“A Certain Fatality”: Robert Todd Lincoln and Presidential Assassinations

Chief Justice Taft, President Harding, and Lincoln at the dedication of the Lincoln Memorial in 1922Chief Justice Taft, President Harding, and Lincoln at the dedication of the Lincoln Memorial in 1922. (Photo: Library of Congress)

Much is often made of Robert Todd Lincoln, son of Abraham and Mary Lincoln, being present at three of the four presidential assassinations in U.S. history. Few people know much about the younger Lincoln today, and what many think they know is incorrect. Lincoln was not present at the three assassinations, though he was closely connected to them.

Robert Lincoln’s parents invited him to attend the play Our American Cousin with them at Ford’s Theater on April 14, 1865. He declined, electing to stay at the White House and go to bed early. When word arrived of John Wilkes Booth’s attack on his father, Robert Lincoln immediately traveled to the Petersen House where the president lay dying. John Hay, one of President Lincoln’s private secretaries and a good friend of Robert’s, wrote of Lincoln’s arrival: “After a natural outburst of grief, young Lincoln devoted himself the rest of the night to soothing and comforting his mother.” He was there when his father died at 7:22 a.m. on April 15.

Over the next decade-and-a-half, many Republicans tried unsuccessfully to entice Robert Lincoln into running for political office. In 1881, however, he agreed to serve as Secretary of War for President James A. Garfield. On July 2 of that year, Garfield went to Washington, D.C.’s Baltimore and Potomac train station to depart for a trip to New England. Secretary of State James G. Blaine accompanied him, and Secretary of War Lincoln arranged to meet them at the station. Lincoln was about forty feet away and walking toward the President and Secretary of State when Charles Guiteau approached and shot Garfield twice. By Lincoln’s own recollection, “I think I reached him [Garfield] in fifteen seconds.” The Secretary of War immediately ordered four companies of troops to the train station for security.

When Garfield was moved back to the White House, Lincoln made sure that “all intruders were out of the grounds and a strong military guard on duty there and another at the jail to prevent lynching and a reserve between.” As historian Jason Emerson notes, Lincoln’s decisive actions after the attack on Garfield were reminiscent of Secretary of War Edwin Stanton’s on the night Booth shot Abraham Lincoln. However, the memory of his father’s murder sixteen years before haunted him. “My god,” he said to a New York Times reporter the day after the shooting. “How many hours of sorrow I have passed in this town.” Garfield lingered for eighty days, dying on September 19, 1881. Lincoln remained as Secretary of War under President Chester A. Arthur.

After finishing his time as Secretary of War, Robert Lincoln returned to private legal practice, then served as U.S. Minister to the Court of Saint James under President Benjamin Harrison. After returning from England, Lincoln became general counsel and then president of the Pullman Palace Car Company. In 1901, the Lincolns vacationed all summer in New Jersey. As they traveled back to Chicago in early September, they decided to make a stop in Buffalo to visit the Pan-American Exposition, a world’s fair intended to promote trade and friendship between the U.S., Canada, and Mexico. The Lincolns’ train pulled into the Buffalo train station on the evening of Friday, September 6. A Pullman employee was waiting and handed Lincoln a telegram that read: “President McKinley was shot down by an anarchist in Buffalo this afternoon. He was hit twice in the abdomen. Condition serious.”

Lincoln immediately went to the home of John G. Milburn, president of the Pan-American Exposition, where McKinley was resting after surgery to repair internal damage caused by Leon Czolgosz’s bullets. Lincoln spent a few minutes with the President and was convinced that McKinley would be fine. Lincoln saw the President again two days later and still believed he was improving, saying, “My visit has given me great encouragement” for McKinley’s recovery. He and his family left Buffalo for Chicago having enjoyed a visit to the Exposition and glad that McKinley was on the mend.

A week later, McKinley was dead of infection and Vice President Theodore Roosevelt sworn in as the new president. Shortly afterwards, Lincoln sent Roosevelt a letter that read in part, “I do not congratulate you, for I have seen too much of the seamy side of the Presidential Robe to think of it as an enviable garment.”

While Robert Lincoln was certainly not cursed, it is understandable that many people – including Lincoln himself – feared he might be. The reality, however, was that Lincoln’s last name and his positions in life put him in close proximity to presidents far more often than most people. Also, Lincoln lived a very long life in times of great social and political upheaval that often resulted in violence. The horrific Civil War, passionate debates over patronage and civil service reform, fears of government growing so powerful that anarchy seemed a plausible alternative – all of these issues came to the fore during Lincoln’s life and resulted in murders of American presidents. That his name was Lincoln and he attained high office and business success made Lincoln far more likely to be near presidents than most people, and the upheavals of the era made attacks on presidents far more likely.

That did not ease Robert Lincoln’s mind, though the idea that after McKinley’s death Lincoln refused to ever again go around presidents is a myth. Supposedly he once scoffed at an invitation to a White House event by saying, “If only they knew, they wouldn’t want me there. There is a certain fatality about presidential functions when I am present.” While there is no direct evidence that Lincoln ever actually said this, it certainly seems like a thought that might have crossed his mind.

Robert Lincoln’s last public appearance was on May 30, 1922, when he attended the dedication of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C. President Warren G. Harding presided over that dedication. Harding, of course, died in office just fourteen months later. Since he was not assassinated, however, it does not appear that anyone tried very hard to attribute his death to having shared a platform with Robert Lincoln just over a year earlier.

Robert Todd Lincoln died on July 26, 1926, six days before his 83rd birthday. He was seemingly surrounded by death his entire life – not just presidents, but also his brothers, his parents, his young son – yet persevered to carve out his own successes and legacy while honoring his famous name. His was a long and accomplished life, and he deserves to be remembered as more than just his father’s son or the subject of myths about curses.

About the Author

Benjamin T. Arrington

Benjamin Todd Arrington is a career historian living in Ohio. He holds a Ph.D. in history from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln and studies American political history with an emphasis on the Civil War era and the early Republican Party.

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3 Comments

  1. Great piece, but remember the extra fun part–the rumors that, actually, Mrs. Harding poisoned him. Maybe Robert did it again!

  2. Interesting that the facts do not support the myth that Robert Todd Lincoln was actually present at 3 Presidential assassinations although his close connection and proximity to the 3 is remarkable. As an aside, I have visited several times the Robert Todd Lincoln house and homestead known as “Hildene” in Manchester, Vt. For those who love history and a beautiful setting, I would highly recommend a visit.

    @pjdaly7

  3. This is interesting. I have never liked Robert Todd Lincoln for having his mother incarcerated in an asylum by blindsiding her so she couldn’t get legal representation (as soon as she did, she was released). But this at least makes him more human. Human-ish, anyway.

    I don’t actually think Mrs. Harding poisoned her husband, but given last summer’s revelation of the letters he was writing to his mistress, she might have had good reason to consider it!

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