April 1865: "...I heard a woman’s voice say the 'President is shot' with a distinctness I shall never forget."

Joan Fink, Volunteer


Letter from Sarah Swain Forbes to Mary Forbes Russell, 15 April 1865

Letter from Sarah Swain Forbes to Mary Forbes Russell, 15 April 1865

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    In this letter, begun in the early hours of 15 April 1865, a shaken Sarah Swain Hathaway Forbes describes the unfolding details of President Abraham Lincoln's assassination for her daughter Mary. Earlier in the evening, Forbes had been rolling bandages for wounded soldiers while her son John Malcolm Forbes attended Ford's Theater in hopes of seeing General Grant, who was rumored to be attending the production of Our American Cousin with President and Mrs. Lincoln. Forbes's letter captures the chaos that descended upon the city as rumors about Lincoln's condition and of attacks on other notable men swirled through the streets.

    Sarah Swain Hathaway was born in Massachusetts on 20 January 1813 to Stephen Hathaway and Lydia Swain. She married John Murray Forbes on 8 February 1834. They made their home in Milton, Massachusetts, although John Murray Forbes spent the early years of their marriage establishing himself as a merchant in China. Upon his return to Milton they started their family, having six children: Ellen, Alice, William, Mary, John Malcolm, and Sarah. Their daughter Mary, the recipient of this letter, married Henry Sturgis Russell, a business associate of John Murray Forbes, in May of 1863, and gave birth to a son, James, in October of 1864.

    A wealthy railroad magnate with abolitionist leanings, many political ties, and much riding on the success of the Union cause, John Murray Forbes and his family spent a great deal of time in Washington during the Civil War. Sarah and seventeen-year-old John Malcolm, called Malcolm, were in Washington on the night of Lincoln's assassination. Malcolm, who had attended Ford's Theater that evening, informed Sarah that the gunman, "entered the box shot the President in the head & leaped down upon the stage & vanished, with a dagger in his hand" (pages 2-3). Sarah expresses hope that Lincoln might miraculously survive the assassination attempt, noting that she had "seen soldiers badly wounded in the head" and hoped "there is a chance for Lincoln's getting over it" (page 8).

    Forbes's letter highlights the initial confusion concerning the details of the assassination plot. Initially she states that Mrs. Grant attended the theatre and even called to the "uproarious crowd, 'order gentlemen, give me some water for God's sake'" (page 3). However, in the final page of the letter Forbes reveals it was Miss Clara Harris, daughter of New York Senator Ira Harris, not Mrs. Grant, who was at the theatre with the Lincolns, as the Grants had declined the invitation. Forbes also recounts that she heard that Grant had been assassinated in his car, later reporting that he was safe.

    Picking up her pen to complete the letter the following morning, Forbes reports that she had gone out to "inquire about the truth of last night's rumors" and learned that "Lincoln is not yet dead but the dr says he cannot live -- Seward's house was entered & his throat was cut, before the President was shot" (page 7). She erroneously theorizes that the same man who shot the President was responsible for the attack on Seward. Lewis Powell, a co-conspirator of John Wilkes Booth, was Seward's would-be assassin.

    Perhaps recognizing the historical significance of her letter, Forbes instructs Mary to "send this [letter] to Edith Emerson & ask her to keep it" as she did not want to have to write out the details of the evening again (page 7). Edith Emerson, the daughter of famed poet and essayist Ralph Waldo Emerson, married Forbes's son William, an officer in the 2nd Regiment Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry, on 3 October 1865.

    After the war, Sarah and John Murray Forbes returned to Milton, where they both enjoyed long and productive lives. John Murray Forbes died on 12 October 1898 at the age of 85 followed by Sarah on 4 October 1900 at the age of 87.

    Sources for Further Reading:

    This letter is one of dozens of Civil War era letters contained in the Edith Emerson Forbes and William Hathaway Forbes Papers and Additions. Much of the Civil War correspondence comprises letters between Edith and William, who married shortly after the end of the war. There are a number of additional letters from Sarah Swain Hathaway Forbes, addressed to both her son on the front and her future daughter-in-law in Concord, Massachusetts. The MHS also holds a large collection of John Murray Forbes Papers which also contains Civil War era letters, mostly addressing the elder Forbes's involvement in political and financial matters related to the war effort.

    Forbes, John Murray. Letters and Recollections of John Murray Forbes. Edited by Sarah Forbes Hughes. Boston: Houghton, Mifflin and Company, 1899.

    Hodes, Martha. Mourning Lincoln. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2015.

    Kauffman, Michael W. American Brutus: John Wilkes Booth and the Lincoln Conspiracies. New York: Random House, 2004.