As the world continues to learn more about coronavirus and its spread, it's vital to stay up-to-date on the latest developments. However, it's also important to make sure that the information being distributed is from credible sources. To that end, Between The Lines has compiled, [...]
Who could imagine in 1865 that 144 years after John Wilks Booth murdered Abraham Lincoln in Ford Theater America’s first black president would be attending ceremonies in Lincoln’s honor?
The gala event on the 200th anniversary of Lincoln’s birth was celebrated with the theater’s reopening in 2009 after a $25 million, 18-month face lifting. President Barak Obama and first lady Michelle were joined by Hollywood stars, DC politicos and TV audiences nationwide.
President Obama called Ford Theater “hallowed space,” adding, “For despite all that divided us — North and South, black and white — Lincoln had an unyielding belief that we were, at heart, one nation, and one people.”
Many present in the audience surely recalled a more-recent presidential assassination: John Fitzgerald Kennedy, November 23, 1963.
(I was 27, working at Wayne State University. JFK — cultured, charismatic, young, witty, boyishly handsome, Camelot’s prince — was gone. It seemed horrifically beyond belief. For days, weeks, months, years, his assassination left us stunned, empty, infinitely sad. In 1965, I met Army staff sergeant Larry Stetson, who was to be my partner for eight years. He was in the Kennedy funeral honor guard at Arlington and a riflemen firing a farewell salute to the slain president. Larry spoke first hand to me of Jacqueline, John John, Caroline, brother Bobby, himself in line for assassination in 1968.)
Few know that on the night Lincoln was shot and John Wilks Booth jumped from the balcony presidential box into history shouting, “Death to tyrants,” there was a gay witness sitting in the audience: Peter Doyle, longtime companion of poet Walt Whitman.
Whitman, 47, met Doyle when he was 21. The meeting took place in January 1865 on a horse-drawn trolley moving slowly down snowy Pennsylvania Avenue — Route #16.4 — between the Navy Yard and Georgetown. For Whitman, seeing handsome conductor Peter Doyle was electric.
Peter, born in Limerick, Ireland, emigrated to Virginia with his folks. During the Civil War he served in Richmond’s Fayette Artillery, bravely enduring several hard-fought campaigns. (Walt was attracted, so he confessed in “Leaves of Grass,” to “powerful uneducated persons.”)
Peter years later recalled their trolley encounter. “Walt was my only passenger. It was a lonely night, so I thought I would go and chat. Something in me made me do it; something in him drew me that way.
“Anyway, I went into the car. We were familiar at once. I put my hand on his knee. We understood. Walt did not get out at the end of the trip. In fact he went all the way back with me. From that time on we were the biggest sort of friends.”
The couple spent idle afternoons riding streetcars. Visited crowded city markets. Held hands during moonlight walks along the Potomac River. Walt recited Shakespeare sonnets. Peter matched him with teasing, blarney-tinted songs and limericks.
Of Lincoln’s murder Peter told Walt, “I heard the pistol shot. I had no idea what it was, what it meant . . . until Mrs. Lincoln leaned out of the box and shouted out desperately, O God! Our president is shot!”
Their male bonding lasted 30 years. Whitman died in 1892. Doyle, in 1907. What’s past, proved sadly prologue in 1963. Presidentially speaking.