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The Tragic Coincidences in the Unlucky Life of Abraham Lincoln’s First Son

Steve Palace
Robert Todd Lincoln (right) with James Garfield in center and William McKinley on left (Getty)
Robert Todd Lincoln (right) with James Garfield in center and William McKinley on left (Getty)

Abraham Lincoln’s death was a shattering blow to the United States. His first born son Robert Todd Lincoln (b. 1843) wasn’t there that fateful night at Ford’s Theater, Washington D.C. However his life took some strange and fateful turns, both before and after the tragic event.

Of course it was shocking enough that his father was assassinated in the first place. He’d been invited along to watch the play Our American Cousin, where he would have witnessed John Wilkes Booth carry out his deadly plan. Fortunately he declined, and was spared that harrowing sight. He missed the drama in more ways than one, though was by Honest Abe’s side when the President breathed his last the next morning.

Lincoln assassination
Painting depicting Lincoln’s assassination.

Robert had his own brush with the Grim Reaper in the 1860s when he was nearly killed by a train. At Jersey City he leant against a stationary carriage because the platform was so packed. The train moved and he fell between the locomotive and the platform. If it wasn’t for the quick thinking of a fellow passenger he’d have suffered a premature demise.

Robert Todd Lincoln
Robert Todd Lincoln in 1865

The shadow of Lincoln Sr’s assassination naturally loomed large, especially as Robert was the only one of his children to reach adulthood. There was also the expectation that goes with being the son of a great man. “Part of Abraham Lincoln’s mystique lies in his humble roots as a self-made man who found education where he could” writes Mental Floss. His son reaped the benefits of that privilege.

Robert Todd Lincoln
Robert Todd Lincoln sometime in the 1880

Robert believed his name was valued over his personal qualities, though he achieved a lot in his lifetime. He became a captain and worked as part of Ulysses S. Grant’s junior staff during the American Civil War. In fact exhaustion from the conflict was what led to him giving Ford’s Theater a miss.

He went on to work as a lawyer and most notably Secretary of War between 1881 and 1885. What Abe would have made of his path is a question lost to time. Robert spoke about their relationship in less than glowing terms. quotes him as saying that “any great intimacy between us became impossible. I scarcely even had 10 minutes quiet talk with him during his presidency, on account of his constant devotion to business.”

Robert Todd Lincoln
Robert Todd Lincoln in 1922

They did have one link, a truly bizarre and unexpected one. When Robert had his accident in Jersey City, the person who pulled him to safety was one Edwin Booth. The famed actor’s brother would kill the occupant of the White House at Ford’s Theater soon after. Confederate supporter John Wilkes Booth was angry at the President’s efforts to stop slavery and wanted him dead. His relative on the other hand had rescued a Lincoln family member purely by chance.

It’s worth lining up Abe’s work against that of his son. As Secretary of War, described by Biography, he “supported Indian lands by recommending legislation to cease white Americans’ intrusion. He also suggested the separation between the Weather Bureau and the Army, urged a pay increase for soldiers to reduce the risk of desertion, and recommended liberal appropriations to states to support the launch of volunteer militia organizations.” While he’d never match the legacy of his Dad, he certainly seems to have put the hours in.

His life was determined to an extent by the assassination. Or should that be assassinations? He got the plum government job under President James A. Garfield. Garfield was then murdered by Charles J. Guiteau at the Sixth St Train Station in D.C., 1881. The gun-wielding Guiteau believed he hadn’t been recognized for his role in Garfield’s election. And guess who was there to witness the shocking events…? Robert Todd Lincoln.

James Garfield assassination
An engraving of James A. Garfield’s assassination, 1881.

If that wasn’t odd enough, then Robert’s proximity to William McKinley’s assassination really took the biscuit. Robert was at the fateful location of the Pan-American Exposition in Buffalo, NY in 1901 where McKinley was gunned down. He was shaking hands with the public when anarchist Leon Czolgosz shot him twice in the abdomen. Robert Todd Lincoln was standing right outside when it happened.

William McKinley assassination
The assassination of the US President William McKinley, Buffalo (NY) 1901

By that stage, he must have been wondering whether he was a constitutional jinx. Mental Floss wrote, “He dryly noted that there was ‘a certain fatality about the presidential function when I am present.’”

The distant relationship with his father and President is well-documented. Sadly Robert also had a stormy time of it with mother Mary Todd Lincoln. A decade after her husband’s death in 1875, he had her committed to a hospital.

Mary Todd Lincoln
Mary Todd Lincoln in 1847

“Many believed his mother never had recovered from the loss of her husband and three sons,” Mental Floss says. Unsurprisingly, she “resented her forcible commitment and worked with her lawyer and a friend to leak a story to a Chicago newspaper casting doubt on her insanity proclamation.” Eventually she was released. Her reported mental health issues have been linked to bipolar disorder, though these and other theories have not been established. The relationship between her and Robert was forever altered.

The Lincolns had endured their share of life’s woes. Robert’s own son Jack passed away from blood poisoning at age 16. In these later years, Robert was minister to Gt Britain, serving under Benjamin Harrison and Grover Cleveland. He died in his sleep from a cerebral hemorrhage in 1926, leaving wife Mary Harlan and daughters Mamie and Jessie.

WATCH: Video of Last Surviving Witness of Lincoln’s Assassination Recounting the Event

Robert lived his life judged against a titanic individual. Not many in that situation would go on such a unique and eyebrow-raising journey in their own right.