The Death of Willie Lincoln, or Seances in the White House
The Civil War took a terrible toll on Abraham Lincoln but there is no doubt that the most crippling blow that he suffered in the White House was the death of his son, Willie, on February 20, 1862. Lincoln and his wife, Mary, grieved deeply over Willie’s death. Their son Eddie had passed away a number of years before and while they didn’t know it at the time, another son, Tad, would only live to be age eighteen. Robert was the only Lincoln son to see adulthood. Lincoln was sick at heart over Willie’s death and it was probably the most intense personal crisis in his life. Some historians have even called it the greatest blow he ever suffered. Even Confederate President Jefferson Davis sent a letter to Washington to express his condolences over the boy’s death.
Seemingly beyond all hope of comfort, Mary Lincoln turned to the one of the most popular movements in America at the time – Spiritualism, which offered communication with the dead. She began to hold séances in the White House and communed with her dead son. And according to others in attendance, so did President Lincoln.
In the midst of the Civil War, Abraham Lincoln suffered greatly. Exhausted, he prowled the White House corridors at night, visiting the War Room and reeling under the great responsibility that he felt sending thousands of young men to their deaths. Perhaps his greatest solace during those times was his cherished sons, Willie and Tad. As the war dragged on, Lincoln found them to be one of his only antidotes to the depression and anxiety of his position. He treasured the moments that he could spend with them, when he could forget about the bumbling generals and the bickering politicians and relax with his sons, reading them stories and sharing their wild fun and antics. He loved to beleaguer his visitors with tales of his “two little codgers” and bragged about them to all who would listen.
This mezzotint print of the Lincoln family in 1861 produced by New York engraver John Chester Buttre in 1873. It was based on a composite portrait by New York artist, Francis B. Carpenter. Carpenter relied on a photograph taken at Mathew Brady’s Washington studio on February 9, 1864, for his representation of President Lincoln and Tad. The images of Mary Todd, Willie, and Robert Lincoln are his own creation.
Both Willie and Tad found the White House to be a place of constant revelry and Lincoln let them run wild with very few restraints. They ran and shouted in the corridors and burst into Lincoln’s office in the middle of conferences, chasing one another through the room and darting in between stiff politicians who were not amused. Tad, who instigated most of the mischief, once fired his toy cannon at a Cabinet meeting and also liked to stand at the front of the grand staircase and collect a nickel “entrance fee” from those who came to see the President. Also, with Lincoln’s help, the boys converted the White House lawn into a zoo, with animals consisting of ponies, kittens, white rabbits, a turkey, a pet goat (which often slept in Tad’s bed) and a dog named Jip, who had a habit of sleeping in Lincoln’s lap during meals. When the boys were not chasing animals through the Executive Mansion, they were holding fairs and minstrel shows in the attic. One day, Tad discovered the White House bell system, which had cords running to various rooms so that Lincoln or the staff could summon servants whenever they needed anything. Tad set all of the bells clanging at once, sending the White House into bedlam. It took a few minutes for them to figure out what was going on, but eventually members of the staff climbed into the attic and found Tad yanking all of the bells and giggling madly.
Inspired by the martial atmosphere in Washington, the boys waged mock battles with neighborhood children on the White House lawn. They also held military parades through the corridors of the house, with the boys and their friends marching in a single line, blowing on old horns and banging tin drums. They carried out secret missions on the White House roof, hiding out and watching for “rebs” with their telescopes.
On another occasion, they held a solemn court martial for a soldier doll named Jack, found him guilty, shot him for desertion and buried him in the White House garden. One day, though, they burst into Lincoln’s office during a meeting and explained in a breathless voice that they had shot Jack for desertion and buried him but that the White House gardener wanted the doll removed because they had dug up some roses. So, they wanted “Paw” to fix up a pardon for Jack. Lincoln said that he reckoned that he could do that and took out a piece of official stationary. “The Doll Jack is pardoned by order of the President” and signed it “A. Lincoln.”
President Lincoln with his son, Tad
Because the boys loved the Army, Lincoln often took them along when he went to visit General George McClellan’s camps across the Potomac. They looked up to the soldiers with wide-eyed reverence and watched the marching bands and the drilling regiments in awe. When Lincoln was presented to the troops, the boys rode with him in his carriage and tipped their hats to the troops just as their father did.
In spite of how it sounds, though, life for the Lincoln boys was not all play. Tad was a nervous boy, like his mother, and a hyperactive child with a speech impediment. He was slow to learn and many did not believe that he could read. Mary hired tutors for the boys but Tad had “no opinion of discipline” and teacher after teacher resigned in frustration. But Lincoln refused to worry about Tad, insisting that he would learn his letters over time. The boys might be a little spoiled but he was determined to let them have as much fun as they could. They would have to grow up far too soon.
In contrast to Tad, Willie had a very serious side and often behaved like an adult. He had turned eleven in December 1861 and many of the Lincoln’s friends and staff members commented on his precociousness. The young man would sit in church, listening to the minister with rapt attention while Tad played with a jackknife on the floor of his mother’s pew. When he was tired of romping with this younger brother, Willie liked to lock himself in Mary’s room, where he would curl up in a chair and read a book or write stories on a writing pad, just as his father used to do when he was growing up. He also kept scrapbooks about historical and significant events, filled with clippings on his father’s inauguration, the war, and deaths of important people. Willie was much like his father in so many ways and because of this, was his father’s special favorite. He and Willie shared many interests, especially reading, humor and a love for animals. Lincoln had bought Willie a pony for his birthday and it became the pride of the boy’s life. Mary loved Willie’s gentleness and he was so affectionate that she often counted on him desperately for family companionship. He would, she prayed, “be the hope and stay of her old age.”
Tragically, this was not meant to be.
By spring of 1862, the tide of the war was slowly starting to turn for the Union. Lincoln’s generals were finally starting to triumph on the battlefield. Buell had actually managed to defeat the rebels in a battle in eastern Kentucky and Halleck had finally come alive and had sent a column down the Tennessee River. Neither man was cooperating as Lincoln had directed but at least they were fighting. Even better news soon followed. A Brigadier General named Ulysses S. Grant had driven into northwestern Tennessee and had captured Fort Henry on the Tennessee River and then had stormed Fort Donelson on the Cumberland. He pounded the garrison until it met his terms of unconditional surrender. Lincoln and Stanton congratulated one another when they read the news and Lincoln noted happily that Grant and many of his men hailed from Illinois. Subsequent reports also maintained that Grant’s victories had broken the Confederate line in Kentucky and forced the rebels to retreat into Tennessee. Though Halleck, who was sitting behind a desk in St. Louis, claimed most of the credit, Lincoln himself nominated “Unconditional Surrender” Grant for a promotion to major general. After a long and dismal winter, Grant had given the president something to look forward to.
While Grant was busy hammering the river garrisons in Tennessee, both Willie and Tad became sick. The onset of their sickness occurred during the last days of January 1862. The boys were out playing in the show and both developed a fever and a cold. Tad’s illness soon passed, but Willie seemed to get worse. He was kept inside for a week and finally put into bed. A doctor was summoned and he assured Mary that the boy would improve, despite the fact that Willie’s lungs were congested and he was having trouble breathing. Day after day passed and Willie grew more and more sick. He developed chills and soon his fever spiked out of control. White House secretaries later told of hearing his cries in the night.
The reports of what Willie actually died from vary by account. In the end, it remains a mystery. He was said to have been a delicate child, despite his rough play with his brother and his outdoor activities. Like his brother Eddie, he may have suffered from “consumption” or, according to some accounts; he contracted either an acute malarial infection or typhoid. In either case, the lack of proper sanitation was likely a factor. During this time period, Washington had open sewers and a filthy canal for drinking water. The city garbage was dumped into the water just a short distance from the White House.
Before the boy had taken sick, the Lincolns had planned a large reception with over eight hundred people in attendance. The lavish party included dinner, music and dancing and the invitations had already gone out, leaving Mary no opportunity to cancel. The evening turned out to be a dismal affair for the worried parents as they continually took turns climbing the stairs to check on Willie.
His condition did not improve. The doctor was summoned back and by then, everyone in the household and the offices knew that Willie was seriously ill. More doctors were called in to consult and soon, Willie’s illness made the newspapers. The reporters conjectured that he may have contracted bilious fever. One parent stayed with the frightened and sick boy at all times and a nurse came to spell them from one of the local hospitals. After a week of this, Mary was too weak and exhausted to rise from her own bed but Lincoln never left the boy’s side, sleeping and eating in a chair next to his bed. All he could do was to bathe Willie’s face with a wet cloth and look on helplessly as his son’s life slowly slipped away. The doctors had no hope for the child as he grew worse. Soon, Willie’s mind wandered and he failed to recognize anyone, including his beloved father.
Death came for Willie on the afternoon of February 20, 1862. Lincoln covered his face and wept in the same manner that he had for his mother many years before. He looked at Willie for a long time, refusing to leave his bed side. “My poor boy,” the President is reported to have said. “He was too good for this earth. God called him home. I know that he is better off in heaven, but then we loved him so. It is hard.... hard to have him die.”
Mary collapsed in convulsions of sobbing and her closest confidante, her black seamstress Lizzie Keckley, led her away to comfort her. The talented Mrs. Keckley, a former slave who previously worked for Mrs. Jefferson Davis, had become an almost constant companion of Mrs. Lincoln after completing her ball gown for the inauguration. She was one of the few people who possessed the patience and strength needed to deal with the high-strung First Lady. Mary trusted her implicitly, confided in her, and called the woman her best living friend. Keckley listened to Mary, sympathized with her and advised her as best she could. She would soon influence Mary greatly when it came to her beliefs in Spiritualism.
Mary Lincoln’s close friend and confidante, seamstress Lizzie Keckley
After Willie’s death, it was Lizzie who washed the boy’s body and dressed him in a plain brown suit of clothes for the funeral. She herself had lost her only son and understood Mary’s mother’s pain at the loss of Willie.
President Lincoln was unable to stomach his own loss. He managed to stand after Mary was led away by Lizzie Keckley and stumbled into John Nicolay’s office to share the horrible news. Then, sobbing, he walked to Tad’s room. He sat down with the boy and tried to tell him that Willie would not be able to play with him anymore; that his brother had died. Tad refused to believe it for a time and then he too began to cry.
Orville Browning, Lincoln’s longtime friend from Illinois, and his wife, Elizabeth, immediately came to the White House when they heard the news. Elizabeth stayed with Mary throughout the night and Orville began taking care of funeral arrangements. It was a tragic time in the White House and according to the tradition of the day, the mirrors in the house were covered and the mansion was draped in black. The Lincolns hardly stirred from their rooms. If not for their friends and Lincoln’s most trusted staff, the White House would have come to a standstill.
On February 24, a minister conducted the funeral in the East Room, while Willie lay in a metal coffin in the nearby Green Room. It was said that the boy only appeared to be sleeping as his friends and family passed slowly by him, their faces twisted in grief. Lincoln stood with Robert by his side but Mary did not attend the funeral. She was in such a state of shock that she was unable to leave her room. Most of official Washington was there, including Seward, who wept openly, Lincoln’s Cabinet, dozens of politicians and George McClellan, who was so moved by the President’s suffering that he later sent Lincoln a compassionate note expressing his sorrow and thanking him for standing by him during failure after failure on the military front. When the service was concluded, the pallbearers and a group of children from Willie’s Sunday school class carried the coffin outside and to the waiting hearse.
The day of the funeral was a stormy one, as if the forces of nature reflected the anguish in the Lincoln’s hearts. The procession to the cemetery was several blocks long and it ended at Oak Hill Cemetery in Georgetown. Throughout the day, rainstorms wreaked destruction upon the city. Steeples had fallen from churches, roofs had been torn form houses, trees and debris littered the roadways, and even the funeral procession cowered under the torrents of rain. But as soon as they reached the cemetery, the storm passed over and the air became silent, almost as in deference to Willie Lincoln.
The service was short. Willie had been embalmed to make the trip back to Springfield and be buried beside his brother, but Lincoln changed his mind about that at the last minute. He accepted an offer made to him by a friend, William Thomas Carroll, to place the body of Willie in one of the crypts in the Carroll family tomb. This would be until Lincoln retired from the presidency and returned to live in Springfield himself. He could not bear the idea of having Willie so far away from him just yet.
In fact, Lincoln returned to the cemetery the next day to watch the body as it was moved from the cemetery chapel to the crypt itself. The tomb was located in a remote area of the cemetery and was built into the side of a hill. It was a beautiful and peaceful spot, but Lincoln wouldn’t be able to leave his son unattended there for long.
Word spread that Lincoln returned to the tomb on two occasions and had Willie’s coffin opened. The undertaker had embalmed Willie so perfectly that he appeared to be merely asleep. The President claimed each time that he opened the casket that he wanted to look upon his boy’s face just one last time.
After the funeral, Lincoln tried to go on about his work, but his spirit had been crushed by Willie’s death. One week after the funeral, he closed himself up in his office all day and wept. It has often been said that Lincoln was on the verge of suicide at this point, but none can say for sure. He did withdraw even further into himself though and he began to look more closely at the spiritual matters that had interested him for so long.
Although many Lincoln scholars dismiss, or openly scoff, at the idea, it is not only likely that Abraham Lincoln believed in the supernatural, but that he actually participated in it through séances and attempts to contact the spirit world. Many have ignored this part of Lincoln’s life or have said that Lincoln had no time for ghosts and spirits, but there are others who say that he actually attended séances, which were held in the White House. Whether he accepted the idea of spirit communication or not, it is a fact that many Spiritualists were often guests there.
After Willie died, Lincoln treasured small items and drawings given to him by his son, sometimes putting them all over his desk while he worked, hoping to capture his essence. Small toys that had belonged to Willie were placed on his fireplace mantel, along with a framed picture that Willie had done for his father. Lincoln would tell visitors that it had been painted by “my boy, who died.” His friends stated that Lincoln would often watch the door while he worked, as if expecting the boy to run through it and give his father a hug, as he often did in life. One afternoon, he asked Secretary of the Treasury Salmon P. Chase, “Do you ever find yourself talking with the dead? I do... ever since Willie’s death. I catch myself involuntarily talking to him as if he were near me..... And I feel that he is!”
Willie’s death left a permanent hole in Lincoln’s heart. Often he would dream that Willie was still alive and would see the boy playing in the leaves on the White House lawn and calling out to him --- only to awaken in his darkened bedroom and realize that it was only a dream.
Lincoln also began to speak of how Willie’s spirit remained with him and how his presence was often felt in his home and office. Some mediums theorized that Lincoln’s obsession with the boy’s death may have caused Willie’s spirit to linger behind, refusing, for his father’s sake, to pass on to the other side.
Even if Lincoln did become involved with Spiritualism, as so many have claimed, he largely avoided them in public. However, after Willie’s death, Mary embraced them openly. This is not surprising with the atmosphere that existed in the White House at that time. The President managed to escape from his despair with work, even though his moments with Mary and Tad tended to bring back his pain again. Tad, who until his brother’s death thought life was nothing more than a game, now broke into bouts of crying because Willie “will never speak to me anymore.” But it was Mary who seemed to be more affected by her son’s death. Always high-strung and emotional in the best of times, she suffered what was likely a nervous breakdown and she shut herself in her room for three months. She took to her bed, broke into fits of weeping and begged Willie to come back to her. Lizzie Keckley would later recall how tender President Lincoln was with his anguished wife but he worried about her as well, fearful that she would lapse into insanity. One day, he took her to the window of her room and pointed out to a distant structure where mental patients were confined. “Try and control your grief,” he told her, “or it will drive you mad and we may have to send you there.”
With care from her husband, and Lizzie’s friendship and kindness, Mary began to slowly improve, although the mention of Willie’s name or a reminder of him would send her into violent sobs. Unable to bear any memory, she gave away all of his toys and anything that might make her think of him. She never again entered the guest room where he died or into the Green Room where he had been laid out in his coffin. She canceled all but the most important social functions and lived in veritable seclusion for some time, trying anxiously to hold on. Five months after her son’s death, she was still so shaken that she could barely write to her friends in Springfield about “our crushing bereavement”. Sometimes, she wrote, when she was alone, she realized again that “he is not with us” and the terror of the thought “often for days overcomes me”.
As time wore on, Mary began to find small ways to alleviate her grief. Following Lizzie Keckley’s advice, she began visiting the military hospitals in Washington, distributing food and flowers to the wounded soldiers. She also developed a deep compassion, thanks to her own suffering and her friendship for Lizzie Keckley, for all of the “oppressed colored people”. She helped Lizzie to care for “contraband” blacks who were now streaming into Washington and even convinced President Lincoln to donate $200 to her cause because “humanity requires it”. Mary also did everything that she could to find jobs for the refugees.
All of this did only so much to ease her pain, though, and Mary remained unstable. Her mood swings, headaches and explosive temper were worse than ever. In addition, she began to see political conspiracies against her husband everywhere, especially on the part of William Seward, the “dirty sneak” who had tried, and was still trying, to take her husband’s job. She despised the man and hated him even more for the fact that he cheerfully ignored her hatred for him. She believed that all of the Cabinet members were evil and was bothered by the fact that her husband seemed to be so unaware of it. Mary also fretted about his safety, begging Lincoln to take guards along when he went out on his nocturnal walks to the War Department. She begged him to be careful and worried about him so much that it seemed to Lizzie that Mary “read impending danger in every rustling leaf, in every whisper of the wind.”
Perhaps the only thing that really provided Mary with any comfort at all was her embrace of Spiritualism, a movement that claimed contact with the dead and which had enjoyed a revival during the years of carnage during the Civil War. But this period did not mark the Lincolns first exposure to Spiritualism or contact with the dead. By the summer of 1862, Mary was meeting with a number of different Spiritualist mediums and invited many to the White House, as each claimed to be able to “lift the thin veil” and allow Mary to communicate with Willie.
Through Lizzie Keckley, Mary made the acquaintance of a Miss Bonpoint, a journalist who was writing about Spiritualism in the papers. It was she who introduced Mary to the Lauries, a husband and wife medium team that lived in Georgetown. After that, the black presidential carriage was often seen outside of the Lauries’ brownstone.
Nettie Colburn Maynard
Later that year, Mary met the woman who became her closest Spiritualist companion, Nettie Colburn Maynard, a medium that President Lincoln also met with. Many are familiar with a tale told about a séance attended by Nettie Maynard in 1863 where a grand piano levitated. A medium was playing the instrument when it began to rise off the floor. Lincoln and Colonel Simon Kase were both present and it is said that both men climbed onto the piano, only to have it jump and shake so hard that they climbed down. It is recorded that Lincoln would later refer to the levitation as proof of an “invisible power.”
Rumors spread that Lincoln had an interest in the spirit world. In England, a piece of sheet music was published which portrayed him holding a candle while violins and tambourines flew about his head. The piece of music was called “The Dark Séance Polka” and the caption below the illustration of the president read “Abraham Lincoln and the Spiritualists.”
It was also rumored that Lincoln consulted with these mediums and clairvoyants to obtain information about future events in the war. He found that sometimes they gave him information about matters as mundane as Confederate troop movements -- information that sometimes matched his own precognitive visions. There is much written about Lincoln and the Washington Spiritualists of the day in the accounts and diaries written by friends and acquaintances. One such acquaintance would even claim that Lincoln’s plans for the Emancipation Proclamation, which freed the southern slaves, came to him from the spirit of Daniel Webster and other abolitionists of the spirit world.
Although a number of prominent Washington City Spiritualists wrote of their experiences with President Lincoln, most of the information about his interest in Spiritualism came from Nettie Colburn Maynard, who published a manuscript on the subject in 1891. According to Nettie, she first met President Lincoln on February 5, 1863, during a séance in Georgetown that he was not scheduled to attend. The medium would later claim that her “spirit guide” told her that Lincoln would be in attendance. The host of the party declared that this was unlikely to happen, as Lincoln rarely attended séances away from the White House. To his surprise, though, the President did come and the host exclaimed upon seeing him that he had been expected. Lincoln was reportedly shocked and stated that he had not been planning to come but only accompanied Mary that night on a whim.
During the séance, Lincoln was allegedly contacted by an “old Dr. Bramford”, who is said to have given him information about the state of the war. Nettie later quoted the spirit as saying, “a very precarious state of things existed at the front, where General Hooker had just taken command. The army was totally demoralized; regiments stacking arms, refusing to obey orders and do duty; threatening a general retreat; declaring their purpose to return to Washington.” She wrote that the vivid picture of this terrible state of affairs seemed to surprise everyone but Lincoln, who spoke up to the spirit. “You seem to understand the situation,” he said. “Can you point out the remedy?”
Dr. Bramford replied that he had one, but only if Lincoln had the courage to use it. The President smiled and challenged the eerie voice that was coming to him from the darkness. According to the spirit, the remedy for success lay with Lincoln himself. He spoke: “Go in person to the front; taking with you your wife and children; leaving behind your official dignity, and all manner of display. Resist the importunities of officials to accompany you and take only such attendants as may be absolutely necessary; avoid the high grade officers, and seek the tents of the private soldiers. Inquire into their grievances; show yourself to be what you are -- ‘The Father of Your People’. Make them feel you are interested in their sufferings, and that you are not unmindful of the many trials which beset them in their march through the dismal swamps, whereby both their courage and numbers have been depleted.”
Lincoln is said to have replied that if this would do the soldiers good, that such a thing was easily done. The mysterious voice explained that it would do all that was required to unite the soldiers again. In April, Lincoln paid the Army of the Potomac a lengthy visit, arriving at Aquia Creek and traveling by train to Falmouth where Hooker’s men were camped. From there, Lincoln could see with a spy glass across the Rappahannock to Fredericksburg, where Robert E. Lee’s Army of Virginia waited, less than a half mile away. A short time later, the overconfident Hooker led the Union to one of the costliest defeats of the war at Chancellorsville. In the midst of this disaster, though, his men followed him bravely into battle. It was believed that their courage had been restored by the visit from President Lincoln.
Nettie Maynard later recalled that after the advice given by Dr. Bramford, the spirit and the President continued to speak about the state of affairs in regards to the war. The spirit also told him that “he would be re-nominated and re-elected to the Presidency.” This was more unusual than most modern readers might believe because, at that point in history, no President had ever been elected to a second term. Lincoln was not shocked by the news. He smiled sadly, however, and said, “It is hardly an honor to be coveted, save one could find it his duty to accept it.”
It was during this very séance that the famous incident with the levitating piano took place. The medium said to have performed this wonder was Mrs. Belle Miller, a prominent Washington Spiritualist. Mrs. Miller was playing the piano and under her influence, it “rose and fell”, keeping time to her touch in a regular manner. One of those present suggested that, as an added test of the invisible power causing the instrument to move, Belle should place her hand on the piano and stand at an arm’s length from it. This would show that she was in no way connected to it except as an agent of the mysterious power. President Lincoln then placed his hand underneath the piano, at the end that was closest to Mrs. Miller, who placed her hand upon his to demonstrate that neither strength nor pressure was being used. In this position, the piano rose and fell a number of times, seemingly at their bidding. Lincoln even changed places to stand on the other side of the piano, but the same thing continued to happen.
The President was reported to have grinned at the display and said that he believed he could hold the instrument to the floor. He climbed up onto it, sitting with his long legs dangling over the side, as did a Mr. Somes, Colonel Simon Kase and a Federal Army officer. The piano, ignoring the enormous weight now upon it, continued to wobble up and down until the sitters were obliged to “vacate the premises”.
The audience was, by this time, satisfied to the fact that no mechanical means had been used to move the instrument and Lincoln himself declared that he was sure the motion was caused by some “invisible power”.
Mr. Somes spoke up, “Mr. President, when I have related to my acquaintances that which I have experienced tonight, they will say, with a knowing look and a wise demeanor, ‘you were psychologized and as a matter of fact, you did not see what you in reality did see.’”
“You should bring that person here,” Lincoln quietly replied, “and when the piano seems to rise, have him slip his foot under the leg and be convinced by the weight of the evidence resting upon his understanding.”
His sly comment brought a wave of laughter to the room but when the chuckles died down, the President wearily sank into an armchair, “the old, tired, anxious look returning to his face.”
Nettie Maynard held a number of séances with the Lincolns during the latter days of February and early March 1863. The séances all took place by appointment and after the close of each session, Mary made another appointment to come at a certain hour of another day, usually around the time that the President took his lunch in the afternoon.
On one occasion, Nettie was summoned to a séance by Mr. Somes, who told her that the meeting was of such a private nature that he was not at liberty to say more. Somes picked her up in a carriage that evening and informed her that her destination was the White House. He explained that while at the War Department that afternoon, he had met President Lincoln coming from Secretary Stanton’s office. Somes spoke to him briefly and Lincoln asked him if he knew whether or not Nettie was in the city and if so, would it be possible for her to visit the White House that night. When Somes told him that Nettie was indeed in Washington, Lincoln asked that she come that evening, but that the matter should be kept confidential.
By the time that Somes had finished explaining what had occurred, the carriage had arrived at the White House. A waiting servant ushered them inside and they were hurried up to the President’s office, where Lincoln and two other men were waiting. The President sent the servant out of the room and a few moments later, Mary entered the chamber. Lincoln told Nettie that he wished for her to give the visitors an opportunity to witness something of her “rare gift” and he added that “you need not be afraid, as these friends have seen something of this before.”
Nettie described the men as being military officers, although their coats had been buttoned to conceal any insignia or mark of rank. One of the men was tall and heavily built, with auburn hair and dark eyes. He had thick side whiskers and carried himself like a soldier. The other man was of average height and she had the impression that he was of a lesser rank than his companion. He had light brown hair and blue eyes and was quick in manner but deferential towards his companion.
The group sat quietly for a few moments and then Nettie entered a trance. One hour later, she became conscious of her surroundings and was standing at a table upon which was a large map of the Southern states. She held a lead pencil in her hand and Lincoln and the two men were standing close to her, bending over the map. The younger man was looking curiously and intently at her.
“It is astonishing,” Mr. Lincoln was saying to the larger of the soldiers, “how every line she has drawn conforms to the plan agreed upon.”
“Yes,” answered the other man. “It is astonishing.”
Looking up, both of the men saw that she was awake and they instantly stepped back. Lincoln took the pencil from Nettie’s hand and eased her into a nearby chair. Mary soon appeared at her side to offer some comfort.
“Was everything satisfactory?” Somes asked the assembled men.
“Perfectly”, Lincoln replied. “Miss Nettie does not seem to require eyes to do anything.”
Shortly after, the conversation turned to more mundane matters and after a brief time, the military men took their leave and then it came the President’s time to depart. He carefully shook Nettie’s small hand and said to her in a low voice: “It is best not to mention this meeting at the present.”
This was the last time that the private séance was ever mentioned and Nettie never learned the identity of the two men who were with President Lincoln that night --- or just what the spirits may have revealed with the map of the Confederacy.
According to accounts, Nettie Maynard’s contact with the next world was said to have brought relief to Lincoln on more than one occasion. She was at the White House to visit Mrs. Lincoln in May 1863, around the time that the battle of Chancellorsville was being fought. Nettie was brought into Mary’s bedroom and found the First Lady wearing only her dressing gown. Her hair was loose and she was pacing back and forth in a distracted manner. “Oh Miss Nettie,” Mary cried, “such dreadful news; they are fighting at the front; such terrible slaughter; and all our generals are killed and our army is in full retreat; such is the latest news. Oh, I am glad you have come. Will you sit down a few moments and see if you can get anything from the beyond?”
As no news of the battle had yet reached the public, Nettie was surprised by what she heard. She put her things aside and sat down with Mary to let her “spirit guide” take control of her. In a few moments, she was able to reassure Mary that her fears were groundless. A great battle was being fought but the Union forces were holding their own and while many thousands had been killed, none of the generals, as she had been informed, were slain or injured. She would, Nettie assured her, receive better news by nightfall.
This calmed Mary somewhat but when President Lincoln entered the room a short time later, it was obvious that he was still anxiously worrying about what was occurring at the front lines. He greeted Nettie with little enthusiasm but Mary insisted that he listen to what the medium had to say. Lincoln listened attentively to what had been passed on from Nettie’s “spirit guide”, recounting the true conditions at the front and assuring him of the good news that he would receive before nightfall. The battle would be costly, the spirits said, but not disastrous, and though not decisive in any way, it would not be a loss to the Union cause. Lincoln brightened visibly under the assurances that he was given and he later learned that Nettie’s information had been correct. Chancellorsville resulted in the lives of many men lost and effectively ended the career of General Joseph Hooker but no real ground was lost by the Union. Hooker had marched into a Confederate controlled area and his outnumbered army was sent into retreat but regrouped to fight another day.
Perhaps the most notorious White House séance attendee, who also had an encounter with Nettie Maynard, was General Daniel Sickles. The colorful and controversial politician and Civil War officer spent nearly three months in Washington in the summer of 1862 and became well acquainted with the Lincolns. Sickle was an unusual man and as an antebellum New York politician, was involved in a number of public scandals, most notably the killing of his wife's lover, Philip Barton Key, son of Francis Scott Key. Sickles was acquitted with the first use of temporary insanity as a legal defense in American history. He became one of the most prominent political generals of the Civil War and at the battle of Gettysburg; he insubordinately moved his troops to a position in which it was virtually destroyed. His combat career ended at Gettysburg when he lost a leg to cannon fire.
Sickles was interested in Spiritualism before the war. In fact, on the night that he learned that his wife was cheating on him with the handsome widower Phillip Barton Key (February 24, 1859), Mr. and Mrs. Sickles had given a dinner party at their Washington home that was enlivened by the presence of the Scottish wife of New York Herald editor James Gordon Bennett, an ardent Spiritualist. Mrs. Bennett had attended many séances in Washington and spoke openly of them.
A few years later, during the summer after Willie Lincoln’s death, Sickles often joined Mary at séances in the city. He returned to Washington after losing his leg at Gettysburg and continued the regular visitations. In fact, in early 1864, Sickles concocted a ruse to test the mediumistic powers of Mary’s young medium, Nettie Maynard. Mary agreed to go along with the ruse, perhaps to teach a lesson to the arrogant general.
Nettie had recently returned to Washington after a brief absence and was living at the home of Mr. and Mrs. Somes. Nettie soon called at the White House, to pay her respects to the President and the First Lady, and was warmly received. Lincoln expressed the hope that she had come to Washington to spend the rest of the winter.
A few days later, Nettie and the Someses were invited back to meet a friend – Daniel Sickles in a disguise. Mrs. Lincoln, in her invitation to Nettie, mentioned her desire to see if Nettie’s “spirit guide” would be able to tell who the friend was.
The party arrived at half past eight and was welcomed by the First Lady, who introduced them to a distinguished, soldierly gentleman, who was wrapped in a long cloak, completely concealing his person. Mrs. Lincoln did not call him by name, apologizing for not doing so, and explaining that she wanted to see if her spirit friends could recognize him. She promised to present him afterward. Mr. Somes recognized Sickles immediately, but gave no hint of the general’s identity.
President Lincoln had a late-night cabinet meeting and after joining the group, asked that the proceedings be brief. Silence fell on the group and Nettie entered into a trance. The spirits that spoke through her turned all of their attentions on Lincoln. Their remarks related to the condition of free black people in Washington, declaring that their condition was deplorable – half fed and half clothed – and that the manner of their existence should be an embarrassment to the country. The spirits called on Lincoln to form a special committee to investigate the condition of their people, and to organize a bureau to control and regulate the affairs of the freedmen. (The bureau was eventually formed in March 1865)
It was only after this communication that the spirit, through Nettie, turned to Sickles and referred to him as “General” and praised him for the “noble sacrifice” of his leg at Gettysburg. A few moments later, another presence took control of Nettie – her usual “spirit guide”, an Indian maiden – and she turned to Sickles and addressed him as “Crooked Knife”, her Native American name for him, which was close enough to “Sickles” that everyone present was satisfied.
After Lincoln hurried off to his meeting and Nettie awoke, Mary made the promised presentation of General Sickles, who put aside the cloak, revealing his uniform and concealed crutch. Sickles had no choice but to confess that he was impressed with Mary’s young medium.
As time and the war marched on, Lincoln came to believe that a portent of doom hung over his head. The constant threats of death and violence that he received kept his personal bodyguards on edge at all times. It is also believed that some of his Spiritualist friends felt the end was near.
During the winter of 1864 and 1865, though, the war was nearing its end. In February 1865, Washington was filled to capacity with people who had come to witness the second inauguration of President Lincoln and Nettie Maynard received a dispatch from home, informing her that her father had taken ill. She was asked to come home at once. Having an appointment to meet with Mary soon after, she made a trip to the White House to tell her that she had to leave town. Mary was out, so Nettie proceeded upstairs to have a word with the President instead.
It was the early part of the afternoon, and during the last days of the expiring Congress, and the waiting room was filled with members of both Houses, all anxious to get a word with the President. Nettie soon became doubtful that she would obtain any time with Mr. Lincoln, especially in light of the fact that many of the prominent men had been waiting for several hours. Edward, Lincoln’s devoted usher, was walking back and forth and collecting calling cards to take into the President and Nettie called him over. She explained that she needed only a brief moment with Lincoln and asked for any opportunity to tell him why she would have to cancel her appointment the following week.
Half an hour went by and Edward appeared and asked Nettie to follow him. Several of the senators that Nettie knew personally laughed to her and asked with a smile that she put in a good word for them. She was soon in the presence of the President. He stood at his desk, looking over some papers but laid them down and greeted her with a genial smile. In as few words as possible, knowing how precious his time was, she informed him of her unusual call and told him that she had been summoned out of town because her father was seriously ill. Lincoln looked at her with a curious smile. “But cannot our friends from the upper country tell you whether his illness is likely to prove fatal or not?”
Nettie replied that she had already consulted with her “friends” and that they had assured her that his treatment was wrong and that her presence was needed to affect a cure.
Lincoln laughed and turned to his secretary. “I didn’t catch her, did I?” he teased Nettie and then seriously added that he was sorry that she would be away during the inauguration.
“I would enjoy it,” she assured him, “but the crowd will be so great that we will not be able to see you, Mr. Lincoln, even if I remain.”
“You could not help it,” he answered, drawing his lean figure to its full height and glancing at her in an amused way. “I will be the tallest man there.”
“That is true, in every sense of the word.”
Lincoln nodded pleasantly at the compliment and then asked Nettie what her “friends” predicted for his future.
“What they predicted for you, Mr. Lincoln, has come to pass and you are to be inaugurated for the second time.” He nodded his head and she continued. “But they also reaffirm that the shadow they have spoken of still hangs over you.”
Lincoln shook his head impatiently. “Yes, I know,” he said quickly. “I have letters from all over the country from your kind of people --- mediums, I mean --- warning me against some dreadful plot against my life. But I don’t think the knife is made, or the bullet run, that will reach it. Besides, nobody wants to harm me.”
A feeling of sadness overwhelmed Nettie. It was a feeling that she could not account for and also one that she could not conceal. She spoke to the President boldly: “Therein lies your danger, Mr. President --- your overconfidence in your fellow men.”
The old melancholy look that Nettie had grown so used to in her time of friendship with the President and his wife descended over his face. His voice was quiet and subdued. “Well, Miss Nettie,” he said, “I shall live until my work is done and no earthly power can prevent it. And then it doesn’t matter so that I am ready and that I ever mean to be.” Then, brightening a little, he extended his hand to her. “Well, I suppose that I must bid you goodbye but we shall hope to see you back again next fall.”
“I shall certainly come,” Nettie told him, “if you are still here.”
With another cordial shake of the President’s hand, Nettie passed out of Lincoln’s presence for the last time. “Never again,” she later wrote, “would we meet his welcome smile.”
The full story of Abraham Lincoln and his many connections to the supernatural can be found in Troy Taylor’s book, The Haunted President, available from Whitechapel Press in print and Kindle editions. And coming in summer 2014, Disconnected from Death by April Slaughter and Troy Taylor will offer a look at the way the Civil War and the death of Abraham Lincoln forever changed mourning in America.