The Lincolns and the Actors

Everyone knows about Abraham Lincoln’s brief run-in with John Wilkes Booth, but  other Lincolns had life and death incidents involving theater folks.

Lincoln and John Wilkes Booth

The assassination

One of dozens of etched interpretations of the Lincoln Assassination in Ford’s Theatre.

John Wilkes Booth came from a well regarded family of dramatic actors. His father Junius Brutus Booth appeared in leading roles about the time Lincoln was born. His famous older brother Edwin was the matinee idol of his time. Another brother, Junius Brutus (the younger) had also made a solid name for himself on stage. John Wilkes slipped easily into the family business, blessed with good looks, athletic agility and a fair amount of talent.


Lincoln’s assassin: John Wilkes Booth. Boo-hiss.

By the time John W. was out of his teens, his career was on the rise. He was already playing leading roles, including a performance with his two illustrious brothers in Julius Caesar. Then came the Civil War.

His family were Marylanders, and strong Unionists.  For reasons known only to himself, John Wilkes Booth was a racist and ardent Confederate sympathizer. He laid all the South’s misery at Lincoln’s feet, blaming him for anything and everything. He began plotting to kidnap the President and hold him for enormous ransom. He attracted various cohorts, mostly hangers-on, but  he was undoubtedly the leader.

Once Lee surrendered, the plot abruptly switched from kidnap to murder, and on April 14, in a theater that Booth knew well, murder it was.

Robert Lincoln and the Actor

Robert Lincoln

Robert Lincoln was just 21 when his father was killed. A year earlier, his life was saved by an actor.

Robert Lincoln was only 21 when his father was assassinated. Months earlier, once he finished Harvard, he became a captain on General Grant’s staff in Petersburg. He became acquainted with another young officer, Adam Badeau, who would later record the experience Robert had told him.

Returning to the White House from college, Robert was standing at the train station when the train began to move. He lost his footing and slipped into a narrow space between the platform and the car body.  According to Robert Lincoln, it was Edwin Booth who grabbed him by the collar and pulled him back to his feet, saving him from serious injury or worse. Lincoln recognized the famous actor and thanked him for his efforts. Booth did not know the young man’s identity until more than a year later.


Actor Edwin Booth was a famous theatrical star prior to the Civil War. He managed to redeem the “family theatrical honor” in subsequent years.

Edwin Booth (1833-1893) was a well known performer. His photograph was in the newspapers. His cartes d’visite were readily available. Robert likely had attended one of his performances. When Robert looked into the face attached to the arm that had pulled him from danger, he recognized it at once, but other than Robert’s profuse expression of gratitude, there is no record of further conversation or contact.

Edwin Booth sank into a deep depression after the Lincoln assassination. He was devastated not only by the deed, but by the fact that his brother had done it, and had forever sullied the family’s good name. He feared he would never be able to appear on stage again.

It is said, however, that when Edwin Booth learned that the young man he saved from certain injury or death was the son of the murdered sixteenth president, it helped to ease his depression, and he triumphantly returned to the stage.

Years later, Robert Lincoln verified the account of the incident in a letter to Richard Watson Gilder, editor of The Century Magazine. 

Mary Lincoln and the Actress

mary in mourning

The widow Mary Lincoln.

Mary Lincoln had always loved the theater. She attended performances in Lexington, KY as a young girl, and during her years in Springfield, IL, a theatrical show was an occasion for a night out. In Washington, the Lincolns were regulars at the theater. After Lincoln’s assassination the former First Lady never set foot in one again.

For her remaining seventeen widowed years, Mary was mostly a wanderer, going from spa to spa, climate to climate, to try to find respite for her various physical, emotional and psychosomatic ills.


The Divine Sarah Bernhardt. She had a flair for the dramatic onstage and in life.

1880 found Mary living in France, in a residence-hotel. Her health was now seriously declining. In her early sixties, her eyesight was deteriorating, likely from cataracts. Then she fell and hurt her back. One cannot be sure of the exact damage, but indications point to a possible fracture. It was time to go home. The Widow Lincoln packed up the sixty-odd crates and trunks of her life and booked passage on the Amerique.

During those seventeen years of Mary Lincoln’s widowhood, the name of Sarah Bernhardt (1844-1923) had blazed across Europe as one of the finest dramatic actresses in the world. In 1880 she was at the height of her fame, and was coming to the United States for a grand theatrical tour.  The great star and the frail widow were on the same ship.

In the memoirs Mlle. Bernhardt wrote later… as turbulent weather rocked the slippery deck, she was near a staircase and spied a small elderly woman swathed in mourning clothes who was swaying and about to lose her footing and tumble down the long flight. In an instant she reached out and grabbed the woman’s clothing and prevented the fall.

Mrs. Lincoln never mentioned the incident (as far as can be documented) and perhaps never knew the identity of her rescuer, but she murmured that she was the widow of Abraham Lincoln. Sarah Bernhardt wrote in her memoirs, that she realized that she had done “the only service she ought not have done.”  Mary Lincoln was the one person in the world whose “rescue” was not a favor, and that perhaps death would have been kinder for the tragic Widow Lincoln.


Baker, Jean – Mary Todd Lincoln: A Biography – W.W.Norton & Co. 1999

Skinner, Cornelia Otis – Madame Sarah – Houghton Mifflin, 1966

About Feather Schwartz Foster

Feather Schwartz Foster is an author-historian who has made more than 500 appearances discussing presidential history. She teaches adult education at the Christopher Wren Association (affiliated with William and; Mary College), and adult Education programs at Christopher Newport University. She has been a guest on the C-SPAN "First Ladies" program. She has written five books.
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2 Responses to The Lincolns and the Actors

  1. energywriter says:

    Impressive information. So was Bernhardt aware of M. Lincoln’s “peculiarities”? sd

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