President Abraham Lincoln, after saving the Union and winning the Civil War, was shot by actor John Wilkes Booth at the Ford Theater in Washington, D.C. on April 14, 1865, finally succumbing to his wounds the next morning on April 15th. Lincoln was the first U.S. President ever assassinated, and his death led to a protracted period of national mourning and political tumult, including the first impeachment of a U.S. President, Lincoln’s successor Andrew Johnson.
But this event which changed the course of history might never have happened were it not for events connected to one of the most unusual houses in Greenwich Village, which thanks to landmark protections still stands, constructed by one of Greenwich Village’s most prolific builders.
45 Grove Street, which stands just west of Bleecker Street, was originally a free-standing home built in 1830. According to the Greenwich Village Historic District designation report “it was undoubtedly one of the finest and largest Federal residences in Greenwich Village,” often referred to ask the Whittemore Mansion. It was built for Samuel Whittemore (1774-1835), who was one of the major property owners in the area, and who was largely responsible for the early development of this part of the Village. Whittemore was the senior member of the firm of S. Whittemore & Company, manufacturers of steam-propelled carding equipment used in textile manufacturing. One of his factories was located nearby on Waverly Place, then known as Factory Street.
When 45 Grove Street was originally built it was just two stories, and many of its original details including Flemish bond brickwork, arched doorway, and Federal lintels at the windows are still intact (the two upper stories were added in 1871). But by 1851, the neighborhood was becoming increasingly crowded with immigrants and industry, and the Whittemore Family sold it. Not long after the sale, the home was operating as a boarding house.
One of the boarders was a man named Samuel K. Chester. Chester was an actor and associate of fellow actor John Wilkes Booth. Around the beginning of 1865, Booth came to 45 Grove Street to meet Chester at his home and try to persuade him to participate in a “conspiracy to take over the government” including kidnapping President Lincoln, and bring them to Richmond, Virginia. Booth was a strong supporter of the Confederate cause, and wildly opposed to Lincoln’s war to save the Union and his move to free the slaves.
After Chester turned Booth down the offer to assist with the kidnapping of the President, Booth changed his plan to murdering the President. Had Chester either agreed to participate in the plan to kidnap the President, or reported Booth’s plot, Lincoln’s life might have been spared, and the course of history quite different.
But he did neither. Just days after Lee’s surrender at Appamatox and the collapse of the Confederacy, Booth shot Lincoln as he watched a performance of ‘Our American Cousin’ at Ford’s Theater, shouting (by various accounts) “Sic semper tyrannis” (“Thus always to tyrants,” the state motto of Virginia) or “The South is avenged!” as he leaped from Lincoln’s box and onto the stage. He escaped, but after the largest manhunt in American history up to that time, he was shot and killed. Lincoln was replaced as President by Andrew Johnson, a Southern Democrat who was significantly more sympathetic to the Confederate cause than Lincoln, who refused to adopt or enforce many of the Republican party’s Reconstructionist programs granting rights to freed slaves. He was impeached in 1868, but fell just one vote short of being removed from office by the Senate.
By another twist of fate, shortly after the Civil War, 45 Grove became known as the “Lincoln Home” for destitute soldiers and sailors.
For more history, programs, celebrations, and resources connected to the 50th anniversary of the Greenwich Village Historic District, see www.gvshp.org/GVHD50.