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Paranormal Lincoln

Investigative Files

Joe Nickell

Volume 23.3, May / June 1999

His guiding of the United States through its greatest crisis and his subsequent martyrdom have caused the shadow of the tall, sixteenth president to loom still larger. Called “the most mythic of all American presidents” (Cohen 1989, 7), Abraham Lincoln has long been credited by paranormalists with supernatural powers. These include an early mirror-vision, prophetic dreams, and spiritualistic phenomena. His ghost, some say, even haunts the White House.1

In the Looking Glass

Many people have portrayed Lincoln as a man given to belief in omens-particularly those relating to his assassination. An incident often cited in this regard occurred at his home in Springfield, Illinois. Lincoln related it to a few friends and associates, including Noah Brooks in 1864. Brooks shared it with the readers of Harper’s New Monthly Magazine the following July-three months after Lincoln’s death-recounting the president’s story “as nearly as possible in his own words”:

It was just after my election in 1860. . . . I was well tired out, and went home to rest, throwing myself down on a lounge in my chamber. Opposite where I lay was a bureau, with a swinging-glass upon it-[and here he got up and placed furniture to illustrate the position]-and, looking in that glass, I saw myself reflected, nearly at full length; but my face, I noticed, had two separate and distinct images, the tip of the nose of one being about three inches from the tip of the other. I was a little bothered, perhaps startled, and got up and looked in the glass, but the illusion vanished. On lying down again I saw it a second time-plainer, if possible, than before; and then I noticed that one of the faces was a little paler, say five shades, than the other. I got up and the thing melted away, and I went off and, in the excitement of the hour, forgot all about it-nearly, but not quite, for the thing would once in a while come up, and give me a little pang, as though something uncomfortable had happened. When I went home I told my wife about it, and a few days after I tried the experiment again, when [with a laugh], sure enough, the thing came again; but I never succeeded in bringing the ghost back after that, though I once tried very industriously to show it to my wife, who was worried about it somewhat. 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. (Brooks 1865, 224-225)

The same story was told by Ward Hill Lamon in his book, Recollections of Abraham Lincoln. Lamon was a friend of Lincoln’s, a fearless man who accompanied him to Washington for his protection, being given the special title, Marshal of the District of Columbia. In discussing the matter of the double image in the mirror, Lamon stated: “Mr. Lincoln more than once told me that he could not explain this phenomenon” and “that he had tried to reproduce the double reflection at the Executive Mansion, but without success.” In Lamon’s account it was not Mrs. Lincoln but the president himself who thought the “ghostly” image foretold “that death would overtake him” before the end of his second term (Lamon 1995, 111-112).

In recent years, paranormalists have gotten hold of Lincoln’s anecdote and offered their own interpretations. Hans Holzer states that “What the President saw was a brief 'out of the body experience,' or astral projection,” meaning "that the bonds between conscious mind and the unconscious are temporarily loosened and that the inner or true self has quickly slipped out” (Holzer 1995, 65).

Such an explanation utterly fails to fit the evidence. Lincoln did not describe an out-of-body experience-a feeling of being outside one’s physical self-but, according to Brooks (1865, 225), “The President, with his usual good sense, saw nothing in all this but an optical illusion.”

The nature of this optical illusion can be deduced from the circumstances. The double image was of Lincoln’s face only, could be seen in a particular mirror but not others, and vanished and reappeared with respect to a certain vantage point. Taken together, these details are corroborative evidence that the mirror was the cause. An ordinary mirror can produce a slight double-image effect due to light reflecting off the front of the glass as well as off the silvering on the back. In modern mirrors this is usually not noticeable, and the shift in the image is slight in any event. But in the case of old mirrors, whose glass plates “were generally imperfect” (Cescinsky 1931), a distinct double image might be produced, like that shown in Figure 1. (Unfortunately, the actual mirror-topped bureau Lincoln described is no longer to be found at the Lincoln Home National Historic Site, much of the furniture having been dispersed in earlier years [Suits 1998].)

Dreams of Death

The mirror incident sets the stage for claims of even more emphatically premonitory experiences. These were dreams Lincoln reportedly had that foretold dramatic events. One he related to his cabinet on April 14, 1865. The previous night he had dreamed he was in some mysterious boat, he said, “sailing toward a dark and indefinite shore.” In another version it was of “a ship sailing rapidly” (Lewis 1973, 290). When Lincoln was assassinated only hours later, the dream was seen as weirdly prophetic. The story grew in the retellings which spread, says Lloyd Lewis in Myths After Lincoln (1973, 291) “around the world.”

In fact, Lincoln had not thought the dream presaged his death. He had actually mentioned it in reply to General Grant, his guest that Good Friday afternoon, who had expressed worries about General Sherman’s fate in North Carolina. Lincoln felt that Sherman would be victorious because, he said, the dream had often come to him prior to significant events in the war. According to Lewis (1973, 290): “For a President of the United States, in a time like the Civil War, to dream that he was sailing rapidly to an unseen shore was certainly not remarkable. Most of his waking hours, across four years, were spent in wondering where the Ship of State was going.”

Lincoln supposedly described an even more ominous dream to Mrs. Lincoln, not long before his assassination, then again to Ward Hill Lamon (1895, 115-116) who reconstructed Lincoln’s words as follows:

About ten days ago, I retired very late. I had been up waiting for important dispatches from the front. I could not have been long in bed when I fell into a slumber, for I was weary. I soon began to dream. There seemed to be a death-like stillness about me. Then I heard subdued sobs, as if a number of people were weeping. I thought I left my bed and wandered downstairs. There the silence was broken by the same pitiful sobbing, but the mourners were invisible. . . . Determined to find the cause of a state of things so mysterious and so shocking, I kept on until I arrived at the East Room, which I entered. There I met with a sickening surprise. Before me was a catafalque, on which rested 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. “Who is dead in the White House?” I demanded of one of the soldiers. “The President,” was his answer; “he was killed by an assassin!” Then came a loud burst of grief from the crowd, which awoke me from my dream. I slept no more that night; and although it was only a dream, I have been strangely annoyed by it ever since.

Lamon’s account may be true, although he has been criticized for having “fed the fire of superstition that people were kindling about the name of Lincoln” (Lewis 1973, 294). In fact, however, Lamon had added a sequel to the story which is invariably ignored:

Once the President alluded to this terrible dream with some show of playful humor. “Hill,” said he, “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.” (Lamon 1895, 116-117)

In any event, that Lincoln should have dreamed of assassination-even his own-can scarcely be termed remarkable. Prior to his first inauguration in 1861, Pinkerton detectives had smuggled Lincoln into Washington at night to avoid a change of trains in Baltimore where an assassination plot had been uncovered (Neely 1982, 16-17). Lincoln had subsequently “received untold number of death threats” (St. George 1990, 66), and on one occasion had a hole shot through his top hat by a would-be assassin (Neely 1982, 282).

Among the Spirits

Lamon (1895, 120) insisted that Lincoln “was no dabbler in divination-astrology, horoscopy, prophecy, ghostly lore, or witcheries of any sort.” Yet soon after his death spiritualists sought to use Lincoln to give respectability to their practices by citing the occasions he had permitted seances in the White House, as well as to claim contact with his own departed spirit. The extent of Lincoln’s involvement with spiritualism has been much debated.

Actually, it was Mrs. Lincoln who was involved with spiritualists. She turned to them in her bereavement over the death of Willie, the Lincolns’ beloved eleven-year-old son who died of “bilious fever” in 1862. One such spiritualist medium was Henrietta “Nettie” Colburn (1841-1892). Mary Todd Lincoln met her at a “circle” or seance at the Georgetown home of Cranstoun Laurie, chief clerk of the post office in Washington. On one occasion, a seance with Nettie was being held in the White House’s Red Parlor when the president stumbled upon the group and watched with curiosity. Another time he accompanied Mary to a seance at the Lauries’ home. At least one biographer has suggested that Lincoln’s marginal involvement may have stemmed from a desire “to protect his gullible wife” (Temple 1995, 199).

That was exactly what Lincoln did with regard to a trickster named Charles J. Colchester. Styling himself “Lord Colchester,” he conducted seances wherein "spirit rappings” were produced. A concerned Lincoln asked Dr. Joseph Henry (1797-1878), the secretary of the Smithsonian Institution, for his advice about Colchester, whereupon Dr. Henry invited the medium to give a demonstration at his office. The scientist determined that the sounds came from Colchester and he suspected trickery. Later, Noah Brooks caught the medium cheating and warned Colchester not to return to the Executive Mansion (Temple 1995, 200). Lincoln himself was not interested in seances, but, according to Lloyd Lewis’s Myths After Lincoln (1973, 301), “In these dark hocus-pocuses Mrs. Lincoln found comfort, and Lincoln let them go on for a time, careless of whether the intellectuals of the capital thought him addle-pated or no.”

Spectral Visits

It is ironic that Lincoln did not believe in spiritualism, since his ghost is now reportedly so active. Although his Springfield home is decidedly unhaunted, according to curator Linda Suits (1998), who says neither she nor anyone she knows has had a ghostly encounter there, other places compete for attention. There have been numerous reported sightings of Lincoln’s ghost at his tomb in Springfield as well as at Fort Monroe in Virginia and, in Washington, at both the White House and Ford’s Theater (where Lincoln was assassinated) (Cohen 1989, 11; Winer and Osborn 1979, 125; Jones 1996, 15).

Understandably, perhaps, it is the White House that seems to receive the most attention-especially the “Lincoln Bedroom” (which, in Lincoln’s time, was actually his office). The notion that his ghost frequents the stately rooms and corridors doubtless began with Mrs. Lincoln’s post-assassination seances and it was probably given impetus by a figurative remark made by President Theodore Roosevelt (who served from 1901-1909): “I think of Lincoln, shambling, homely, with his strong, sad, deeply-furrowed face, all the time. I see him in the different rooms and in the halls” (St. George 1990, 84). Such feelings are still common and may trigger sightings among imaginative people and those predisposed to see ghosts. The first person to report actually seeing Lincoln’s ghost was Grace Coolidge (First Lady from 1923 to 1929), who saw his tall figure looking out an Oval Office window (Scott and Norman 1991, 74; Cohen 1989, 10). During her tenure, guests were lodged in the “Lincoln bedroom” and "Every newcomer was informed of the legend that when the great light over the front door was dimmed for the night the ghost of Abraham Lincoln was supposed to pace silently to and fro on the North Porch” (Ross 1962, 109).

Among subsequent Lincoln sightings was one by Queen Wilhelmina of the Netherlands (who had a prior interest in spiritualism). She was a guest of President Franklin D. Roosevelt when she heard a knock during the night at her bedroom door. Opening it, the drowsy queen saw the figure of Abraham Lincoln looking down at her, causing her to swoon (Ronan 1974, 40; Cohen 1989, 10). Religious leader Norman Vincent Peale claimed that a prominent actor (whom he would not name) had been a White House guest when he awoke to Lincoln’s voice pleading for help. The actor sat up to see “the lanky form of Lincoln prostrate on the floor in prayer, arms outstretched with fingers digging into the carpet” (Winer and Osborn 1979, 135). And President Reagan’s daughter Maureen said she had occasionally seen Lincoln’s ghost-"an aura, sometimes red, sometimes orange"-during the night. So had her husband Dennis Revell (Caroli 1992, 39).

These examples are typical of many ghost sightings that are due to common "waking dreams,” an experience that occurs when someone is just going to sleep or waking up and perceives ghosts, lights, or other strange imagery (Nickell 1995, 41, 46). Other apparitions are most likely to be seen when one is tired, daydreaming, performing routine chores, or is otherwise in a reverie or dissociative state (see e.g., Mackenzie 1982). This may help explain sightings such as one by Eleanor Roosevelt’s secretary, who passed by the Lincoln Bedroom one day and was frightened to see the ghostly president sitting on the bed and pulling on his boots (Alexander 1998, 43; Jones 1996, 8).

Once the notion of a ghost is affixed to a place, almost anything-an unexplained noise, mechanical malfunction, misplaced object, or the like-can be added to the lore. For example, on one of my appearances on “The Michael Reagan Show,” Mike told me an anecdote about his father and their dog, Rex. According to President Reagan, when passing the Lincoln Bedroom Rex would often bark but would refuse to enter the room (Reagan 1998; see also Caroli 1992, 39, and Alexander 1998, 45). Mike related the story as more of a novelty than as proof of a supernatural occurrence. (President Reagan’s daughter, Patti Davis, once asked her father if he had ever seen Lincoln’s ghost. “'No,' my father answered-a bit sadly, I thought. 'I haven't seen him yet. But I do believe he’s here'” [Davis 1995].) Neither the Bushes nor, as far as they could tell, their dog Millie ever saw the ghost of Lincoln, or indeed any of the other historical specters who are occasionally reported (Alexander 1998, 45).

Not all of the reports of Lincoln’s ghost, however, have featured apparitions. In earlier times there were frequent reports of sounds that were variously interpreted, some describing them as heavy footfalls (Cohen 1989, 10; Jones 1996, 8), others as knockings at the door, with Lincoln’s ghost typically being thought responsible. Not only Queen Wilhelmina but also “Presidents from Theodore Roosevelt to Herbert Hoover and Harry Truman all said they heard mysterious rappings, often at their bedroom doors” (Scott and Norman 1991, 74). However, ghosthunter Hans Holzer (1995, 70) concedes: “President Truman, a skeptic, decided that the noises had to be due to 'natural' causes, such as the dangerous settling of the floors. He ordered the White House completely rebuilt, and perhaps this was a good thing: It would surely have collapsed soon after, according to the architect, General Edgerton.”


For all his greatness Abraham Lincoln was of course human. Among his foibles were a tendency to melancholy, a sense of fatalism, and a touch of superstition from his frontier upbringing. However, as this investigation demonstrates, neither his life nor his death offers proof of paranormal or supernatural occurrences-not his very human apprehensions of mortality, not his wife’s sad seduction into spiritualism, and not the evidence, even if expressed as anecdotes of ghostly apparitions, that his great legacy lives on.

Acknowledgments

I am grateful to S. L. Carson, Silver Spring, Maryland, for his helpful comments, and to Old as the Hills Antiques (at Kelly’s Antique Market), Clarence, N.Y., for use of the vintage mirror.

Note

  1. Among other implicitly paranormal claims relating to Lincoln are the “mysterious coincidences” that are often claimed between him and President John F. Kennedy. See Martin Gardner, The Magic Numbers of Dr. Matrix (Buffalo: Prometheus, 1985) and Bruce Martin, ”Coincidence: Remarkable or Random?” Skeptical Inquirer 22(5) (September/October 1998): 23-28.

References

Joe Nickell

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Joe Nickell, Ph.D., is Senior Research Fellow of the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry (CSI) and "Investigative Files" Columnist for Skeptical Inquirer. A former stage magician, private investigator, and teacher, he is author of numerous books, including Inquest on the Shroud of Turin (1998), Pen, Ink and Evidence (2003), Unsolved History (2005) and Adventures in Paranormal Investigation (2007). He has appeared in many television documentaries and has been profiled in The New Yorker and on NBC's Today Show. His personal website is at joenickell.com.