Title: Alfred Janson Bloor to Walt Whitman, 7 June 1879
Date: June 7, 1879
Source: Transcribed from digital images or a microfilm reproduction of the original item. For a description of the editorial rationale behind our treatment of the correspondence, see our statement of editorial policy.
Notes for this letter were derived from Walt Whitman, The Correspondence, ed. Edwin Haviland Miller, 6 vols. (New York: New York University Press, 1961–1977).
Location: The Thomas Biggs Harned Collection of the Papers of Walt Whitman, 1842–1937, Library of Congress, Washington, D.C.
Whitman Archive ID: loc.05584
Contributors to digital file: Blake Bronson-Bartlett, Stefan Schöberlein, and Nicole Gray
7th June 1879
My recollection of what Miss — told me on the Friday evening,1 just one week after President Lincoln's murder, and of the diagram she took out of her pocket in illustration, is as follows:
The Prest & Mrs. Lincoln called for her & her escort at the house of her father, Senator —, on their way to Ford's Theatre. As the four drove thither, Miss — was struck, she said, with the uncommon hilarity of the Prest. He laughed & joked & was evidently bent on having a jolly evening. On getting to the theatre, and after some preliminaries as to position for the chairs, the party was finally arranged as shown on the diagram.2
The play was "Our American Cousin." I do not remember whether Sothern was in it or not, but I recollect she said Miss Laura Keene was. I knew the play very well, & recollect asking Miss — at what point in it the tragedy occurred, but her answer has escaped my memory. Mr. Lincoln laughed heartily at the comical situations & dialogue of the play, and paid close attention to it (as he always did when I had an opportunity of seeing him at the theatre. Senator Sumner told once me that in a conversation the day before with Mr Lincoln, the latter had defended the practise of habitual joking, and said that if he had not the opportunity to get out of himself by jests and an occasional visit to the theatre, he thought he should go crazy.)
Miss —3 was leaning forward, she said, to catch some by-play that was going on at the back of the stage when suddenly she heard a pistol shot, and felt the odor of gunpowder. She felt too, she said (though she was by no means a sentimental young lady) that there was "a thrill in the air" and that "something dreadful was happening"; though nevertheless she imagined confusedly that the pistol shot must be part of the play, though she could see nothing àpropos to it in the stage situation. Instead of discovering that the shot was fired behind her, she thought it was from the front. She therefore leaned still further out of the box, and recollected that she saw Miss Keene on the stage, evidently in great excitement.
While she was telling me the story, she left me several times for a few minutes to go into the adjoining room, telling me her step-brother, (whom she afterwards married) was lying there suffering from the effects of a wound or other hurt (I don't remember with what weapon or missile) received on the occasion, but whether from Wilkes Booth, or from some one else in the mêlée that followed, I can't recall, though she must have told me.
Neither can I now, on reflection, say positively whether it was from her (though I am pretty sure it was) or afterwards from the press, I got the impression that even when Booth had jumped on the stage from her very side (for it must have been from the ledge of the box between her & Mr. Lincoln that he jumped) & had shouted his cry of "Sic semper tyrannis" & run off the stage, she still thought it was part of the play; and had not recognized that he had leapt from her box at all. Certainly this would naturally be so, if her mind was filled, as she said, with the notion that the excitement originated on the stage, and if she was stretching herself out of the box, to find out what it was.
But this I do remember as from herself: though the time that elapsed between the shot and her recovery from her dazed condition to an appreciation of the real circumstances must in reality have been very short indeed (take out your watch, look at the index of the minute dial go round for sixty seconds & you will probably say it must have been within that time) the brief moments seemed to her "like an age," and there was something she could not explain, that made her feel "as if the world was coming to an end." A clever girl who had carried on, all through a stirring episode of history, a good part of her senator father's correspondence, and who had her own political & sectional prepossessions,—it might very well be that her own emotions, on realizing what had just been accomplished, colored her perceptions, but psychologists would probably say that this inexplicable something, portentious of destruction & death, was none the less a reality for being invisible & intangible—that it was in truth a magnetic wave of aggregated human passion from those who looking up at the immediate scene of the tragedy had, unlike her, seen its action & at once appreciated its consequences—it was a shock of wonder & doubt—a flood of horror, awe, fury—a mute despairing call for succor that could not come—a wild outcry for vengeance that could not restore.
After her description of her feelings just preceding, and on her realization of, the tragedy, the rest of the young lady's story was simply an anti-climax. She accompanied Mrs. Lincoln from the theatre & was with her, I think she said, a good part of the night. One thing she told me however, in answer to a question of mine, interested me, for there was much gossip & scandal afloat about Mrs. Lincoln's temper & her abuse of her husband, & part of the stories told I knew from competent & trustworthy sources & also, in a small measure, from my own observation, to be true. But it was also said, though it by no means followed as a corollary, that she did not love her husband—that she only valued him as the means to her ambition—and that this abuse was studied & habitual. Miss —, in answer to several questions from me, said in substance that if ever a woman showed genuine grief on personal grounds, and apart from that arising from a mortal blow to her ambition, Mrs. Lincoln did so that fateful night.
1. Alfred Janson Bloor (1828–1917) was, he informed Whitman on June 9, a member of the architectural staff that designed Central Park. He was a poet as well as the author of a number of architectural treatises. Whitman quoted from Bloor's letter at the conclusion of his article in the Tribune on May 24 (see The Collected Writings of Walt Whitman: Prose Works 1892, ed. Floyd Stovall [New York: New York University Press, 1964], 342). Bloor had taken exception to Whitman's contemptuous references to actors in his lecture on Lincoln's murder. [back]
2. Here Bloor drew a diagram of the Theatre Box, labeled with circles indicating the locations of President Lincoln, Mrs. Lincoln, Miss —, and Major —. The Major — is Major Henry Rathbone. The Miss — is Miss Clara Harris. She did indeed marry her stepbrother, as Bloor goes on to note, though they were not related by blood. Her stepbrother, Henry Reed Rathbone, was badly wounded when he tried to stop John Wilkes Booth from fleeing the site of the assassination. Later in life, perhaps because he blamed himself for failing to stop the killing of Lincoln, he went mad, attacked his children, killed his wife who tried to protect them, and attempted to kill himself by stabbing himself in the chest. [back]
3. Bloor initially wrote and then crossed out the letter "H." [back]