Robert Todd Lincoln, Witness to Presidential Assassinations

By Benjamin Shapell, Sara Willen | September 14, 2014

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Robert Todd Lincoln in old age, attending the dedication exercises at the Lincoln Memorial, May 30, 1922. Library of Congress.

Only two U.S. Presidents have ever died in the month of September, and both of them were murdered. Whatever the odds of that, add to the equation this seemingly-astronomical anomaly: Robert Todd Lincoln, the eldest son of Abraham Lincoln, was not only on the scene at the assassination of his father in 1865, but of Garfield in 1881 and McKinley, in 1901. Here he discusses presidential security – and the limitations thereof: there is, he says, no possible way to defend against self-sacrificing lunatics or fanatics… 

If in the annals of American history, there was ever an expert witness on Presidential assassinations, that person would have to be Robert Todd Lincoln – he who was so unique, and unlucky, as to have been on the scene at three assassinations. He was at the bedside of his father, Abraham Lincoln, when he died; at the Washington railroad station when Garfield was shot; and at the Pan-American Exposition as McKinley, too, was mortally wounded. What he had to say, then, about presidential assassination, he said from experience: this letter, written just nine days after the death of Garfield, is about the awful specter of assassination.

Responding to the suggestion that President Arthur “should occupy a residence at the Soldier’s Home, and be there guarded by a large body of troops” Robert Lincoln – who was, in fact, then Arthur’s Secretary of War – explains that in his father’s time “the situation was very different, and it was at one time supposed that an attempt would be made to abduct him and hold him as a hostage.” It was for this reason, Lincoln says, that his father was guarded. As for President Arthur, he continues, he has no doubt that he will take care of himself, but then adds:

“He is undoubtedly liable to be killed by some crazy person or by a fanatic who would be willing to do the deed for the notoriety which might be gained thereby. As things go in this life it is impossible to thoroughly guard against those classes of people.”

After the assassination of McKinley, legend has it that Lincoln stopped attending Presidential functions: he brought, he believed, bad luck to them.

Three American Presidents that were assassinated; Abraham Lincoln, James Garfield and William McKinley. Produced in 1901. Library of Congress.

Robert Todd Lincoln’s conviction that it was impossible to “thoroughly guard” against assassins was, ironically, almost identical to Garfield’s. Less than a year before, as President-Elect, Garfield had said that “assassination can no more be guarded against than death by lightning.” It was best, he cautioned, not to “worry about either.”

ROBERT TODD LINCOLN. 1843 – 1926. The eldest and only surviving son of Abraham Lincoln, he had a distinguished public career of his own, as Secretary of War under Garfield and Arthur, and as Benjamin Harrison’s Minister to Great Britain. In the private sphere, he practiced law successfully for forty-five years.

JOHN S. CUNNINGHAM was made purser in the Navy in 1857, pay director in 1871, retired in 1883, and died in 1894.

Letter Signed, as Secretary of War, 2 pages, octavo, War Department, Washington, September 28, 1881. To Captain John S. Cunningham in Philadelphia.