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1865: Abraham Lincoln's Prophetic Dream

Lincoln's Dream
[Larger version here]

Ward Hill Lamon [1828-1893] was a friend of and bodyguard to President Abraham Lincoln. The two men had met in 1852; and Lamon was instrumental in helping Lincoln later secure the Republican nomination for President of the United States. After his election, Lincoln appointed Lamon the US Marshall of the District of Columbia, a position Lamon held until June 1865, when he resigned from the position in the wake of Lincoln's death.

        Given all that, it shouldn't be too much of a surprise that Lamon wrote two books about his times with President Lincoln. His first book, The Life of Abraham Lincoln [1872], was ghost-written by a friend's son -- Chauncey Black -- and didn't sell very well. At all. Lamon's second book, Recollections of Abraham Lincoln [1895] was published after his death. Technically, Lamon didn't directly write the book... it was edited together by his daughter Dorothy Lamon [1857-1953] from various papers and letters that her father had not included in his first book about Lincoln; and it is in this volume that a very strange story indeed is related regarding President Lincoln.

        According to the book, one day when Lincoln's wife Mary noticed that the President was in something of a gloomy mood, he described a disturbing dream he had ten days earlier that was troubling him. Lamon was present, as well as another person (unnamed). Lamon states of the matter "I give it as nearly in his own words as I can, from notes which I made immediately after its recital"... and so I quote Lamon for President Lincoln's description of the dream:

"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. I went from room to room; no living person was in sight, but the same mournful sounds of distress met me as I passed along. It was light in all the rooms; every object was familiar to me; but where were all the people who were grieving as if their hearts would break? I was puzzled and alarmed. What could be the meaning of all this? 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."

A 'catafalque' is a framework for displaying a coffin, just so you know.

        As if the dream itself wasn't disturbing enough, it was followed by an odd set of coincidences that only deepened the effect of the vision on Lincoln. After the dream, the first time he flipped open a Bible it fell to the twenty-eighth chapter of the Book of Genesis, which talked of a wonderous dream experienced by a man named Jacob. Now curious, Lincoln flipped through the book more... and almost every page he opened it to had a reference to "supernatural visitations, dreams, visions, etc." This strange circumstance more than anything seems to have convinced Lincoln that his disturbing dream was actually a divine message sent to him.

        While Lamon never specified exactly when this discussion occurred in relation to President Lincoln's eventual death by assassination on April 14, 1865, the story remains remarkable.

Pre-vision Revision

        While the above is the main version of Lincoln's prophetic dream that tends to be repeated now, there is an odd problem. You see, a different version of the story had been released to American newspapers in 1883, twelve years before it appeared in Lamon's Recollections... and this earlier story didn't include Lamon.

        The earliest I've found this version of the story so far is in a December 15, 1883, edition of The Ottawa Free Trader. The same story appeared in many newspapers across the United States around the same time for obvious reason: anything Abraham Lincoln sold. According to the anonymous author of this report, Lincoln was in the habit of reading chapters from the Bible out loud on Sundays to his wife and children, and then giving his explanation of what the chapters meant. One evening in particular he read several chapters that all related to dreams, and then the family began discussing dreams in general. It was during this discussion that Lincoln mentioned his disturbing dream, and that his wife and children pressed him into divulging it. I quote President Lincoln's account from the article:

"About ten days ago I retired one night quite late. I had been up waiting for important dispatches from the front, and could not have been long in bed when I fell into slumber, for I was very weary. During my slumber I began to dream. I thought there was a stillness about me, and I heard weeping. I thought that I got up and wandered down stairs. The same stillness was there. As I went from room to room I heard moaning and weeping. At length I came to the end room, which I entered, and there before me was a magnificent dais on which was a corpse. Here there were sentries and a crowd of people. I said to one of the soldiers: 'Who is dead at the White House?' He answered: 'The President.' 'How did he die?' I asked. 'By the hand of an assassin,' was the reply. Then I heard a great wailing all over the house, and it was so loud it seemed to awaken me. I awoke much depressed and slept no more that night. Such was my dream."

We are then informed that from that point till his death, Lincoln was "haunted by the fear of assassination," and that upon his death Mary Todd Lincoln's first words uttered were "His dream was prophetic"... words that were a mystery to others at the time, but are now quite understandable.

        As you may have noticed -- and the real reason I quoted extensively -- Lamon's account of Lincoln's words in Recollections of Abraham Lincoln is essentially just a paraphrase of the earlier newspaper account of the President's dream, which is very suspicious.

        As mentioned before, Lamon's book was actually compiled by his daughter, Dorothy Lamon; in the introduction to Recollections she explains that "In compiling this little volume, I have taken as a foundation some anecdotal reminiscences already published in newspapers by my father, and have added to them from letters and manuscript left by him." Some hopeful historians have assumed this reference to "already published in newspapers" meant that the 1883 version of the prophecy story was, in fact, written by Ward Hill Lamon to begin with, and then later added to the Recollections by his daughter.

         Unfortunately, there is simply no evidence that Lamon wrote the anonymous article. The 1883 article has Lincoln reading from the Bible about dreams to his wife and children; Lamon's 1895 account has Lincoln telling his wife, Lamon, and another adult about the dream. In the 1895 account, the reference to dreams in the Bible was crafted into further paranormal evidence; where in the 1883 version, it was just a prelude to get the family discussing the topic. If Lamon wrote the earlier version of the story, what reason would he have to leave himself out of the narrative and substitute Lincoln's children? And why publish the article anonymously?

        On the evidence, it's far more likely that Dorothy Lamon had a copy of the 1883 newspaper article, and adopted it to the new version for her father's "recollections," figuring the story would both sound familiar to people but be far enough forgotten that it would be unlikely anyone would challenge the new version. It would add an unusual story to her book that no other book on Lincoln had, and therefore help sales. The hopeful historians who guessed that Lamon wrote the 1883 article likely knew of the earlier article, but didn't have a copy to read... or they would have seen the glaring differences between it and Dorothy Lamon's version.

        Still, questions remain: where did the anonymous account come from? And why didn't it appear sooner?

A Matter of Timing

        I suspect that all we need to actually know about the earlier version of the prophecy story can be derived from three simple things: the year it was published, the quote from Mary Todd Lincoln, and a strange mistake in the article itself.

        The reason that the year the story was published is significant -- 1883 -- is because Mary Todd Lincoln died in 1882. And the reason the quoted line from Mary Todd Lincoln, "His dream was prophetic" -- which was said to be her first words after Abraham Lincoln's death -- is significant is because they were not her words... ever, apparently. The quote only appears anywhere in print after the 1883 article hit newspapers, so it's a new invention of the story itself; but Mary Todd Lincoln was dead, so she couldn't refute the quote, could she?

       The third thing to note is that the 1883 account includes the following line: "One evening at the White House he [President Lincoln] read several passages both from the Old and New Testaments relating to dreams, to which Mrs. Lincoln and the children gave great attention." It implies that the dream and the discussion about the dream happened after Lincoln and family had already moved into the White House; but of four children the Lincolns had, three were dead before Abraham became president, and the last child -- Robert Todd Lincoln -- was between 22 and 23 years old at the time of his father's death. So who are these 'children' the article refers to that listened to their father read from the Bible?

        All of this seems to indicate that the likely true author of the story was just an enterprising reporter looking for something they could sell... which was a common problem with 'news' at the time. Abraham Lincoln was essentially a major dead celebrity -- much as Elvis or Michael Jackson is now -- and anything new (and especially weird) about the President would easily sell, as evidenced by how quickly and how far the prophecy story spread.

        So, unfortunately, there is good reason to suspect the story is a False Lead... a story that never occurred to begin with. The only question left at the moment, really, is what was the first paper to print the story? It's possible that finding that would yealed some more answers and possibilities; but it's very likely we'll be waiting a long time to find out!