globes. We shake them

in our fists,

watch the snow grow paler,

paler and then paler still.”

Currier and Ives depiction of Lincoln's assassination. L-to-r: Maj. Rathbone, Clara Harris, Mary Todd Lincoln, Pres. Lincoln, and Booth

Currier and Ives depiction of Lincoln’s assassination. L-to-r: Maj. Rathbone, Clara Harris, Mary Todd Lincoln, Pres. Lincoln, and Booth

About rhapsodyinbooks

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7 Responses to April 15, 1865 – Death of President Lincoln – A Poetry Month Perspective

  1. Julie P. says:

    Thanks for sharing that poem. I’ve read some about Lincoln in my past and never had seen that before.

  2. Nymeth says:

    I didn’t know the poem either – thank you!

  3. Barbara says:

    Lincoln had premonitions of death and was sort of a fatalist – if it was his time, that was that. I’ve always wondered if J.W. Booth might have slipped the guard some money and said he would take his place. Just speculating. Of course the guy would never have admitted it.

  4. softdrink says:

    On a non-poetry note, have you ever read Sarah Vowell? Her Assassination Vacation has quite a bit of info on Booth and Lincoln’s assassination, and it’s quite entertaining (sorry, that sounds so disrespectful to Lincoln).

  5. Lisa says:

    Thanks for the poem and the reminder.

  6. Jenners says:

    You are a genius at these historical posts.

  7. Valerie says:

    I really enjoy your history posts — I always manage to learn something new. This poem was very fitting!

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