Abraham Lincoln - Petersen House
Backstory and Context
The Petersen House was built in 1849 by a German immigrant and tailor, William A. Peterson, where he lived with his German-born wife Anna and 10 their children. While built as a private home, the extra rooms in the house were rented out for boarding. As many as 21 persons had resided there at a given time. During the Civil War, Petersen had built up a fortune by tailoring uniforms for military officers.
On April 14, 1865, President Abraham Lincoln was attending nearby Ford’s Theatre when the famous actor and Confederate sympathizer John Wilkes Booth shot him in the head and escaped. Believing Lincoln would not survive a trip back to the White House, and not wanting the president to die in a theater box, Dr. Charles Augustus Leale and other patrons carried the president’s body outside Ford’s Theater. One of the group asked “Where can we take him?” Petersen house boarder Henry Stafford heard the commotion, leaned out his window, and yelled, “Bring him in here!” Lincoln was carried to a back room too small for his mourners with a bed too short for his 6’4” body. Mrs. Lincoln followed, as boarder George Francis wrote, “She was perfectly frantic ‘Where is my husband!’ ‘Where is my husband!’ .... she approached his bedside...bent over him, kissing him again and again, exclaiming ‘How can it be so? Do speak to me!’ "
Visitors came and went all night long. Some ninety people came and went. Cabinet members, generals, congressmen, and Vice President Andrew Johnson were allowed inside. Guards were posted to keep others out. As expected by doctors, Lincoln never gained consciousness. His breathing and blood pressure declined throughout the night. James Tanner, a government clerk who lived next door, was in the room taking notes. Among the sorrow and dread, he noted “the utmost silence pervaded, broken only by the sounds of strong men’s tears.” Abraham Lincoln, America’s 16th President, expired at 7:22 a.m. on April 15. A doctor placed silver half-dollars on Lincoln’s eyelids. A pastor said a prayer. Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton saluted and said ‘Now he belongs to the angels” (or “ages,” witnesses differ). After 9 a.m., Lincoln’s remains were put into a temporary coffin and transported to the White House. Minutes later, boarders Henry and Julius Ulke took a photograph of the president’s death bed. About that time, chaos broke out in the house.
William Petersen, absent during the president’s vigil, returned to find his house overrun by souvenir hunters. Angry at the trespassers, Petersen began charging them admission to be there. His son cut the president’s shirt, towels, and sheets into pieces and handed them out. Soon, hundreds of people were arriving daily to see boarder William Clark’s room. According to Clark, “whoever comes in has to be closely watched for fear they will steal something.” Those not satisfied with mementos from the Petersen House also began tearing pieces away from Ford’s Theatre.
The Petersens continued to live in the house and rent rooms up until their deaths in 1871. In 1878, the building was bought by attorney Louis Schade but the growing number of unwelcome visitors grew tiresome and he leased or sold the house to the Memorial Association of D.C. in 1896.
The memorial group gave permission to Osborn Oldroyd—Civil War veteran and Lincoln collector—to move into the building and run his own Lincoln museum until he died in 1930. Notable artifacts included the Lincoln Family bible, Lincoln’s White House chair, and an alleged log from the Lincoln home. In 1926, Oldroyd’s collection was purchased by the government and many items were moved next door to the Lincoln Museum in Ford’s Theate. From 1932 to 1959, five women’s patriotic organizations and the Department of Interior worked to renovate the Peterson House, restoring it to its 1865 appearance. In 2007 the building was purchased by the Ford’s Theatre Society, incorporating the Peterson House into a larger historical site and tourist attraction.
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