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Original Bed in Chicago History Museum
© Abraham Lincoln Online
Bed in Petersen House
© Abraham Lincoln Online
Abraham Lincoln DeathbedOn April 14, 1865, President Abraham Lincoln was assassinated by a Confederate sympathizer while watching a play at Ford's Theatre in Washington, D.C. Doctors who attended him recognized he was dying and moved him across the street to a boarding house owned by William and Anna Petersen. He was placed in a main-floor bedroom rented by William T. Clark, a Union soldier who was out for the evening.
Lincoln's Last Moments
Secretary of the Navy Gideon Welles entered the rear bedroom of the Petersen house soon after Lincoln arrived and noticed that "the President lay extended on a bed, breathing heavily." The doctors explained to Welles that Lincoln could not recover but might linger for several hours.
In his diary Welles wrote, "The giant sufferer lay extended diagonally across the bed, which was not long enough for him. He had been stripped of his clothes. His large arms, which were occasionally exposed, were of a size which one would scarce have expected from his spare appearance. His slow, full respiration lifted the clothes with each breath that he took. His features were calm and striking. I had never seen them appear to better advantage than for the first hour, perhaps, that I was there."
Early on April 15 Welles stepped out for a walk, but returned in time to see Lincoln die. He watched Lincoln's wife and oldest son struggle with sorrow. "Robert, his son, stood with several others at the head of the bed. He bore himself well, but on two occasions gave way to overpowering grief and sobbed aloud, turning his head and leaning on the shoulder of Senator Sumner. The respiration of the President became suspended at intervals, and at last entirely ceased at twenty-two minutes past seven."
After Lincoln's body was removed and visitors to the Petersen House left, an upstairs boarder set up a camera and photographed the bedroom. This evocative image, now part of the famed Meserve Collection, shows a woven coverlet strewn across the bed and a pillow soaked with Lincoln's blood. The picture was taken by Julius Ulke, who had furnished hot water to the doctors throughout the night.
Deathbed Moves to Chicago
The Petersen House, which is a popular tourist site in Washington, has been restored to its 1865 appearance, but does not contain the original Lincoln deathbed. When William and Anna Petersen died in 1871, their furniture was sold at auction. William H. Boyd purchased some of the furnishings, paying $80 for the deathbed. His son inherited these items and sold them to Charles F. Gunther, a wealthy Chicago candy manufacturer and collector. After Gunther died in 1920, the Chicago History Museum bought his extraordinary collection, which included the Lincoln deathbed and related furnishings.
You can see the Lincoln deathbed in the museum's permanent Civil War-era exhibition called "A House Divided: America in the Age of Lincoln." The walnut spool bed forms part of a grouping of Petersen House artifacts which include a rocking chair, bureau, candlestick, engraving, and gas jet. The museum owns many other important Lincoln items, including a blood-stained cape worn by his wife on April 14.
A Doctor Looks at the Assassination*
Chicago History Museum
Lincoln Assassination Book List*
*Indicates pages created by Abraham Lincoln Online
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