The unfortunate legacy of Robert Todd Lincoln

By Tim Koster

President Abraham Lincoln is arguably the greatest president in United States history. Apart from leading the country through the Civil War and emancipating approximately 3.5 million men, women, and children from slavery, his legacy has inspired generations of Americans and global citizen since. However, the pedestal on which we hold his achievements is built from a legacy of personal and familial tragedy.

At the epicenter of this story is the president’s eldest son, Robert. Born on August 1, 1843 in Springfield, Illinois, Robert Todd Lincoln would live a life tarnished by a series of most unfortunate events. As the oldest of four children, Robert would not only outlive his siblings, all of whom died extremely young, but would see his mother’s mental health deteriorate to the point he needed to admit her to a sanitarium, his own son pass away at the age of 16, and sit bedside as his father perished from an assassin’s bullet.

If this wasn’t enough to make him feel as if his life was cursed, it got worse. Following his father’s death, he was highly sought after by political allies to lend his family name to various stations within the government. Unfortunately, the acceptance of these requests were often met with fatal results.

In 1881, Lincoln accepted an appointment by President James Garfield to serve as his secretary of war. It was during that first year of his term that he was requested by the president to join him at the Sixth Street Train Station in Washington D.C. where he was preparing to travel to New Jersey for a summer vacation. As the president made his way across the lobby, he was shot in the back by Charles Guiteau and passed away two months later from the wound’s infection.

Then, on September 6, 1901, Lincoln was invited by President William McKinley to attend the Pan-American Exposition, a World’s Fair held in Buffalo, New York. A day after making a speech about tariffs and foreign trade at the Temple of Music, the venue’s concert hall and auditorium, McKinley was shot by Leon Czolgosz, an anarchist who believed the government was responsible for income inequality around the country.

Lincoln’s last public appearance came on May 20, 1922, for the dedication of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington D.C. President Warren G. Harding presided over the event and, while nothing of note occurred during the ceremony, Harding would pass away fourteen months later while still in office.

Throughout his adult life, Lincoln’s name was brought forth with varying levels of seriousness to fill the republican presidential or vice-presidential candidacies. However, after bearing witness, or being in close proximity to, three presidential assassinations, Lincoln avoided any talk on the subject and even went as far as refusing any further invitations from sitting presidents, saying: “No, I’m not going, and they better not ask me, because there is a certain fatality about presidential functions when I am present.”

A strange twist of fate

While it may not be accurate to say Robert Lincoln was cursed, he certainly had an unfortunate proximity to some very dark times in our nation’s history. However, in an interested twist to this otherwise morbid story, Lincoln’s life was actually saved from a possibly fatal accident by Edwin Booth, brother of John Wilkes, not long before the latter killed the president.

While leaning against a train car in New Jersey, waiting his turn to get on board, the train suddenly shifted. The unexpected movement forced Robert to lose his footing and fall into the gap between the cars and he was unable to move. In a quick response, someone grabbed his collar and pulled him to the safety of the platform. When he turned to face his savior, he recognized the famous actor immediately and thanked him by name.

Several months later, while serving on General Grant’s staff, he recalled the incident to a fellow officer who happened to be friends with Edwin Booth. That officer, Col. Adam Badeau, wrote Booth to commend him on his heroism. Prior to receiving Badeau’s letter, he had no idea the man he’d saved was the president’s son and later said that knowing he was able to save Robert gave him a slight sense of comfort following his brother’s assassination of President Lincoln.

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