Lincoln's Deathbed In Art and Memory:
The "Rubber Room" Phenomenon

by Harold Holzer and Frank J. Williams

Gettysburg, PA: Thomas Publications, 1998. 11" x 8-1/2", 44 pp., illus.
ISBN 1-57747-028-1. $10.00.

Lincoln's Deathbed In Art and Memory: The "Rubber Room" Phenomenon, by Harold Holzer and Frank J. Williams, is an in-depth look at the efforts to portray the scene at the Peterson House in Washington, D.C. on the morning of April 15, 1865. Through engaging narrative and numerous illustrations, the authors demonstrate the transformation of an event that was, by necessity, confined to a very small number of witnesses into a happening of heroic proportions.

While the actual room in which Lincoln died was a mere 9-1/2 feet by 17 feet, posterity would dictate that physical representations of the event include the visages of many of the dignitaries who visited the bedside vigil at some point during the long deathwatch. Print makers and artists were called upon to create visual images of the sad event to satisfy the curiosity of the public at large. In their efforts to include the liknesses of all the important people of the day, the artists created works that were in fact quite out of proportion with reality. Some artists went so far as to include in the portraits people who had not visited the dying President's bedside. Some prints even portray young Tad Lincoln as being present, when in fact he spent the long night back at the White House.

At a time when the visual arts of prints and print making was finding mass appeal, each succeeding artist would try and make his print more grand than the one before. The first print to be marketed, issued by Currier & Ives, was a rather crude affair, with twelve eyewitnesses depicted (which immediately stretched the credulity of the number of adults who could in fact fit into the small room). The next print showed sixteen witnesses; the following, eighteen, and so on until you come upon the painting by Alonzo Chapel, which pictures no less than forty-seven men and women.

Of course, in reality, as the number of dignitaries depicted grew, physics became a problem. There was simply no way that so many people could be packed into a room so small. Therefore, artists saw fit to "stretch" the size of the room. It began to be represented as an ever larger room. Eventually it took on a sort of dimensionless qualitybecoming a mere background that conformed to whatever shape was required to feature all the individuals to be included. This phenomenon was labeled the "rubber room" by assassination historian Lesley Leonard.

I found it interesting to see how each artist or print maker would portray a fairly static scene. All had the same basic components to work with: a depiction of the mortally wounded Lincoln lying on a bed, surround be his friends, family, and associates. And yet each print maker, generally, was able to make his creation unique. And that uniqueness often took the form of more bodies being stuffed into that ever-expanding room.

And the culmination of the death scene artwork is the grand painting by Alonzo Chappel. Chappel was so intent on capturing lifelike depictions of those who were to appear in his masterpiece that he convinced a number of the central figures to be photographed in the actual poses the artist had devised for his painting. Among those who agreed to be photographed was Robert Todd Lincoln, the president's son. This was quite out of character for Robert, who generally shied away from pubic displays of such personal moments. Robert Lincoln was photographed as he appeared in the finished portrait, somberly gazing downward with a handkerchief in his hand. Vice President Andrew Johnson, Secretary of War Edwin Stanton, and Secretary of the Treasury Hugh McCulloch were among the others who also posed for a photograph for Chappel. The photos can now be found at the Chicago Historical Society, while the huge (52 by 89-1/2 inch) painting resides at Brown University.

Holzer and Williams succeed in providing an entertaining narrative of the efforts portray a somber event. The artists, it seems, knew no limits to the plausibility of just how many people were attendant at Lincoln's passing. A Foreword by Dwight T. Pitcaithley places the story of the artists and printmakers into a historical context. A very informative Afterword by Gary Scott details the National Park Service's efforts to restore the Peterson House.

Lincoln's Deathbed In Art and Memory: The "Rubber Room" Phenomenon is a worthy addition to any library on the assassination of Abraham Lincoln.

Available from:
Gettysburg Publications
P.O. Box 3031
Gettysburg, PA 17325

© Copyright Daniel E. Pearson, 1999