Friday, February 28, 2014


One of Chicago’s Original Organized Crime Rings

Depending on your point of view, the “Car Barn Bandits”, who wreaked havoc in Chicago in 1903, were either the first or the last of their kind. Some saw them as the first organized crime ring to operate in the city, which would make them a foreshadowing of things to come, while others saw their exploits as something out of a Wild West dime novel, hearkening back to an earlier generation. No matter what they were, they were undoubtedly one of the deadliest gangs to terrify pre-Prohibition Chicago.

The bandits were young men, barely out of their teens, and the gang was made up of Peter Niedermeyer, Gustav Marx, Harvey Van Dine, and Emil Roeski. They had all grown up together on the Northwest Side of the city and all came from good families that offered them love, support and a good education. Somewhere along the line, though, they simply went bad, creating a record of robbery and murder that shocked Chicago at the time of their capture.

Their criminal exploits began in the summer of 1903, when they committed a number of robberies, hold-ups and murders. On July 20, they robbed a bar on Milwaukee Avenue, wounding a saloon keeper named Peter Gorski. On August 2, they struck again at a bar on West North Avenue and killed the owner, Benjamin La Grosse, and a twenty-one year old customer. They committed robbery and murder at Greenberg’s Saloon, located at the southwest corner of Addison and Robey Streets (now Damen Avenue), and followed that with another hold-up in a tavern at Roscoe Street and Sheffield Avenue. By all accounts, the bandits were having more fun than they had ever had in their lives.

One August night, while walking around the city, the gang noticed some men counting money inside of a railroad car barn. This gave them an idea and they began planning another robbery. On the night of August 30, 1903, Niedermeyer, Marx and Van Dine, met on 63rd Street on Chicago’s South Side and walked over to the City Railway Company car barn, which was located just two blocks away. They found the door unlocked and they simply walked, in and pulled their guns on the startled clerks. They immediately began searching for money. Van Dine smashed open a door with a sledgehammer and stormed into an office. According to Marx, he saw police officers outside and to hurry things along, fired a few shots into the ceiling. A window was smashed open and Niedermeyer began shooting out of it, aiming for the men that had been spotted outside. They weren’t police officers but railroad workers and in the confusion, a railroad motorman was killed and two cashiers were wounded. Meanwhile, Van Dine had ransacked the office and came out with a bundle of cash under his arm. “I’ve got enough, boys!” he shouted at his friends and the bandits fled from the scene, running toward 60th Street.

The area seemed deserted and no one followed them as they strolled down the old midway into Jackson Park, the now abandoned site of the World’s Fair of ten years before. They roamed the park and the ruins of the Exposition until daybreak, and then they divided their loot, which came to $2,250. They took a streetcar downtown and celebrated their success with cigars and a big breakfast. Afterward, they had a grand time reading about their “daring robbery” in the morning editions of the local newspapers. The stories noted that the police had no idea as to the identities of the young robbers.

Image of the Chicago City Railway Company Car Barn murder suspects (left to right) George Eichendollar, J. Blake, George McElroy, J. Doyle, Al Doyle, D. Lynch and Tony Scapardine standing shoulder to shoulder in a police station in Chicago, Illinois. None of these men was actually one of the Car Barn Bandits.

The next day, the three boys, along with Emil Roeski, spent the afternoon in Humboldt Park, smoking cigars and reading more stories about the robbery. They began to dream of something even more adventurous – robbing trains. After a night at an expensive hotel, they used some of their ill-gotten gain to purchase train tickets to Denver, Colorado, believing that it would be easy to buy dynamite in one of the nearby mining towns. They enjoyed themselves for a few days in Denver and then went to Cripple Creek, where they purchased a bundle of dynamite in a mining supply store. They quickly returned to Chicago, still making big plans.

The robbery turned out to be a bust. They packed about fifty pounds of dynamite near the Northwestern Tracks in Jefferson Park and made plans to stop the train. Roeski waved a red flag at the train as it approached, but the engine never even slowed down. Angry, he pulled out his revolver and fired a shot at the train, which finally stopped it. Unfortunately for their plans, it stopped too far away from the dynamite for them to rob it and the bandits ran away.

The failed robbery attempt frightened the young robbers and they became increasingly paranoid. Van Dine spent three days at his window with a rifle, waiting for the police to come. He finally calmed down but his paranoia, as it turned out, was not unjustified. The police were looking for them. It was not for the failed train robbery, but for their earlier robberies. The methods the young men had employed in various tavern hold-ups caused the police to suspect they were the Car Barn Bandits.

In spite of the fact that they knew the police were looking for them, the bandits boldly went out drinking, paying big tips and brandishing their revolvers. The police tracked down Gustav Marx first and they came to arrest him at Greenberg’s Saloon, which he and his friends had robbed earlier that summer. Police Detective John Quinn came in the front door and Detective William Blaul slipped in through a side entrance. When Marx saw the officer walk in, he quickly pulled his gun. Out of the corner of his eye, he saw Quinn come through the front door and he turned and shot him. As he fell lifeless to the floor, Blaul opened fire and wounded Marx in the arm. Blaul grabbed the bandit, who tried to flee, and dragged him across the room to a telephone. He called the station house for back-up as Marx begged him to “Kill me! Kill me now!”

But Detective Blaul didn’t kill him. Instead, he took him to the police station and locked him up. Marx fumed in his cell for a while and when his friends didn’t show up to bust him out, as they planned to do in the event that any of them were captured, he angrily decided to confess every detail of the Car Barn Bandits’ crimes. He spilled his guts about twenty robberies and six murders – seven, counting the shooting of Detective Quinn.

The police began a massive manhunt for Niedermeyer, Van Dine and Roeski. Word came in that a general store owner had spotted them in the town of Clark Station and it was realized that they planned to make their escape into the wilds of the Indiana Dunes. Eight detectives were quickly dispatched on their trail but the men quickly became lost in the tangle of unmarked roads, sand dunes and forests. They followed several leads but became lost over and over again. One of the wagons that they were traveling in overturned in the sand, injuring a few of the detectives.

Eventually, late in the night, they found a dugout in the dunes that was located about two hundred feet from the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad tracks and three miles from the closest town. The hideout was empty but some leftover sausage links found inside showed that it had recently been in use. This meant the bandits were still somewhere nearby.

The dugout in the Indiana Dunes where the Car Barn Bandits hid out.

The detectives stayed the night in a barn near Edgemoor, Indiana. When daylight came, the farmer’s wife brought them coffee and they went out into the November snow. Later that morning, they found another railroad dugout, similar to the one they had discovered the night before. The dugout was the cellar of a railroad telegrapher’s home that had burned down years before and it was surrounded by fresh footprints in the snow. However, the entrance to the dugout had been covered with boards and the detectives had trouble finding another way inside. After some time, an old staircase was discovered and the detectives took up position around it, revolvers in hand, and shouted for the bandits to come out.

A reply was heard from the darkness below. “We’ll come out when you carry us out!” a voice cried, and the sound was followed by several gunshots.

The detectives fired their guns down the staircase and after a pause, Niedermeyer’s face appeared at the bottom of the steps. The detectives assumed that he was surrendering, but instead, he pulled out two guns, fired manically at them and then ducked out of sight. The exchange of gunfire continued, with dire results for the policemen. Officer Joseph R. Driscoll was shot in the abdomen and Officer Matthew Zimmer was wounded in the arm. Harvey Van Dine came out of the dugout long enough to shoot Zimmer again, this time in the head.

As the police officers pulled back, the bandits made a daring escape from the dugout. They ran away on foot, firing at the detectives as they hurried toward the woods. Niedermeyer was hit once in the neck as he ran down a hill into a ravine, but managed to get back up and keep running with the others. The bandits escaped while the detectives wired for reinforcements and tried to tend to their wounded comrades. They were able to flag down a passing train and the wounded men were put on board and taken to a hospital. Officer Driscoll died a few days later.

Fifty police officers with repeating rifles were rushed to the scene on board a special train. They followed the tracks south, stopping to examine the deserted dugout where the bandits had been found. The room was well-stocked with food and ammunition and outfitted with bunk beds.
The original detectives, now five in number, followed the bandit’s trail through the snow, passing a brakemen’s cottage that the outlaws had tried to break into and failed. As they followed the footprints and occasional spatters of blood in the snow, they were startled and opened fire on what turned out to be nothing but Niedermeyer’s overcoat, which he had strung up in some tree branches as a decoy. One set of tracks, Roeski’s, led into a cornfield and the others continued south. Roeski, who had been wounded badly in the gun battle, was captured in the cornfield later that day.

Niedermeyer and Van Dine made it to the town of East Tolleston, four miles from the dugout. There, they found a Pennsylvania Railroad gravel train sitting on the tracks, preparing to leave. The engineer had gone to get dinner for the fireman, Albert Coffey, who was still in the cab. The bandits climbed into the cab and put a revolver to the fireman’s head. A brakeman, L.J. Sovea, thought the bandits were rail yard drunks and he jumped up and grabbed Niedermeyer by the wrist. During a struggle, Sovea was shot in the face and his lifeless body was dumped on the side of the tracks.

The bandits forced Coffey to start the engine and he took them two miles to the town of Liverpool, where a locked switch prevented him from going any farther. Niedermeyer and Van Dine made him back up almost a half mile and then they jumped out of the cab and ran across the prairie.

Meanwhile, posses made up of farmers and police officers formed in East Tolleston to pursue the men. Liverpool had been warned about them by telegraph and sent out posse of their own. They tracked down the fleeing robbers as they ran toward a cornfield and opened fire on them – with shoguns filled with birdshot. Niedermeyer and Van Dine were both hit in the face but the wounds were far from fatal. Nevertheless, they surrendered. They were taken back to Liverpool and then sent back to Chicago. Indiana Governor Winfield Durbin promptly issued a statement: “I congratulate the authorities on the capture. Chicago can keep the prisoners – Indiana doesn’t want them.”

The six-month crime spree of the Car Barn Bandits had finally ended. The laughing young men were quick to admit to their robberies and murders and all of them were soon charged with murder and put on trial. The bandits confessed to not only crimes in Chicago, but other hold-ups around the country. They wanted to make sure that everyone knew just who had committed the crimes. Niedermeyer kept track of the crimes that offered rewards and demanded that his mother be given the money since he had provided the information. The confessions told of daring lives of crime that became the stuff of short-lived legend. It was revealed that they had robbed one hundred and fourteen people, and killed eight, in just sixty days. The case captured the attention of the public and newspapers around the country sent reporters to Chicago to cover the trial.

Nothing could be done to save the young bandits at their trials since they had already confessed to everything they had done. Niedermeyer, Van Dine and Marx were tried together and Roeski was given a separate trial since wasn’t present at the Car Barn robbery. Attempts were made to show that the boys were “victims of society” and also to show that insanity ran in Van Dine’s family, but the jury wasn’t fooled. The first three defendants were found guilty and sentenced to hang.

At Roeski’s trial, Marx swore that he, not Roeski, had killed nineteen year old Otto Bauder on July 9 at Ernest Spire’s tavern on North Ashland Avenue, a crime for which Roeski was accused.

However, on April 20, 1904, Roeski was found guilty of murder, but the jury decided to spare his life since there was still some question as to whether or not he pulled the trigger during Bauder’s murder. He was taken away to Joliet prison and his friends were scheduled to hang two days later.

Car Barn Bandit Gustav Marx, waiting for his execution at the Cook County Jail.

The bandits were housed at the Cook County Jail before their executions. Niedermeyer attempted suicide by trying to cut his wrist with a lead pencil and by swallowing the sulfur tips of matches. On the day before the hangings, though, the three condemned man sat quietly talking and smoking with their jailers.

Outside of the jail, a crowd that numbered almost one thousand gathered to wait for news about what was happening inside. A detail of one hundred police officers surrounded the jail to keep the onlookers in line and to prevent them from loitering on Dearborn Street.

A crowd gathered on the street outside of the jail, awaiting word of the Car Barn Bandit’s executions. The young criminals created a sensation in Chicago in the early 1900s.

Niedermeyer was scheduled to be the first to die, insisting to anyone who would listen that he would “die game”. But when the time actually came to go to the gallows, his courage gave away and he nearly fainted. The guards placed him on a gurney and wheeled him to the scaffold. Too weak to stand, he was strapped to a chair and a hood was placed over his head. The trap was sprung and the bandit dropped to his death, still seated in the chair. The shroud fell off and the assembled crowd was shocked by the gruesome sight of his face as he strangled to death. His neck was broken, but it took him nearly twenty minutes to die.

Marx was brought out next. He was praying and holding a crucifix as he walked to the gallows. He continued to pray as the shroud was placed over his face and the rope slipped around his neck. He died instantly.

Van Dine also prayed as the trap was opened and like Marx, he died when his neck snapped.

For years, the Car Barn Bandits were hailed as the most famous criminal gang in Chicago history. On numerous occasions, gangs of amateur bandits who idolized them were captured, sometimes while lurking in the bandits’ old hideouts. Eventually, though, they faded into history and by the latter part of the twentieth century, were almost completely forgotten.

Thursday, February 27, 2014


The Tragic Story of One of America's Unsolved Mysteries

The most enduring mystery to ever perplex Philadelphia detectives came to light on the evening of February 23, 1957, when a La Salle College student parked his car off Susquehanna Road and began to hike across a vacant lot in the drizzling rain. The unnamed young man – various newspaper reports put his age between 18 and 26 – was a “Peeping Tom” and was en route to spy on the inmates of the nearby Good Shepherd Home, a Catholic residence for “wayward” girls. But what he found as he walked across the overgrown lot that night would destroy any interest that he had in looking in young girl’s windows.

It was a cardboard box, seemingly innocuous – until he looked inside and saw that a small corpse had been wedged into it. Terrified, he forgot about the undressed women that he had come to see. He turned and ran back to his car. Frightened and embarrassed, the man confessed his discovery to his priest the next day and he was told to call the police. He complied, after first concocting a tale that he found the box while chasing a rabbit through the weeds, and officers were sent to the lot to investigate.

This would be the beginning of a heartbreaking story to which the end has yet to be written.

The young boy was found dead in the woods in Philadelphia's Fox Chase area, his head poking from a cardboard box. It would become the city's -- and one of America's -- most baffling unsolved murders. 

The patrolmen who arrived at the vacant lot on February 24 found a large cardboard carton lying on its side, open at one end. The box had once held a baby bassinet from J.C. Penney. Inside the box was a small boy, his pale white body wrapped in a cheap, imitation Indian blanket. They searched the lot and 17 feet from the box, discovered a man’s cap, made from royal blue corduroy with a leather strap and a buckle on the back. Coincidentally or otherwise, a beaten path through the weeds and the underbrush led directly from the cap to the cardboard coffin.

The area around the Fox Chase dump site in 1957. 

An autopsy was performed on the boy by Dr. Joseph Spelman, Philadelphia’s chief medical examiner. His report placed the boy between four and six years old. He had blue eyes and light blond hair that had been badly cut, closely shorn in some areas of his head, shaved almost to the skull in others. He was 41 inches tall and weighed only a pathetic 30 pounds at the time of his death. Dr. Spelman cited the cause of death was a savage beating that left the boy’s body and face covered in fresh bruises. Older marks included an L-shaped scar on his chin; a one-inch surgical scar on the left side of his chest; a round, irregular scar on his left elbow; a well-healed scar at the groin, apparently from hernia surgery, and a scar on the left ankle that resembled a “cut down” incision used to expose veins for a blood transfusion. The boy was circumcised but had no vaccination marks, suggesting that he had not been enrolled in public school.

Police officers search the area around the site for clues. 

Spelman’s report contained many other intriguing details. The victim’s right palm and the soles of both feet were rough and wrinkled, which suggested that they had been submerged in water, immediately before or after death. When exposed to ultraviolet light, the boy’s left eye fluoresced a bright shade of blue, indicating recent exposure to a diagnostic dye used in the treatment of chronic eye disease. Spelman attributed the boy’s death to head trauma, probably inflicted with a blunt instrument, but he could not rule out that damage had been done by “pressure” – which prompted some of the investigators to suggest that fatal damage had been inflicted by someone squeezing the boy’s head when he was given his last, botched haircut. Detectives clothed the boy and photographed his battered face, in hopes that they might be able to learn his name – but those hopes slowly died with the passing years.

Investigators initially focused on the box that had been used as the boy’s coffin. It had originally held a baby bassinet from J.C. Penney and was one of a dozen received on November 27, 1956 and sold for $7.50 between December 3, 1956 and February 16, 1957 from a store in Upper Darby, Pennsylvania. The store, though, kept no record of individual sales, but the other 11 bassinets were eventually located by detectives. FBI fingerprint technicians found no usable prints on the carton recovered from the empty lot.

The examination of the blanket proved to be just as frustrating. It was made from cheap cotton flannel and had been recently washed and mended using poor-grade cotton thread. It had been cut into two separate, unequal pieces and then wrapped around the naked boy. Analysis at the Philadelphia Textile Institute determined that it had been manufactured either at Swannanoa, North Carolina, or Granby, Quebec. Identical blankets had been produced by the thousands, and the police were never able to figure out a likely place where it had been sold.

A label inside of the blue cap led police to Robbins Eagle Hat & Cap Company in Philadelphia. Proprietor Hannah Robbins said that it was one of 12 that had been made from corduroy remnants at some point prior to May 1956. Robbins recalled the particular hat because it had been made without the leather strap, but the purchaser – a blond man in his late twenties – had returned a few months later to have a strap sewn on. Robbins told the detectives that her customer resembled photographs that she was shown of the “Boy in the Box,” but she had no record of his name or address.

The image of the boy that was used in hopes that someone might recognize him. The police circulated more than 10,000 flyers, but to no avail. 

Philadelphia police circulated more than 10,000 flyers with the child’s photograph on them to police departments throughout eastern Pennsylvania and southern New Jersey, but with no results. The Philadelphia Gas Works mailed out 200,000 flyers to its customers with their monthly gas bills, while more were circulated by the Philadelphia Electric Company, grocery stores, insurance agents, and a pharmacist’s association – about 300,000 flyers in all. An article about the case was written for the FBI’s Law Enforcement Bulletin, again without producing any worthwhile leads. Someone, somewhere, knew who the boy was and what had happened to him, but they were not talking.

Five months after the boy was found, the authorities buried him in Philadelphia’s potter’s field, near the Philadelphia State Hospital at Byberry, a mental institution. The beleaguered detectives who worked the case collected enough money to erect the grim graveyard’s only headstone. Its inscription read: “Heavenly Father, Bless this Unknown Boy.”

The original headstone used to mark the grave of the unknown boy.

The case went cold, silent and deathly still until November 4, 1998, when the “Boy in the Box” was exhumed in order to extract DNA samples, collected for future comparison with any suspected relatives. A year passed before the authorities finally admitted that they had not been able to obtain a satisfactory DNA profile from the boy’s remains. Another attempt was made in 2000, this time from the boy’s teeth, but this attempt also failed. A second attempt, though, was reported as successful in April 2001. Although the discovery of any living relatives seems fairly hopeless at this point, some investigators have remained optimistic.

In 1999, Frank Bender, a forensic artist and a founding member of the Vidocq Society, came up with a new idea that he believed might help solve the case. The Vidocq Society is a crime-solving organization that is based out of Philadelphia. The group is named for Eugène François Vidocq, the ground-breaking nineteenth-century French detective who helped police by using criminal psychology to solve "cold case" homicides. At meetings, the members – forensic professionals, current and former FBI profilers, homicide investigators, scientists, psychologists, prosecutors and coroners -- listen to law enforcement officials who come from around the world to present unsolved cases for review. Bender sculpted a bust that he believed could bear a strong resemblance to the dead boy’s father. The case was profiled for a national television audience on America’s Most Wanted, but no leads were discovered. Regardless, efforts to identify the boy continue.

Like most unsolved murders, there have been a number of theories advanced toward a solution of the case. Most of the “Boy in the Box” theories were dismissed, but two possible solutions created interest in recent years. 

The first, which was eventually ruled out, involved a foster home that was located a little more than a mile from the vacant lot where the boy’s body was found. In 1960, Remington Bristow, an employee of the medical examiner's office who doggedly pursued the case until his death in 1993, contacted a New Jersey psychic, who told him to look for a house that seemed to match the foster home. When the psychic was brought to the city, she led Bristow straight to the house. Bristow refused to let it go, investigating the case on his own. When he attended an estate sale at the foster home, Bristow discovered a bassinet similar to the one sold at J.C. Penney. He also saw blankets hanging on the clothesline similar to that in which the boy's body had been wrapped. Bristow believed that the child belonged to the stepdaughter of the man who ran the foster home. He believed that the stepfather was involved in a sexual relationship with the girl and she became pregnant. The boy was hidden away, but when he died accidentally, the man disposed of the boy so that the girl would not be exposed as an unwed mother, a significant social stigma in 1957.

Despite this circumstantial evidence, the police were unable to find any real links between the family and the Boy in the Box. In 1998, Philadelphia police lieutenant Tom Augustine, who remains in charge of the investigation, and several members of the Vidocq Society, interviewed the stepfather and the daughter, whom he had married. The interview seemed to confirm to them that the family was not involved in the case. After a DNA test, which ruled out the stepdaughter as the boy’s mother, the investigation of the foster home theory was closed.

The second theory emerged in February 2002, reported by a woman identified only as "M." She claimed that her abusive mother purchased the unknown boy, named "Jonathan," from his birth parents in the summer of 1954. The youngster was subjected to extreme physical and sexual abuse for two and a half years. Her mother then allegedly killed the boy in a fit of rage when he vomited in the bathtub. The woman then cut the boy’s long hair (accounting for the ragged haircut) and dumped the body in the secluded vacant lot. "M" went on to say that as they were preparing to remove the boy's body from the trunk, a passing male motorist pulled alongside to inquire whether they needed assistance. They ignored him and he eventually drove away. This story corroborated confidential testimony given by a male witness in 1957. The police considered the story quite plausible, but were troubled by "M"'s testimony, because she had a history of mental illness. When interviewed, though, neighbors who had access to the house denied that there had been a young boy living there, and said that "M"'s claims were "ridiculous."

And so the case remains unsolved. Despite the huge amount of publicity at the time and sporadic re-interest throughout the years, the case remains unsolved to this day, and the boy's identity is still unknown.

Monday, February 24, 2014


Horror and Hauntings at Andersonville

The camp that became known as the worst “hell hole prison camp of the Confederacy” saw the arrival of its first Union prisoners on February 25, 1864. The camp had originally been intended merely to provide some relief for the city of Richmond. The city was experiencing a food shortage in 1863 and after General Grant ended prisoner exchanges and paroles, the people of Richmond found themselves with many more Federal prisoners than they could possibly feed. No one could have predicted that it would become the Civil War’s greatest example of man’s inhumanity to man. Also known as Camp Sumter, the prison camp was so notorious for its brutal treatment of Union prisoners that to this day, the very mention of the name “Andersonville” can send shudders down the spine of any military history buff.

And so does the name of the camp’s commander, Captain Henry Wirz, who was arrested after the war for “conspiring to impair the lives of Union prisoners of war.” His two-month trial was a newspaper sensation and ended in his being sentenced to death. To the bitter end, Wirz protested his innocence, but to no avail. He was hanged on November 10, 1865, but as many have claimed, this was not the end of him.

Some say his ghost has never left the place of death and torture for which he took the blame.

In 1863, Confederate General John H. Winder sent his son, Captain W. Sidney Winder, to scout out a location for a new prison in Georgia. He discovered what he believed was the perfect site around November 24. The parcel of land was located deep in the heart of the Confederacy, and was far removed from attack. It was also a site where food would be abundant. Confederate officials planned a new prison on the property to be called Camp Sumter. It would contain a number of barracks, which were designed to hold between eight and ten thousand men.

The site Captain Winder chose was in southwestern Georgia, along Station Number 8 of the Georgia Southwestern Railroad. Because of this, it would be easily accessible by train. A local resident named Benjamin Dykes, who owned a sawmill and gristmill, offered a parcel of land for the prison (which was extremely convenient for Dykes, since the Army would be forced to buy his wood and grain for the prison construction and for food for the prisoners). The piece of land was heavily wooded with pine and oak and the ground sloped down on both sides of a wide stream.
Orders were given from Richmond to start construction, but the local people were violently opposed to the prison being located so close to them, so much so that labor was impossible to find. Work was delayed for some time before finally, soldiers were forced to commandeer slaves from nearby farms.

Just as construction of the prison compound was getting started, conditions in the South made it impossible to build barracks for the prisoners. Rail lines and distribution centers were greatly stressed by the war, so out of desperation, the government ordered that a simple stockade be erected around the compound as quickly as possible. This work began in January. Trees were felled and then stood on end to form a large fence around the camp, enclosing an area of just over sixteen acres. Only two trees were left standing inside the compound itself.

On February 25, 1864, the first 600 prisoners arrived from Libby Prison in Richmond. One wall of the stockade was still not completed when they arrived. Confederate artillery pieces were trained on the opening until the wall was completed. Just shortly before the first prisoners’ arrival, the camp’s first commander, Colonel Alexander W. Persons, took over his duties. He continued to serve until June 17, when he was replaced by General Winder. In March, the camp’s most infamous commandant, Captain Henry Wirz, arrived at Andersonville.

Heinrich Hartmann Wirz was born in Zurich, Switzerland, in 1822. He graduated from college in Zurich and then went on to medical school in Paris and at the University of Berlin, receiving two doctor of medicine degrees. In 1849, following the failed revolutions of 1848 in the German states, he emigrated to the United States and settled in Kentucky, where he married and established a medical practice.

When the Civil War began, Wirz enlisted as a private in the Louisiana Volunteers. At the Battle of Seven Pines, in May 1862, he was badly wounded and lost the use of his right arm. The Army found work for him, though, promoting him and placing him at prisons in Alabama and then in Richmond. Eventually, he was assigned to the staff of General Winder, the man in charge of Confederate prison camps, and ended up at the village of Andersonville in Sumter County, Georgia.
From the very first, there was no organized arrangement for the compound. The prisoners had simply been put in the stockade and then left to themselves. Many of the prisoners who were transferred from other camps were in horrible condition when they arrived, infested with disease and vermin, which quickly spread to the other men.

The first arrivals at the camp had built huts within the compound, using pieces of scrap lumber that had been left within the stockade. Later arrivals lived in tents or in holes they dug in the ground and covered over with blankets or scraps of cloth.  In July 1864, the stockade was enlarged to accommodate more men, and within a week, the camp’s population had risen to 29,000. Less than a month later, it would rise again to its highest point of more than 33,000. Bizarrely, Andersonville technically became the fifth largest “city” in the Confederacy.

As time progressed and the stockade became more crowded, food rations began to dwindle. The first staple to vanish was salt, followed by sweet potatoes, which had once been plentiful in the region. In time, the authorities reduced the amount of cornmeal handed out and later, meat was eliminated altogether. The rations continued to decrease and soon they were not even handed out every day. On one occasion, when the bread wagon entered the stockade to make a delivery, it was mobbed by the inmates and all of the bread was stolen. Captain Wirz responded by canceling all further rations for the day. According to some prisoners, the more sadistic guards (usually those of the 55th Georgia) would toss chunks of cornbread into the pen, just to watch the men scramble and fight over them.

Many of the prisoners began to devise ways to capture low-flying birds, which swarmed about the stockade in the evenings. The swallows that were snared were often eaten raw, such was the hunger of the starving men.

Security precautions at the prison camp became almost as legendary as the horrible conditions. The two regiments of Georgia and Alabama troops who guarded the camp were assisted by a battalion of cavalry and a large pack of savage bloodhounds. These dogs had been used before the war to track down runaway slaves and they now were being used to bring back any escaped Federal prisoners.

Conditions at Andersonville

Despite the ferocity of the bloodhounds, there were still 329 successful escapes from Andersonville during the fifteen months when the camp was in use. Most of them took place during work details, although the very first attempt occurred within a week of the camp’s opening. A group of fifteen men managed to scale the east wall, using ropes made from woven pieces of cloth. All of them were recaptured, thanks to the dogs, but the attempt caused the establishment of the “deadline” within the stockade. This deadline was a boundary that was erected inside the stockade walls, made by placing a rail of pine logs about twenty-five feet inside and parallel to the walls. Guards sitting in “pigeon roosts” located every ninety feel along the wall were ordered to fire without warning if a prisoner crossed, or even touched, the line.

Soon, word got in the Northern press about the Andersonville deadline and it became infamous. The newspapers railed about the savagery of the Southern prisons and the barbaric design of the deadline. At war’s end, it would even be publicly condemned by the Union government. The problem was that, despite all of the public posturing, the Federal condemnation of the deadline was sheer hypocrisy. All stockade-type prisons had some sort of deadline for security, including the Federal ones. This fact was hidden from the American public until after the war, when Confederate prisoners returned home. It is ironic that while the American press was fulminating against the deadline at Andersonville, Confederate prisoners were being shot for crossing the same sort of lines in places like Camp Hoffman, Rock Island, Camp Douglas, and other spots.

Once the deadline was established, tunneling became the preferred method of escape. With the digging came many problems. Every tunnel required a huge amount of secrecy and in a situation where thousands of men were packed into a stockade, privacy was hard to find and, as with most prisons, Andersonville had its share of informants.

In one well-known situation, in May 1864, the commandant entered the camp with a squad of guards, searching for escape tunnels. One prisoner, thinking that he might get special treatment for informing on his comrades, told the commander about a tunnel that was under construction. The Confederates punished the prisoners involved and forced them to fill in the escape route. That night, the informant was nearly beaten to death by other prisoners. He was pursued through the night and into the next morning and finally, he crossed over the deadline and called for protection from the guards. He was sure that he had earned it because of the assistance that he had given them. Instead, they shot him for crossing the deadline.

Soon, escapes grew more innovative. There were so many dead men being carried out of the camp that little attention was paid to them. When a prisoner died, he was placed in front of his tent and then carried away by a detail of other prisoners. Several quick-thinking men pretended to be dead and were carried outside the gate, then placed in a pile to await burial. As soon as darkness fell, they would escape. This plan was successful a number of times before Captain Wirz got wind of it and changed the burial policy. After that, all of the bodies were left inside the stockade until a surgeon could examine them.

There were certainly many opportunities for escape using this method, since death was no stranger to the camp. The main causes of death were scurvy, dysentery, typhoid, smallpox, gangrene and diarrhea but outright murder became commonplace as well. In fact, the murder of prisoners by guards, and even by other prisoners, became a daily occurrence.

Among the prisoners were groups of men referred to as “raiders.” These groups ruled the stockade using fear and retaliation against any who opposed them. They preyed on the other inmates, taking food and belongings from them and even beating and killing anyone who crossed them. The largest and most vicious of the raider groups was led by William Collins of the 88th Pennsylvania Regiment. His men dominated not only the other prisoners, but the other raid as well, looting and murdering as they saw fit.

A survivor of the horrors of Andersonville

Finally, a group of prisoners banded together and they somehow obtained aid from the commandant. He allowed them to take matters into their own hands and they arrested the raiders. A military trial was held and twenty-four of the raiders were punished, with six of them hanged. Three of the other eighteen men later died from retaliatory beatings.

In the years that have passed since the closing of Andersonville, and the end of the war, the ghosts of the raiders have been blamed for most of the strange happenings in the area. This is perhaps merely legend, but many have claimed the raiders to be responsible for numerous weird events. The odd sights and sounds include apparitions of soldiers around the location of the former camp, the sounds of groans and echoing voices, and the sound of what seems to be a number of men tramping about the site of the former camp.

By September 1864, the majority of the prisoners had been transferred out of Andersonville due to Union activity in the area and because of the Northern occupation of Atlanta. In the weeks that followed, it was reported that as many as 6,000 were sent to other camps. Those who were too weak or sick to travel remained behind, leaving just over 8,000 men in the camp. A huge number of those prisoners died in October, so by November just over 1,300 men were left.

In October, General Winder was transferred out and Colonel George C. Gibbs arrived to assume command of Andersonville. From that point, the camp took the role of a convalescent prison. As soon as the prisoners gained enough strength to travel, they were transferred to other facilities for a short time. The remaining Andersonville prisoners were paroled in May 1865. It is believed that as many as 13,000 prisoners died during the time that the camp was in operation.

The last prisoner paroles brought an end to the history of the Civil War’s most notorious prison camp. Or did it?

To this day, the ghost of Henry Wirz is believed to haunt the site of Andersonville prison. Legend has it that the ghost was also rumored to have haunted the Old Brick Capitol in Washington for a number of years but apparently, his spirit returned to the place of his greatest notoriety. Some believe that it may be Wirz’s ghost that has been seen walking along the road near the site of the old camp. They believe that his spirit does not rest because of the terrible blot on his reputation that came about after the war. Captain Wirz always insisted that he was unjustly accused of crimes committed at Andersonville. He went to the gallows claiming his innocence. But was he?

Wirz was never a popular officer, even before his arrival at Andersonville. He was disliked by nearly everyone, including his subordinates and his own staff. He was especially hated and ridiculed by the prisoners for his heavy accent and overbearing personality.

In 1864, Wirz was sent to Andersonville as the commandant and continued in service there until after Lee’s surrender. At that time, he turned over the camp to Union General J.H. Wilson and ended his career in the Confederate military. A short time later, he was placed under arrest by Captain Henry E. Noyes and charged with misconduct against Union prisoners at Andersonville. Wirz protested the arrest, stating that conditions at the prison had been beyond his control. He begged his captors to allow him to leave and take his family to Europe. Instead, he was taken to Washington and officially charged with “impairing the health and destroying the lives of prisoners.”

The arrest of Wirz was part of a much wider response to the American thirst for revenge against the Confederacy. It was believed that by arresting Wirz, the government might be able to placate the public. Whether Wirz was responsible for all of the horrors of the camp, though, was questionable. There was no question that terrible suffering took place at Andersonville and little doubt that Wirz was a harsh and possibly sadistic commander. However, Southern contemporary accounts insisted that he did the best job possible under extreme conditions. There was no question that Andersonville was the South’s most impoverished and overcrowded prison. There are many today who believe that Wirz was nothing more than a scapegoat for the poor condition of the Confederate prisons and a victim of the post-war backlash against the South.

The trial of Henry Wirz began in August of 1865, ending a three-and-a-half month feeding frenzy by the press. While the former captain waited in jail, the Northern newspapers had already tried and convicted him many times over. He had been portrayed as a monster who maliciously sent scores of Union soldiers to their deaths.

Attorneys for the federal government began their case against Wirz, presenting evidence in the form of records, documents and testimony from former prisoners and from Union officers who had inspected the camp after its surrender. The witnesses were not always reliable, as several of them stated that they had seen Wirz “strike, kick and shoot prisoners” in August 1864, during a time when the commandant was absent from the camp on sick leave.

Of all the testimony, perhaps the most damaging came from a man named Felix de la Baume, who claimed to be a nephew of the Revolutionary War hero, General Lafayette. He spent several hours on the witness stand describing the defendant’s cruel treatment of prisoners and his total disregard for the nightmarish conditions of the camp. Baume’s testimony appeared in newspapers across the country and in the end, it sealed Wirz’s fate. Baume was rewarded for his testimony with a position in the Interior Department. After the trial, it was learned that he had been a deserter from the Union Army and was not descended from General Lafayette.

On November 6, 1865, Wirz was condemned to death. Not long before his sentence was carried out, a secret emissary from the War Department offered him a reprieve in exchange for a statement that would convict Jefferson Davis of conspiracy to murder prisoners. Wirz refused.

Henry Wirz was hanged in the yard of the Old Brick Capitol on November 10, 1865. He was the only Confederate officer to be convicted and executed for war crimes. He maintained his innocence and was defiant until the very end. As he said to the officer in charge of directing his hanging, “I know what orders are, Major. I am being hung for obeying them.”

Was Captain Wirz ultimately responsible for the horrific conditions at Andersonville? Was he to blame for the deaths of thousands of Union soldiers? The question remains unanswered, but it seems that his spirit remains behind to try and restore his reputation. There is little doubt in the minds of witnesses that the apparition that they have seen pacing through the site of the former prison camp is that of the infamous prison commander. The officer in the neat gray uniform is, like Wirz, ruggedly handsome, with a short beard and the hat that the commander always wore. Often he wanders the grounds, restless and looking inconsolable, shaking his head or talking silently, yet wildly animated, to himself. On other occasions, he is seen standing in place, by the road or in the stockade area, a mute reminder of his possible innocence.

Or perhaps he is merely sentenced to remain in this world as punishment for his crimes.

The story of Andersonville appears in the book Soldiers and the Supernatural by Dave Goodwin and Troy Taylor. For dozens of stories of soldiers, war and the ghosts that linger in the wake of the destruction, pick up an autographed copy of the book here – or it’s also available in a Kindle or Nook edition. 

Friday, February 21, 2014


American Journeys to the Grave

In year’s past, death was a common occurrence in American families. Most children did not survive infancy and the life expectancy of an adult was much shorter than it is today. The loss of family members and friends became a common occurrence, but funerals in the past were not necessarily a solemn occasion.

During a time when lives were often short and death accepted as a matter of fact, funerals were stark, though social, affairs. Burials generally took place on family land with friends and neighbors present. The women prepared the corpse, clothing the body in the deceased’s finest clothes, and slipping it into a shroud of waxed linen or alum-soaked wool. At first, this was the only covering using during burial, but by the late 1600s, burials were taking place in churchyards and shrouded bodies were placed in coffins. These plain pine boxes were made to measure by local carpenters and might feature a sectional lid so that the upper body could be viewed when friends came to pay their final respects.

Beginning in the 1830s, customers wanting something finer could choose from ready-made patented coffins. Many of these were advertised as having special advantages, including such “superior” materials as metal, marble and cast cement. In the 1840s – when most burials were starting to occur in cemeteries rather than churchyards – patents were being awarded for special models of caskets. One of them, the “torpedo coffin,” for example, actually exploded when tampered with, presumably to discourage body snatchers and grave robbers.

Getting to the burial site required the services of bearers and later, hearses. The bearers were of two types: the pallbearers, who managed the pall, or cloth that covered the coffin, and the underbearers, who did the heavy work of carrying the coffin itself. The earliest hearses were simple “dead wagons,” which might be pulled by men or by horse. As fashions changed, they became elaborate, with curtained windows and funerary urns and tasseled swags as decorations. The grandest hearses required two horses, preferably matched pairs of high-steppers.

Although solemn sermons and prayers traditionally marked the services at the church and graveside, funerals otherwise could be relatively upbeat occasions. Depending on the community and the religion, attendees might be given souvenirs like dead-cakes (a kind of cookie with the deceased’s initials baked in), a bottle of wine, a ring, a scarf, or gloves. Memorial rings and gloves were particular favorites and ministers often accumulated hundreds of them. One thrifty pastor from Boston reportedly made a tidy bundle re-selling the ones he received.

Alcoholic refreshment, dispensed with lavish abandon by a committee after the burial, could leave a family in debt for months afterward. Nathaniel Hawthorne found it odd that his New England ancestors were most comfortable celebrating when it involved the “grisly jollity” of a funeral. But southerners also followed funerals with grand receptions and sent the departed off in style with volleys of gunfire as graveside salutes.

Customs everywhere changed considerably in the late 1800s, as professional undertakers took over the business of death. The coffins of old were replaced by caskets with quilted velvet interiors, silver hardware and rare woods that were said to outlast the “lapse of ages” and mitigate the “harsh realities of the grave.”

Mourning in America

The late nineteenth century became a time when death truly began to intrude upon the living. From the moment of death and often for up to a year afterward, the activities and dress of the people close to the deceased were governed by the strict rules of the Victorian era. Customs defining the length of mourning and type and color of clothing to be worn had been established by the middle 1800s, but the rituals grew more complex as the century continued.

A Victorian era woman in mourning

A women went into deep mourning immediately following a death and, except to attend the funeral and church, did not leave the house for at least a month. If she lost her husband, she might remain in deep mourning for as long as two years; the loss of a parent or child required one year; grandparents and siblings, and anyone else who left an inheritance got six months; and aunts, uncles, nieces and nephews, three.

Black was the customary color for a widow’s mourning weeds during the first year, with crepe, serge and alpaca the fabrics of choice. In the second year, she could lighten up a little by switching to a glossy fabric such as silk in shades of gray and dark purple. She also replaced her usual hat with a black bonnet and was expected to wear a veil over her face during the first three months, then trail it down the back of her bonnet for another nine months.

A decorative ornament that was created by using the hair of the deceased. All of the intricate patterns inside of the glass center were made out of human hair. 

Ornament was out of the question during deep mourning, but bracelets and ornaments made from the woven hair of the deceased were worn after the appropriate amount of time had passed. Such items became so popular that women’s magazines published do-it-yourself instructions. Anyone interested could also turn to professional “hair jewelers” who advertised their skills as making “elaborate necklaces, broaches, rings, gentlemen’s guard and fob chains, charms and earrings that no person of good taste will venture to deny.”

Postmortem photographs were particularly important to families with small children. Usually, a photograph taken after death would be the only remembrance they might have of their child. 

Another remembrance was the portrait. If called in quickly enough, a good artist could paint a final portrait of the deceased as if they were still alive. As photography became more commonplace, professionals were often called in to take a photograph of the dead reposing in their coffin, or placed in a life-like situation so that the living could remember them after they were gone. Postmortem photographs of children were especially popular. In the nineteenth century, many families could not afford to have photographs taken of their children. A postmortem photo offered them a last chance to capture their likeness before they were taken from them forever.

During this period, men also followed certain mourning rituals, but they displayed their grief for somewhat shorter times than women. They too wore suit, tie, hat band, and even shirt studs and cuff buttons in basic black. If a man used a walking stick, he might tie a black ribbon around it as a symbol of mourning. Children under twelve wore white in the summer and gray in the winter, but whatever the season, the clothes were trimmed with black buttons, ruffles, belts and ribbons.

Families even had to observe rules about their behavior around the house. A typical description for proper mourning behavior appeared in the 1882 edition of Our Deportment, or Manners, Conduct and Dress of the Most Refined Society: “There should be no loud talking or confusion while the body remains in the house. All differences and quarrels must be forgotten… and personal enemies who meet at the funeral must treat each other with respect and dignity.”

Toward the end of the century, the rules eased somewhat. According to one authority on etiquette, modern taste dictated that mourners “make no one else gloomy because they, themselves, suffer.” In the same spirit, a bicycle company produced an all-black two-wheeler suitable for mourners who wished to exercise without scandalizing the neighborhood.

When the Saints Go Marching In

But, by far, my favorite funeral traditions comes from New Orleans – a place so far below sea level that the dead have to be entombed rather than buried because, otherwise, their caskets would not stay in the ground. A tradition unique to New Orleans, the brass band funeral, began in the 1880s, peaked in the 1920s, but is still part of the culture today. As one musician described it, “You’d march to the graveyard playing very solemn and very slow, then on the way back, all hell would break loose!”

Of course, “all hell,” was generated by the jazz band itself, which always included trumpet, trombone, tuba, clarinet, snare and bass drums, and whatever other instruments that participating musicians wanted to join in with. Marching along with the band was what was called the “second line,” a crowd a locals who joined the procession on the way to the cemetery.

A New Orleans jazz funeral in progress

While the graveside solemnities were underway, the band and the second liners waited respectfully outside of the cemetery gates. Then, when the family and other primary mourners left, the band’s grand marshal turned to the expectant crowd and asked, “Are you still alive?” And the roar went up, “Yeah!” “Do we like to live?” “Yeah!” “Do you want to dance?” “Yeah!” And with that, the band swung into a medley of ragtime, Dixieland and jazz rhythms, the second line broke into exuberant dancing and singing and the whole procession boogied back into town.

This laughing in the face of death was far from cynical: it helped to reaffirm the joy of living, reminding all who participated that life was meant to be lived.

Jazz funerals are still held in New Orleans today and should you ever get the chance to watch (or better yet, participate, since I’ve never known a second line to turn anyone away), you should do so. As Jelly Roll Morton once said, a jazz funeral is “the end of a perfect death.”

Want to know more about Death and Mourning in America? Disconnected from Death by April Slaughter and Troy Taylor is coming in the summer of 2014!

Thursday, February 20, 2014


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.

Willie Lincoln

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.

Daniel Sickles

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.