Abraham Lincoln looms large in the American imagination. As one of the greatest American presidents, Lincoln inspires politicians on both sides of the aisle. Many Americans know some details of Lincoln’s life, including his humble upbringing or his thirst for knowledge. And everyone knows the story of his assassination. However, few people have heard about the more supernatural aspects of Lincoln’s existence. That includes the ghost stories, the strange encounters, and the spiritualist claims associated with the 16th president.
Below, check out some of the spookier anecdotes about Abraham Lincoln. You’ll even get the details on the dreams that Lincoln had just days before his death — dreams that seemed to foretell his assassination.
1. Abraham Lincoln may have conceived of the Emancipation Proclamation with the guidance of ‘spirits’
- A medium claimed that Lincoln wrote this document with some supernatural help.
The New York Times, reviewing a book that traces Abraham Lincoln’s public perception from his time to ours, notes that several Lincoln myths have risen and declined in popularity. One that’s fallen out of favor over the years? A story that Lincoln conceived of the Emancipation Proclamation with some supernatural help.
This significant document declared that slaves in the rebellious southern states “shall be then, thenceforward, and forever free.” Spiritualist medium Nettie Colburn Maynard maintained that Lincoln decided to write the document thanks to the guidance of spirits. Maybe that’s one explanation for why his cabinet initially balked at the idea? In either case, Maynard later wrote a book titled Was Abraham Lincoln a Spiritualist.
Next: An Abraham Lincoln biographer says this about the president’s spiritual beliefs.
2. Lincoln’s biographer says the president didn’t believe in an afterlife
- The president believed that the soul loses its identity after death.
National Geographic reports that according to Lincoln biographer Doris Kearns Goodwin, the 16th president didn’t seem to believe in an afterlife. In her book Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln, she recounts an event that happened years before Lincoln assumed the presidency.
One of his neighbors in Illinois asked him whether he believed in a “future realm.” Lincoln’s answer seemed quite definitive. “I’m afraid there isn’t,” he replied. “It isn’t a pleasant thing to think that when we die, that is the last of us.” According to Smithsonian Magazine, Lincoln “believed for most of his life that the soul lost its identity after death.” But some accounts argue that Lincoln later changed his mind about those beliefs.
Next: Lincoln never experienced this religious rite of passage.
3. Lincoln wasn’t baptized, nor did he attend church
- Biographers report that Lincoln didn’t seem like a religious man.
This fact may seem to conflict with accounts of Lincoln’s attendance at séances or his alleged interest in spiritualism. But the 16th president doesn’t seem to have considered himself a religious man. The New York Times reports that Lincoln was never baptized. Additionally, he never became a regular churchgoer.
Most modern Americans like Lincoln. But his lack of participation in an organized religion affected some early opinions about him. The Times gives an example of an early biographer, who “argued that this lack of religious faith made him a heartless churl.” Fortunately for Lincoln, that opinion didn’t stick.
Next: Lincoln’s wife participated in this arcane religious movement.
4. But Lincoln’s wife took an interest in spiritualism
- Members of this religious movement believed that spirits of the dead could communicate with the living.
So Abraham Lincoln didn’t seem like a religious person. But some accounts characterize him as a spiritual one. His wife, Mary Todd Lincoln, showed a well-documented interest in spiritualism. This 19th century religious movement grew out of the belief that the spirits of the dead were present and could communicate with the living. Spiritualists even believed that the spirits of the dead could provide the living with useful insight and information.
Spiritualism became increasingly popular during and after the Civil War. At the time, bereaved families turned to mediums to communicate with their fallen loved ones. Lincoln’s wife joined the ranks of Americans turning to the movement after the death of a child. In her case, she grieved the loss of the couple’s son, Willie. He died at just eleven years of age, likely of typhoid fever.
Next: Abraham Lincoln attended at least one of these events at the White House.
5. Abraham Lincoln himself attended at least one séance at the White House
- Séances and “calls to the dead” took place in the White House Red Room.
National Geographic reports that Mary Todd Lincoln held séances at the White House to try to communicate with her son. The publication adds that Abraham Lincoln himself attended at least one séance held at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. According to the National First Ladies’ Library, Mary Todd Lincoln consulted a series of mediums. She also attended the séance circles of Cranston Laurie.
Additionally, Mary Todd Lincoln invited Nettie Colburn Maynard, William Shockle, and a man identified as “Colchester of Georgetown” (likely Charles Colchester) to conduct “calls to the dead” in the White House Red Room. Some biographers indicate that Abraham Lincoln only attended once, out of solidarity with his grieving wife. But more apocryphal accounts suggest that he participated on more than one occasion, and with at least some level of interest.
Next: Lincoln reported seeing this person’s ghost at the White House.
6. Lincoln reportedly saw the ghost of his son, Willie
- After Lincoln’s son died, both parents saw the boy’s ghost.
The Washington Post reports that Abraham Lincoln reportedly received regular visits from the ghost of his son, Willie. Willie died in the White House in 1862. Additionally, Abraham Lincoln wasn’t the only White House resident at the time who saw Willie’s ghost. The Post explains that Mary Todd Lincoln became “so grief-stricken by the loss that she remained in her room for weeks.” During that time and after, she reportedly saw her son’s ghost at the foot of her bed.
According to the National First Ladies’ Library, Mary Todd Lincoln told her sister that she frequently saw Willie. “He comes to me every night and stands at the foot of my bed with the same, sweet adorable smile he has always had.”
Next: Lincoln made this strange decision about his son’s coffin.
7. Abraham Lincoln supposedly had Willie’s coffin opened
- Lincoln opened his son’s coffin to get a final glimpse.
After Willie died, a doctor embalmed his body for the trip back to Springfield, Illinois, for burial. But Abraham Lincoln reportedly couldn’t bear the idea of having Willie so far from him. So he accepted an offer by a friend, William Thomas Carroll, to place the body in one of the crypts in the Carroll family tomb temporarily. (The intent was for Willie’s body to remain there until Lincoln left the White House.)
By one account, Lincoln returned to the cemetery to see Willie moved from the chapel to the crypt. Thereafter, he reportedly returned to the tomb on two occasions. Lincoln even had the coffin opened to catch a final glimpse of his son. The doctor reportedly embalmed Willie so perfectly that he appeared only to have fallen asleep.
Next: Abraham Lincoln had strange dreams that seemed to foretell his assassination.
8. Lincoln had prophetic dreams, including one about his assassination
- Lincoln dreamed about mourners in the East Room, the same room where his body would be laid in state.
National Geographic reports that according to Lincoln’s friend Ward Hill Lamon, Lincoln had strangely prophetic dreams. Just days before Lincoln’s assassination, the president dreamed that he had awakened to the sound of mourning in the East Room. By Lamon’s account, Lincoln said that in the dream, he entered the East Room to find “a corpse wrapped in funeral vestments. Around it were stationed soldiers who were acting as guards; and there was a throng of people, some gazing mournfully upon the corpse, whose face was covered, others weeping pitifully.”
Lincoln said that in the dream, he asked a soldier, “Who is dead in the White House?” The solider answered, “The President. He was killed by an assassin.” John Wilkes Booth shot Lincoln only days later. And sure enough, after Lincoln was assassinated, his body was displayed in the East Room of the White House.
Next: Lincoln seemed to have another dream that foretold his death.
9. Lincoln had another dream that seemed to foretell his death
- In another dream, Lincoln found himself on a mysterious ship.
National Geographic reports Lincoln had another dream that seemed to foretell his assassination. On the night before his death, Lincoln supposedly dreamed that he was on a mysterious boat or ship. He characterized its purpose as “sailing toward a dark and indefinite shore.”
In another version of the story, Lincoln said that he found himself aboard “a ship sailing rapidly.” That wording sounds a little less disquieting, yet still pretty ominous.
Next: Lincoln may not have thought much of these dreams.
10. However, Abraham Lincoln may not have taken these dreams too seriously
- A friend of Abraham Lincoln said the president spoke with humor about the dreams.
Whether Lincoln dreamed that he was on a ship “sailing toward a dark and indefinite shore” or one “sailing rapidly,” the dream came to be regarded as eerily prophetic after the president’s death. However, Lincoln himself reportedly thought the symbolism more emblematic of the state of the war than of his own mortality. Similarly, Ward Hill Lamon wrote that the president once referred to the dream about his assassination “with some show of playful humor.”
Lincoln reportedly told Lamon, “your apprehension of harm to me from some hidden enemy is downright foolishness. For a long time you have been trying to keep somebody — the Lord knows who — from killing me. Don’t you see how it will turn out? In this dream it was not me, but some other fellow, that was killed. It seems that this ghostly assassin tried his hand on some one else.”
Next: A spiritualist tried to warn Lincoln about John Wilkes Booth.
11. A spiritualist who knew John Wilkes Booth attempted to warn Lincoln about his fate
- Charles Colchester spent time with the man who planned and carried out Lincoln’s assassination.
Smithsonian Magazine reports that Charles Colchester, one of the spiritualists whom Mary Todd Lincoln enlisted to hold séances at the White House, attempted to warn Abraham Lincoln of his fate. But don’t jump to conclusions about the source of Colchester’s information just yet. “Colchester needed none of his prophetic powers to realize the president was in danger,” the magazine explains. “His information likely came from the best of earthly sources—his friend John Wilkes Booth.”
Colchester met Booth in Washington, and the two spent much time together. When someone told Lincoln to beware for his safety, the president supposedly responded, “Colchester has been telling me that.” As Smithsonian Magazine explains, “While warning Lincoln was a stock in trade for mediums, here was one mystic in a position to know what he was talking about.”
Next: Just after his election, Lincoln had a vision that seemed to portend his death.
12. Lincoln also had a vision that, according to his wife, foretold his death
- Shortly after his election, Abraham Lincoln had an unsettling vision in a mirror.
Abraham Lincoln had not only a dream, but also a vision, about his death. Noah Brooks, a member of Lincoln’s inner circle, wrote for Harper’s New Monthly Magazine that the president had shared an account of this vision with him. Lincoln reportedly told Brooks that just after his election in 1860, he looked in the mirror to see “two separate and distinct images, the tip of the nose of one being about three inches from the tip of the other.” He lay down and saw the vision again.
“I noticed that one of the faces was a little paler, say five shades, than the other,” he said. Lincoln told his wife about the vision. And as the president explained to Brooks, “She thought it was ‘a sign’ that I was to be elected to a second term of office, and that the paleness of one of the faces was an omen that I should not see life through the last term.”
Next: This strange exchange happened the night of Lincoln’s assassination.
13. On the night of his assassination, Lincoln told a bodyguard ‘goodbye’ instead of his usual ‘goodnight’
- On the night he was shot, Lincoln told his bodyguard, “goodbye.”
Another strange exchange occurred between Abraham Lincoln and William H. Crook, one of Lincoln’s bodyguards. Lincoln supposedly spoke to Crook about the dreams he had had. On April 14, 1865, Crook entreated the president not to go to the theater. Lincoln refused. So Crook asked to accompany Lincoln. But the president insisted that Crook could not work around the clock. Lincoln reportedly bid Crook “goodnight” each evening. But that night, Crook reported that Lincoln paused as he left for the theater. Then he turned to the bodyguard and said, “goodbye.”
Crook blamed Lincoln’s death on John Frederick Parker. Parker was assigned to guard the president at Ford’s Theatre. At intermission, Parker joined the footman and coachman of Lincoln’s carriage for drinks in the Star Saloon next door. When John Wilkes Booth crept toward Lincoln’s box, Parker’s chair stood empty. Crook wrote of the guard, “Had he done his duty, I believe President Lincoln would not have been murdered.”
Next: Many people reported sightings of Lincoln’s ghost.
14. Abraham Lincoln’s ghost has been spotted at several locations
- Numerous White House residents have reportedly seen Lincoln’s ghost.
Abraham Lincoln died in 1865. But many people say that his spirit has lingered. And they don’t just mean it figuratively. Numerous people have reported sightings of the 16th president’s ghost. As National Geographic explains, many sightings have been reported at the White House.
People also claim to have seen Lincoln’s ghost at Ford’s Theatre, where Booth assassinated Lincoln. Others claim to have seen Lincoln at Fort Monroe in Virginia, or at his tomb in Springfield, Illinois. Of course, the “epicenter” for Lincoln ghost sightings seems to be the White House, where the president spent the final, tumultuous years of his life.
Next: Abraham Lincoln is the ghost who’s most frequently seen at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.
15. In fact, Abraham Lincoln is the most frequently sighted ghost at the White House
- Of all the White House ghosts, Lincoln’s seem to appear most often.
Roll your eyes if you must, but people who claim to have encountered ghosts at the White House most often name Abraham Lincoln as the apparition they’ve seen. As National Geographic reports, “The 16th President’s apparition reportedly has been seen at the White House by a long list of people, including British Prime Minister Winston Churchill, Queen Wilhelmina of the Netherlands to President Reagan’s daughter Maureen.”
Other members of the club, according to Mental Floss? First Lady Grace Coolidge, Eleanor Roosevelt’s secretary Mary Eben, and President Dwight D. Eisenhower.
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