Delaware author traces final hours of Lincoln

 

DOVER — As a child Kathryn Canavan visited the small bedroom where Abraham Lincoln died.

Decades later, she still is drawn to the Petersen House, the boardinghouse where the mortally wounded president was carried on April 14, 1865, after being shot at Ford’s Theatre. She finds herself visiting whenever she’s in Washington, D.C.

Kathryn Canavan, author of “Lincoln’s Final Hours,” will speak Saturday on Abraham Lincoln at the Delaware Public Archives. (Submitted)

Kathryn Canavan, author of “Lincoln’s Final Hours,” will speak Saturday on Abraham Lincoln at the Delaware Public Archives. (Submitted)

“There’s something about that back room,” she said Tuesday. “When people walk through the house, they fall silent when they come to that room.

“This is the room where the greatest president died. It’s where he left this world.”

Saturday, the north Wilmington author will share some of the stories she has uncovered at a free presentation at the Delaware Public Archives. Her “Lincoln’s Final Hours: Conspiracy, Terror, and the Assassination of America’s Greatest President” was released in October by University Press of Kentucky.

The book’s conception came during a 2009 visit to the Petersen House as Ms. Canavan stood in the back bedroom, contemplating Lincoln’s death on April 15, 1865.

“Somebody slept in that bed the next night,” she thought. And then wondered who that might be: a member of the Petersen family or one of their boarders?

“I almost ran to the Library of Congress,” Ms. Canavan said. “I ran the names through a database.”

She found only one item had been written about or by the inhabitants of the Petersen House and that was a 60-some page booklet by a Petersen descendant who was somewhat apologetic about how his ancestors tried to cash in on Lincoln’s death.

“Nobody had ever written about the ordinary people,” Ms. Canavan said. “It kind of fell in my lap.”

Records, dust and allergies

Research comes naturally to Ms. Canavan, a journalist whose beats have ranged from crime to religion. She currently works at the Delaware Business Times in Wilmington.

Once she decided to focus on the ordinary people around Lincoln and the residents of the Petersen House, she headed to Dover and the Delaware Public Archives.

More information •Kathryn Canavan will speak on “Lincoln’s Final Hours: Conspiracy, Terror, and the Assassination of America’s Greatest President” at 10:30 a.m. Saturday at the Delaware Public Archives, 121 Martin Luther King Jr. Blvd. North, Dover.  The presentation is free. For more information contact Tom Summers 744-5047 or e-mail thomas.summers@state.de.us. • Her book is available at bookstores, from the University Press of Kentucky at www.kentuckypress.com; at amazon.com and barnesandnoble.com. • For information on the Surratt Society’s  “Lincoln Assassination Studies: Fresh Faces, New Perspectives” conference, including cost, visit www.surrattmuseum.org/annual-conference. It will be held April 8-10 in Clinton, Maryland; Ms. Canavan will speak at 9 a.m. April 9. • For information on Ford’s Theatre and the Petersen House, visit www.fords.org or call (202) 347-4833.

More information
•Kathryn Canavan will speak on “Lincoln’s Final Hours: Conspiracy, Terror, and the Assassination of America’s Greatest President” at 10:30 a.m. Saturday at the Delaware Public Archives, 121 Martin Luther King Jr. Blvd. North, Dover.
The presentation is free. For more information contact Tom Summers 744-5047 or e-mail thomas.summers@state.de.us.
• Her book is available at bookstores, from the University Press of Kentucky at www.kentuckypress.com; at amazon.com and barnesandnoble.com.
• For information on the Surratt Society’s
“Lincoln Assassination Studies: Fresh Faces, New Perspectives” conference, including cost, visit www.surrattmuseum.org/annual-conference. It will be held April 8-10 in Clinton, Maryland; Ms. Canavan will speak at 9 a.m. April 9.
• For information on Ford’s Theatre and the Petersen House, visit www.fords.org or call (202) 347-4833.

“I used Ancestry to look at the Petersen family, to get my bearings,” she said, referring to the genealogical subscription website ancestry.com. Its massive database is accessible at the Delaware Public Archives in Dover.

“I researched other residents at the boardinghouse,” she said. “I used Ancestry and census records.”

Over the next four years she made countless trips to Washington, Philadelphia and wherever the trail took her, spending entire days hopping from the National Archives, to the Library of Congress to Ford’s Theatre to the Petersen House.

“It was so much fun,” Ms. Canavan said.

One of the most exciting days was when she found the bill owner William Petersen submitted to the federal government for the time Lincoln was at his house, for damage done, for the linens used to bandage the president’s wounds.

Another time she looked in vain for microfiche of an article published in an early 19th-century edition of the Saturday Evening Post.

The microfiche was lost, a curator told her, but “we do have the original magazine.”

Dust flew as Ms. Canavan gingerly opened the long-forgotten source. Many of the original documents she handled had been stored away for scores of years, she said.

“I have great allergies, one is dust and pollen,” Ms. Canavan said. “So the next day I would be sick.”

But the digging was worth the sneezes.

“When you’re dealing with ordinary people you are glad to find one page from a diary,” she said. “Nobody pays attention to them, but they had history, too.”

Rejection and persistence

Ms. Canavan, 66, spent four years researching, another year writing and more time “massaging” the manuscript.

She is no stranger to juggling different roles in life. A native of Rocky Hill, New Jersey, she took on caretaker duties of her mother shortly after marrying John Sweeney. Her own mom duties came, too, when they had sons Matt and Greg. She also worked full time as a reporter at The News Journal for 18 years, leaving when her mother needed more care.

She continued to write, taking freelance assignments, writing a column on children’s books, teaching night classes at Delaware Technical Community College, always working around her mom’s care.

She planned on returning to the newspaper world, but when she was ready to go back, “journalism jobs had dried up.”

Meanwhile, she was shopping her manuscript.

A month after accepting a full-time job as a business reporter at the Delaware Business Times, University Press of Kentucky accepted her manuscript.

“That was my first choice as a publisher,” Ms. Canavan said.

President Abraham Lincoln was carried from Ford’s Theatre where he was shot on April 14, 1865, into the nearby Petersen House. He was taken to a small back bedroom where he died the next morning. (©Maxwell MacKenzie/for Ford’s Theatre)

President Abraham Lincoln was carried from Ford’s Theatre where he was shot on April 14, 1865, into the nearby Petersen House. He was taken to a small back bedroom where he died the next morning. (©Maxwell MacKenzie/for Ford’s Theatre)

She wanted a university to publish because she knew that such a publisher would keep the book in stock as long as it sells.

That’s important when the goal is to be stocked in gift shops connected to historic sites: “400,000 people go to Ford’s Theatre and the Petersen House annually,” she said.

Still, getting to University Press of Kentucky didn’t come easily.

“I tried 13 agents to get this book somewhere,” Ms. Canavan said. “I kept getting rejected. One took only three minutes (after getting my email) to reject me!”

She persevered, hiring a consultant who told Ms. Canavan “Lincoln’s Final Hours” was a fast read but recommended adding 40,000 words to put the book more in line with most historic books being released.

“But if I did that it wouldn’t be a fast read!” Ms. Canavan said. The published book ended up at 66,757 words.

Ms. Canavan did take one piece of advice, finding someone to introduce her manuscript. A friend connected her to Lincoln historian Edward Steers Jr., author of “Blood on the Moon: The Assassination of Abraham Lincoln.”

He read “Lincoln’s Final Hours” and reviewed Ms. Canavan’s research notes.

“He said ‘this should be published and I will help you,’ ” Ms. Canavan said. “He was amazing.

Abraham Lincoln was shot on the evening of April 14, 1865, and died the next morning. Kathryn Canavan, author of “Lincoln’s Final Hours,” will speak Saturday on Abraham Lincoln at the Delaware Public Archives. (Submitted photo)

Abraham Lincoln was shot on the evening of April 14, 1865, and died the next morning. Kathryn Canavan, author of “Lincoln’s Final Hours,” will speak Saturday on Abraham Lincoln at the Delaware Public Archives. (Submitted photo)

“To this day I have never met him. He has studied Lincoln for so long he has become like Lincoln.”

But it wasn’t just Mr. Steers who was kind to the first-time author.

“This whole Lincoln community is very generous, sharing sources,” she said.

She speculates something about the spirit of Lincoln brings out the kindness of those who study him.

What’s next

In addition to speaking Saturday in Dover, Ms. Canavan has other engagements lined up, including the Surratt Society’s annual conference in Clinton, Maryland.

“The Lincoln Assassination Studies: Fresh Faces, New Perspectives” will be held April 8-10, with Ms. Canavan speaking at 9 a.m. April 9 on “Bystanders, Heroes and Charlatans: What Else Was Going on Inside the Petersen House the Night President Lincoln Died There?”

She also is considering her next writing project.

One possibility is local Delaware history.

Part of her, however, would like to do another book on Lincoln so she can stay connected to the Lincoln community.

“They are so much fun,” she said.

One direction she won’t take is toward Lincoln’s assassin, John Wilkes Booth, even though she has visited his boyhood home in Bel Air, Maryland. She stood on the balcony where he and his sister performed Shakespeare and wondered why he went down the killer’s route.

But that’s not enough to hook Ms. Canavan.

“I don’t admire Booth enough to want to live with him for a few years.”

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