Upstairs at the White House: Prince of Wales Room

It may have been to this room that Mary Todd Lincoln referred when she wrote her cousin that, "We now occupy the state guest room" because of renovations to their own bedrooms in October 1861. The Prince of Wales Room in the Northwest corner of the White House acquired its name because the prince had occupied that bedroom during an 1860 visit to the White House. It was extensively redecorated under Mary Lincoln with light purple wallpaper, heavy purple drapes and purple and yellow bedspreads for the rosewood bed that now occupies the "Lincoln Bedroom." The elaborately carved bed, which was adorned with representations of flora and birds, replaced a broken bedstead the Lincolns found when they moved in. The bed "was draped to suggest an antique French state bed or lit de parade, the head surmounted by a gilded half coronet emblazoned with the American shield. The coronet was suspended from high on the walls, just inches below the ceiling. From it hung curtains of purple satin trimmed with yellow-gold fringe over long, full panels of glistening gold lace drawn back with cord and tassels. Bolster and spread were of figured satin in purple and gold; deep purple and gold fringe formed a valance along the sides of the bed," wrote White House historian William Seale.1

White House expert Carl Sferrazza Anthony wrote: “When the Prince of Wales came to stay with the Buchanan family, he slept in the suite, and it was christened the ‘Prince of Wales Room.’ Here in 1861 Mary Lincoln placed an ornately carved rosewood bed and matching marble-topped table from the Philadelphia firm of William Carryl. She had the bed, which would forever after be known as the Lincoln bed, crowned with a gold American shield, from which gilt lace, overlaid by rich purpose satin curtains fringed in gold, flowed to the floor, covering the bed’s perimeter. The bedspread was also purple and gold.”2

When Mrs. Lincoln's half-sister, Emilie Helm, stayed in the room, she found the room's decor oppressive: "The purple hangings seem gloomy and funereal though brightened with yellow cords."3 When sister Elizabeth Todd Edwards had earlier come to visit, she similarly was oppressed, writing her daughter: "I would have preferred a smaller apartment, but [sister Mary Todd Lincoln] insists that I deserve the honor – and any thing suits me from the least to the greatest, so I gladly submit."4

Willie died in this room on February 20, 1862 after a brief illness brought on by the foul water of the Potomac River. His father was grief-stricken at Willie's bedside: "My poor boy. He was too good for this earth. God has called him home. I know that he is much better off in heaven, but then we loved him so. It is hard, hard to have him die!" Elizabeth Keckley later recorded her memories of Willie's illness, which began shortly before a major White House reception was to be held on February 5:
Finding Willie continued to grow worse, Mrs. Lincoln determined to withdraw her cards of invitation and postpone the reception. Mr. Lincoln thought that the cards had better not be withdrawn. At least he advised that the doctor be consulted before any steps were taken. Accordingly Dr. [Robert K. Stone] was called in. He pronounced Willie better, and said that there was every reason for an early recovery. He thought, since the invitations had been issued, it would be best to go on with the reception. Willie, he insisted, was in no immediate danger. Mrs. Lincoln was guided by these counsels, and no postponement was announced. On the evening of the reception Willie was suddenly taken worse. His mother sat by his bedside a long while, holding his feverish hand in her own, and watching his labored breathing. The doctors claimed there was no cause for alarm. I arranged Mrs. Lincoln's hair, then assisted her to dress. Her dress was white satin, trimmed with black lace. The trail was very long, and as she swept through the room, Mr. Lincoln was standing with his back to the fire, his hands behind him, and his eyes on the carpet. His face wore a thoughtful, solemn look. The rustling of the satin dress attracted his attention. He looked at it a few moments; then, in his quaint, quiet way remarked:
'Whew! our cat has a long tail to-night.'
Mrs. Lincoln did not reply. The President added:
'Mother, it is my opinion, if some of that tail was nearer the head, it would be in better style;' and he glanced at her bare arms and neck. She had a beautiful neck and arm, and low dresses were becoming to her. She turned away with a look of offended dignity, and presently took the President's arm, and both went down-stairs to their guests, leaving me alone with the sick boy.
The reception was a large and brilliant one, and the rich notes of the Marine Band in the apartments below came to the sick-room in soft, subdued murmurs, like the wild, faint sobbing of far-off spirits. Some of the young people had suggested dancing, but Mr. Lincoln met the suggestion with an emphatic veto. The brilliance of the scene could not dispel the sadness that rested upon the face of Mrs. Lincoln. During the evening she came up-stairs several times, and stood by the bedside of the suffering boy. She loved him with a mother's heart, and her anxiety was great. The night passed slowly; morning came, and Willie was worse. He lingered a few days, and died. God called the beautiful spirit home, and the house of joy was turned into the house of mourning. I was worn out with watching, and was not in the room when Willie died, but was immediately sent for. I assisted in washing him and dressing him, and then laid him on the bed, when Mr. Lincoln came in. I never saw a man so bowed down with grief. He came to the bed, lifted the cover from the face of his child, gazed at it long and earnestly, murmuring, 'My poor boy, he was too good for this earth. God has called him home. I know that he is much better off in heaven, but then we loved him so. It is hard, hard to have him die!'
Great sobs choked his utterance. He buried his head in his hands, and his tall frame was convulsed with emotion. I stood at the foot of the bed, my eyes full of tears, looking at the man in silent, awe-stricken wonder. His grief unnerved him, and made him a weak, passive child. I did not dream that his rugged nature could be so moved. I shall never forget those solemn moments – genius and greatness weeping over love's idol lost. There is a grandeur as well as a simplicity about the picture that will never fade. With me it is immortal – I really believe that I shall carry it with me across the dark, mysterious river of death.5

Emilie Todd Helm recalled her half-sister visiting her one night after she had retired in the Prince of Wales Room. "I want to tell you, Emilie, that one may not be wholly without comfort when our loved ones leave us. When my noble little Willie was first taken from me, I felt that I had fallen into a deep pit of gloom and despair without a ray of light anywhere. If I had not felt the spur of necessity urging me to cheer Mr. Lincoln, whose grief was as great as my own, I could never have smiled again, and if Willie did not come to comfort me I would still be drowned in tears, and while I long inexpressibly to touch him, to hold him in my arms, and still grieve that he has no future in this world that I might watch with a proud mother's heart – he lives, Emilie! He comes to me every night, and stands at the foot of my bed with the same sweet adorable smile he has always had; he does not always come alone; little Eddie is sometimes with him and twice he has come with our brother Alec, he tells me he loves his Uncle Alec and is with him most of the time. You cannot dream of the comfort this gives me. When I thought of my little son in immensity, alone, without his mother to direct him, no one to hold his little hand in loving guidance, it nearly broke my heart."6

President Lincoln was laid out here on April 15-16, 1865 after his murder at Ford's Theater. Security guard William Crook later recalled: "After the President had died they took him back to the White House. It was to the guest-room, with its old four-posted bed, that they carried him. I was in the room while the men prepared his body to be seen by his people when they came to take their leave. It was hard for me to be there. It seemed fitting that the body should be there, where he had never been in life. I am glad that his could room could be left to the memory of his living presence."7

An autopsy was performed in this room by two army doctors, Janvier Woodward and Edward Curtis, while other doctors and former Senator Orville Browning looked on. Visitors to the room were careful to be quiet lest Mrs. Lincoln across the hall be disturbed. Lincoln chronicler Anthony Pitch wrote: “As the surgeons probed the wrecked skull, a messenger arrived from Mrs. Lincoln, bedridden in her room across the corridor. She asked only for a lock of his hair, and Stone complied, snipping some strands close to the darkened wound Taft signaled with his open hand that he too wanted a memento and was give a bloodstained lock. Each of the other surgeons received an identical personal keepsake.”8

Dr. Edward Curtis who performed the autopsy on a makeshift table, wrote that he and Dr. Janvier Wood proceeded to the bedroom at 11 A.M. Saturday:
The room... contained but little furniture; a large, heavily curtained bed, a sofa or two, bureau, wardrobe, and chairs comprised all there was. Seated around the room were several general officers and some civilians, silent or conversing in whispers, and to one side, stretched upon a rough framework of boards and covered only with sheets and towels, lay – cold and immovable –what but a few hours before was the soul of a great nation. The Surgeon General was walking up and down the room when I arrived and detailed me the history of the case. He said that the President showed most wonderful tenacity of life, and, and had not his wound been necessarily mortal, might have survived an injury to which most men would succumb.
...Dr. Woodward and I proceeded to open the head and remove the brain down to the track of the ball. The latter had entered a little to the left of the median line at the back of the head, had passed almost directly forwards through the center of the brain and lodged. Not finding it readily, we proceeded to remove the entire brain, when, as I was lifting the latter from the cavity of the skull, suddenly the bullet dropped out through my fingers and fell, breaking the solemn silence of the room with its clatter, into an empty basin that was standing beneath. There it lay upon the white china, a little black mass no bigger than the end of my finger – dull, motionless and harmless, yet the cause of such mighty changes in the world's history as we may perhaps never realize.
....silently, in one corner of the room, I prepared the brain for weighing. As I looked at the mass of soft gray and white substance that was carefully washing, it was impossible to realize that it was that mere clay upon whose workings, but the day before, rested the hopes of the nation. I felt more profoundly impressed than ever with the mystery of that unknown something which may be named 'vital spark' as well as anything else, whose absence of presence makes all the immeasurable difference between an inert mass of matter owing obedience to no laws but those governing the physical and chemical forces of the universe, and on the other hand, living brain by whose silent, subtle machinery a world may be ruled.
The weighing of the brain...gave approximate results only, since there was had been some loss of brain substance, in consequence of the wound, during the hours of life after the shooting. But the figures, as they were, seemed to show that the brain weight was not above the ordinary for a man of Lincoln's size. 9

After the autopsy and embalming, Secretary of War Edwin Stanton oversaw the preparation of the body for the funeral – including clothing President Lincoln in the same suit he had worn a month earlier at his inauguration. Although the President's face had become discolored, Stanton decided not to cosmetize the stain, saying, "this is part of the history of the event."10


Footnotes

    1. William Seale, The President's House: A History, p. 386.
    2. Carl Sferrazza Anthony, America’s First Families, p. 40.
    3. Katherine Helm, Mary, Wife of Lincoln, p. 222.
    4. Ruth Painter Randall, Mary Lincoln: Biography of a Marriage, p. 256.
    5. Elizabeth Keckley, Behind the Scenes, pp. 101-104.
    6. Helm, Mary, Wife of Lincoln, p. 217.
    7. Margarita Spalding Gerry, editor, Through Five Administrations: Reminiscences of Colonel William H. Crook, p. 69.
    8. Carl Sferrazza Anthony, America’s First Families, p. 40.
    9. Dorothy Meserve Kunhardt and Philip B. Kunhardt, Jr., Twenty Days, p. 95.
    10. Seale, The President's House: A History, Volume I, p. 407.

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