Lincoln's Visions of Death

Several connected tales have been told of the preternatural experiences of Abraham Lincoln and his wife, Mary Todd Lincoln. Lincoln had always been interested in the meaning of dreams and what they have to say about future events; both positive and negative. While he reportedly thought the symbolism was more emblematic of the state of the war than of his own mortality, Lincoln was known for having dreams that were deep with meaning and ominous in tone.

A few months after Abraham Lincoln’s death in 1865, one of his assistants recounted Lincoln’s telling of something he witnessed several years prior. On election night 1860, Lincoln returned to his Illinois home after receiving a telegraph of the good news of his victory and had been out celebrating with friends. Exhausted, he collapsed on a sofa. When he awoke the next morning, he had a strange vision which would continue to haunt him until his death.

Lincoln recalled glancing across the room at a looking glass on a bureau.

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.

Lincoln tried to repeat the "optical illusion," but was unable to replicate it. According to people who worked with Lincoln during his presidency, the weird vision stuck in his mind to the point where he tried to reproduce the circumstances in the White House, but he never could. Mary Lincoln had a dire interpretation. Deeply troubled by her husband’s account of the incident, she was more superstitious and told him that she thought that his visions meant something. The sharper image indicated to her that he would serve out his first time successfully, but the ghostlike images were an omen to her that he would be nominated again for a second term, but he would not live to complete it.

Another chilling story was shared by Lincoln’s friend and former law partner, Ward Hill Lamon. According to Lamon, Lincoln had shared with him and a small group of people including Mary Todd that he had a strange dream. The President recounted that, as he began to dream, that he experienced a death-like stillness about himself. He was hearing the sounds of subdued crying and had walked down into the East Room to investigate. There he found a covered corpse that was guarded by soldiers and surrounded by a crowd of mourners. Lincoln asked one of the soldiers who had died, to which the soldier replied, “The president. He was killed by an assassin.”

Lincoln then stated that he awoke soon after in response to a loud burst of grief from the crowd and did not sleep again that night due to the dream. Lincoln insisted that the body on display had not been his own, so he did not view the dream as a portent of his own death at the time. Lincoln reportedly told Lamon,

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 someone else.

Members of Lincoln’s cabinet recalled that the president told them he’d dreamed of sailing across an unknown body of water at great speed. He also revealed that he’d had the same dream repeatedly on previous occasions, before “nearly every great and important event of the War.” This was shared with them on the morning of his assassination at Ford's Theater.