The "New" Dying Words
Made-for-TV movie "The Day Lincoln Died"
On this very week 133 years ago Abraham Lincoln was murdered at Ford's Theater. If this was 1865, you and I would be in shock. We'd find ourselves suddenly sobbing, unable to talk about the news. A minute later, remembering that the long bloody Civil War was over, there might be a jolt of elation, then the crashing realization that the man who carried us through tens of thousands of deaths, was himself slaughtered.
At this point in the story, with a $100,000 bounty being offered, John Wilkes Booth was still at large, hiding in the swamps of Virginia, writing in his journal, waiting for the Confederacy to raise him to glory. Hundreds in Washington, including everyone who had known the famous actor were being jailed or questioned.
It would be a week before Booth was tracked to a barn at Garrett Farm. We've heard the story so many times, it reads like a fairy tale. The barn was set on fire. Running from the flames, his leg broken, Booth was shot. He lay paralyzed, mumbling and crying for the soldiers to kill him. He asked that his mother be contacted and told that, what he did, he did for his country.
Then John Wilkes Booth made a strange request. He asked that his hands be lifted up so he could see them. This was done. He stared at his hands for a moment and mumbled, "Useless, useless." Then he died. I believe there is a shocking error in this old story, and if you stick with me for a few minutes, I'll attempt to change history in this column.
If you watched the TNT made-for-TV movie last Sunday, that's exactly how it happened. It was the same old story, except this time the moviemakers got one more thing right. "The Day Lincoln Died" added one critical character -- Lucy Hale of Dover.
Lucy was reportedly engaged to Booth, although her father, New Hampshire Senator John P. Hale, forcefully denied it. Lucy and John had been seen spooning in the public rooms of the National Hotel in Washington, DC. The toast of Washington, Lucy had gotten Booth his ticket to Lincoln's second Inauguration. You can see him standing there, well within shooting distance, in a chilling photograph of the event. When Booth died outside that burning barn, Lucy's photograph was in his pocket. If you don't believe me, check the Time-Life volume on the assassination (page 138), or call the Smithsonian.
Until now, history has played Lucy, known as "Bessie" Hale, as an innocent footnote to the death of Lincoln. Booth was a ladies' man and Lucy was just one of the ladies he played to off stage. But as the daughter of one of the nation's best known Senators, she apparently wielded some social power. She had attracted the attention of Oliver Wendell Homes Jr.. Her father hated Booth's lowly actor status and, some say, had hoped to marry Lucy to the President's son Robert Todd. In this film, Lucy appears to be a composite of Booth's lovers, but there is a clear sense that Booth is smitten too. Washington gossip at the time considered the two practically married.
"The Day Lincoln Died" creates a scene where Booth sweeps Lucy onto the dance floor at the hotel where he was also a guest. "Have you gone mad?" Lucy says as they spin around the ballroom. "Mad for you," Booth cajoles. "Have I caused you some trouble?" "Seeing as my father's jaw is resting in his soup, I'd say so," she replies.
I've yet to find the account, but Jason Hindle, a Keene State student who gives the summer tours at the Hale House in Dover, tells a story that cuts to the bone of the affair. Jason says Lucy gave John Wilkes Booth a ring which he flaunted openly, whether to display his love for Lucy or to taunt her abolitionist father, we'll never know. Senator Hale, like Lincoln, was hated in the South, so he must have been reviled by Booth who was horrified by the concept of civil rights for slaves. The feeling was mutual.
In one incident, Booth is reportedly sitting in a tavern with an actor friend repeatedly kissing his ring and calling Lucy's name. His companion finds this distracting, but not as distracting as when Booth begins talking about how he had been within shooting distance of the President at the inauguration.
There is no question that Booth and his ragged group of conspirators were planning a crime, but it is important to remember that originally they were going to kidnap, not kill Lincoln. Booth's plan turned deadly when he learned of the fall of Richmond. In the film, he runs to Lucy Hale for comfort, and in what seems to me an extreme exercise of poetic license, they make love. This is not Dover's finest moment on film, to be sure. Booth had spent the night in a hotel with a woman in a nearby town a few days before, but it was likely not the proper Lucy. It was more likely Ella Star, Booth's "good time girl" whose sister ran a high class bordello.
But back to the TV version. Next morning, Lucy and John are still in bed in her room at the National Hotel when word comes that Lee has surrendered at Appomattox. This is certainly the trigger that fires Booth into bloody action, but there is more, and a piece that I think has great significant in the psychological profile of the assassin.
According to White House records, Senator John P. Hale met with President Lincoln in his office on the morning of April 14 at 10 am. After 20 years as a New Hampshire senator, Hale had lost the election. That very day, he asked from Lincoln and received the position as American Ambassador to Spain. He wanted Lucy out of the country fast, and out of the influence of John Wilkes Booth.
Witnesses report having seen Lucy and John in conversation in a public room at the hotel late that morning. In the film, when they meet for the last time, Booth has already left Lucy's bed, met with his co-conspirators, gone to Ford's Theater and rigged the doorway so that he can slip into the President's box seat at the theater. Then Lucy confronts her fiancée with the news that her father is taking her away. She begs Booth to let her stay with him, but he is suddenly philosophical. "Your father is doing the right thing," he says. "I would only cause you pain."
For me, the story plays differently here. I'm guessing Booth's passion for Lucy was deeper than his physical love for the show girls he won so easily. Wooing Lucy was either Booth's finest performance, or it was real. It makes sense. She was of a different world, of important society, and every bit a Capulet to his Montague. They were star-crossed and that made it all the more intense. Lucy was less the cutesy little coquette that she appears on TV. From her photos we see she is more motherly, more like a Mary Todd Lincoln than a Winona Ryder. This was a new attraction for Booth, who wrote to his mother of his possible marriage to Bessie Hale. His mother's response was not surprisingly, tinged with jealousy toward her son's news.
I believe that the news of Lucy's imminent departure for Spain on top of the fall of the surrender of Lee, was the real trigger. Lucy, after all, was not just his passion, but his access to the President. With her gone to Spain, he would need another means of getting close to the President. Now Lincoln had not only taken away Booth's Confederacy, his country and way of life, but also had directly stolen his lover -- perhaps even stolen her for his son. Booth had reportedly seen Lucy dance with Robert Todd and been jealous.
Now Booth learned that the President was attending "My American Cousin" at the theater that night. He may have even heard that Robert Todd would be attending. Booth did bring a knife and a gun as if he had two murders in mind -- one to avenge his country, the other his heart. It is even possible that, in his twisted way, Booth imagined he would demonstrate his deep love for Lucy and win her back.
It's the evening of April 14. Robert Todd does not attend the play. Neither does Vice-President Andrew Johnson. But Booth has crossed an emotional line and there is no turning back. The President is late, and the play stops as the audience gives him a kingly welcome. Booth waits, then slips silently in to the President's box. He shoots Abraham Lincoln in the head, shouts "Sic semper tyrannis" and leaps from the presidential box, breaking his leg. He rides off intending to meet the co-conspirators who have failed to kill Vice President Johnson and Secretary of State Seward. Booth rides into infamy and Lucy disappears from public view. Although every person who had even a passing acquaintance with Booth was interrogated, Lucy, seen in the company of her fiancée assassin, was never even questioned.
Lucy Hale and her father spent the next five years in Spain where the aging senator suffered from depression that one writer called National Hotel disease. The country too mourned for years and years. Lucy apparently never spoke of Booth although Booth's elder brother Edwin, also a famous actor, received a distraught letter from Lucy after the assassination. After her father returned to Dover to die, the 30-something Lucy married a man from Concord. Lucy inherited her father's house on Central Avenue and it has become part of the Woodman Institute Museum. Her story, until last Sunday, has been whispered, but rarely told out loud.
And now the revelation. I think Lucy was to Booth what Jodie Foster was to John Hinckley -- and more. She was truly a woman of influence, part mother, part movie star, part lover. Despite, perhaps because of their opposing worlds, she cared for him. She needed him. She was his solace, his safe place, his status. He was insecure, driven to outstrip his famous father and brother. He was drunk with ego, maybe with liquor. When all the pieces of Booth's fragile life fell apart, he did what he did best -- he acted.
Booth really believed he would become a hero in the South and that his act would reverse the course of history. He would be as famous as his actor father who had died when he was 14. He would finally please his mother who doted on him, who was even jealous of Lucy. Finally, he would impress Lucy and be worthy of her love. I think Booth actually loved Lucy in a way that surprised him.
When the soldiers dragged Booth's wounded body onto the porch at the Garrett Farm, he asked that a message be delivered to his mother. Then John Wilkes Booth made a strange request, one that has puzzled historians for over a century. He asked that his hands be lifted up so he could see them. He stared, I believe, not at his paralyzed hand, but at the ring on his hand -- the engagement ring he had kissed hundreds of times.
Then Booth mumbled something that has been misquoted ever since. It sounded like, "Useless, useless." But they were garbled, gurgling sounds, whispered, barely audible according to witnesses. Booth was just repeating what he had said as he kissed the ring in the tavern weeks before, He had probably been repeating this mantra for days as he hid in the Virginia swamp growing colder, hungrier and lonelier.
Think about it. Say the words out loud and you'll know the truth at last. Booth was repeating his lover's name. He said, "Lucy -- Lucy." He moved his dry cracked lips as if to kiss the ring a final time -- and died.
© 1998 J. Dennis Robinson/SeacoastNH.com
For more on Lucy's dad Sen. John P. Hale read
Don't miss Dennis Robinson's new column "Seacoast Rambles" every other week in Foster's Sunday Citizen at your local newsstand.
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