It happened at Jersey City Station, in 1864.
The station was crowded. Trains hissed and clanked, while people talked and shouted and jostled.
The August dark was gathering as a group of anxious passengers pushed towards a wheezing train where a lone conductor stood trying to sell them sleeping car tickets.
Johnnie said, “That train is about to depart. They’ll never all get on board in time.”
“Be thankful we are not bound for her, then.”
As we drew nearer, I heard the poor harassed man shout, “Please, ladies and gentlemen, I need your exact fare if at all possible. I am low on change.”
The monstrous train whistled, steam gushed. I thought she was about to leave, abandoning the frantic would-be passengers on the platform.
“It’s going!” A woman cried. “Wait! You can’t leave us!”
“I am glad she’s not ours,” Johnnie said. “Where is our train, sweet prince.”
The movement of the people around us, clutching luggage now used as weapons, struggling to thrust their money into the conductor’s hands, pushed us uncomfortably close to the edge of the platform where the sleeping car seemed poised to move at any moment. Suddenly, a not unpleasant, routine part of our journey had taken on an ominous tone.
I was helpless, becoming more and more removed from Johnnie, shoved closer and closer to the threatening train. I was almost at the edge.
I was at the edge.
The train shifted. Wheels turned slightly, lazily.
I noticed a smartly dressed young man, some twenty years old, ten years my junior, as he began to disappear from beside me , falling into the gap between platform and train.
I can barely recall seizing his coat collar and hauling him towards me, leaning away from the platform’s waiting edge. Then Johnnie was there, helping me steady the shaken young man, making some space in the crowd, away from the now-benign, stationary train.
“Are you alright?” I asked.
The look on his face is one I see every day, every time I am recognised.
“Yes…. Thank you! You’re…. you’re Edwin Booth…. The Shakespearean actor.”
“I have that honour. On my way to play Hamlet yet again. Allow me to introduce my brother, John, also an actor. And better than I .Are you sure you are alright?”
He assured us he was well, and we all shook hands and went our ways. He thanked us profusely, many times.
I thought little more of the incident until a few months later my friend, Colonel Adam Badeau, wrote to tell me he knew the young man, who was a fellow officer on General Ulysses S. Grant’s staff. He had recounted the adventure to Adam, who complimented me for my actions.
I was surprised to learn that my young acquaintance was Robert Todd Lincoln, son of the President of the Union. I have to say that gave me some little comfort after the shameful event of April 14th 1865. I often wondered if I should send some form of personal condolence or apology for John’s treachery to young Mr. Lincoln, but it seemed inappropriate.
Richard Comerford is a retired lawyer. He has published one novel and several short stories, in print and on-line. This story is based on a real event, but I have introduced another character for dramatic effect.