Mysteries at the Sanderson Museum:
By J. Chambless
Booth enters Lincoln’s box at the Ford Theatre to shoot him.
One of the most notorious episodes in American history occurred because a deranged man hated the President and wanted to avenge the defeat of his rebel compatriots.
John Wilkes Booth, a noted thespian, came from an established theatrical family. His father, Junius Brutus Booth, was a successful actor in England before moving to the United States in 1821. Booth’s brothers, Edwin and Junius, Jr., were also successful actors -- in fact, Junius was more popular than his brother John. An ongoing rivalry with Junius -- who supported the Union during the Civil War -- may have been a contributing motive for killing Abraham Lincoln.
Artifacts from this event are inside the Christian Sanderson Museum in Chadds Ford, silent reminders of the loss of one of America’s greatest statesmen.
On the morning of April 14, 1865, Good Friday, Abraham Lincoln was in a good mood. The President had reason to be jubilant: Confederate General Robert E. Lee surrendered to Union General Ulysses S. Grant the week before. He had saved the Union.
There had been celebrations all around Washington, D.C. The bitterly fought four-year long conflict was over, but not in the mind of John Wilkes Booth. That day, he wrote a letter to his mother, saying, “Our cause being almost lost, something decisive and great must be done.”
Lincoln experienced an eerie premonition just a few days before. He told his friend, Ward Hill Lamon, about a frightening dream he’d had regarding events in the White House: “I kept on until I arrived at the East Room, which I entered. There I met with a sickening surprise. 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, gazing mournfully… ‘Who is dead in the White House?’ I demanded of one of the soldiers. ‘The President; he was killed by an assassin.’”
Lincoln and his wife, Mary, were going to see the play “Our American Cousin” at Ford’s Theater the night of April 14. Before leaving, he said to Speaker of the House, Schuyler Colfax, “I suppose it’s time to go, though I would rather stay.”
One of his bodyguards, William Crook, advised him not to go, but Lincoln said he’d promised Mary they would attend. The President loved stage productions, visiting Ford’s Theater at least ten times. The Lincolns arrived at the performance late; the actors stopped onstage and the orchestra played “Hail to the Chief.” After settling into their box seats, the Lincolns were enjoying the production. Crook was off duty that night, so police officer John Frederick Parker was assigned to guard the President. At intermission, Parker left the theater and went drinking in a nearby saloon. He had not returned when the play resumed, leaving the President unguarded. Booth was at the theater. He saw his chance, and took it.
At around 10:25 p.m., Booth walked up the steps toward Lincoln’s box, handed his well-known business card to a nearby usher and asked to see the President. Lincoln had seen the actor in a play before and admired his talent. Booth was familiar with the play being performed that night, and waited for a scene he knew would produce a big crowd response. Entering the box, hearing the crowd roar, he saw Lincoln laughing. Booth stepped forward, pointed a small Derringer toward the back of Lincoln’s head and pulled the trigger. He then leaped to the stage, yelling “Sic semper tyrannis!” (Latin for “Thus always to tyrants!”)
At first, some people in the audience thought this was part of the play. Mary Lincoln held her bleeding husband, sobbing as Major Henry Rathbone yelled “Stop that man!”
Young Army surgeon Charles Leale was the first doctor on the scene. He made his way up to the Presidential box, as did another doctor, Charles Sabin Taft, who was lifted up from the stage to help. After examining the President, Dr. Leale knew almost immediately that the wound would be fatal.
Lincoln was moved across the street to the house of William Petersen. Other doctors arrived to help, including Surgeon General Joseph K. Barnes and Robert K. Stone (Lincoln’s personal physician). Throughout the night, more visitors came, including Lincoln’s oldest son Robert and Secretary of War Edwin Stanton. Due to the limits of medical expertise at that time, there was little the doctors could do as the President lay dying. At 7:22 a.m. the next day, Lincoln passed away, and in the hushed silence, Secretary Stanton said, “Now he belongs to the ages.”
Inside the Battlefield Room at the Sanderson Museum stands a cabinet with dozens of Civil War artifacts. One of them is a three-part display showing what has been reported to be a piece of the bandage wrapped around Lincoln’s head, a fragment of black bunting from his coffin, and a shred of maroon cloth from a chair used by Jefferson Davis, the President of the Confederacy.
The bandage is alleged to have been owned by Dr. Jonathan Rose. Here lies the mystery: No Jonathan Rose has been reported in any of the official accounts as having attended to Lincoln after the shooting. So, who was he, and how did he get this artifact supposedly tied to Lincoln’s assassination? Was he an unnamed attending physician? Could he have been part of the team who later prepared the body for burial? We don’t know, as the only document corroborating the artifact was written more than a century later.
In 1984, Marjorie Z. Orcutt (age 92) wrote a letter that briefly described her version of what occurred that evening, stating, “When the President was shot, Dr. Rose applied the bandage which I saw as a child in his office. I knew that he had given a piece of it to Christian Sanderson, which I understood was on display in his museum.”
The bandage does appear to be stained, but no DNA analysis has been conducted, since the procedure would likely destroy the artifact. Mrs. Orcutt’s paternal grandmother is mentioned in this letter. She was the best friend of Jennie Wilson, who was dating and later married Jonathan Rose, stated as a captain in the Union Army. We know from military records that there was a Jonathan Rose who served in the Union Army -- in fact, there were at least five of them, one in the 25th Indiana, 10th Kansas, 17th Wisconsin, 38th New Jersey and 22nd Ohio regiments. We just don’t know which one might have been near Lincoln that fateful evening.
Chris Sanderson was devoted to chronicling American history and kept meticulous notes on each artifact, detailing its provenance and significance. Could Dr. Rose be one of the unsung heroes from our past, never receiving recognition for his efforts trying to save the President? We may never know.
But as the 154th anniversary of the assassination approaches, it is worth reflecting on the importance of these events. While the war took the lives of more than 600,000 people, the Union’s victory allowed the abolishment of slavery and as Lincoln said, “a new birth of freedom, that government of the people, by the people, for the people shall not perish from the Earth.”
After hosting this tragedy, the first Presidential assassination in American history, Ford’s Theater was shuttered and remained closed for more than 100 years. In 1968, it reopened as a National Historic Site. Today it is operated through a public-private partnership with the National Park Service. Visitors can tour the building and see plays there.
Across the street, the Petersen House showcases the bedroom where Lincoln died, and an extensive number of superb Civil War displays. It’s a fitting monument to the man who won the most harrowing war in American history, ended the horrific practice of slavery, and gave his life for our country.
The Christian Sanderson Museum is at 1755 Creek Road in Chadds Ford. The building holds more than 18,000 artifacts which chronicle the rich heritage of our nation. It is open to the public Saturdays and Sundays from noon to 4 p.m. from March through November. Private tours are available. Visit www.sandersonmuseum.org.
Gene Pisasale is a historian and author based in Kennett Square. He has written nine books focusing on the Chester County and Mid-Atlantic region, and conducts a historic lecture series. Gene’s latest work is “Hemingway, Cuba and the Great Blue River.” His books are available on www.Amazon.com and through his website at www.GenePisasale.com. He can be reached via e-mail at Gene@GenePisasale.com.