Frequently Asked Questions: The Petersen House

Why was President Lincoln brought to the Petersen House?

The house was a boarding house owned by William and Anna Petersen, a private family. One of the boarders, Henry Safford, who lived upstairs, heard the commotion, came down, opened the front door and on the front porch with a lighted candle in hand said, “Bring him in here! Bring him in here!” Safford was aware that a bedroom at the back of the house was available for the president, with the boarder living there, Willie Clark, gone for the evening celebrating the end of the war.

Who were the Petersens and what happened to them during and after the assassination?

William Petersen was an immigrant from what is now Germany. He became a U.S. citizen in 1844. He was a tailor whose shop was located near 8th and E street, N.W. He and his wife Anna built their boarding house in 1849. It was built for the purpose of renting rooms. The Petersens had 10 children but only 5 were living in 1865. 15 year-old Fred, 13 year-old Pauline ,and 9 year-old Charles were in the house when the president was brought over. For unexplained reasons, William Petersen stayed at his shop on 8th street that evening and only briefly visited the house while the president was there. The responsibility for dealing with the crisis at their home devolved upon 15 year-old Fred. William’s wife Anna was on Easter holiday in New York City with her sister and her daughter Louisa who was 16. The oldest Petersen child was 20 year-old William Felix Petersen, who worked as a drug store clerk. His whereabouts on the night of April 14th, 1865 are unknown.

Following the war, the Petersens faced financial difficulty as business for Mr. Petersen’s tailoring shop dried up. In addition, the family lost all of their boarders following the assassination. This happened because none of the renters had privacy any longer with the constant stream of visitors asking to see the room in which the president died. It seems that many of these visitors were not respectful. Everyone wanted a souvenir, in some instances cutting pieces of carpet from the hallway floor or cutting a square out of the wallpaper from the room. By 1870, there is a record of only two people boarding at the home.

In 1871, William Petersen was found lying unconscious on a park bench in front of the Smithsonian Castle. He died the next day. His death was attributed to an overdose of laudanum, a powerful concoction of opiates and alcohol which was legal at the time. His wife Anna died four months later of an undisclosed illness. The heirs of the Petersen House held an auction in 1872. The contents of the house sold for very little money. The bed upon which President Lincoln died was sold for $82.00 to a James Boyd, a local directory publisher. That bed was eventually acquired by Charles F. Gunther sometime around 1890 with some other items for $1,500. That bed is now located in the Chicago History Museum.

The Petersen House remained in the hands of the Petersen family until November 25, 1878, when the heirs of William and Anna Petersen sold the property to Louis and Anna Schade for $4,500. Louis Schade published a pro-immigration newspaper from the basement of the home, called the Washington Sentinel. The federal government bought the Petersen House from the Schade family in 1896 for $30,000.

Who was living in the Petersen Boarding House in April 1865?

There were probably 13-15 people living in the house at the time, with 11 of them likely to have been home at the time of the assassination:

William and Anna Petersen and probably 4 of their children, Charles, Pauline, Fred, and Louisa. Both Anna and Louisa were away in New York City at the time of the assassination, and the oldest Petersen child, William F., was probably living elsewhere in the city.

William T. Clark, known as “Willie,” a clerk in the adjutant general’s office originally from Lowell, Massachusetts, resided in the room Lincoln was brought to. Clark was out that night and did not return until a day after Lincoln died.

Henry Safford, a 17 year-old war department clerk, lived upstairs, likely in the front room on the second floor, and was responsible for directing those carrying the president across Tenth Street to bring him into the Petersen House.

Thomas Proctor, a War Department clerk, was a roommate of Henry Safford’s on the second floor.

George and Huldah Francis, who were dealers in house furnishings, sewing machines, and hardware from a shop on 7th street, occupied the front and back parlors on the first floor. They vacated their quarters to allow the space to be used by Stanton and the cabinet (back parlor), and Mrs. Lincoln and her supporters (front parlor).

Julius and Henry Ulke, brothers, occupied space in one of the upper floors. Henry was a photographer and portrait painter, and an avid amateur scientist with a large collection of beetles. Julius, also a photographer and partners with his brother in a studio on Penn. Ave., photographed the scene of Lincoln’s death just moments after the president’s body had been removed.

John Matthews and Charles Warwick, both actors who knew Booth well, and who occasionally performed at Ford’s, are claimed by some historians to have been boarding at Petersen’s that night, but no conclusive evidence for either of these has come to light.

Who was with Mary Lincoln through the night at the Petersen House?

Soon after Lincoln was placed in the bed in Willie Clark’s room, a messenger was sent to the White House to summon Robert Todd Lincoln, the Lincolns’ eldest son. Robert, along with Senator Charles Sumner, quickly made the trip to 10th Street and probably arrived around 11:30 p.m. After trying to comfort his mother, Lincoln spent most of the night standing by his father’s bedside, occasionally weeping and steadying himself on the comforting shoulder of Senator Sumner.

Miss Clara Harris stayed with Mrs. Lincoln through the night after her fiance Major Rathbone had been taken to his home for his knife wound to be cared for. Mrs. Lincoln was also comforted by her friend Mrs. Elizabeth Dixon, Mrs. Dixon’s sister, Mary Kinney and Mrs. Kinney’s daughter Constance. Mrs. Dixon was the wife of a Connecticut senator and Mrs. Kinney was the wife of a millionaire hotelier. All three arrived at the Petersen House around midnight, Mrs. Dixon having been sent for by Robert Lincoln.

Mrs. Lincoln had also sent for her dressmaker and confidante Elizabeth Keckley, but the messengers had not been able to find her residence. Keckley had heard the news of the shooting from a neighbor and, assuming the president would be brought to the White House, she went there, only to be denied entry by guards. In the morning, a carriage arrived at Keckley’s house and she was escorted into the White House where she provided comfort to Mrs. Lincoln.

How did Lincoln’s sons learn of the tragedy and where were they during the night?

The night of the assassination, President Lincoln had two living sons- Thomas, known as “Tad”, 12 years old and Robert, 21 years old and a Captain in the Union army.
Tad was attending a play, Aladdin and the Wonderful Lamp at the National Theatre a few blocks from Ford’s with his chaperone, White House Doorkeeper Alphonso Donn. Tad learned about the assassination when the theater manager, C. Dwight Hess, interrupted the play to notify the audience. Donn took Tad Lincoln back to the White House, where he took care of the boy until Mary Lincoln returned the next morning.

Robert Todd Lincoln had just returned to the White House after witnessing Robert E. Lee’s surrender at Appomattox Court House as part of General U.S. Grant’s staff. Tired from his travels and preparing to retire for the evening, Robert was told of the assassination by a Mr. C.C. Bangs, a member of the Christian Commission. He was escorted to the Petersen Hose where he spent the rest of the night trying to comfort his mother and stayed by the bedside as his father’s life slipped away.

Why didn’t Andrew Johnson, as Vice President, take charge of the situation when he arrived at the Petersen House?

Vice President Andrew Johnson was asleep at the Kirkwood House located at 12th and Pennsylvania Avenue, N.W. at the time and was not awakened and summoned to the Petersen House until some hours after Secretary of War Edwin Stanton had already arrived and taken charge there of the investigation as the country’s acting president. Stanton arrived at the Petersen House about 15 minutes or so after President Lincoln was brought there. Another contributing factor is that Johnson had only been vice president for 5 weeks, and Stanton, having been on the job more than 3 years, was much more familiar with all the players and situations that needed to be managed through that night.

Who was with Lincoln at the time of his death?

Historians are unsure of the exact number present at Lincoln’s bedside when he died at 7:22 a.m. Those almost certainly present include Dr. Charles Leale, Surgeon General Joseph K. Barnes, Lincoln’s personal physician Dr. Robert King Stone, Dr. Ezra Abbott, Dr. Albert F.A. King, Dr. Charles Sabin Taft, Assistant Surgeon General Charles Crane, Lincoln’s son Robert Todd Lincoln, Secretary of War Edwin Stanton, Secretary of the Navy Gideon Welles, Lincoln’s Secretary John Hay, Massachusetts Senator Charles Sumner, Corporal James Tanner, , and Lincoln’s pastor, Rev. Dr. Phineas Gurley. Many others may have been present. Mrs. Lincoln had made her last visit just around 7 a.m. and, having made a “piercing cry” and falling faint to the floor, she was ordered to be taken from the room by Secretary Stanton. She was in the front parlor when she learned of her husband’s death.

Most lithographs or drawings of the death room depict anywhere from forty to sixty people in the room when the president died. It is obvious, based on the size of the room in which the president died that this is not possible. There was no photograph taken while the president was dying and the persons in that room were amongst the most prominent people in the country. Would you as the artist risk offending some of the most powerful people in the country by leaving them out of the picture? Probably not. These images are accurate in that all of those persons made an attempt to pay their respects at the Petersen House that evening and early morning, but the idea that they were all in the room simultaneously is not realistic.

What is original in the Petersen House?

On the exterior, the brickwork is original, though somewhat restored and repainted over the years. The sills and lintels of the windows are original, as is the door surround and the front door itself. The shutters are 1950s replacement modeled after the originals. The front steps were replaced twice (though with stone from the same quarry as the originals) in the 1920s and the 1950s, and the iron railing is believed to be the same that was here in 1865. The steps down to the lower level entrance are original, but the columns supporting the porch are 1950s replacements. The bronze historic plaque was added in 1923.

Most of the interior decorative wood moldings, the staircase and railings, many of the doors, and the creaking floorboards are original to the 1865 period of the Petersen House. Architectural historians believe that the fireplaces in the front and back parlors are likely original, though they may have been added after the Petersen children sold the house in the 1870s. The furniture is original to the period, but not original to the Petersen House. Both the house wallpaper and carpeting are reproductions similar to the style of the period.

The original bed is on display at the Chicago History Museum, along with other pieces of furniture and artifacts from the Lincoln death room. The bed in the Petersen House today is a period piece very similar in size and design. Lincoln was six feet four inches tall and was placed on the bed diagonally as he was too tall for the bed.
For more information on the architectural elements of the Petersen House, see the 2002 Historic Structure Report.

Last updated: June 9, 2021

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