Tuesday, March 10, 2015

Governor Leonard Farwell and the Lincoln Assassination

                        (Article originally published in the July 2014 edition of the Surratt Courier)

As time has passed and the events of April 14, 1865 have been retold in countless books and articles, it’s amazing to see the amount of interest the Assassination of President Abraham Lincoln still brings. In a packed theatre in front of a large audience, actor John Wilkes Booth made history by giving his last performance in front of an audience by shooting Lincoln. With over a hundred eyewitness in the crowd that night it’s rather difficult to name all those in attendance. One guest in Washington that night was former Wisconsin Governor Leonard J. Farwell.

Leonard J. Farwell was born in Watertown, New York in 1819 and he later moved to Milwaukee, Wisconsin in 1840, just prior to Wisconsin becoming a state. Upon arriving in Wisconsin Farwell was able to purchase large amounts of land that would become beneficial financially in the future. Later in 1847 Farwell left Milwaukee for Madison where he was able to secure his future political plans when he made large improvements to the city itself.

             In 1852 Farwell was elected Governor of Wisconsin and was also the first governor to be elected from the Whig Party. Some of his well-known accomplishments as governor was abolishing the death penalty in Wisconsin and replacing it with “Life in Prison.” Leonard Farwell would serve another year as governor after this and he left the governorship in 1854. As a former governor, Farwell still had a drive for politics. So in 1860 the former governor began serving in the assembly.

            After the election of Abraham Lincoln, Leonard Farwell was offered a job in Washington by the Lincoln Administration. In 1863, the former governor and assemblymen left Wisconsin and set out for a new life in Washington, D.C. It was this position at the U.S. Patent Office that Farwell would serve until 1870.

            On the night of April 14, 1865 the city of Washington, much like other parts of the country was in celebration of the ending of the American Civil War. The four years of killing and hardship felt touched so many lives. The night of the 14th President Lincoln, his wife Mary along with Major Henry Rathbone and his fiancée Clara Harris, all went out for a relaxing evening at Ford’s Theatre. However, it wasn’t long before what was supposed to be a joyous night out, turned into a night of terror.
 As John Wilkes Booth fired the fatal shot, the play came to a halt and the crowd went silent. The next thing many eyewitness remember was seeing Booth leap out of the presidential box, land on the stage and race out the back.  With the crowd in a panic Governor Farwell raced over to the Kirkwood House to inform Vice-President Andrew Johnson of the news. Farwell and Johnson had been friends for a while by this point,[i] and it was Farwell who ordered guards to be placed at the vice-presidents door. 

            On June 3, 1865 Leonard Farwell gave testimony about his version of events. Farwell stated “On the evening of the 14th of April last, on leaving Ford’s Theater, I went immediately to the Kirkwood House, to the room of Vice-President Johnson. I should think it was between 10 and half-past 10 o’clock. I found the room door locked. I rapped, but receiving no answer, I rapped again, and said in a loud voice ‘Governor Johnson, if you are in the room, I must see you’…. I did not see anyone apparently lying in wait near Mr. Johnson’s door.”[ii]

The press would declare Farwell a hero and credited him with saving the life of the Vice-President. The Cincinnati Enquirer wrote in an article dated April 18, 1865 ran the headlines “How Johnson’s life was saved.”[iii] The article states “Suspecting that an attempt would also be made on the life of the Vice-President, he (Farwell) rushed from the theater to Mr. Johnson’s room, which he reached within five minutes after the shooting of the president.”[iv] When the Vice-President finally opened the door and let Farwell in, “Mr. Farwell told him of the murder.”[v]

            Although we now know the Vice- President was not in any real danger at this time, since Atzerodt had backed out and wanted no part in any killing. Atzerodt was the only one of Booth’s group of assassins that didn’t attempt what he was supposed to do. However, this wasn’t known on the night of the assassination and Andrew Johnson would be, unlike Lincoln, well protected.

            It wasn’t until 1923 when the Wisconsin State Journal released their story about Farwell’s actions that tragic night in 1865 where it mentioned Farwell being inside of Ford’s Theatre on the night of April 14, 1865. On December 2, 1923 the state journal reported “Former Wisconsin Governor saw Lincoln shot.” The reporter, Fred L. Holmes writes Farwell “Occupied seat opposite from President’s box.”[vi]
            Upon closer reading one has to question why Farwell didn’t give a full statement of what he saw take place inside Ford’s. To further my point, why didn’t Farwell give his witness statement to the War Secratary Edward M. Stanton the night of the assassination? In the 1923 article it says Farwell didn’t give his version of what happened the night of April 14, 1865 until sometime “before his death.” At this point one has to question the accuracy of these claims. With the passage of time and with the great hype of the event, one can maybe think it was more or less wishful thinking placing oneself at the scene of one of the greatest tragedies in history.

            In the 1923 article it continues on with Farwell saying “as the President fell and the cry rang through the house that he was assassinated, it flashed across my mind that there was a conspiracy…”[vii] The discrepancy here in Farwell’s statement shows his memory was not clear by this point. When exactly did Lincoln fall? He never did fall out of his chair after being shot as Mrs. Lincoln was observed hanging on to the president. Two of the best witnesses we have to the president not falling is from Major Henry Rathbone and Dr. Charles Leale, who was the first doctor to arrive inside the president’s box.

            Major Rathbone gave his statement on April 15, 1865 as to what he observed inside the Presidential Box. After John Wilkes Booth fired the shot, Booth and Major Rathbone fought as Booth tried to make his escape. Booth was able to escape by leaping out of the Presidential Box and onto the stage, but not before slashing Rathbone on his arm. Rathbone’s remark regarding President Lincoln was “his position was not changed. His head was slightly bent forward and his eyes were closed.”[viii]

Dr. Leale writes “As I looked at the President, he appeared to be dead. His eyes were closed and his head had fallen forward. He was being held upright in his chair by Mrs. Lincoln, who was weeping bitterly.  From his crouched down sitting posture it was evident that Mrs. Lincoln had instantly sprung to his aid after he had been wounded and kept him from tumbling to the floor. By Mrs. Lincoln’s courage, strength and energy the President was maintained in his upright position…”[ix]

So when did Farwell actually see Lincoln fall? It’s also hard to judge Farwell’s view of the Presidential box since his description of his seating was only mentioned as being in “full view at our right.” While there is no disputing Governor Farwell’s appearance at the Kirkwood House, where he notified Vice-President Andrew Johnson with the news; his general description of the shooting of Lincoln and the actions of John Wilkes Booth was something that was widely published around the world.

            The hype the assassination caused and the attention that could be gained by being there would be something someone, like Governor Farwell, could use for furthering ones career. Especially with one being credited with saving the Vice-President’s life.

            Governor Leonard Farwell ended up leaving Washington, D.C. for Chicago in 1870 where he started his own private patent office. Farwell’s business would fall victim to the great fire of Chicago in 1871 and he later died in Grant City Missouri on April 10, 1889.


[i] Steers, Edward. The Lincoln Assassination Encyclopedia. Harper Perennial Books, 2010.
[ii] Steers, Edward. The Trial: The Assassination of President Lincoln and the trial of the conspirators. The University Press of Kentucky, 2003.
[iii] The Cincinnati Enquirer April 18, 1865.
[iv] Ibid
[v] Ibid
[vi] The Wisconsin State Journal. December 2, 1923.
[vii] Ibid
[viii] Good, Timothy S. We Saw Lincoln Shot. University Press of Mississippi, 1995.
[ix] Leale, Charles A. Lincoln’s Last Hours. New York, 1909. Reprint by Kessinger Legacy Reprints.


  1. Nice article. I appreciate your detailed research and footnotes. Separating the wheat from the chaff in the eyewitness accounts isn't easy, and like you, I'd be suspicious if someone did not give a statement to the authorities early on. Could you imagine Farwell being cross examined in a court of law? Attorneys would have fun with him.

  2. Your blogs are interesting. It was a link for Christine Rothchild that brought me to them. It's not my place to grade them, although it's a personal problem for me because I was an English Tutor in college.
    I'm wondering if you're going to work on a small novel or series. Life is fast, if you always had an idea on simmer in the back of your mind, I really think you should turn up the heat on it.