Little did I know when I wrote The Last Carriage Ride
in 2004 that it would inspire a conservator of historical artifacts to bring back the color, luster, and detail of Abraham Lincoln's elegant barouche carriage – the very one that transported him to Ford's Theatre on that fateful night of April 14, 1865.
The gilt-lettered monogram above, which appears on each door of the carriage, might have been a mere footnote to my story and lost to history forever. However, after layers and layers of century-old paint were painstakingly removed from the carriage by Brian Howard and his team at BR Howard & Associates in Carlisle, PA, the golden prize revealed itself in all its glory.
The carriage, which was acquired by the Studebaker family in 1889, has been a treasured piece in the historic vehicles collection at the Studebaker National Museum in South Bend, Indiana.
A replica of Lincoln's conserved carriage can be seen in Steven Spielberg's movie, Lincoln
, which premiered in November of 2012. The desire for authenticity prompted Ben Burtt, the sound designer on the film, to go to South Bend and record the sound of the carriage's door latches opening and closing. Now that's audio history, coming alive!
For me, it's been an exciting ride which has finally come full circle. In the spring of 1959, at the age of seven, I spent an afternoon with a remarkable 101 year-old man named Samuel Sykes who, when he was seven years old, had a brief but memorable encounter with President Lincoln at the White House Carriage Shed just hours before the assassination. The rest, as they say, is history.
Several years later I was interviewed by a local newspaper to tell my story. Another forty years would pass, though, until I documented this amazing dramatic incident in its entirety.
My story is really Sam's story...and I dedicate it to him and the tall, kindly man who became his friend.
The Last Carriage Ride
By Eric Swartz
Friday, the tenth of April, 1959 was a momentous day in history. Japan's Crown Prince Akihito married a commoner, Miss Michiko Shoda, in a traditional wedding ceremony followed by an open horse-carriage procession. It was one of the happiest days in post-war Japan. On the home front, Chicago White Sox second baseman, Nellie Fox, got five hits in seven at bats on opening day in a 14-inning, 9-7 win over the Detroit Tigers. The record stood for over forty years.
It was a momentous day for me, too, but for a more personal reason. It was the day that I met Mr. Samuel Sykes, a man whose unforgettable brush with history made a lasting impression on my young psyche. At the time, I was seven years old and a first grade student at the Frederic Burk School in San Francisco. I lived with my parents in a tall apartment building located near the campus of San Francisco State University.
I had the makings of a real history buff back then. I knew all the presidents by name, in order of succession, and was an avid collector of "The Golden Books" of the American Revolution and Civil War. I used to spend endless hours on the floor copying the pictures from these books with my 64-box of Crayola crayons, which featured a built-in sharpener. The uniformed soldiers with their smart-looking waistcoats and long parade of buttons intrigued me the most.
My first grade teacher was aware of my precocious, and somewhat peculiar, interest in history. I recall that on the day a copy of the Declaration of Independence was delivered to the school office, I was selected by my teacher to go inspect it while the class was in session. I jumped up eagerly. All of my classmates were bewildered and a little jealous. Of course, I was beaming.
My family and I lived on the fourth floor. One of our neighbors was a widow by the name of Mrs. Kibbe, who lived alone on the floor below us. She was around seventy years old and had no children. Mrs. Kibbe had a round figure and curly white hair, smelled like wool, and wore a little hat with flowers in it.
A bit of a busybody, she loved to chat with my mother in the apartment building lobby and laundry room. One day, we ran into Mrs. Kibbe in front of the elevator. She noticed I was clutching a U.S. Presidents coloring book and began to engage me in conversation. Since I had found a willing listener, I started rattling off dates and other trivia, especially relating to Abraham Lincoln, my favorite president.
"My, my, you are quite the historian, aren't you?" Mrs. Kibbe exclaimed. You should meet my Uncle Samuel the next time he visits me. He admires President Lincoln, too, and loves to tell stories."
I nodded with interest and glanced at my mom. My mom thanked Mrs. Kibbe, and we took the elevator back to our apartment. All I could think of the rest of the day was how old Uncle Samuel could be. Did he serve in the Civil War? Was his uniform blue or gray? My curiosity was piqued.
A few weeks passed. I was getting ready for school and my mom said to me, "I heard from Mrs. Kibbe last night. She invited us to her apartment this afternoon. Her Uncle Samuel will be there. Do you still want to meet him?" My face lit up, and I squealed with approval.
The school day dragged on. The second hand on the classroom clock looked as if it were being pushed uphill. When the class was finally dismissed, I darted outside. My mom was waiting in front of the school to walk me home.
"Are we going to Mrs. Kibbe's now?" I asked.
"No, not just yet," my mom replied. "I'll call her when we get home to find out what time is best...and I think it would be a good idea if you changed into a nice clean shirt."
An hour later, all the arrangements had been made. I was all spruced up and my hair was neatly combed.I was on my way to a rendezvous with history and Samuel Sykes. I learned later that he lived in a nursing home nearby. Every few weeks or so, Mrs. Kibbe would pick him up and bring him back to her apartment where they would eat and visit.
My mom rang the buzzer and Mrs. Kibbe greeted us at the door.
"Please come in, we're expecting you," she said.
Mrs. Kibbe took my hand and we walked into the living room. There, next to a well-worn sofa, was a very old man sitting in a big stuffed chair. He seemed to be asleep. Mrs. Kibbe tapped him on the shoulder gently and spoke into his ear.
"Uncle Samuel, this is Mrs. Swartz and her son, Eric. This is the boy I told you about...the one who knows all about President Lincoln."
The old man's dry lips parted slightly and his heavy eyelids began to stir. I stared down at his wrinkled and discolored hands. As he leaned forward and began to clear his throat, I felt scared and started to edge away. His small, pale blue eyes looked directly into mine and a crooked grin appeared on his face, revealing large brownish teeth. He grabbed my hand and pulled me closer.
"I'm Sam Sykes, and I'm one hundred and one years old," he growled. "What's your name, young man?"
"Eric," I said timidly. I glanced up at Mrs. Kibbe for reassurance.
"Don't be afraid, dear, he won't bite," said Mrs. Kibbe. "Have a seat on the sofa and I'll bring you a glass of lemonade."
I took my place on the sofa next to Mr. Sykes.
"So you like history, huh? That was my favorite subject in school," said the raspy-voiced old man.
"Where did you go to school?" I asked.
"Washington, D.C.," he said with pride, smiling. "Have you ever been there?"
"No," I said, shaking my head from side to side.
"Well, someday you will. Mark my words!" the old man declared loudly.
Mrs. Kibbe returned and handed me a glass of lemonade. Putting her hand on Mr. Sykes shoulder, she said, "Uncle Samuel, why don't you tell Eric about the time you met President Lincoln." My eyes widened as I gazed at the old man.
Turning towards my mom, Mrs. Kibbe said, "This is an amazing story. My uncle first told it to me when I was a little girl, and I never grow tired of hearing it." And then she whispered, "But it is so sad, really, what happened." Her voice trailed off.
Mr. Sykes sat up straight in his chair, took a deep breath, and began to tell his story. The tone of his voice grew softer, and the meter of his speech more measured. I listened intently as he recounted the events of early Friday evening, the fourteenth of April, 1865. Samuel Sykes, aged seven, was patiently waiting for his father, Tom, a carriage repairman, to finish up work for the day. It was Good Friday and they didn't want to be late for supper.
Tom Sykes was a soft-spoken and slightly-built man in his mid-thirties who walked with a distinct limp, the result of a freak carriage accident. Born in England, he began his apprenticeship in the carriage trade at the age of twelve. Like so many other enterprising immigrants, Tom Sykes came to America to make his fortune. In the ten years since his arrival, he had established himself as a trusted, capable, and hard-working repairman.
Young Samuel Sykes was a bright and inquisitive lad with an irrepressibly cheerful disposition. Somewhat small for his age, his large ears and lopsided grin made him look almost impish. The carriage repair shop was Samuel's favorite place to explore in the whole world. It was noisy and bustling, and filled with the aromas of paint, varnish, oil, and sawdust — a source of endless delight for a high-spirited seven year old.
The repair shop boasted all manner of carriages and coaches — from Phaetons and Gipsey Bretts to Trotters and Victorias. There were half-tops, open-tops, no-tops, and folding tops. Some carriages seated four; the larger ones, six. Some needed smithing and woodworking, while others simply required painting or careful trimming of their elegantly upholstered seats. There were usually a few sleighs and buggies in the shop, too. Although he had only been on a fancy carriage just once, Samuel remembered how exciting it was to ride around town, on top, seated next to his father.
It was just half past six, and everyone had left work. Samuel and his father were preparing to close up the shop when a man on horseback rode up, stopping suddenly. After dismounting, he strode up to the shop entrance and banged loudly on the front door while peering through the pane glass window.
"Who could that be at this hour?" said Tom Sykes to his son.
Tom opened the door cautiously. Standing before him was a stout, middle-aged man dressed in formal riding attire. He was swarthy, with deep-set eyes and a square jaw.
"Are you the proprietor of this shop?" the stranger asked impatiently.
"No, sir, I am employed here," replied Tom Sykes.
"Can you repair carriages?
"Yes, sir, that is my trade."
"Excellent! You're just the man I'm looking for. I'm Ned Burke, President Lincoln's coachman. With whom do I have the pleasure of addressing?"
"My name is Thomas Sykes. Excuse me, did you say President Lincoln?" Burke gripped Tom's hand firmly as he spoke. "The President's carriage is in urgent need of repair, Mr. Sykes. Can you help?"
Tom Sykes stared at Burke incredulously for several seconds, and then realized he had seen him in the carriage shop just a few years earlier. One of the other repairman had remarked that this fellow Burke, who was Canadian, had been the President's coachman for a brief period. After resigning his post, Burke became a hackman, a driver for hire, working around town.
"What's wrong with the President's carriage?" asked Tom, partially regaining his composure.
"It's the steps, the fold-down steps," answered Burke. "They're stuck. They're supposed to unfold when the carriage door opens, but they won't budge. I oiled the slats and sockets, but it didn't help. Normally, our carriage hands would take care of this but they're gone for the day. Do you have any idea what the problem could be?"
"I'm not sure," said Tom thoughtfully. "If I remember correctly, the carriage to which you are referring is a Barouche, isn't it...the one with the monogrammed initials "A.L." on the doors?"
"The very one," said Burke with a nod.
"I'm familiar with the folding steps of that carriage, but the problem could be any one of a number of things," replied Tom. "I wouldn't be able to say for certain until I inspected it."
"Can you come with me right now?" asked Burke emphatically.
"Now? Come with you where?" asked Tom.
"Why, to the grounds of the Executive Mansion, Mr. Sykes! This carriage must be in perfect working condition in an hour so there's no time to lose. I have every confidence in your establishment's reputation. Besides, there is no other repair shop that's closer," mused Burke. He then paused for a second. "Good God, man, your President is depending on you!"
Tom Sykes looked down at his excited son, and then glanced back at the grimly determined face of Mr. Burke.
"Yes, sir, I will accompany you, but I need to get my tools. It will only take a minute. Meet us around back."
Tom Sykes locked the front door and told Samuel to wait for him in the wagon. Tom grabbed the tools he thought he'd need — a chisel, wrench, fuller, and puncheon, plus a few hammers — placed them in a large leather bag, and proceeded quickly to the back entrance where his horse and wagon were hitched. As Tom was securing the back doors, Burke galloped up and shouted, "Stay close and follow me!"
From their location on 11th Street and Ohio Avenue bordering the Old Tiber Creek wall, Samuel Sykes and his father headed up 10th Street to Pennsylvania Avenue. Sitting in the back of the wagon, Samuel pulled his cap down tightly and smiled from ear to ear, eagerly awaiting the adventure that lay ahead. Tom Sykes, however, was troubled. He wondered whether this would turn out to be a simple repair job. He also knew how much his wife, Katie, would worry if he and Samuel didn't show up for dinner on time.
With its broken and littered cobblestones, the five block ride down Pennsylvania Avenue was slow-going. Long trains of gun carriages, heavily-loaded wagons, and marching cavalry had chewed up much of the paved road during the war years. After passing many shops, hotels, and boarding houses, Samuel caught sight of the grand Willard's Hotel to his right. Turning around, Samuel gazed at the gas lamps that lined the Avenue. When he squinted, they looked like dancing balls of light stretching infinitely toward the horizon. Darkness had begun to fall over the city. Shortly, the wagon arrived at the entrance to the White House grounds, and was hailed by two uniformed sentries posted at the gate.
"They're with me," said Ned Burke to the armed guards. "Let them pass!"
The gate to the Pennsylvania Avenue iron fence was opened, and the wagon passed through onto a well-worn dirt road. Samuel marveled at a big, imposing building with massive pillars to his right.
"Is that the White House?" he asked his father.
Ned Burke, who was riding beside the wagon, replied "No, son, that's the Treasury Building where all of our currency is printed. You'll see the Executive Mansion after we make this turn."
Burke continued, "After we pass the Treasury, Mr. Sykes, turn right. The carriage shed will be ahead a few hundred feet or so."
There, appearing in silhouette, on the crest of a grassy mound, located almost halfway between the gleaming White House and the Treasury Building, stood a modest-looking structure. Tom pulled up his wagon alongside the shed. He hopped out, his bag slung around his neck, and walked up to the shed's entrance which was illuminated by a gas lamp mounted on the outside wall. Ned Burke walked inside the shed, lit a small kerosene lamp, and handed it to Tom Sykes.
Inside the shed were three carriages. Tom spotted the President's Barouche right away. It was an elegant and handsomely-carved Brett-style carriage with a canoe-shaped body and skeleton driver's seat and boot. It was hung on six springs with C-springs in the rear. Tom estimated the carriage to be at least fourteen feet long and seven feet wide. The driver's seat was made of black leather, and the lamps and door handles appeared to be solid silver. Tom noticed that the prop nuts were even made of silver. Plush, very plush, Tom thought to himself.
"Look, Samuel, do you see the initials in gold paint on the side of the door?" said Tom. "Do you know whose carriage this is?"
"It's President Lincoln's carriage," replied Samuel, grinning broadly. Tom laughed softly and glanced over at Ned Burke.
"Mr. Sykes, according to my pocket watch, it is nearly quarter to seven. Would you mind examining the steps?" he said sharply.
"Yes, sir," said Tom quickly. "Let's take a look. Well, these are definitely book steps. Do you see how they're attached by this hinged bracket? They should unfold automatically when the door is opened."
"Yes, I know," said Burke. "The steps on the other side work just fine. I don't understand it. Late this afternoon, I took the President and Mrs. Lincoln on a short carriage ride to the Navy Yard, returning no more than thirty minutes ago. When I brought the carriage back to the shed, the door was jammed and the steps wouldn't come down."
Nodding earnestly, Tom pulled the lever that operated the opening and shutting of the door. Just as Burke described, the door stopped a little more than halfway and the steps did not unfold. Tom examined all of the slats. None seemed bent or cracked. Then he tested all of the sockets and their turning points. The center pivot arm caught his attention. He paused for a moment, and peered inside the socket that connected the pivot arm to the lever.
"Mr. Burke, can you bring that lamp closer," asked Tom politely.
Tom studied the slat and the socket carefully, moved the pivot arm back and forth, jiggled it a few times, and listened attentively. He sat back, let out a sigh of recognition, and looked up at Burke.
"What is it?" asked Burke nervously.
"It's this center slat right here," said Tom. "It must be all worn down because I feel it slipping inside the socket. Its square shank is probably too rounded to get a firm grip anymore. That would explain why the step mechanism is stuck."
"Can you fix it?" asked Burke.
"Well, it needs a brand new slat and socket," said Tom flatly, "and I didn't bring anything like that with me."
"Can you use any parts from one of the other carriages here?" asked Burke.
Tom took the lamp from Ned Burke and walked up to inspect the other carriages in the shed.
"No, this is a Clarence," said Tom. "It doesn't have folding steps -- just step pads attached to a fixed iron shank. The coach in the corner is very similar in design. I'm sorry, but the parts you require are found only on this carriage here," Tom said pointing to the Barouche.
"If you don't mind me saying so Mr. Burke, why don't you use one of these other carriages tonight?" stated Tom. "They appear to be in good shape."
"I wish I could, Mr. Sykes, but the coach has a damaged axle and the wheel has been sticking fast. It's not safe. The Clarence, on the other hand, is in good condition, but may I be frank with you? There have been a few mishaps with this carriage and Mrs. Lincoln refuses to ride in it any more. A few years ago, I was told, one of the President's coachmen was thrown from it when his seat became loose. Not long after that, an iron hoop got caught under it and pierced the seat in which the President and Mrs. Lincoln were sitting. I'm afraid we don't have much of a choice," Burke said solemnly. "Look here, don't you carry these parts back at your shop, Mr. Sykes?"
Tom had just begun to shake his head no when he suddenly remembered there was a Rockaway in the shop that had similar folding steps. The Pennington's coachman had brought it in several days ago for trimming of the broad lace on its inside doors.
"Has something come to mind, Mr. Sykes?" inquired Burke.
Tom looked sheepishly at Ned Burke and drew a deep breath. "There is a carriage with double-folding steps at our shop, but it belongs to another customer of ours. I couldn't..."
"I think you can," said Burke, interrupting Tom in mid-sentence. "I think you must."
"I don't have the authority to strip off parts from another carriage, sir," Tom answered with conviction.
"May I remind you, Mr. Sykes, there is no more important customer than the President of the United States. I'm sure your employer will understand. In fact, he will be quite pleased with your initiative. To put your mind at ease, I will explain everything to him. But let's not argue over this now. Time is of the essence. Take my horse and ride back to your shop!"
Tom Sykes reflected on what Burke had said. Was this the right thing to do? What would happen if he took the parts off the other carriage? What would happen if he didn't? He looked at Samuel, who was sitting quietly with his back against the carriage wheel. "What about my boy, Mr. Burke?"
"He can stay here," said Ned Burke. "I'll look after him. What do you say, Mr. Sykes? You're not going to let me down at this late hour, are you?"
Tom sighed heavily and crouched down. "Samuel, I want you to stay here with Mr. Burke. I'll be back soon...twenty minutes at the most. I need to go to the carriage shop and pick up a few things, okay? Be a good boy while I'm gone." Samuel nodded and looked down in obvious disappointment.
"Samuel and I will have a fine time together, won't we?" said Burke good-naturedly.
"Mr. Sykes, don't forget your bag!" Burke shouted. By the way, my horse's name is Riley. You'll find he responds well to an occasional prod to his flanks."
Tom Sykes mounted the horse. Ned Burke adjusted the stirrups. Pulling out his pocket watch, Burke declared, "It's already a few minutes past seven, Mr. Sykes. I'll notify the sentries you'll be returning shortly. Godspeed!"
Tom Sykes waved goodbye to his son as he galloped off down the dusty path. Ned Burke turned back to Samuel, who was now standing in the doorway.
"Well, Samuel, what do you think of the President's carriage? Have you ever seen anything like it before?"
Samuel shook his head no. It was, without a doubt, the fanciest carriage he had ever seen.
"Do you live in the White House?" Samuel asked the hefty Mr. Burke.
Burke chuckled. "No, no, I live nearby, but I come here everyday to take the President and other important people on carriage rides...wherever they want to go."
"Everywhere?" asked Samuel.
"Anywhere around the capitol," said Burke. Of course, if the President has a long way to travel, he goes by rail." Samuel pondered over that, and then a smile broke over his face.
"May I sit inside the carriage?" he asked.
"Of course!" said Burke. He lifted Samuel up and placed him in the back seat. "There you go, young man! Why don't you stay here a while. I have to go down to the gate and speak with the guards. It will only take a few minutes."
Samuel nodded approvingly. He had the whole carriage to himself now. He bounced up and down on the seat, and scooted back and forth on the smooth, slippery leather. The inside was adorned with figured silk broad lace and green tabaret trimmings, and the mountings were made of silver and ivory. Samuel stretched out on his back, closed his eyes, and imagined what it would be like to ride around Washington in such an important carriage. He began to get sleepy.
Shortly thereafter, Samuel was startled by a rustling noise outside the carriage. Opening his eyes quickly, he was astonished to find a tall bearded man leaning into the coach and staring directly at him. Samuel sat up hurriedly.
"Well, what do we have here?" the man said with a smile in his voice. "What's your name, son?"
"S-Samuel. I was told to stay here."
"Oh, I see. Who told you that?"
"Well, if Mr. Burke said you could stay here, I suppose there's no harm in that. "It's a pleasure to meet you, Samuel," said the man as he extended his hand. "Do you know who I am?"
"Are y-you the...President?" asked Samuel timidly.
The man let out a cackle, threw his head back in laughter, and drew himself up to his full height. "There are some who wish that warn't so, but yes, I am the President. I am Abraham Lincoln."
Samuel gaped at the tall, gangly man whose face he recognized from broadsides and painted portraits. Mr. Lincoln's hair was coarse and black, and graying at the temples. His long face was dark and deeply-etched, and his piercing gray eyes were underlined by heavy black circles. He had a prominent wart on his right cheek, and his lip curved slightly to one side giving him a look of detached amusement.
"Tell me, how did you git to be here?" said Lincoln in his characteristic frontier drawl.
"I came here with my father in the wagon. He's going to fix your carriage," said Samuel matter-of-factly.
Lincoln rubbed his chin and smiled. "I suppose Mr. Burke will explain that to me later. Say, how would you like to see the horses?"
"Oh, yes, please," said Samuel, as he jumped up and started to crawl out of the carriage.
"Here, let me help you," said Lincoln, scooping up the boy with his large, strong hands.
Behind the shed were four beautifully-groomed horses tied to a post. "Magnificent creatures, aren't they?" Lincoln remarked.
"Are they your horses?" asked Samuel.
"No, but they pull my carriage," replied Lincoln.
"What's that?" said Samuel as he pointed to a large rectangular area strewn with pieces of scorched bricks about twenty feet away.
"That's what's left of the stable," said Lincoln sadly. "It burned down...and none of the horses survived. I tried to save them but it was an inferno inside. There was nothing we could do but watch." Lincoln sighed heavily, gazing into the darkness.
"Did your horse die in the fire?" asked Samuel.
"Yes, I lost my two bays," Lincoln said quietly. "There were some other horses, too, and the ponies belonging to my sons, Tad and Willie."
"How old are your sons?" asked Samuel.
"Well, Tad just turned twelve a little more than a week ago. My son, Willie..." Lincoln paused suddenly, a darkness falling over his face. "We lost our precious Willie when he was only eleven. He left us just three years ago. He was a very gentle and sweet-tempered boy. My dear wife and I miss him so."
Tears began to well up in Lincoln's eyes, and he braced himself against the back wall of the shed. He stood there frozen, deep in thought. Samuel reached out and clasped the President's hand, and looked up into his face. Mr. Lincoln was visibly moved. The man and the boy stood together in silence for nearly a minute.
As the misty air around them grew foggier, Lincoln turned to Samuel and said, "Let's go inside now. It's getting cold."
As they rounded the corner of the shed, Ned Burke was walking quickly toward them.
"My apologies, Mr. President, I was speaking to the guards. I hope the boy wasn't any trouble. When I didn't find him in the carriage shed, I became alarmed," Burke said breathlessly.
"No need to worry, Ned. We were just enjoying a warm chat on a cold night," Lincoln said with a wink. "After supper, I bid Mr. Crook goodnight and came outside for some fresh air. When I saw the shed light on, I wandered down here and discovered young Samuel sleeping in the back seat of the carriage. Is there a problem with the carriage, Ned?"
"Yes, Mr. President, but we're working on it. I've secured the services of a local repairman to fix the folding steps, which are jammed tight. You've met his son, Samuel. I expect this man, Sykes, to return soon with the necessary parts. We'll have the carriage ready to go in no time, sir."
"I'm sure you will, Ned. By the way, Mrs. Lincoln and I will be attending a play tonight at Ford's Theatre. Miss Clara Harris and Major Rathbone have graciously accepted the invitation to be our guests. Let's plan to leave around eight o'clock, about forty-five minutes from now."
Lincoln then beckoned confidentially to Burke and whispered, "Actually, I saw this play before, but Mrs. Lincoln has her heart set on seeing it. I don't want to disappoint everybody so I feel obliged to go. Anyway, I could use a good laugh."
"Yes, by all means, sir. Mr. Forbes and I will have the carriage ready for you and Mrs. Lincoln a little before eight o'clock," said Burke.
"Thank you, Ned."
At that moment, an aide came running toward the shed from the Executive Mansion.
"I'm sorry to interrupt you, Mr. Lincoln. Speaker Colfax arrived several minutes ago and requests a moment of your time."
"Again?" said Lincoln, mildly irritated. "I just met with him earlier today. The President then scratched his head, looking slightly amused.
"Well, I guess duty calls, Mr. Burke. Young Samuel, I will treasure the time we spent together. Thank you for the visit."
Samuel grinned, took off his little cap, and bowed down to the President.
Lincoln's eyes sparkled. "Ned, who does that remind you of?"
"Sir?" replied Burke quizzically.
"Why, our Willie, of course," said Lincoln. The president paused momentarily, searched his pockets, and turned to Burke. "I'd like to give Samuel a memento of his visit, but I can't seem to find anything. What do you have in your pockets, Ned?"
"I'll check sir," said the flustered Burke. "Hmmm, nothing here...or here...wait a minute...I've got something in my vest...oh, yes."
Burke pulled out a token with Lincoln's face on the obverse and handed it to the boy. He then proclaimed with a flourish, "Samuel Sykes, the President of the United States would like you to have this keepsake to commemorate your visit to the...Executive Carriage Shed."
"Thank you!" said Samuel, his lopsided grin stretching the freckles on his cheek. He took the token and held it up in the air, showing it to Mr. Lincoln. "Look!"
"Let me see that, son," said Lincoln as he approached the boy. The President took the token, held it under the wall-mounted lamp, and let out a rollicking laugh.
"Who is this man, Ned? I don't recognize him. With such a handsome face, he just might git himself elected President some day!"
Lincoln continued to scrutinize the token. "Now, what does it say here...the right man in the right place? Hmmm, I think I'll let history be the judge of that. I'm just thankful this terrible war is finally over."
Lincoln leaned down and placed the token in the boy's palm.
"Samuel, here is your keepsake. It is my fervent wish that you be the right man in the right place, wherever you go and whatever you do. Goodbye."
With that, the President turned and walked off, disappearing into the night.
Old Mr. Sykes let out a long sigh and slumped backward in his chair. He coughed several times and his face started to flush. Mrs. Kibbe jumped up to get him a glass of water. Returning from the kitchen, she held the glass while Mr. Sykes took a few sips.
"Uncle, are you feeling okay? Do you want to lie down now?"
"I'm tired, Claire. Take me into the bedroom," said the old man.
Mrs. Kibbe turned toward my mom and said, "He's had a long day. He should rest. Uncle Samuel, thank you for sharing your story with us. You told it beautifully. I always get a tear in my eye when I hear it."
"Thank you, Mr. Sykes, that was a wonderful story," said my mom.
"Eric, say thank you to the nice man."
"Thank you," I said.
Mrs. Kibbe helped her uncle out of his chair and walked him slowly into one of the bedrooms off the hallway.
My mom, who started to gather her things, said to me, "Eric, we should go soon. When Mrs. Kibbe gets back, we'll say our goodbyes."
A minute or two later, Mrs. Kibbe returned and sat down next to my mom. "My uncle is really quite remarkable for a man of his age. His memory is still sharp, but he tires easily." Mrs. Kibbe hesitated for a second and then spoke again.
"You know, there's more to this story. Uncle Samuel usually stops at this point. I can't blame him. Some things are just too painful to relive over and over again. Stay for awhile and I'll tell you the whole story. Let me get you some more lemonade."
"Oh, please, can we stay, mom?" I pleaded. "I want to hear the rest of the story."
"All right, Eric," said my mom. "We'll stay a little while longer."
Mrs. Kibbe handed me an ice-cold glass of lemonade, patted the sofa seat, and asked me to sit down beside her.
"Did Mr. Sykes fix the carriage?" I asked.
"Yes, he did," said Mrs. Kibbe. "He arrived about fifteen minutes after Mr. Lincoln left and got to work immediately, replacing the broken parts with the ones he brought back from the carriage shop. He then asked Mr. Burke to pull the door lever. When the steps dropped into place, Mr. Burke got so excited the buttons on his vest almost burst.
Burke grasped Mr. Sykes by the hand, shook it vigorously, and said, "Thank you, sir. I'm deeply appreciative. I will inform your employer about the great skill and effort you've shown here. This is one bill the government will be happy to pay." Then, Burke reached into his billfold and took out some money.
"Mr. Sykes, please accept this as a token of my gratitude."
"No, I couldn't, Mr. Burke. Thank you, anyway," said Tom. "I'm glad I could be of service to you and the President."
Burke nodded grudgingly and put his billfold away. An awkward silence followed. Tom called out for Samuel and then noticed the boy was fast asleep in the corner of the shed.
"The little guy is all tuckered out," said Tom. "I've got to get him home to his mother."
Tom Sykes lifted up his son into his arms and placed him gingerly in the back of the wagon, bundling him up in a large, woolen blanket.
"A very good Friday to you, Mr. Burke," whispered Tom as he climbed into the driver's seat of the wagon.
"I wish you a good Friday, too, Mr. Sykes. Thank you again."
As the wagon rolled down the road that led back to the Pennsylvania fence, Tom Sykes looked to his right to catch one final glimpse of the Executive Mansion. Out of all the carriage repairmen in Washington, it finally dawned on him how fortunate he was to be the one chosen to fix the carriage belonging to the President of the United States. Providence must have been smiling down on him. He couldn't wait to tell Katie.
It was nearly eight-thirty when they arrived home. Just as Tom predicted, Katie was worried sick about them. The family's Good Friday supper had turned cold.Now awake, Samuel began to chatter away. He told his parents how the President had found him sleeping in the back seat of the carriage, and related in detail the story about Tad and Willie, the ponies, and the stable fire. He also proudly showed them the token that Mr. Burke had given him.
Tom Sykes sat quietly and listened. He was amused but remained skeptical.
"He didn't believe his son's story?" asked my mom.
"No, not at first," said Mrs. Kibbe. "Tom was convinced that Samuel's meeting with the President was just a dream. He and Katie were well aware of their son's vivid and fanciful imagination. It was only later that Tom Sykes would discover the truth about what really happened that night."
The events on the evening of April 14th, 1865 cast a pall over the Sykes household and the nation. As history would record it, Abraham Lincoln, the sixteenth President of the United States, was shot in the back of the head with a single bullet from a derringer by a Southern sympathizer named John Wilkes Booth while watching Our American Cousin at Ford's Theatre. The time was around ten o'clock. Word of the shooting swept across the city, and there was widespread panic in the streets.
"Tom and his wife heard the news from the shrieks and shouts outside their building, said Mrs. Kibbe. They were horrified and overcome with emotion. The children were asleep and didn't learn about it until the next morning. By the time they woke up, thePresident was already dead."
"Poor little Samuel!" Mrs. Kibbe continued. "When his parents told him that President Lincoln had died, he sobbed uncontrollably. His parents had never seen him so distraught. He kept repeating over and over that he had lost his friend, his best friend, his only friend. It was so sad. This little boy, who was once so happy and playful, experienced a profound sense of personal loss that even his parents could not fully grasp. He was inconsolable for days."
"How awful!" said my mom.
"There's more sadness to come," added Mrs. Kibbe.
"On Monday morning, Tom Sykes went to work and was asked to explain the missing parts on Mr. Pennington's Rockaway. The foreman and the shop owner, Mr. Blair, were not in an understanding mood," Mrs. Kibbe said.
"I'm still a little confused, Mr. Sykes," said the foreman. "You were summoned to the Executive Mansion to repair a carriage belonging to the President of the United States?"
"Not exactly summoned," replied Tom. "Mr. Lincoln's coachman came to the shop last Friday night. His name was Burke, Ned Burke. He asked me to follow him to the White House grounds. I examined the center pivot arm of the Barouche, found it to be damaged, and decided to replace it with a part from the Rockaway. We've been over this before."
"Yes, yes, that's all very well and good," said Mr. Blair impatiently. "But where is this Mr. Burke? Why hasn't he come forward to corroborate your story? Do you realize what a difficult position you've put us in, Sykes? The Pennington's carriage is to be picked up this afternoon. What am I going to tell its owner? It will take several days, perhaps a week, to replace those parts."
"Yes, sir, don't you think I know that? I didn't have a choice. I couldn't disappoint the President of the United States!" said Tom defensively.
"Well, if you had disappointed the President, he might still be alive today," said the foreman curtly, glaring back at Tom Sykes. "According to the facts of the story, if you hadn't repaired the carriage, the Lincolns might have cancelled their theatre plans. Isn't that so, Sykes?"
Tom Sykes nodded his head feebly, his face filled with anguish.
"Tom Sykes was a victim of circumstance," Mrs. Kibbe said tearfully. "He was fired from his position later that afternoon. I suppose it was the intense pressure the Penningtons brought to bear on the owner of the shop, but it was more than that. Rumors began to circulate around the shop. Tom Sykes was being blamed for delivering Mr. Lincoln to his ultimate fate. Of course, the accusation was totally absurd."
"To make matters worse," Mrs. Kibbe said, "it was discovered several weeks later that one of the assassination conspirators, George Atzerodt, owned a carriage repair business south of the Capitol in Maryland. Tom Sykes didn't know Atzerodt from Adam, but people talked anyway."
"What about Ned Burke?" asked my mom. "Couldn't he help Tom?"
"He tried, but had his own problems to deal with," Mrs. Kibbe said. "Ned Burke accompanied the President to Ford's theatre that evening. Apparently, he and Lincoln's bodyguard, John Parker, slipped away to the saloon next door during intermission and stayed for some time. Parker's career was all but ruined for abandoning his post, and Ned Burke was judged to be guilty by association. It was very unfair."
Mrs. Kibbe added, "True to his word, Ned Burke paid a visit to Mr. Blair; however, he showed up on Tuesday, the day after Tom was dismissed. Mr. Burke explained everything that happened down to the last detail, and offered the highest praise for Tom Sykes. Unfortunately, it fell on deaf ears. It was too late to help poor Tom."
Wednesday, the nineteenth of April, 1865 was a day the city of Washington would not soon forget. Most of its inhabitants lined the entire length of Pennsylvania Avenue to witness President Lincoln's funeral cortege as it proceeded from the White House to the Capitol. Tom and Katie Sykes and their two children were there, too, standing at the corner of 11th Street in front of Harvey's Oyster House.
Only nine days earlier, people had been celebrating Lee's surrender and the end of the war. Now, the stores along the Avenue were closed, their windows and awnings draped in black and white mourning cloth. Tens of thousands of stunned, grief-stricken citizens were standing silently, watching row upon row of marchers walk solemnly in cadence to the slow procession of Mr. Lincoln's funeral car.
Samuel, who had a piece of mourning cloth pinned to his coat, sat perched on his father's shoulders as the black-draped catafalque came by. It was drawn by six white horses. The sounds of muffled drums and military dirges filled the air, punctuated by cannon booms and the sorrowful tolling of church bells. Up until now, there had never been a sadder day in the life of the nation, or, for that matter, in the brief life of young Samuel Sykes.
About a week later, early one morning, there was a knock on the front door of the Sykes home. Tom was alone and he opened it. There, standing in front of him, was Ned Burke.
"Oh, it's you," said Tom with a trace of disgust in his voice.
"Please hear me out, Mr. Sykes," said Burke nervously. "I heard you were let go and want to help in any way I can. May I come in?"
"All right," said Tom somberly as he ushered Ned Burke into the front parlor. They sat facing each another in silence.
"What will you have to drink, Mr. Burke?"
"Do you have whiskey?" Burke asked.
"Yes," said Tom with a weak smile. "It's a little early in the day, but I'll join you."
The two men talked and commiserated with one another. They had quite a lot in common. Each of their lives had been deeply affected by a national tragedy, and their livelihoods shattered by innuendo and suspicion.
When the subject of the martyred President came up, Tom Sykes asked Burke, "Ned, let me ask you a question. On that terrible night, Samuel related this amazing story about how President Lincoln visited the carriage shed and had a conversation with him about some ponies and a big fire. We were certain Samuel dreamt the whole thing up, but he insists that it really happened. Is it true?"
"Yes, Tom, the President did visit the shed that night," said Burke. "I was there, too...well, at least part of the time. Mr. Lincoln and your son were walking together when I returned to the carriage shed. I'm sorry I didn't mention it to you before. I guess I was preoccupied with those annoying folding steps. What's this about a fire?"
"Samuel spoke of a fire in a stable. He said the President tried to put it out but the ponies were killed," explained Tom.
"That's a true story," said Ned Burke. "I wasn't employed at the Executive Mansion at the time, but I heard about it from others who witnessed it. Not far from the shed stood a brick stable. A little more than a year go, it burned down and all the horses inside were destroyed. The police suspected the fire was set intentionally by Mr. Lincoln's former coachman, a tippler by the name of McGee, who was dismissed by the President on the day before the fire.
Burke continued, "As a crowd of onlookers gathered to watch the blaze, Mr. Lincoln rushed headlong towards the stable, pried open the doors with his bare hands, and attempted to rescue the horses, including the ponies that belonged to his two sons. By that time, however, the fire was burning beyond control and the President's bodyguards had to forcibly restrain him from committing any further acts of heroism."
"Samuel also told us about Willie and his pony," remarked Tom.
"Willie's death was a horrible tragedy," sighed Burke. "Mrs. Lincoln never recovered from her loss. Mr. Lincoln brooded and became more melancholy. He used to get a sad, far-away look in his eye whenever he was reminded of the boy. In fact, it was reported that when the President returned to the East Room to observe the smoldering ashes of the fire, he wept openly. Many on his staff felt it was the loss of Willie's pony that triggered his emotional outburst."
Tom Sykes sat quietly for a time, his head bowed. He looked up at Burke, his eyes brimming with tears. "The President confided this to Samuel?" asked Tom. "Do you realize that my boy hasn't spoken a word about President Lincoln since the assassination? He just sits alone by himself, expressionless. He used to be so happy and carefree. I suppose we all were...before that night."
Tom stood up at once. With a determined look on his face, he told Burke, "I'll talk to Samuel this afternoon. I want him to know that I believe him with all my heart. What he experienced that evening was something special and wonderful, and no one can take that away from him. I think everything is going to be all right. Thank you, Ned. I can't tell you how much this means to me."
The two men shook hands warmly. "By the way, this token Samuel showed me...you gave it to him?"
"Yes, I did," said Ned Burke with a laugh, "upon direct orders from the President."
The two men embraced. Ned told Tom he would do everything within his power to help him secure a new position. Sadly, they would never see one another again.
The first year following the loss of Tom's job was a tough one. Tom Sykes did not have references from the carriage shop and could not find a position as a repairman. A glowing reference from the well-intentioned Ned Burke did not help any either. After being unemployed for more than two months, Tom Sykes accepted a job as a street cleaner, a position which he held for the remainder of his life. Katie Sykes became a full-time seamstress to help the family pay its mounting bills. Eventually, they took in a boarder, and Tom began to moonlight as a bartender at a neighborhood tavern.
Although he never lost his genial, easygoing nature, Tom became increasingly bitter and started to drink heavily. Then, one foggy night, in the week leading up to his fortieth birthday, Tom Sykes was badly trampled by a runaway horse and carriage just four blocks from his home. He succumbed from his injuries the following morning.
"It was a cruel, cruel irony," sighed Mrs. Kibbe. "When Tom died, Katie scraped together as much money as she could to give Tom a royal send-off. She even rented a full-size coach, beautifully finished throughout, so that she and her children could ride in style behind the hearse on the long drive to the cemetery."
It was the last time that Samuel Sykes would ever sit inside a horse-drawn carriage.
Mr. Kibbe rose slowly, straightening the doily on the arm of the sofa. "The Sykes family eventually moved west to St. Louis, where my mother, Lucy, Samuel's older sister, got married and settled down, and where I was born. That's the story which has been passed down through the generations," Mrs. Kibbe said.
My mom began to applaud. So did I. Never in my brief life had I heard such an incredible story. As my mom was walking toward the kitchen with Mrs. Kibbe, I happened to glance toward the hallway and spotted old Mr. Sykes standing at the bedroom door. He was motioning for me to come over. I walked over to him and he grasped my hand firmly.
"Young man, I want you to remember what I've told you today. Do you promise me you'll never forget it?
I nodded and said, "I promise."
"Good!" said the old man. "After all, you've shaken the hand of the man who shook the hand of Abraham Lincoln," he said with a wink. "That's got to mean something."
I giggled softly and then looked down into the palm of my hand. I found a token there, and it had Lincoln's face on it.
"I want you to have it," said Mr. Sykes. "I think I've owned it long enough, almost 94 years. It's yours now...so take good care of it. And don't mention this to my niece. You keep it, okay?"
"Oh, thank you, thank you!" I said over and over again.
"One other thing," he said with a twinkle in his eye, "it is my fervent wish that you be the right man in the right place, wherever you go and whatever you do. Goodbye."
I hugged my good friend Mr. Sykes and waved goodbye to him. I would never see him again.
When I got home late that afternoon, I had a renewed appreciation of history. My coloring books appeared lifeless and two-dimensional. Abraham Lincoln was no longer just a picture in a book or a portrait on a five dollar bill, he was a very real person to me — a human being who laughed and loved, and touched the life of a seven year old boy.
When my dad came home from work, I ran up to him and hugged him. I couldn't wait to tell him the whole story exactly as it was told to me. I'm sure he heard it countless times, but he never got tired of hearing me tell it.
Over the years, I've had many opportunities to reflect on those momentous days in April.
In November of 1963, as I watched President Kennedy's televised funeral procession move slowly down Pennsylvania Avenue, I thought of how young Samuel and his family paid their final respects to a fallen leader.
When I accompanied my father to the Los Angeles County Museum of Art to see a special exhibit commemorating the 100th anniversary of the Lincoln assassination and the end of the Civil War, I remembered the courtesy that President Lincoln once showed a small boy.
When I first visited the White House in 1967, and stood at the entrance to the East Room, I envisioned President Lincoln weeping over the loss of his son and the little pony that perished in the fire. On my second visit to Washington, I visited the Lincoln museum in the basement of Ford's Theatre, and played out in my mind the chain of events that led to that fateful moment in time; and during my last White House visit six years ago, when my tour group was permitted to stroll along the pathways of the South Lawn, I felt myself transported back to that cold misty night when a father and son rode inexorably toward their date with destiny.
Finally, in the darkest moments of my own life, when I experienced overwhelming feelings of grief and despair, I reached out for the same healing power of parental love and understanding that once nourished Samuel Sykes.
Now and again, I take out the token, hold it in my hand, and pause to think about the boy with the crooked grin and the lanky man he called his best friend. I also think about the role that serendipity plays in our lives, how our personal histories are inextricably woven into the fabric of larger historical events, and how a simple act of kindness can have a rippling effect that lasts forever.
©2004 Eric Stephen Swartz. All rights reserved. No portion of this story may be reproduced, downloaded, sold, licensed, or bundled by any means without the prior written consent of the author. Copyright protected by the Library of Congress and The Writers Guild of America.