Booth saved Lincoln’s life. The statement is true, but the incident to which it refers did not involve President Abraham Lincoln and his assassin, John Wilkes Booth. Instead, it refers to Edwin Booth (1833-1893), John Wilkes’ older brother, and Robert Todd Lincoln, the president’s only child to reach adulthood.
As a general rule, historical anecdotes that seem a little “too perfect,” like “John Wilkes Booth’s brother saved the life of Abraham Lincoln’s son shortly before Lincoln was assassinated,” but, when researched thoroughly almost never turn out to be true. This, however, is one of the exceptions to that rule and it was no less than Robert Todd Lincoln himself who, in a letter to the editor of Century Magazine, Richard Gilder, in 1909 recounted the story of how Edwin Booth had saved his life.
The exact date of the event isn’t known, but it apparently took place sometime in late 1863 at the Jersey City railroad station, shortly before the assassination of Abraham Lincoln by John Wilkes Booth. Robert Lincoln recounted the tale as follows:
"The incident occurred while a group of passengers were late at night purchasing their sleeping car places from the conductor who stood on the station platform at the entrance of the car. The platform was about the height of the car floor, and there was of course a narrow space between the platform and the car body. There was some crowding, and I happened to be pressed by it against the car body while waiting my turn. In this situation the train began to move, and by the motion I was twisted off my feet, and had dropped somewhat, with feet downward, into the open space, and was personally helpless, when my coat collar was vigorously seized and I was quickly pulled up and out to a secure footing on the platform. Upon turning to thank my rescuer I saw it was Edwin Booth, whose face was of course well known to me, and I expressed my gratitude to him, and in doing so, called him by name."
Edwin Booth, a strong supporter of Abraham Lincoln and a Unionist, was a point of contention between him and his brother’s relationships. Edwin did not know the identity of the man whose life he had saved until some months later in 1865 when Edwin received a letter from his friend, Colonel Adam Badeau, an officer on the staff of General Ulysses S. Grant. Badeau had heard the story from Robert Lincoln, who, at the time, was serving in the Union Army and was also on Grant's staff. In the letter, Badeau gave his compliments to Booth for his heroic deed.
Gen. Grant, who heard the life-saving story from Col. Badeau, wrote to Booth to congratulate him on his heroism. Grant not only praised Booth’s quick actions but also said that if he could ever serve Edwin, he would gladly do so. Edwin reportedly replied that when Grant was in Richmond, Virginia, the actor would like to perform for him.
While the rescue was clearly a significant event in Robert's life, there is no existing evidence that he ever told his parents about it. This may not be too surprising, given that he and his father were not particularly close and he thought that the President already had enough to worry about. Robert probably feared his mother’s reaction to the story. Mary still seemed fragile after the death of the Lincolns’ third son, Willie, in 1862.
After the assassination, Edwin Booth saw his famed family name ruined; lost his brother; lost his President, whom he staunchly supported; and nearly lost his career, due to his association with his brother—all in one day, and with none of it due to anything he had done. It was reported by his friends that he was brought stricken to the ground and only with time and the aid of his friends taking turns keeping a close watch on him in the coming months did he begin to make a recovery. He eventually made a successful return to the stage in January of 1866, about 8 months after the assassination. It was acknowledged that the knowledge that Edwin had saved the President’s eldest son’s life gave him some comfort going forward with his life.
Compiled by Neil Gale, Ph.D.