Abraham Lincoln (1809–1865) The 16th president of the United States, assassinated in office, whose ghost is one of the most famous and restless in America. Abraham Lincoln’s murder has reverberated through time in haunting phenomena. Adding to the lore was Lincoln’s own involvement with the occult. He apparently had a psychic gift of his own and an interest in Spiritualism. He had paranormal experiences and dreamed of his own death.
Lincoln was born in 1809 in a log cabin at Sinking Springs Farm, Kentucky, to Thomas and Nancy Lincoln. He was their second child; they had a daughter, Sarah. Lincoln was withdrawn and prone to melancholy and moodiness and spent much time in the woods by himself. While he was still a child, the family moved to Little Pigeon Creek in Indiana. In 1818, Nancy contracted milk sickness and died. Thomas took his family back to Kentucky and married Sarah Bush Johnston, who had four children. The extended family caused Lincoln to withdraw into himself even more.
In 1819, Lincoln was kicked in the head by a horse. At first he was believed to be dead, but he was only rendered unconscious for a night. When he recovered, he seemed different, as though in a world of his own. Head trauma sometimes leads to the opening of psychic ability, and this may have been the case with Lincoln.
Lincoln was an excellent student. He studied law, then was drawn to politics in a desire to right social wrongs. He had a reputation for honesty.
In 1831, Lincoln went to New Salem, Illinois, following a stint working on a fl atboat on the Ohio and Mississippi rivers. He won a seat in the Illinois state legislature in Vandalia, the original capitol of the state. He fell in love with Ann Rutledge and intended to marry her, but in 1835, Ann fell ill and died. Lincoln was heartbroken, but was able to get reelected to the legislature in 1836. In 1837 he became a lawyer and left New Salem for Springfield, the new capitol. By this time, Lincoln was forming his views opposing slavery.
In 1839, Lincoln met Mary Todd, a socialite nine years younger than he who was known to be nervous and high-strung, but who nonetheless had numerous suitors, including Lincoln’s rival, Stephen Douglas. Lincoln became engaged to her, but then abruptly broke off the relationship on January 1, 1841. He seemed uncertain he wished to marry. He changed his mind again, and the couple married in a hasty ceremony on November 4, 1842. Their first son, Robert, was born nine months later. In 1844, Lincoln bought his family a house in Springfield. Son Eddie was born in 1844, but died four years later after a long and agonizing illness. Two more sons followed: Willie in 1850 and Thomas “Tad” in 1853.
Lincoln busied himself with his law career and spent much time away from home. He was in and out of politics and increasingly vocal in his opposition to slavery. He ran for a seat in the state senate against Douglas, who favoured slavery, and engaged him in a highly publicized series of debates all over the state. Lincoln dazzled audiences, but lost the election. He did succeed in gaining the attention of the Republican party, which began considering him as presidential material. Lincoln won the Republican nomination for the presidency in 1860, campaigning against his old rival, Douglas. This time he was victorious— barely. He won the election by an electoral college vote, losing the popular vote, carrying only 40 percent. He was hanged in effi gy the day he was elected.
Lincoln’s views against slavery earned him many enemies, and by the time he departed Springfield for Washington, D.C., he was receiving hate mail and death threats. There were plots to kill him. He was forced to travel to Washington in disguise under heavy guard. The Washingtonian high society ridiculed him and Mary as country bumpkins.
Lincoln was barely installed in office before the building political tensions between the North and the South disintegrated, and the Civil War began. The war took a heavy toll on Lincoln, who became more moody and withdrawn than ever. He became obsessed about America’s divine plan and his role in guiding the country through the turbulence of war. The North initially took a battering from the South, but by 1862 the tide began to turn in favour of the Union.
The Lincolns, however, suffered tragedy. In January 1862, Willie got sick and never recovered. He wasted away for weeks, finally dying on February 20. The exact cause is not known. Typhoid, malaria, and consumption have all been proposed; typhoid is the most likely. Both Lincoln and Mary were inconsolable. Friends feared that Lincoln’s grief would drive him to SUICIDE, but the president managed to function and to keep his command over the war effort.
Lincoln was reelected to a second term and sworn in on March 4, 1865. The end of the war finally came on April 9, 1865, when the Confederacy surrendered. Two days later, Lincoln made what would be his last public address, in which he called for black voting rights. It was too much for many Southerners and their sympathizers, including a man named John Wilkes Booth.
On April 14, Lincoln, Mary, and several others attended a play at FORD’S THEATRE in Washington. During the performance, Lincoln was assassinated by Booth, who had plotted with several others to kill Lincoln and his secretary of state, William Seward. Booth entered the unlocked presidential box and shot Lincoln at point blank range behind the left ear. Booth leaped over the railing, breaking one of his legs in the fall to the stage. He shouted “Sic Semper Tyrannis!” (“Thus shall it be to tyrants!”) and escaped. At the same time, a coconspirator attempted to assassinate Seward, but failed.
Fatally wounded, Lincoln died several hours later, on April 15. His body lay in state at the WHITE HOUSE and then was taken by train back to Springfield for burial. The body of his beloved son Willie went with him. Booth was shot to death by an army sergeant on April 26. Eight other coconspirators were arrested and tried.
The influence of Spiritualism
Historians are divided over how much Lincoln was interested in spiritualism and how much he participated in meetings and Séances. Most historians attribute Lincoln’s interest and involvement to the spiritualist influence of Mary. It is well documented that Mary had extensive involvement with Mediums and invited her favourites to the White House. However, Lincoln showed personal interest in spiritualism early in his political career, in an interest independent of Mary and deeply rooted in his own sense of purpose and destiny. In a letter to his friend Joshua F. Speed in 1842, Lincoln observed that he had “always had a strong tendency to mysticism”and had often felt controlled “by some other power than my own will,” which he felt came “from above.”
After the death of Willie, Mary attended Séances in an effort to contact Willie’s spirit and persuaded Lincoln to attend at least one. It became a political liability.
Some hold that Lincoln’s experiences with several mediums may have been an influence on his 1863 issuance of the emancipation proclamation. His antislavery position was in fact well established before then; he regarded slavery as an evil and had opposed its extension. His election to the presidency in 1860 worsened the tension between the North and South and contributed to the onset of the war.
Throughout the presidency, Mary invited mediums to the White House, among them J. B. Conklin, Nettie Colburn Maynard, Mrs. Miller, Mrs. Cranston Laurie, and Cora Richmond. Maynard, a favourite of Mary, took credit for the emancipation proclamation, saying in her autobiography that Lincoln issued it at the direction of her spirits. Maynard also claimed credit, citing an hour-anda- half trance during which she lectured Lincoln that the war would not end until he freed the slaves. While it is unlikely that Lincoln made his decision because of such spirit utterings, he may have heard things from the mediums that reinforced his own inner conviction to take such action. Similarly, medium Richmond claimed that Lincoln and the Joint Congressional Committee on Reconstruction sought her advice, a claim refuted by historians.
Lincoln had numerous paranormal experiences, especially visions and premonitions. He dreamed his own death. Extensive haunting phenomena have been associated with him and his family and the accused conspirators behind his assassination.
During the Civil War, Lincoln became withdrawn and spent a great deal of time meditating and praying. He had a major hand in directing the Union army. Though his generals complained about his “meddling,” he may have had intuitive or psychic insights and clairvoyant visions that prompted him to steer certain courses of action.
On one occasion, Lincoln visited the telegraph office of the War Department, looking for the latest news of a battle. Later that night, he returned in a state of panic, ordering a line through to his commanders. He seemed certain that Confederate forces were about to cut through Union forces. Asked how he knew that, he reportedly replied, “My God, man! I saw it.”
Willie’s death in 1862 caused Lincoln and Mary deep grief. Willie was buried in a crypt in Georgetown belonging to the William Thomas Carroll family, friends of the Lincolns. Willie was expertly embalmed to appear as though sleeping. Lincoln visited the crypt often and reportedly twice had the coffin opened so that he could gaze again on the face of his beloved son. He once told Salmon P. Chase, his secretary of the treasury, that he often felt Willie near him and spoke to him.
Lincoln had startling premonitions of his own death. Shortly before his election in 1860, he had a clairvoyant vision in a MIRROR. He saw two images of himself, one as he appeared in real life, and the other wan and deathly pale, which faded away. He was able to conjure up the double faces repeatedly as time went on. He told Mary, but she was never able to see the visions in the mirror. Lincoln believed them to be omens: the healthy face indicated that he would serve out his first term as president and be reelected, but the pale face indicated that he would not survive his second term. Publicly, Lincoln passed off the vision as a hallucination or imperfection in the glass.
The Lincolns had planned to travel to Europe and then retire to Chicago once the presidency was finished, but shortly before his death, Lincoln told Mary that she would see Europe but he would not.
Ten days before the assassination, Lincoln had a dramatic and prophetic dream of his own death. He wrote in his journal:
I retired late. I soon began to dream. There seemed to be a deathlike stillness about me. Then I heard subdued sobs, as if a number of people were weeping. I thought I left my bed and wandered down-stairs. There the silence was broken by the same pitiful sobbing, but the mourners were invisible. I went from room to room; no living person was in sight, but the same mournful sounds of distress met me as I passed along. It was light in all the rooms; every object was familiar to me; but where were all the people who were grieving as if their hearts would break? I was puzzled and alarmed. What could be the meaning of all this? Determined to find the cause of a state of things so mysterious and so shocking, I kept on until I arrived at the East Room, which I entered. Before me was a catafalque, on which rested a corpse wrapped in funeral vestments. Around it were stationed soldiers who were acting as guards; and there was a throng of people, some gazing mournfully upon the corpse, whose face was covered, others weeping pitifully. “Who is dead in the White House?” I demanded of one of the soldiers. “The President,” was his answer. “He was killed by an assassin.” Then came a loud burst of grief from the crowd, which awoke me from my dream. I slept no more that night; and although it was only a dream, I have been strangely annoyed by it ever since.
The night before he was killed, Lincoln told a member of his cabinet that he had dreamed he would be assassinated. The day of his assassination, Lincoln confi ded to his bodyguard, W. H. Crook, that he had dreamed for three nights straight that he would be assassinated. Crook beseeched him not to go that night to Ford’s Theatre, but Lincoln demurred, saying he had promised his wife they would go. Perhaps he knew he would be shot that night, for when they departed for Ford’s, Lincoln said good-bye to Crook instead of good night.
Lincoln’s premonitions did not save him, but a premonition may have saved the life of his general, Ulysses S. Grant, who, with his wife, Julia, was to be with Lincoln in the theater that night. Julia awoke that morning with an oppressive sensation that something terrible was going to happen. She persuaded Grant to stay home. Later, it was revealed that Booth planned to assassinate Grant as well that evening.
Ghost Train Home
Initially, Lincoln was to be buried under the Capitol Dome. Plans changed to Virginia, and then to Lincoln’s beloved Springfield. A special funeral train bore Lincoln’s body and the body of Willie home to Springfield for burial. The trip took 14 days. The train stopped in major cities, where elaborate funerals were held. There was a huge public demand to see the president’s body. The man who had been reviled and threatened with death in life was nearly deifi ed in death. About 2 million people turned out, many standing in lines for hours upon hours just to pass by the coffin and catch a brief glimpse of the president’s face. People carried on in hysterics of weeping and moaning; women fainted; mobs went wild in grief.
Since then, every April at the anniversary of the assassination, a phantom funeral train is reported traveling the tracks along the route taken by the official funeral train, from Washington through New York state and west to Illinois. The train never reaches its destination.
(According to some stories, there are two phantom trains. The first engine pulls several cars draped in black and belching black smoke. One is a military car, from which issues the sounds of a dirge. The second steam engine pulls only a fl atcar bearing the president’s coffin.)
The Albany (New York) Evening Times once gave the following account of the phantom train passing through town:
Regularly in the month of April, about midnight the air on the tracks becomes very keen and cutting. On either side of the tracks it is warm and still. Every watchman, when he feels the air, slips off the track and sits down to watch. Soon the pilot engine of Lincoln’s funeral train passes with long, black streamers and with a band of black instruments playing dirges, grinning skeletons sitting all about. It passes noiselessly. If it is moonlight, clouds come over the moon as the phantom train goes by. After the pilot engine passes, the funeral train itself with fl ags and streamers rushes past. The track seems covered with black carpet, and the coffin is seen in the center of the car, while all about it in the air and on the train behind are vast numbers of blue-coated men, some with coffins on their backs, others leaning upon them. If a real train were passing its noise would be hushed as if the phantom train rode over it. Clocks and watches always stop as the phantom train goes by and when looked at are five to eight minutes behind.
Everywhere on the road about April 27 watches and clocks are suddenly found to be behind.
In Springfield, two grave sites awaited Lincoln: Oak Ridge Cemetery and Mather Hill in the center of the city (now the site of the state capitol building). Mary chose Oak Ridge, but city officials preferred Mather Hill, intending to build a monument there. Mary prevailed, and the bodies of Lincoln and Willie were taken to Oak Ridge, as was the body of another son who had died, Eddie, exhumed from a cemetery. The bodies were interred in a temporary tomb while work began on a monument tomb. Visitors reported seeing a spectral figure walking about, believed to be Lincoln, and hearing footsteps and the sounds of sobbing.
The bodies were moved into the monument tomb on September 19, 1871, and were joined by the body of son Tad, who had also died. Work was still incomplete, and Lincoln was moved again on October 9, 1874, into a marble sarcophagus. The monument was then dedicated.
An attempt to rob Lincoln’s grave was foiled in November 1876. As a precaution against further such attempts, Lincoln’s body was moved deeper into the catacomb into a secret grave. Stories abounded that Lincoln’s body had been stolen and his crypt was empty.
In 1886, a new crypt was built for him within the monument catacomb. His casket was opened for identification of the remains. But in 1899, the monument was torn down and construction was begun on a new one. The bodies—which by this time also included Mary and a grandson—were exhumed and moved. Lincoln was placed into a white marble sarcophagus.
Lincoln still had not reached his final resting place. In 1901, his casket was opened again—for the purposes of identification—and he was then buried in an underground vault, sealed with concrete.
Visitors have reported ghostly footsteps and weeping and whispering when they visit the tomb. A spectral apparition is believed to be Lincoln himself.
The Decline of Mary
Mary never recovered from her husband’s death. She became increasingly withdrawn, paranoid, and dependent upon opium and her “spirit guides.” She talked incessantly about the assassination and drove her friends away. She said that she talked to her dead husband every day. Spirit Photography was in vogue and she sat for William Mumler under an assumed name. The resulting photograph shows a misty likeness of the dead president as well as the portrait of his wife.
In 1875, son Robert Lincoln had his mother institutionalized, an act that earned him her undying hatred. After her release, she went into self-imposed exile in France, living the rest of her days in a small hotel room. She was in constant pain from arthritis and wore a money belt to protect her dwindling funds. She kept her windows covered and obsessively packed and unpacked her 64 crates of clothing. Mary died on July 12, 1882, 17 years after the assassination. She was buried in the Lincoln catacomb in Springfield.
Lincoln’s Haunting Activity
Lincoln’s home in Springfield, owned and operated by the National Parks Service as a historical site, has long been associated with haunting phenomena. Staff and visitors have reported apparitions of a tall, thin man sometimes accompanied by a small boy, believed to be Lincoln and favourite son, Willie. A rocker rocks by itself, wind rushes in corridors when windows are open, objects are moved, phantom piano music is played, and voices are heard. People say they feel cold spots and are touched by invisible hands. Mary has also been seen and felt.
The state house in Vandalia, the original capitol of Illinois, is haunted by spectral figures that walk the halls and disembodied voices. Lincoln is believed to be one of the ghosts.
Lincoln’s ghost reportedly continues to haunt the White House. Ghostly footsteps attributed to him were reported first in the second floor corridors by staff. The first person to see his ghost was Grace Coolidge (wife of Calvin Coolidge, the 30th president of the United States, from 1923–29), who observed his silhouette standing at a window in the oval office, looking out over the Potomac. Since then, his ghost has been seen or sensed in this pose; the poet Carl Sandburg once said he felt (but did not see) Lincoln stand by him at the window. The haunting recreates a real scene observed one night during Lincoln’s presidency by army chaplain E. C. Bolles. Bolles had arrived in the oval office to meet with Lincoln; the president was gazing mournfully out the window. “I think I never saw so sad a face in my life, and I have looked into many a mourner’s face,” wrote Bolles of the episode.
Lincoln’s bedroom, called the Lincoln Room, also is a site of hauntings. It is the quarters of visiting heads of state, many of whom report strange phenomena, from footsteps to visual hallucinations. When Queen Wilhelmina of The Netherlands once visited President Franklin D. Roosevelt (1933–45), she told of hearing footsteps in the corridor outside and a knock at the door. When she opened the door, she was astonished to see Lincoln standing before her, dressed in a frock coat and top hat. The queen fainted. At least one other guest saw Lincoln sitting on the bed, putting on his boots.
Eleanor Roosevelt often sensed Lincoln’s presence, usually late at night when she was writing. Sometimes the Roosevelt’s dog, Fala, would bark excitedly for no apparent reason.
President Harry Truman (1945–52) also believed he heard Lincoln walking about. After Truman’s presidency, the ghost seemed to disappear from the White House. During the Ronald Reagan administration (1981–88), the president’s daughter Maureen reported seeing Lincoln’s ghost in the Lincoln Room.
In addition to being heard at the White House, Lincoln’s ghostly footsteps are reported near his grave site in Springfield, Illinois. Popular legend has it that the grave is empty.
Haunting phenomena have been reported at Ford’s Theatre as well. It was closed after the assassination. The famous Civil War photographer Mathew Brady took a photograph of the interior. Reportedly the print revealed a semitransparent figure standing in the Lincoln box, believed by many to be the ghost of Booth.
Ford tried to reopen the theater but was unsuccessful, and he sold it. In 1933, it was taken over by the National Parks Service and renovated and reopened in 1968. Actors—including Hal Holbrook—reported icy sensations at center stage and a tendency to forget lines. Other phenomena include phantom footsteps, strange laughter and voices, the sounds of weeping, and lights turning on and off by themselves. A singer said she was distracted one night by a light flashing on and off in the Lincoln box—which is permanently closed to the public.
Hauntings Associated with the Assassination
The ghost of Mary Surratt, one of the accused coconspirators, haunts the site where she was executed and other locations. Her ghost is said to be restless because she was innocent.
Surratt was proprietor of a boarding house in Washington, D.C., where Booth had stayed while he plotted against Lincoln. Surratt was arrested on the night of Lincoln’s death and was taken to prison at the Old Brick Capitol. Throughout her trial, she insisted she had played no part in the plotting and barely knew Booth except as a guest at the house. Testimony against her came from a drunk and a liar. The Confederate sympathies of her son, John, and other boarders also counted against her. She was sentenced to death along with three other accused coconspirators.
Many believed that Surratt would be reprieved, even up to the moment of her hanging on July 7, 1865, at the Washington Arsenal Prison. Surratt and the others were buried on the grounds of the prison and later moved to permanent graves.
The prison eventually became Fort McNair. The courthouse where the trial had taken place was turned into an officers’ barracks. Mary, dressed in black, has been seen walking down the hallways; some have heard a woman’s voice. Lore holds that a boxwood tree mysteriously sprang up on the site of the gallows—a sign of Mary protesting her innocence from beyond the grave. Also in the barracks are the sounds of chains rattling. The seven male prisoners were bound together in chains during their trials.
Surratt’s boarding house in Washington was plagued by ghostly voices, footsteps, and other sounds. The house went through a rapid succession of ownership—no one wanted to stay there long. Surratt’s daughter, Annie, sold the house for far less than it was worth.
Surratt also is said to haunt her home in Clinton, Maryland, where Booth stopped during his escape from the assassination. Phantom voices of men and women have been heard, and Surratt’s ghost has been seen.
The ghost of Dr. Samuel Mudd, who aided Booth during his flight, is said to haunt the doctor’s farmhouse in Charles County, Maryland. Mudd was awakened in the middle of the night by Booth and his accomplice David Herold. Mudd claimed not to have recognized Booth, whom he had met before, because the two men were in disguise. He set Booth’s leg and gave them food and shelter. Within days, Mudd was arrested as a coconspirator. He was tried, found guilty, and sentenced to life in prison. He served fours years and then was pardoned by President Andrew Jackson for his role in aiding prison victims of yellow fever.
Mudd’s ghost is dressed in black trousers and vest and a white shirt with sleeves rolled up to the elbows. His apparition appears sporadically and seems to respond to restoration work on the house, which joined the National Register of Historic Landmarks in 1974.
Judge Advocate General Joseph Holt, the presiding judge at the trials of the coconspirators, reportedly haunted his house in Washington and the area around the Old Brick Capitol. Holt was the only member of the military court who insisted on the execution of Surratt. Many people later believed that after the executions, Holt regretted his position. A moody and melancholy man, Holt was unpopular and kept to himself. After his death, his ghost cast a chill on various rooms in his house, and his phantom footsteps were heard in the library.
- Alexander, John. Ghosts: Washington’s Most Famous Ghost Stories. Arlington, Va.: Washington Book Trading Co., 1988.
- Maynard, Nettie Colburn. Was Lincoln a Spiritualist? London: Spiritualist Press, 1956.
- Roberts, Nancy. Civil War Ghost Stories and Legends. Columbia, S.C.: University of South Carolina Press, 1992.
- Scott, Beth, and Michael Norman. Haunted Heartland. New York: Warner Books, 1985. Taylor, Troy. Haunted Illinois. Alton, Ill.: Whitechapel Productions Press, 1999.———. The Haunted President: The History, Hauntings & Supernatural Life of Abraham Lincoln. Alton, Ill.: Whitechapel Productions Press, 2005.
Back to Famous Ghosts