A White House Ghost Story

The White House at night - Washington DC, United States. There are plenty of White House ghost stories.

The White House at night – Washington DC, United States. By Orhan Cam, Shutterstock. There are plenty of White House ghost stories.

Winston Churchill encounters Lincoln: The most famous White House ghost story

What would you do if you stepped out of the bath tub stark naked – with only a cigar dangling from your mouth – to encounter the ghost of Abraham Lincoln standing in your bedroom? That’s exactly happened to Winston Churchill, if you believe Washington lore. Churchill, who’d been visiting the White House during WWII and staying in the Lincoln bedroom, simply removed the cigar from his mouth and said, “Good evening, Mr. President. You seem to have me at a disadvantage.” Lincoln, leaning against the fireplace mantle, smiled and disappeared.

Sir, I believe I am the only man in the world to have received the head of a nation naked.

The story is so famous it made both the Washington Post and a Fact Sheet from The White House Historical Association. But is it true?

Churchill with his iconic cigar.

Churchill with his iconic cigar. A postage stamp printed in Great Britain showing Winston Churchill, circa 1960. Editorial credit: Stamptastic / Shutterstock.com.

Putting the White House ghost story to the test

Richard M. Langworth, a Senior Fellow of the Hillsdale Churchill Project, tackled the White House ghost encounter as a research question. He says the Churchill-Lincoln encounter evolved from a Churchill-Roosevelt encounter that really happened in December 1941 or January 1942. The Japanese had recently attacked Pearl Harbor, the United States had entered the war, and Roosevelt was hosting Churchill at the White House.

Yup, Churchill was naked, but it wasn’t Lincoln he encountered

Roosevelt had just thought up of a great name to call a new international organization he wanted to found after the war: The United Nations. Excited, Roosevelt wheeled himself into Churchill’s bedroom to share his idea. He entered just as Churchill stepped naked from his bathroom. “The Prime Minister of Great Britain has nothing to hide from the President of the United States,” Churchill quipped.

One of Churchill’s bodyguards and one of his secretaries confirmed the story, so it’s likely true. Although Churchill publically claimed to have had at least a bath towel wrapped around him, he did tell King George VI when he returned from Washington, “Sir, I believe I am the only man in the world to have received the head of a nation naked.”

Churchill turned down the Lincoln bedroom

The Lincoln bedroom.

The Lincoln bedroom. The bed wasn’t to Churchill’s taste, so the Roosevelts moved him. Photo by Jack E. Boucher, public domain (government document). Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division.

Langworth also referred the White House ghost question to Lewis Lehrman, a Lincoln and Churchill scholar. Langworth says Churchill never stayed in the Lincoln bedroom. He didn’t like the bed. Eleanor Roosevelt put him in the Rose Room instead.

Disappointed? Try some other White House ghost stories

A haunted room.

A haunted room. Photo from Pixabay.

That’s one great ghost story shot down, but if you’re up for White House ghosts during the Halloween season, there’s apparently plenty of them. Lincoln’s ghost has appeared up till the 1980s. There’s also Mary Todd Lincoln, Willie Lincoln, Andrew Jackson laughing and swearing, Thomas Jefferson playing his violin, John Tyler proposing to Julia Gardner, his second wife, in the Blue Room, Dolly Madison fuddling around in the garden, and Abigail Adams hanging up her laundry in the East Room. Check out the Washington Post article and White House Historical Association Fact Sheet listed below.

My advice? Just try not to be naked when you encounter any White House ghosts. They might not be as understanding as Lincoln. (I can hear Dolly Madison and Abigail Adams screaming already.)

But at least you now know how the United Nations got its name.

Do you know any White House ghost stories?

Literature on point:

Theresa Vargas, “Is the White House haunted? A History of spooked presidents, prime ministers and pets.Washington Post, October 30. 2017.

The White House Historical Association, White House Ghost Stories (Fact Sheet).

Richard M. Langworth, “Churchhill’s Ersatz Meeting with Lincoln’s Ghost” and “Nothing to Hide: The Truth about Churchill’s Naked Encounter,” both on Langworth’s website.

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LeRoy Wiley Gresham, the Child Sage of Civil-War Georgia

LeRoy Wiley Gresham. Courtesy of Janet Elizabeth Croon.

LeRoy Wiley Gresham. Courtesy of Janet Elizabeth Croon.

In April 1865, more than just the Confederacy was dying in Macon, Georgia. LeRoy Wiley Gresham was dying too. Only 17, he succumbed to tuberculosis  a few months after the Civil War ended.

What made LeRoy Wiley Gresham different was his writing. Unable to work or fight due to a leg injury he received as a child when a chimney collapsed on him, he sought release in his diary. LeRoy wrote every day, describing his experiences of the war and summarizing the news. He offers the not only an adolescent’s viewpoint, but the poignant perspective of a dying child. The volumes he produced are now a prized acquisition at the Library of Congress and have been on display there.

LeRoy Wiley Gresham’s diary will appear in print for the first on June 1.  Janet Elizabeth Croon, who edited the volume and researched the diary entries, joins us today for an interview.

AMA: The Library of Congress describes LeRoy Wiley Gresham’s diary as one of its “premier holdings.” It acquired the diary in the 1980s but it hasn’t yet been published. Why?

JEC: I think there are a few reasons why.  One is that there are seven journals, and LeRoy wrote at least something every single day of the Civil War, with only a few exceptions.  They are a large collection to deal with!  Secondly, I think that some of the sleuthing that was required to really understand the entries might have been daunting.  It took the assistance of a pair of wonderful librarians at the University of Georgia and one at the local library in Macon to help me find out where exactly the family’s two plantation holdings were located.  I also had to figure out the complex family network that LeRoy had.  Of course, he knew who all the people he was writing about were, but I didn’t have much of a clue!  I ended up with a family tree on Ancestry.com that has exactly 1700 people included – and I still cannot place the three Knox cousins!  Lastly, despite his gorgeous handwriting, there are places that are just hard to read.  I was able to use the digital pages and magnify them if I needed to in order to understand what was written.  Writing conventions, like with hyphenization at the end of a line, are different and didn’t always make sense.  It was a big job, and unfortunately, I had the time available due to a long-term disability issue.

LeRoy began writing at age 12, and his journals end at age 17.

How did you discover LeRoy Wiley Gresham?

Social media!  A post about the initial Washington Post article about the collection being on display for the sesquicentennial of the beginning of the Civil War was in my Facebook newsfeed.  With my career of teaching high school students LeRoy’s age, I was interested immediately.  I am friends with Ted Savas, who runs Savas-Beatie publishing, and he was entranced by LeRoy as well.

Janet Elizabeth Croon, with permission.

Janet Elizabeth Croon, with permission.

What makes LeRoy Wiley Gresham’s diary stand out among other Civil War diaries?

One of the initial things Ted asked me to do was to get familiar with diaries/memoirs of the Civil War and see what I could draw from that.  I’ve been working for four years on another project (the Civil War in Northern Virginia, where I live) and so I was already familiar with many, like the very well-known diary by Mary Chesnut, John Mosby’s memoirs, the memoirs of W.W. Blackford, and more.  But the thing was, they were ALL adults and ALL directly involved in the war.  Mary Chesnut, for example, was the wife of an influential former member of the U.S. Congress and close friends with Varina Davis.  W.W. Blackford and John Mosby were both combatants who rode with J.E.B. Stuart.  But LeRoy began writing at age 12, and his journals end at age 17.  He was neither a combatant, and although he knew plenty of influential people due to his family’s status, he was strictly an observer for the vast majority of the journals.  He read, listened, and reported everything – so you get the Civil War written with the perspective of a teenager who is eager to soak up as much information as he can about the war, society, politics, and more.

This ends up being one of the critical questions that I had at the end – to what extent did a lack of coherent economic policy lead to the demise of the Confederacy?

Did you make any surprising discoveries in the course of your research?

Yes!  When I began this project, I thought it would be simply transcribing his written work and fleshing out a few things in footnotes.  But it ended up being such a multi-layered work!  Not only did I learn about LeRoy’s life, but about how life in Macon changed during the war.  For example, to ensure that people could access finished cloth from the Macon Mills (which his father ran as principal partner), they would accept a pound of bacon to pay for a yard of cotton goods.  The Mill then sold the bacon to the Army of the Tennessee to feed the soldiers!  And they also provided about 1500 pounds of bacon free of charge to the poor.  So economically, the people were making things work on their own.  This ends up being one of the critical questions that I had at the end – to what extent did a lack of coherent economic policy lead to the demise of the Confederacy?

A page from LeRoy Wiley Gresham's diary. Courtesy of Janet Elizabeth Croon.

A page from LeRoy Wiley Gresham’s diary. Courtesy of Janet Elizabeth Croon.

You studied European history. Could you use your training in that area to research an adolescent during the American Civil War?

This is an excellent question.  The details are obviously different, but the story of people who are trying to survive vast change to their society, whether it is the time of the French Revolution, the Weimar Republic, or World War II, is much the same.  How are we going to get enough to eat?  What do we do if the war comes here?  What happens if our loved ones don’t come home?  Why are we not getting accurate information from the media?  Those are all common threads.  Since I have spent many years teaching teenagers, I know that they are interested in how people their age dealt with crises of a mass scale.  Watching their faces as they listen to BBC radio trying to link young Holocaust survivors of their own age with relatives thought to be living in England brought that message home to them.  Understanding these common threads made understanding LeRoy’s writing and his concerns easier, and he voices many of them himself as well.

LeRoy wrote at least something every single day of the Civil War, with only a few exceptions.

You mentioned to your editor that LeRoy Wiley Gresham’s diary bears a faint resemblance to The Diary of Anne Frank. In what ways are they similar?

They are both teenagers that are in one way or another viewing the destruction of the life they knew from a distance.  For Anne, this meant being literally hidden away in the attic in Amsterdam.  For LeRoy, it meant watching the war from his home, knowing his disability would not include him in the actual military conflict.  And they are both such eloquent, authentic writers!  They let you in to their most personal thoughts… and that is quite an unanticipated gift to the rest of us.

And both of them died after they wrote their diaries….

Yes, they both did die after they wrote their diaries.  Anne died of typhus in Bergen-Belsen concentration camp with only her sister with her; she had to endure the horrors of the Holocaust.  LeRoy died at home, nine days after his last journal entry; he died of the illness he had been enduring all throughout his seven journals.  So their deaths were both from the situations that kept them observers.  Hers was the external threat of Nazi extermination, while his was the internal threat of active tuberculosis.

How do they differ?

Well, obviously, they are writing almost 100 years apart, so there are obvious differences there.  And the inner life of a boy and a girl in adolescence are different.  Anne wrote about her feelings with great depth when it came to boys; we only get a hint of a crush or two from LeRoy.  Anne is hiding due to her religion; LeRoy is excluded because of his medical status.  His most private feelings have to do with his health issues, which Anne did not have to deal with.

You worked together with a doctor to decipher LeRoy Wiley Gresham’s symptoms and come to a diagnosis of tuberculosis. How does an understanding of LeRoy’s illness shed light on his diary entries?

Both Ted and I assumed that LeRoy’s death was the result of something else.  We both knew that he was physically disabled due to the accident he had at age 8 when his leg became crushed under falling brick; he often says that that was the start of all his “troubles.”  We also both thought he had asthma, and I thought he died of dysentery, which was going around Macon at the time.  We could not have been more wrong!  Without giving it away, Dr. Rosbach is a surgeon who has an affinity for the Civil War and is an acquaintance of Ted’s.  He read through a transcript I created of LeRoy’s symptoms, complaints, medications, and came up with what the actual cause was, and it really had very little to do with his leg accident.  Having read some of the family letters from the Library of Congress prior to the war, I discovered that his parents knew the truth, but did not tell their son.  People may question their decision, but I think it was the right one. This lack of knowledge that he was dying of a terminal disease gave him hope and kept him going for as long as he could, and gave him a better and happier quality of life.  LeRoy always was hoping to be cured… and it makes reading the journal entries very powerful.

What does LeRoy Wiley Gresham’s diary add to the existing Civil War literature?

LeRoy provides us with a different kind of overview to the war, giving us a timeline based on events as they happened.  For people who are not Civil War aficionados, this is a great way to learn about the major battles, strategies, and personalities of the day.  What it also adds for those who already have an understanding of the battlefield is a detailed sketch about the home front in the Civil War South.  Through LeRoy’s writing, we get a much better understanding about how the people of the South felt about the war, how they got (or didn’t get) their information on the fighting, what changes they had to make in their daily lives, and what it was like to live in an occupied city at the end.  There is also a lot of information about the relationship between the Gresham family and the many slaves they owned, both at their Macon home and their two plantations in Houston County.  And there is the medical aspect: how a deadly disease of the 19th century approached by medical professionals at the time.

Thank you, Janet Elizabeth Croon!

The War Outside My Window: The Civil War Diary of LeRoy Wiley Gresham book cover, courtesy of Janet Elizabeth Croon.

Book cover courtesy of Janet Elizabeth Croon.

Janet Elizabeth Croon, ed., The War Outside My Window: The Civil War Diary of LeRoy Wiley Gresham (Savas Beatie, 2018), 432 pages, annotated.

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The mysterious fate of Boston Corbett

What happened to the man who shot John Wilkes Booth?

Boston Corbett

Boston Corbett, Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division, public domain

One of the lingering mysteries of the Lincoln assassination concerns Boston Corbett, the man who shot John Wilkes Booth. In 1888, Corbett disappeared into thin air. Michael W. Kauffman, a Lincoln assassination scholar, joins us today with a guest post  on this strange and historical case. Kauffman wrote American Brutus: John Wilkes Booth and the Lincoln Conspiracies and contributed a chapter to The Lincoln Assassination Riddle: Revisiting the Crime of the Nineteenth Century.

Welcome Michael W. Kauffman!

A historical disappearance

Boston Corbett’s disappearance is one of many mysteries connected to the Lincoln assassination, and it’s one that will probably never be solved. Corbett was last seen in the town of Neodesha, Kansas, where he had gone to visit a friend named Richard Thatcher, whom he had known when both were prisoners of war at Andersonville during the Civil War.

 Boston Corbett after the Civil War

Corbett had drifted from one job to another after the war, dogged by the feeling that he would fall victim to revenge at the hands of John Wilkes Booth’s friends. Celebrity hadn’t suited him well. After a brief and unsuccessful career as a lecturer, he became a minister of the gospel. He was probably a bit too intense for most parishioners, and before long he headed west and took up residence on a grant of land in Cloud County, Kansas. His behavior became increasingly erratic, and in time he came to be regarded as a public menace and a danger to society. But mindful of his status as a national hero, officials in Cloud County came up with a novel way of getting rid of Corbett while appearing to pay him an honor: they arranged to make him an assistant doorkeeper to the state legislature in Topeka! (Keep in mind, they did this because they considered him dangerous.)

Corbett lands in an asylum

It wasn’t long before Boston Corbett wore out his welcome in Topeka. He took offense to some remarks and drew his revolvers in the state house. The men in the white coats came to get him, and after a brief hearing, he was committed to the State Asylum for the Insane.

Apparently, Corbett felt the institution had little to offer, and he availed himself of the first opportunity to escape. He disappeared in short order, and made his way to Neodesha, in the southeast part of the state. There his old war buddy, Thatcher, extended a warm welcome and an invitation to stay a while. But after making some noises about heading for Mexico, Corbett disappeared into the wilderness, and as far as is known, he was never seen again.

Various theories about Boston Corbett

The western frontier was vast and forbidding, and it doesn’t take much imagination to guess what might have happened to Boston Corbett as he made his way south. Starvation, hostile Indians, marauders, and dangerous animals were only a few of the hazards any traveler would have to face in the Old West. Travelling alone was especially dangerous, and the odds of survival in the wilderness were extremely poor. Wild animals would have left little trace of anyone who died in such a vast expanse.

All of which is to say that it probably surprised no one when Corbett failed to materialize in Mexico or anywhere else in subsequent years. Though there were pretenders — most notably a patent medicine salesman in Enid, Oklahoma who was imprisoned for fraudulently claiming Corbett’s pension — the real Boston Corbett was never seen for certain again.

Great Hinckley Fire

But there were stories that suggested otherwise. In September of 1894, a forest fire consumed more than 200,000 acres around the town of Hinckley, Minnesota, and among the more than 400 fatalities was a man identified as Thomas Corbett. That was actually Boston Corbett’s given name, and it didn’t take long for rumors to take root about the death of Lincoln’s avenger in the Great Hinckley Fire. But in truth, this was never more than a rumor, based solely on the name of a man who seemed to be a stranger to the people of Hinckley. Attempts to connect that stranger to the killer of John Wilkes Booth have fallen flat for lack of evidence.

But as a wise old friend once told me, mysteries are a good thing. They give us something to talk about and to keep us interested. If you can supply all the answers, everyone will just get bored and move on to another topic. Nevertheless, if anyone can shed more light on the fate of Boston Corbett, I’d be delighted to hear about it.

Michael W. Kauffman

Author Michael W. Kauffman (Owings) has written a book about John Wilkes Booth and the Lincoln Assasination titled “American Brutus”. Photo by: J. Henson, courtesy of Michael Kauffman.

Thank you, Michael W. Kauffman!

Which theory do you think is most likely?

If you want to read more about the Lincoln assassination, check out my interview of Michael W. Kauffman.

Michael W. Kauffman also offered a blurb for the back cover of my book, Death of an Assassin: The True Story of the German Murderer Who Died Defending Robert E. Lee:

Death of an Assassin is not only a startling historical discovery but a poignant tale of heroism and redemption. With a marvelous eye for detail, Ann Marie Ackermann has navigated through long-forgotten records on both sides of the Atlantic to unearth a new and complex kind of hero – a brutish, vengeful man who, perhaps out of remorse, was anxious to start a new life and redeem himself in his adopted home. It’s a great story, bolstered by solid research and told by one who is uniquely qualified to bring it to the public.

Click on the link above to order the book.

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Robert E. Lee’s mystery letter connected to a record-breaking cold case


Robert E. Lee's mysterious letter

Detail of Robert E. Lee’s letter. Robert E. Lee to George Washington Custis Lee, 11 Apr. 1847, deButts-Ely family papers. (c) Virginia Historical Society, with permission.


A national mystery

The Virginia Historical Society inherited a national mystery in 1981. That’s when it obtained the deButts-Ely family papers. The collection contains Robert E. Lee correspondence, and among it, a surprising letter from the Siege of Veracruz. In that letter, Robert E. Lee praised an unknown hero. But no one suspected that man was an assassin – the perpetrator in a record-breaking German cold case.

Lee at the Siege of Veracruz

General Winfield Scott masterminded the siege in March 1847 as the opening gambit to his campaign in the Mexican-American War. While General Zachary Taylor remained in northern Mexico, far from the capital, Scott planned an amphibious landing near Veracruz. He wanted to capture the Mexican port city and then march inland, following Cortez’s route from centuries before, to sack Mexico City.

The Siege of Veracruz was Robert E. Lee’s first battle. He directed the fire at an onshore naval battery. A German company from Pennsylvania’s first regiment was assigned to defending it. Eight Americans died at the battery before the U.S. won the siege, and one of those deaths made a profound impression on Lee. On April 11, he put his feelings on paper in a letter to his son Custis:

Robert E. Lee’s mystery letter

There was one poor fellow that behaved nobly. His thigh was broke by a cannon ball & he was laid in a trench at the rear of the battery for security, the balls & shells were flying so thick that he could not be borne away. A bush was stuck over him to keep the sun out of his eyes & all that we could give him was occasionally a cup of bad warm water. The men at the guns were hot & thirsty & drank up the water as fast as it could be brought. It was at some distance & the balls swept over the field & at such a furious rate that the officers would not let the men go for water except when they could not do without it. There the poor fellow lay till evening; when they got a litter & was bearing him off, when a shell fell & burst & a fragment killed him. He laid the whole day with the balls & bombs flying over him without uttering a complaint. His sufferings must have been very great, for the battery kept up a constant & brisk firing & the concussion from the 32 [pounders] & Paixhan guns shook the whole ground & must have pained him terribly. I doubt whether all Mexico is worth to us the life of that man.*

This unknown hero has been a discussion point in the literature. Why would Robert E. Lee balance American military objectives against the life of one man and find them lacking?

But no one, until now, has asked who that man was.

Naval battery at the Siege of Veracruz

Naval battery at the Siege of Veracruz, ca. 1848. Library of Congress Prints & Photographs Division, public domain.

The unknown hero turns out to be a long-sought criminal

A careful comparison of the American casualty list against descriptions of the deaths at the naval battery in primary sources such as logbooks, letters, and a newspaper account from an embedded journalist all point to a German volunteer in the 1st Pennsylvania.

Robert E. Lee couldn’t have known the man’s background. It would have shocked him. The man was the assassin in a record-breaking German cold case – 19th-century Germany’s coldest case ever solved and its only murder ever solved in the USA.

For the first time, Death of an Assassin: The True Story of the German Murderer Who Died Defending Robert E. Lee (Kent State University Press, September 1, 2017) brings these two stories together. It offers American history packaged in international true crime wrapping. You can order the book here on Amazon.

Next week we’ll look at the German case and the letter from America that provided the crucial clue.

Literature on point:

*Robert E. Lee to George Washington Custis Lee, 11 Apr. 1847, deButts-Ely family papers, Virginia Historical Society.

Elizabeth Brown Pryor, Reading the Man: A Portrait of Robert E. Lee Through His Private Letters (New York: Penguin Books, 2009; discusses the letter on p. 173).

Bernice-Marie Yates, The Perfect Gentleman: The Life and Letters of George Washington Custis Lee, Vol. 1 (Xulon Press, 2003; discusses the letter on pp. 92-94).

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Lincoln’s dog Fido: A Faithful Pet Assassinated Like His Master

Lincoln's dog Fido

Lincoln’s dog Fido (1860); public domain.

Two theories on the popularity of the name “Fido”


Do you actually know a dog with that name? It’s so cliché no one names their dog Fido anymore. Fido has instead become a generic name for dogs: “Bring Fido on vacation.” “Is expensive dog food really good for Fido?”

How did Fido become so popular that the name became generic?

Dog lovers and historians have advanced two theories. One is that Abraham Lincoln’s dog Fido influenced the name’s popularity, the other that is was the Italian dog Fido in WWII. Which theory is right? We’ll look at both against the backdrop of the popular literature of the day to find a clear winner. You might want to have a box of tissues because both of these stories are sad.

Lincoln’s dog Fido: Assassinated like his master

Articles in both Psychology Today and the American Kennel Club attribute the popularity of the name to Lincoln’s dog Fido.

Pharmacy records in Springfield, Illinois indicate Lincoln had a dog already in 1855. He purchased de-worming medication. That dog was probably “Fido,” a yellow lab mix, of whom a few photographs survive. Lincoln decided not to take Fido with him to the White House and left his dog in the care of a friend while he was gone.

A year after Lincoln’s assassination, Fido also met tragedy. A drunken man was sitting on the curb. Fido jumped up him with his dirty paws. In an intoxicated rage, the man knifed the dog. That’s how Lincoln’s dog Fido met his end. Assassinated like his master, said Johnny Roll, a member of Fido’s adoptive family.

Fido’s reputation as the First Pooch, the first presidential dog ever photographed, and as assassinated pet catapulted the name Fido into enduring popularity.

mMonument to the Italian Fido

Tuscanycalling, Dante Square and monument to the Italian Fido, Wikipedia Creative Commons.

The Italian Fido: Ever faithful

A book on dog names attributes the popularity of Fido to an Italian dog belonging to Carlo Soriano. Soriano rescued the dog and named him Fido (“I am faithful”). Thereafter Fido waited for Soriano’s bus every day to accompany him home from work. One day during WWII, Soriano was killed in an air raid while at work. Fido continued to wait for his master at the bus stop every day – another fourteen years – until the dog’s death. Fido’s faithfulness received worldwide attention. Italy even erected a statue of Fido to commemorate his faithfulness.

So which dog made the name Fido famous?

If you peruse old newspapers, you’ll find dogs named Fido going all the back to the 18th century. Lincoln’s dog Fido wasn’t the first with that name. After Lincoln’s death, however, the name occurs more frequently in online newspaper searches, but it’s hard to tell whether that’s due to increased popularity of the name or the availability of more newspapers for that time period.

"Fido" appears as a generic name in a mock trial in 1906.

“Fido” appears as a generic dog name in a mock trial in 1906. “Administrator’s Notice,” Mexico Missouri Message (Feb. 22, 1906). Public domain.

An 1875 review of clerical records of registered dog names a good thermometer reading of the popularity their popularity. Fido was tied for the third most popular, preceded only by Jip and Carlo. Another survey of dog licensing records in Bakersfield, CA indicates that Fido had almost completely dropped out of the list by 1900. Only one person named their dog Fido. A Minneapolis paper of 1901, however, indicates that Fido was still a popular name at a dog show.

By 1906, Fido begins to appear as a generic term for dogs. It was used as the name for a fictional dog in a mock trial. And in 1910, a satirical article about dogs appeared by an author named “Fido.”

Fido as a newspaper author

“Fido” is already writing newspaper articles by 1908. Fido, “There’s Nothing Nowadays Like Being a Flossie Little Dog,” The Spokane Press (July 15, 1908). Public domain.

All that indicates that Fido was popular canine name long before the Italian Fido was even born. Hence, it’s Lincoln’s dog Fido, the assassinated pet, to whom we should attribute the enduring popularity of the name.

 Literature on point:

 Administrator’s Notice,” Mexico Missouri Message (Feb. 22, 1906).

Matthew Algeo, Abe and Fido: Lincoln’s Love of Animals and the Touching Story of His Favorite Canine Companion (Chicago Review Press, 2015).

Dog Names: “The Most Popular of the Pack (1875),” Worcester (Mass.) Gazette via the Wheeling Daily Intelligencer (Aug. 24, 1875).

Dorothy Meserve Kuhnhardt, “Lincoln’s Lost Dog,” Life (Feb. 15, 1954).

Man’s Best Friend,” Minneapolis Journal (Dec. 14, 1901).

Laurie Bogart Morrow, The Giant Book of Dog Names (Gallery Books, 2012).

Popular Dog Names in the Early 1900s,” woofreport (April 12, 2017).

Randy Shore, “Names Increasingly Reflect Dogs’ Integration into the Family,” Vancouver Sun (Oct. 189, 2009).

Fido, “There’s Nothing Nowadays Like Being a Flossie Little Dog,” The Spokane Press (July 15, 1908).

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Mary Todd Lincoln’s Castle Ghost in Germany

Mary Todd Lincoln

Mary Todd Lincoln, 1860-1865. Brady-Handy Photograph Collection (Library of Congress). Public domain.

Germany as a haven after the Lincoln assassination

One of the lesser known aspects of the Lincoln assassination is the aftermath that played out in Germany. All the surviving occupants of the presidential box at Ford’s theater ended up moving to Germany. Mary Todd Lincoln and her son Tad lived in Frankfurt from 1868 to 1870, and Henry Rathbone moved to Hanover with his wife Clara and children in 1882 when the president appointed him U.S. Consul there. [Rathbone then became involved in a true crime himself. He murdered his wife a year later in Hanover – but that will be the subject of another post.]

I enjoy following the Lincoln and Rathbone sojourns in Germany because I live here, speak the language, and can research them. And that’s why a letter from Mary Todd Lincoln about a castle ghost caught my eye. There’s a possible mistake in there that’s leaked out into the biographical literature and I hope to point it out with this post.

Hohenzollern castle on a 19th-c. postcard

Hollenzollern castle on a 19th-century postcard. Was this the haunt of Mary Todd Lincoln’s castle ghost? Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division, public domain.


Mary Todd Lincoln in Germany

Mary stayed at the Hotel d’Angleterre in Frankfurt while Tad attended boarding school nearby. By February, Frankfurt had gotten too cold for her and she decided to travel to the Mediterranean. Along the way, she stopped at the spa town of Baden-Baden in the Rhine Valley. Once she reached Nice, France, Mary penned a letter to her friend Eliza Slataper, a member of the Lee family in Virginia:

En route to Nice, I stopped for a day or two at Baden to see a lady from America, who resides most of the time in Europe. We visited a castle near Baden, where the veritable “White Lady,” is said, delights most to dwell, and where Napoleon signed his memorable treaty, in roaming the immense building, I said to our two attendants “have you ever seen her” – to which, of course, they both replied – “We often do.” As you know, Germans are very superstitious, and from the King of Prussia, down to his humblest subject, believe in her frequent appearance.*

The white lady appearing to the Prussian king.

“The white lady appearing to King Frederick I in 1713 shortly before his death.” Lithography by Ludwig Löffler, 1851 [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.

Mystery of Mary Todd Lincoln’s castle ghost

Who or what was Mary Lincoln’s castle ghost? And where was the castle the white lady haunted? The answer is elusive.

One biography identifies the castle as the Hohenzollern castle in the Province of Hohenzollern. The royal family of Hohenzollern fits nicely to the white lady story. Kunigunde von Orlmünde, a widowed mother, she was engaged to marry another member of the Hohenzollern family, but thought her children came between herself and her fiancé. So she stabbed her children’s skulls with a needle and killed them. Later she sought repentance in Rome and entered a convent, where she died in 1351. According to legend, her ghost appeared throughout history to various members of the Hohenzollern family before they died, including the King of Prussia. Thus, Mary’s mention of the king in her letter appears to be a reference to the white lady of the Hollenzollern dynasty.

But the Hohenzollern castle as the dwelling for Mary Todd Lincoln’s castle ghost presents some problems. Several Prussian castles, including Berlin, Kulmbach, Rudolstadt, and Bayreuth, belong to the white lady’s traditional haunts, but I can’t find a reference to her ever spooking the Hohenzollern castle itself.

Hohenzollern castle.

The Hohenzollern castle as it appears today. Pixabay.

Problem of distances

There’s yet another reason why Hohenzollern can’t be the home of Mary Todd Lincoln’s castle ghost. It’s too far away. Baden-Baden lies on the west side of the Black Forest. To travel from Baden-Baden, Mary would have had to cross or skirt the Black Forest mountain range from the Grand Duchy of Baden into the Kingdom of Wurttemberg, and from there cross the Neckar Valley to the east and travel up into the Prussian Province of Hohenzollern on the Swabian Alb plateau. That was 44 miles as the crow flies, but at least 68 miles on the road, and three different countries.

Mary and her friend couldn’t have saved time by travelling by train, either. The Zollenalb train line connecting Tübingen to Hechingen (the nearest town to the castle) didn’t open until June 29, 1869, several months later. The women would have had to have completed at least part of the trip by horse and carriage. The journey, then, would have been too long to fit in as a side trip during a one to two day visit to Baden-Baden.

Baden-Baden was a popular tourist destination for Americans in the 19th century.

Baden-Baden was already a popular tourist destination for Americans in the 19th century. Baden-Baden Lichtentaler Allee. (c) Baden-Baden Kur & Tourismus GmbH, with permission.

Napoleonic treaty riddle

Mary’s other clue, that Napoleon signed a treaty at the castle, doesn’t help either. Napoleon, as far as I can determine, never signed a treaty at the Hohenzollern castle nor at any other castle in southwestern Germany. Mary might have been confused on that point. Please correct me if I’m wrong and leave a comment if you know what Mary might mean by  Napoleon’s castle treaty.

Hohenbaden castle

The Hohenbaden castle offers a better location for Mary Todd Lincoln’s castle ghost. Pixabay.

Hohenbaden castle and the gray lady

A prime location for Mary Todd Lincoln’s castle ghost would have been the Hohenbaden castle right next to Baden-Baden – one of the city’s major tourist attractions – and a very manageable side trip from town. The Hohenbaden castle doesn’t have a white lady, though. It has a gray one. And her story would have been far more intriguing to Mary Todd Lincoln.

The margravine who lived in the castle and became the gray lady after her death was a different kind of a mother than the white lady of the Hollenzollerns. By all accounts, she loved her baby son more than anything in the world. One evening, she wanted to show him his inheritance. She took him up a high tower and held him out over the balustrade to show him all the villages, fields, and farms over which he would one day rule. But he slipped out of her hands and tumbled down the castle walls and cliffs. Panicked, the margravine rushed down all the castle steps to search the ground below the cliffs. Although she had all her servants and maids help her, she never found her little boy’s body again. The margravine died in grief. Now, according to the Baden-Württemberg’s official website for its castles and gardens, she haunts the castle. You can still hear the margravine wailing as the wind whips the crevices in the cliffs, and at midnight, her gray-clad apparition drifts from room to room, her long white hair waving about her face.

Mary, who herself had two sons slip through her fingers into eternity, would have related much more to the mourning gray lady than the murderous white one. Might her memories of Edward and Willie have prompted her questions to her tour guides?

Gray lady in folklore

Although gray lady ghosts aren’t as common as the white ones, they do pop up in 19th-century literature. The gray lady of Caputh is another example, as is Maillais’s “Grey Lady” in Scotland. By 1846, a poem about the gray lady of Hohenbaden appeared in a collection of Baden legends. To give you a taste, I’ve translated the first four lines:


Habt ihr gehört von der grauen Frau
Im Bergschloß Hohenbaden?
Bethört von finstrer Macht, dem Gau
War sie zu Schreck und Schaden.**

Have you heard of the lady gray
In Hohenbaden’s cliffside palace?
Bewitched by darkness, she steals away
To spew her fright and malice.


The poem underscores the fame of the gray lady by the time Mary visited Baden-Baden in 1869. Today, the castle’s website describes the gray lady as the most famous of the castle’s legends. The ghost could have easily become a subject of the castle tours by the time Mary visited in 1869.

Hohenbaden castle grounds

Did Mary Todd Lincoln walk these grounds? Hohenbaden castle by (c) Yakovlev Sergey, Shutterstock.com, with permission.

Hohenbaden as the better choice

It’s possible that Mary got the color of the ghosts mixed up by the time she reached Nice and wrote her letter. Even the names of the castles are quite similar, Hohenzollern and Hohenbaden. That might have confused her in any conversations or reading on the topic.

Nevertheless, the Hohenbaden castle, for its proximity to Baden-Baden and a ghost story that matches Mary’s letter, offers a far better alternative than Hohenzollern for Mary’s side trip destination and the haunt of Mary Todd Lincoln’s castle ghost.

The question of where she thought Napoleon signed his “memorable treaty” remains open and offers a way to solve the riddle of Mary’s destination. My cursory survey of the treaties Napoleon I and III signed didn’t turn up anything in a southwestern German castle. Knowledge, however, is a cumulative and cooperative effort, and perhaps a reader knows more about the topic than I do. Please leave a comment if you can contribute. In doing so, you’ll also augment Mary Todd Lincoln’s biography.

You might also enjoy reading about Mark Twain’s visit to Baden-Baden several years later and his encounter with the Prussian empress or two posts on Frederick the Great, a member of the Hohenzollern dynasty: How Frederick the Great’s Sword Helped Spark the Civil War and The Five Greatest Criminal Trials of History, which covers his judgment in the trial of the miller Arnold.

Literature on point:

Baden-Württemberg, Städtliche Schlösser und Gärten, “Ein Geist im alten Schloss: Die graue Frau,” Altes Schloss Hohenbaden.

Betty Boles Ellison, The True Mary Todd Lincoln: A Biography (Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 2014).

Jan von Flocken, “Die weiße Frau – ein Gespenst macht Geschichte,” Welt (Oct. 7, 2007).

**Ignaz Hub, “Die Graue Frau von Hohenbaden,” in Badisches Sagen-Buch II, August Schnezler, ed. (Karlsruhe: Creuzbacher & Kasper, 1846), 180-184.

*Mary Todd Lincoln to Eliza Slataper, Feb. 17, 1869 (in Turner, 26-27).

Literarisches Colloquium Berlin, “Die graue Frau,” Literatur Port (2015) [gray lady of Caputh].

Stephanie Graham Pina, “The Grey Lady,” Pre-Raphaelite Sisterhood (April 19, 2017).

Justin G. Turner, “The Mary Lincoln Letters to Mrs. Felician Slataper,” Journal of the Illinois State Historical Society 49(1):7-33 (Spring 1956).

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