09 May 2022

History:

Lost Capitol Hill: The Unexamined Witness

Charles Forbes

Over the last two weeks, we’ve looked at Lincoln’s personal attendant, Charles Forbes, as well as his life before the Lincoln assassination and what he was doing on that fateful evening. Today, we will look at his life after Booth’s crime.

One would have thought that Forbes would be front and center in any investigation of the assassination, but one would be wrong. While the authorities had the company rerun the play a few days later, brought in Mathew Brady to photograph the interior, and even arrested the boy who had held Booth’s horse, they did not speak at all to Forbes––the man who was arguably closest to the assassination other than those inside the presidential box.

Forbes ––who can be seen in the picture on the left–– would leave the White House and remain a clerk in the Treasury and War departments until his death. He seems to have made no attempts to capitalize on his time close to Lincoln.

In fact, Forbes does not seem to have been linked with the assassination in public documents until 1880. A cane purporting to have been carried by Lincoln to the theater that evening, and then stolen in the aftermath of the assassination, was recovered in Troy, New York. The Washington Evening Star spoke to Forbes, who pronounced it to be false “as Mr. Lincoln had no cane with him.” Later investigation revealed that the cane had indeed been one of Lincoln’s, that it had been given to “a trusty valet” who had later hocked the item at a restaurant. The new owner had taken it to Troy and eventually himself pawned it, but that it had, indeed, had nothing to do with the assassination.

Picture of Ford’s Theatre taken shortly after the assassination, most likely by Mathew Brady. Parts of the set can be seen on left, the Presidential box is in the center, and Forbes’s most likely location in the theater is right behind the white pole on right. From the collection of the Illinois State Historical Library. Published 1963 in Restoration of Ford’s Theatre, Washington D.C., by George J. Olszewski. (HathiTrust)

The only time that Forbes seems to have made any statement directly addressing his whereabouts on April 14, 1865, was an affidavit he made before a notary public on September 17, 1892. It begins:

I was the personal attendant of the late President Lincoln from shortly after his first inauguration up to the time when he fell by the assassin’s bullet.

And ends with

I accompanied [Mrs. Lincoln, Major Rathbone and Clara Harris] to the theatre and returned in the carriage for the President. When the last visitor had departed and I had helped him on with his great coat, I remembered the picture and said “Mr. President, Tad [Lincoln, the President’s son] gave me a photograph this afternoon, and I wish you would put your name at the bottom of it.” “Certainly, Charley” replied the President, and picking up a pen he wrote his name on the photograph, and that is the last writing he ever did, for I accompanied him in the carriage, was with him from the carriage to the box in the theater, and was in the box when the assassin fired his fatal shot.

It is hardly worth picking over all the factual errors in this statement, but suffice it to say that no other sources indicate that Forbes was in the box with Lincoln at the moment of the assassination. We will chalk this up to thirty-year-old memories. The affidavit was used by Austrian chemist Otto Eisenschiml as evidence for his now-discredited theory that Edwin Stanton had plotted Lincoln’s death.

When Forbes died just three years after making this statement, not much was said in the newspapers. The Washington Post had the longest obituary, which repeated Forbes’s statements as factual and added that, “he ever afterward deplored the fact that he could not in some way have foiled Booth in his attempt upon the President’s life.”

Forbes was buried in Congressional Cemetery. Almost 90 years later, the Lincoln Group of Washington added a gravestone bearing Forbes’ and his wife’s names, as well as a brief account of his life.


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