The Story of the Last Surviving Witness to the Lincoln Assassination

This Week in the Civil War

If the name Samuel J. Seymour is new to you, then don’t fret: you’re in the same boat as most of America when he appeared as a guest on popular TV show I’ve Got A Secret in February of 1956. By then, Samuel Seymour was 96 years old and incredibly frail – the show’s producers advised him against making his debut television appearance but his doctors let him decide for himself – but he charmed the audience and the country with his astounding story.

The panel of guests – including celebrities such as Lucille Ball, Jayne Matthews, Bill Cullen and Henry Morgan – were allowed to ask Samuel Seymour questions from which they could discover his secret. Cullen was quick to deduce that, due to his age, the secret was indirectly linked to the Civil War era, while Jayne Matthews questioned him further and uncovered that his secret concerned Abraham Lincoln and that, Seymour was, indeed, a witness to the assassination of President Lincoln by John Wilkes Booth way back in 1865. Host Garry Moore then revealed that not only had Seymour seen the shooting in Ford’s Theatre, he was also the last surviving person to have done so.

The story as told on I Have A Secret astounded many in the watching public at home, but was only the tip of the iceberg. He had previously spoken at length about what he had witnessed in The American Weekly, a long-since defunct newspaper that specialized in tall tales, sensationalist stories and high-quality illustrations. Mr Seymour’s story required no embellishment, over-selling or fancy pen work to merit its inclusion in the publication.

Samuel J. Seymour’s experience of one of the most shocking events in American political history remained clear to him, despite the incident occurring early in his childhood.  He was just 5 years old at the time and living in Maryland, where he had been born. His family was well-to-do and lived in sufficient comfort to afford a maid, not to mention the ability to attend important theatrical events in Washington D.C..

The American Weekly, 1956. thenewstalkers.com

In the article in The American Weekly, Samuel describes how he came to be in Washington that day:

“Even if I were to live another 94 years, I’d still never forget my first trip away from home as a little shaver five years old. My father was overseer on the Goldsboro estate in Talbot County, Maryland, and it seems that he and Mr. Goldsboro has to go to Washington on business – something to do with the legal status of their 150 slaves.  Mrs. Goldsboro asked if she couldn’t take me and my nurse, Sarah Cook, along with her and the men, for a little holiday.”

When Mrs Goldsboro, his godmother, told him that they were going to a play, the young Sammy did not quite understand:

“Sammy, you and Sarah and I are going to a play tonight,” she explained.  “A real play – and President Abraham Lincoln will be there. I thought a play would be a game like tag and I liked the idea.”

He remembered the President well, and the horrific event itself clearly:

“He was a tall, stern-looking man. I guess I just thought he looked stern because of his whiskers, because he was smiling and waving to the crowd…All of a sudden a shot rang out – a shot that always will be remembered – and someone in the President’s box screamed.  I saw Lincoln slumped forward in his seat. People started milling around and I thought there’d been another accident when one man seemed to tumble over the balcony rail and land on the stage.”

Initially, his fear was not for Abraham Lincoln, but for the man who had fallen from the balcony.

“Hurry, hurry, let’s go help the poor man who fell down,” I begged. But by that time John Wilkes Booth, the assassin, had picked himself up and was running for dear life.  He wasn’t caught until 12 days later when he was tracked to a barn where he was hiding. Only a few people noticed the running man, but pandemonium broke loose in the theater, with everyone shouting: “Lincoln’s shot! The President’s dead!”

He reminisced on the event regularly:

“That night I was shot 50 times, at least in my dreams – and I sometimes still relive the horror of Lincoln’s assassination, dozing in my rocker as an old codger like me is bound to do.”

News coverage of the Lincoln Assassination. 1865

Samuel J. Seymour was an unwitting bystander at a tragic and shocking event, too young to understand what had occurred and probably too young to process it. Seymour would die just two months after his story made national news on I Have A Secret, in the house of his daughter in Arlington, Virginia, just over the Potomac River from Washington D.C..

The date of his death came two days before the 90th anniversary of the defining moment of his life, on April 14, 1956. His front row seat at the theater of history would come early in his life and remain largely unknown until right at the end, but remains one of the most innocent and affecting of the accounts of a seminal moment in the formation of the United States that we know today.

Samuel J. Seymour left behind him five children, themselves elderly, along with fifteen grandchildren and 35 great-grandchildren. To think of the memories that those children, who would now be well into their sixties if not older, must hold of their great-grandfather puts one’s mind to my father’s meeting with the nonagenarian in that Scottish pub, hearing stories of Napoleon, Wellington and Waterloo. History is never that far away.