Civil War Blog

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Baltimore to Harrisburg – The Bloody Dress of Laura Keene

Posted By on March 6, 2012

In prior posts on the actions of Laura Keene immediately after the assassination of Abraham Lincoln, the story of her rushing up to the State Box with a pitcher of water and then cradling Lincoln’s head in her lap was examined.  There is no contemporaneous evidence that this actually happened, but there are many who believe that it did happen and the “bloody dress” of Laura Keene which resulted from this alleged act is one of the most sacred relics of the assassination.  The story of what happened to that dress, known as Laura’s Act III costume for the performance of Our American Cousin, has never been clearly told.  First, few historians and writers on the assassination have attempted a discussion on whether she actually entered the State Box.  Many accept the story as fact – without consulting any physical evidence – and by accepting stories that were reported without regard to the context in which the stories were told.

Proving the authentication of an artifact involves documenting a clear and convincing chain of custody of that artifact as well as an understanding of whether the individuals involved in the chain of custody had an opportunity to corrupt or distort evidence along the way.

In prior posts on this blog an attempt was made to establish where Laura Keene was standing at the moment the shot was fired, possible paths she could or could not have traveled to enter the State Box, and alternative actions she may have taken – including being immediately removed from the theatre by her manager John Lutz.  There is no known record that she was ever arrested in Washington (or even questioned) and the actions of those working on her behalf – John Lutz in particular – have never been thoroughly researched.  Laura Keene needed a great amount of assistance to get all her belongings out of Ford’s Theatre, to get those belongings (and those in her troupe as well as their belongings) to the Old Baltimore and Ohio Train Station in Washington and to board the train heading north.  In Baltimore, a transfer had to be made at another train station so she could board the Northern Central train to Harrisburg.

For those who believe the story of the “bloody dress,” the “chain of custody” must include Laura’s continuous possession of that dress from the moment of the assassination at least until the dress got to Cincinnati.  There is one exception to this as has already been pointed out here – the “bloody cuff” which is now at the Smithsonian (Museum of American History) – was supposedly given to John Lutz when he reportedly saw Laura at the Metropolitan Hotel on the day after the assassination – a story told by a relative of John’s many years later.  There is every reason to assume that if the transfer of the cuff was made to Lutz, that John Lutz, who was traveling with Laura and her party out of Washington, had the cuff with him.  There is also every reason to assume that Laura Keene had the Act III dress with her, fully in her possession, as she had all her other costumes and props (including her piano) on her trip out of Washington.

Today’s post looks at the journey from Baltimore to Harrisburg.  The assumption here is that the evening train was taken out of Washington.  That assumption is based on the morning arrival time in Harrisburg that was reported by the Philadelphia Inquirer when Laura and her travel party were arrested in Harrisburg.

Darkness comes early in April in the Washington area and it was already nightfall when the early-evening Baltimore and Ohio train headed out of the city toward Baltimore.

Camden Station, Baltimore

After a ride of about one hour, the train from Washington arrived in Baltimore at Camden Station (pictured above).  John Lutz made the arrangements to move Keene’s party to Calvert Station where they would board the Northern Central train heading north.  This was all done under the cover of darkness.

Calvert Station, Baltimore

After getting everyone and all the luggage from Camden Station to Calvert Station (pictured above) of the Northern Central Railroad, John Lutz purchased the required tickets and made sure all were on board and that the luggage was properly placed on the train.

Click on map to enlarge.

The route the “bloody dress” would now take to Harrisburg would be the exact same route that so many soldiers had taken to go to and from the war front, that supplies had shipped on, and that escaping African Americans would use to find their way north to freedom.  It was also the route by which many Confederate prisoners were sent north to Elmira (New York) Prison Camp.  And, it was the same route that was taken by Confederate spies on their way to Canada.  Now it was Laura Keene‘s route of escape from what had been the most disastrous event of her career.

The train proceeded out of Baltimore and headed north in Maryland passing through or stopping at Woodberry, Melvale, Lutherville, Cockeysville, Phoenix, Glencoe, Monkton, White Hall and Parkton before crossing into Pennsylvania.  In Pennsylvania, the communities of Glen Rock and Smyser went by before the reaching city of York, which had been under Confederate hands briefly at the time of the Battle of Gettysburg.  At York, the train may have stopped long enough for Laura Keene and her party to step out onto the platform and go into the station where food could be purchased and something to drink could be obtained.  Perhaps it was here that someone recognized her.  Perhaps she looked suspicious.  Everyone surely had heard of the assassination of Abraham Lincoln and anyone coming out of Washington would be curiously examined.  Perhaps there were military personnel at the station who telegraphed ahead to the Provost Marshal at Harrisburg to order her arrest.

Then the train chugged on to Harrisburg – first through the communities of York Haven and Goldsboro – finally crossing the Susquehanna River and arriving at the Harrisburg Station.  Keene and her travel party were taken from the train and arrested.  See:  Laura Keene Arrested at Harrisburg.  All of Keene’s luggage was taken from the train and it would have been the responsibility of John Lutz to make sure that the tickets were purchased and that the luggage was placed on the train heading to Pittsburgh.  With the arrest of Laura Keene and her party, Lutz was busy trying to secure their release.  It was not known where Keene, Hawk, and Dyott were held while under arrest.  And, it is not known where in the station the luggage was kept – the trunks which contained all of Laura’s costumes – including the “bloody dress” from Act III of Our American Cousin and Laura’s piano!.  The news articles suggest that the time in Harrisburg was at least overnight and may have been more than 24 hours.  There are no reports of any lost luggage, so it has to be assumed that whatever was packed in Washington was still in the trunks when the party left on the train for Cincinnati.

Harrisburg’s Civil War Era Railroad Station is shown above.  It was here that Laura Keene, Harry Hawk, John Dyott and John Lutz were removed from the Northern Central Railroad train arriving from Baltimore in the morning and were arrested. And it was here that Keene’s party re-boarded the train – after their release, this time on the Pennsylvania Railroad line headed west to Pittsburgh.  According to the map shown below, the train headed north out of Harrisburg, crossed the river south of the Borough of Halifax, and headed west to Pittsburgh (follow the blue line toward Lewistown).

Click on map to enlarge.

There were still several legs of the journey to go and it would be some time before Laura Keene safely arrived in Cincinnati. The next post in this series will discuss what happened after Laura Keene arrived in Cincinnati and speculate on the route she took from Pittsburgh.

Curiously though, the route of the “bloody dress” until Harrisburg – supposedly “stained” with the blood of the martyred Abraham Lincoln, followed the exact same path that the body of Abraham Lincoln would follow only days later.  This imagery has not yet been seized upon by assassination writers, but if it is, it was presented here first, so proper credit is appreciated by those who wish to use it.  It was in Harrisburg, Dauphin County, Pennsylvania, that the blood and body took separate paths.

Map cuts are from a large Civil War era railroad map of the United States.  Pictures of the railroad stations are from Wikipedia and are in the public domain because their copyright has expired.  For more information on the Harrisburg Station, click here.

Prior posts on the importance of the Civil War-era Harrisburg Station and the importance of Harrisburg as the “crossroads of the Union” are:  Underground Railroad in Pennsylvania, Harrisburg – Old Pennsylvania Railroad Station, Harrisburg – Crossroads of the Union, and Camp Curtin – Historical Perspective.  For other posts on this blog on the topic of “Railroads,” click here.


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