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Laura Keene and the Bloody Dress

Posted By on January 22, 2012

The story of Laura Keene and the bloody dress from the Lincoln assassination has been told many times.  Consider these recent versions:

There are three doctors, a half dozen soldiers, and a small army of theater patrons who have battled their way into the box.  And then, almost absurdly, the actress Laura Keene forces her way into their midst and kneels at Lincoln’s side.  She begs to be allowed to cradle Lincoln…. She knows that this moment is Michaelangelo’s Pieta come to life, with her as Mary and Lincoln as Christ….  Laura Keene nurtures the dying man…. [She] knows that this moment will put her name in papers around the world…. Abraham Lincoln‘s blood and brains soak into the lap of her dress….    — Bill O’Reilly and Martin Dugard, 2011

[Laura Keene] moved to Lincoln’s side and knelt down beside [Abraham Lincoln]….  The gray silk of her gown spread about them hiding the pool of his blood….   Gently she lifted him onto her lap to comfort him…. How long Laura knelt in the State Box of Ford’s Theatre holding Abraham Lincoln, she did not know… gradually his lifeblood seeped into her costume, forever staining it, forever bonding his history to her own.  It was the prescient turning point that descended upon her, changing her, changing the country, and changing her life….  They came in to take him from her…. Oblivious to the amount of blood on her gown, Laura remained where she was, sadly watching them maneuver him out the small door to the State Box….     — Vernann Bryan, 2005

“She sat on the floor of the box and held [Abraham Lincoln‘s] head in her lap” [quoting Dr. Leale].  Laura Keene preserved the dress with the president’s blood on it….  Each time Leale removed the clot in the entry wound blood oozed out.    —- Edward Steers, 2001

The O’Reilly and Steers accounts of the assassination have been previously mentioned on this blog.  Click here.  O’Reilly’s book did not purport to be strictly based on primary sources, but Steers insisted that his book, Blood on the Moon, was factually accurate and relied on primary source material.  Steers heavy-handed criticism of the O’Reilly book was discussed in this blog.  The other quote given above is from a Vernanne Bryan novel “based on the life of Laura Keene.”  Vernanne Bryan carefully separated her novelist tendencies in describing the life of Laura Keene by creating a book that differed from the other work she also wrote:  Laura Keene, A British Actress on the American Stage, 1826-1873, published by McFarland & Company in 1993 and 1997, the latter complete with end notes and bibliography.  That earlier Bryan book will be be discussed in the soon-to-follow bibliography of materials on Laura Keene‘s career.

Fragment from the Costume of Laura Keene

One of the first scholarly studies to specifically examine whether Laura Keene actually entered the state box at Ford’s Theatre and whether she cradled Lincoln’s head in her lap with blood oozing out onto her dress, was written by Billy J. Harbin and appeared in the Educational Theatre Journal, Vol. 18 (March 1966), pages 47.54.  Harbin was a Resident Lecturer in Speech and Theatre at Indiana University in Jeffersonville.  The Educational Theatre Journal was a publication of Johns Hopkins University Press.

Harbin began the article by quoting Seaton Munroe, a Washington, D.C. attorney, who claimed to have been out walking in the city when he heard that Lincoln had been shot, whereupon he reached the theatre and immediately observed Laura Keene:

… Her hair and dress were in disorder, and not only was her gown soaked with Lincoln’s blood, but her hands, ever her cheeks where her fingers had strayed were bedaubed with the sorry stains.

Harbin then states that while many theatre students believe the “often-told tale of how Laura Keene entered the state box and cradled the bleeding head of the dying President on her lap is a hoax, originated by Miss Keene and perpetrated by the faulty recollections of eyewitnesses over the years,” nevertheless, the story “…provides food for some interesting speculations.”

The declining health of Keene and her waning popularity had taken a toll on her career.  She had actually opened at Ford’s Theatre on April 3, just days before the surrender at Appomattox and was concluding a two-week engagement on the evening of April 14.  With the excitement in the city resulting from the celebration of victory, she decided to perform Our American Cousin, a Tom Taylor comedy which she had purchased the rights to years before.  John T. Ford, the theatre owner, had decided to give her a farewell present of a benefit – meaning she would get the box office proceeds from the evening.  And, the decision of Mary Todd Lincoln to attend Ms. Keene’s performance that evening rather than the fairy-tale Aladdin at rival Grover’s Theatre, insured a good audience and a profitable evening for her benefit.

Harbin’s analysis then turned to the afternoon preparations for the arrival of the presidential party including the substitution of the call boy, William J. Ferguson, for a member of the cast who had become ill and could not participate.  Harbin states that Miss Keene arrived earlier than the 7:30 p.m. time that the doors were opened to the public – she had to apply her make-up, rehearse her scene with Ferguson, and make sure all was in order for the performance.  The overflow crowd of more than the 1700 seating capacity arrived and the play began at around 8:00 p.m.- without the Lincoln party present – they having been detained at the White House.  When the Lincoln party arrived around 8:30 p.m. the play was briefly stopped and “Hail to the Chief” was played by the band.  Keene was on the stage at the time.

Harbin then described the location of each of the principal witnesses at the point when the fatal shot was fired.  In doing so, care was taken to give the exact source of the information – including the time and place that the statement was given.  Keene’s role in the aftermath of the assassination was then brought into question.

Using the “testimony” of William J. Ferguson who claimed that he led Miss Keene off the stage, down to the floor of the orchestra pit and to the lobby stairs (at the front of the building) – then to the second floor or dress circle, across the rear of the dress circle and around to the side of the state box – and they arrived there just “as Major Rathbone was opening the … door.”  Ferguson stated that while both he and Keene were inside the state box, at no time was Lincoln ever removed from the rocking chair – and that he “saw no blood.”

This statement then is disputed by the wife of the stage manager who stated that Miss Keene never went into the box as she could not have gotten there without traversing the theatre by “…work[ing] her way through a surging crowd…. It was simply impossible.”

But another statement, by one of the members of Ford’s Stock Company, Jeannie Gourlay, noted that Miss Keene was escorted to the state box by a way “known to the regular company” and that Jeannie’s  father, Thomas Gourlay, also a member of the company, had been the one who escorted Miss Keene there.  The possible path by which this occurred was described by Harbin.  To get to the state box, Keene and Gourlay would have had to exit the theatre from the stage, climb an outside staircase, enter a lounge that was adjacent to the dress circle, and then traverse the side of the dress circle to get the box. Jeannie Gourlay later wrote that Laura Keene raised Lincoln’s head and “…found blood trickling down her dress.”

Another eyewitness stated that Miss Keene was one of those who helped a man “up over the side of the box” and that she had “sent for a pitcher of water.”  There was no mention in this account that he actually saw her in the box.

A statement by Dr. Leale, the first physician to reach the state box, confirmed that Laura Keene was there and that he gave her permission to hold the president’s head in her lap.

Other eyewitness accounts are given, some stating that Keene was in the state box and some stating that she was not. Harbin does state rather emphatically that no one who made any of these statements ever testified at the trail of the conspirators, and that the statements were actually made many years later – Seaton Munroe (31 years),  Dr. Charles Leale (44 years), Jeannie Gourlay (58 years) and William Ferguson (65 years).  Harbin concludes by stating that it all comes down to deciding “which eyewitnesses… you believe” and that it is doubtful whether any conclusive proof will ever come forward.

No direct statement from Laura Keene has ever been found, although others have said that she told them she was there and that she told them her dress was stained with the president’s blood.  Harbin’s statement that “Laura Keene… always claimed that she did go into the the President’s box, held Lincoln’s head on her lap, and that her yellow satin costume was stained with his blood” was something that was reported by an actress in Cincinnati, second-hand through one of Keene’s daughters who reported it to a biographer who published it in 1897.  That actress in Cincinnati supposedly claimed that Keene had given her a piece of the blood-stained dress – which she had apparently misplaced at some point in time, because she no longer had it years later when she told the story.

While Harbin’s analysis provides some foundation for further study of the activities of Laura Keene on the night of the assassination, there are two basic areas in which Harbin failed to seek further documentary proof.  The first is the actual physical layout of the theatre and the second is the chain of custody of the dress.  True, the ability of Keene to traverse a crowded theatre, with or without assistance or to exit and mount an exterior staircase into an adjacent lounge does provide some interesting speculation- but actual plans of the theatre as reconstructed, based on historical and archealogical evidence do exist and did exist at the time Harbin wrote the article.  But the actual plans were ignored as was official testimony that was given about the physical conditions of the theatre that night.  No known “chain of custody” has yet been conducted to determine what happened with the dress from the night of the assassination when it was reportedly worn by Keene – to the present day, when pieces of what is claimed to be the “original” are found are scattered about in various places including museums.

Time may have shed some light on the veracity of the witness – and additional research into the families and backgrounds of these witnesses can now provide some motives for exaggeration and/or fabrication of the events of that April 14 evening.

Finally, it must be noted that not one identified eyewitness to the event gave a contemporaneous account that Laura Keene entered the state box and cradled Lincoln’s head in her lap.  Of all the contemporaneous drawings and pictures of the state box and the assassination that have emerged – and there are many – not one, shows Laura Keene on the state box floor cradling Lincoln on her silk gown.  There is not one contemporaneous account  of Laura Keene‘s appearance in the blood-stained costume.  No written testimony has been found from Laura Keene herself which admits to the act.  And, only one supposed contemporaneous newspaper account – reported as a story told to him rather than one he himself eye-witnessed, tells the tale.

We do know that Laura Keene was allowed to leave Washington – with her entourage – and was arrested at Harrisburg along with two other assassination witnesses – John Dyott and Harry Hawk.  Taken from the train also were her many trunks (and her piano) which always traveled with her – trunks that were to be transferred to the westward train as she journeyed toward Cincinnati.  We don’t know whether John Lutz (her manager) was with her – but he most likely was – and he was most likely the one who made the travel arrangements to get out of Washington – a city closed by the military as a result of the assassination.  Was the dress she wore that night in one of the trunks that was removed from the Northern Central train she had traveled in from Baltimore?

None of this analysis is done to suggest that Laura Keene was part of a conspiracy to assassinate the president.  The story of Laura Keene in the state box, while now part of the assassination lore, needs to thoroughly examined in a search for the truth.  Historians of the assassination, if their accounts are to be believed, have to admit that the story cannot be proven by the available facts and that it is only a interesting legend that has arisen around the assassination.  Furthermore, the story has more of a place in the history of how the actors and actresses recovered after the assassination, and in the building of a positive view of the American theater community, a community that had suffered greatly by the actions of one of their own, the assassin John Wilkes Booth.

Edward Steers  is among the first to criticize others for their lack of historical accuracy and non-reliance on primary sources.  Steers tells the story of Laura Keene as if it were undisputed fact and acts as though his end noting methods are proper.  Writing in The Lincoln Assassination Encyclopedia (2010) he states:

With the help of stage manager (and actor) Thomas Gourlay, Keene made her way up a back stairs to the Dress Circle and into the presidential box, where Lincoln lay on the floor…. Gourlay was familiar with the layout of the building and so was able to avoid the shocked crowd by leading Keene out of the stage door and up a back staircase to the offices of the Ford brothers.  From there, Gourlay led Keene into the reception room adjacent to the Dress Circle and the presidential box.

Once inside the box, Keene asked Leale if it was all right to hold the president’s head in her lap.  Leale said yes and she carefully placed his head in her lap, trying to comfort the comatose Lincoln. 

As a source for this information, Steers cites pages 121-122 of his book Blood on the MoonThe reader should assume that the primary sources for this information can be found in either those pages or in the end notes for that specific chapter in Blood on the Moon.  Not so.  Steers end note references point to a secondary source by W. Emerson Reck, A. Lincoln: His Last 24 Hours.  Four “ibids” are used and the only other source on the entire episode is Leale’s statement which Steers neglects to mention was made in 1909 [Steers gives the year in his bibliography, not in the end notes].  Even more deceptive, is that after relying almost completely on Reck as a source, Steers fails to state the two important points in Reck’s conclusion:  (1) that Clara Harris, who was the Lincoln’s guest in the state box that night, vehemently denied that Laura Keene was ever at any time in the state box (Reck, p. 123), and (2) “No statement from Miss Keene about the alleged occurrence has ever been seen (Reck, p. 123).”

Finally, O’Reilly’s embellishment of the story includes a soldier vomiting, pandemonium in the theatre, a dirty carpet, and a description of Keene – “drink has made her face puffy.”  Because he has based his book Killing Lincoln on what others have written – and is telling the story in a most dramatic way, he can claim literary license in presenting it, much the way Vernanne Bryan has done in her novel, Tangled in His Glory.

In tomorrow’s post, an attempt will be made to examine primary source materials related to the construction of Ford’s Theatre and determine whether it was possible for Laura Keene to move from the stage to the state box through any known route!  Some surprising information will be given – which will include what appears to be a conflict between what has been reported by Steers and the actual layout of the theatre as well as primary source material that he ignored in coming to his conclusions about what happened that evening.

Some of the sources consulted or quoted above:  Killing Lincoln by Bill O’Reilly and Martin Dugard, Holt, 2011, p. 221.  Tangled in His Glory by Vernanne Bryan, XLibris, 2005, p. 375-376.  Blood on the Moon by Edward Steers Jr., University of Kentucky Press, 2001.  The Billy J. Harbin article can be found through on-line resources at Jstor, accessible through most major libraries.  The portrait of Laura Keene at the top of this post is from John Creahan’s The Life of Laura Keene, published in 1897, available on-line as a free download – click here.  The bloody fragment purported to be from Laura Keene‘s dress the night of the Lincoln assassination is from the web site of the Chicago Historical Society and is an object in the collection of that historical society.


4 Responses to “Laura Keene and the Bloody Dress”

  1. Lori says:

    I think that Laura Keene saw an opportunity and took it. fact or fiction. After all, wasn’t she a great business woman? As for her blood stained dress, it seems bizarre that she would cut it up and give a way pieces. The whole thing about her route to the Presidential Box has been argued back and forth forever. None of us were there. We only have these bits and pieces, all of which make sense but cannot be proven. I recently saw an documentery in which a piece of Laura’s dress was tested for DNA. In the strand evoked, all they were looking for was evidence of disease (Marsdan?), which would only prove that the blood may have been Lincoln’s because the Doctor involved in this wild goose chase believed Lincoln suffered from such. As for Mr. Steers, all his theories are interesting enough and they manage to sell books for him. That in itself is reason enough, in most cases involving Lincolny scholars, to pursue any particular school of thought. I appreciate your posts, as they are realistic and fact based.

  2. […] For an excellent, detailed analysis of what may actually have passed on the night of April 14th, 1865, please see the Civil War Blog, from Gratz, Pennsylvania. […]

  3. The historical museum of Lafayette, Indiana, used to have a piece of a dress with Lincoln’s blood on it on display. Now I wonder whose dress that was.

  4. bob hubbard says:

    In response to the question of what happened to the dress, I have found that Laura willed it to her daughter, Emma Taylor Rawson. She in turn died young and her small daughter inherited in a trust, getting it when she turned 21. However, fate intervened. The granddaughter, Clara Rawson Jaccard, died just short of 21 under mysterious circumstances. A few weeks before her death, she had sued her step-mother over the fact the dress was missing and accused her of selling it along with other artifacts. A few months before that, someone had taken a shot at Clara and missed. Clara died about a month before she would have inherited the dress. Her mother in law’s defense was that the dress burned up in a fire in 1895 in her husband’s studio next to their home in Hillsdale, N.J. along with her husband’s collection of books, sketches, paintings plus jewelry and dresses inherited from Laura Keene. Thus, the dress did exist and it seems the above conversation about O’Reilly’s book is a lot to do about nothing.

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