Duplicate Did this woman cradle Lincoln’s head after he was shot at Ford’s Theater?


Sergeant Major
Aug 6, 2016
“Her hair and dress were in disorder, and not only was her gown soaked
with Lincoln’s blood, but her hands, even her cheeks
where her fingers had strayed were bedaubed with the sorry stains.” {2}
(from the recollections of Seaton Munroe, a Washington, D.C. attorney)


Mary Frances Moss (1826–1873)
aka Laura Keene
(Public Domain)
Mary Frances Moss was born in Winchester England. Before she became a player in “the night that changed America” she had married the nephew and godson of the Duke of Wellington (Henry Wellington Taylor); given birth to two daughters - Emma & Clara; they were owners of a tavern; saw her husband convicted of an unknown crime; while her husband was in prison she worked for her aunt (owner of a theater); eventually went to Australia in the hopes of obtaining a divorce from her husband now in prison there; she may or may not have found him and if she found him he would not divorce her; after his death she left her children with her mother while she pursued her career; she came to America; she was at Ford’s Theater on April 14, 1865; and she is known in history as actress “Laura Keene”.

But on that night on April 14th there swirls controversy as to whether she was or was not in the Presidential box that night tenderly cradling the wounded President’s head as his blood spilled out upon her hands and gown - - or was she the ultimate actress giving a performance worthy of an Academy Award?

After the shooting from the stage Laura was heard to calm the audience when she said:
“For God’s sake, have presence of mind and keep your places, and all will be well.” {1}

There was panic at Ford's Theater as theater goers were running to the doors in an attempt to escape. This is when Laura said she walked up to the President’s box. William J. Ferguson a fellow actor that by chance had been asked to fill-in for an actor that evening testified that he was the gentleman that led Miss Keene off the stage and took her to the Presidential box and they arrived just as Major Rathbone was opening the door. He also continued in his testimony to state that President Lincoln was in his rocking chair and he saw no one ever move him and that he saw no blood.

Laura Keene would describe her arrival differently:

“entered the President’s box. He looked as if he had only fallen, but upon closer scrutiny, . . . the picture became distorted . . . under his great head, seeping slowly across the floor in a crimson pool, came his life’s blood.”

[With Mrs. Mary Lincoln sobbing uncontrollably] , Keene asked the doctor if she could hold the President until he could be moved. She lifted the President’s head onto her lap and bathed it with water,”

Both of these statements were contradicted by the wife of the stage manager. She claimed that Laura Keene would have never gotten to the President’s box as the panic and mass of people made surging through the crowd “simply impossible”.

But Was She There?

The first physician to touch Abraham Lincoln that evening was Dr. Charles Leale and it was without a doubt that his quick actions in those first few minutes at least prolonged the President’s life. He provided a statement that Laura Keene was in the box and that he personally gave her permission to hold Mr. Lincoln’s head in her lap.

On April 15, 1865 - The New York Herald Printed The Following Account

"Prominent among those mentioned in connection with the incidents of the late tragical death of our worthy President is the name of Miss Laura Keene, the actress. In order to place her right in the history the following facts will suffice: Miss Keene was behind the scenes at the precise time of the shooting, waiting to come on the stage. She was near the place theatrically known as the tormentor. She was on the northern side of the theatre, while the President's box was on the southern side. Miss Keene's position was near the prompter's desk; but as that official was absent calling some of the actors she placed herself near the point where she could more readily enter upon her part. She was at the time expecting to see the ingress of Mr. Spear, whose part was at hand, and prepared herself to break his fall as he entered in a drunken scene; but instead of receiving Mr. Spear, Mr. Booth pushed his way suddenly through the side scene, striking Miss Keene on the hand with his own, in which he held a dagger. She for a second looked at him and saw it was another person from the one she expected, and instantaneously she heard the cry that the President was shot. The cry was spontaneous among the audience, and many of them were making for the stage.

She then knew something was occurring, as women were screaming, men hallooing and children crying, as if a fire panic had taken place. Miss Keene went to the front of the stage, and, addressing the bewildered audience, said: 'For God's sake, have presence of mind and keep your places, and all will be well.'

Notwithstanding this appeal the audience were boisterous, and while all seemed willing to detect the perpetrator of the great crime, but one made a move to this end. Scarcely had the perpetrator of the crime jumped from the President's box to the stage, than he was followed by Mr. Stewart, one of the auditors. As Mr. Booth crossed the stage he met and struck at the carpenter with the dagger he held, and instantaneously made his exit to the rear of the theatre, where his horse was in readiness, and thence made his escape. Miss Keene, after momentarily arresting the panic and consternation in the audience. heard the cry of Miss Harris, saying. 'Miss Keene. bring some water! ' Miss Keene responded to the call, made her way. which was rather circuitous, through the dress circle to the President's box. and got there a few moments after the occurrence. There she saw Mrs. Lincoln, in the agony of a devoted wife, uttering the most piteous cries. Miss Keene attempted to pacify her. at the same time offering the good offices in her power: but she was convinced from her observation that human help was in vain. Miss Keene remained with the President until he was taken from the theatre.”

A fellow actress, Mrs. Eldridge, who was a member of the stock company at Wood’s Theatre in Cincinnati wrote the following to an author working on a book about Laura Keene:

“I was never a member of Miss Keene’s company… consequently I knew but very little about her. I met her first in April, 1865, the week after the assassination of the lamented Lincoln, when she came to play an engagement at Wood’s Theatre, Cincinnati, where I was a member of the stock company. She then told me the entire story of the assassination, and how she went into the box at Ford’s Theatre, Washington, and held the head of the murdered president. She also gave me a piece of the dress she wore at the time. I cannot now find the scrap, as it is more than thirty years since that sad event took place.” {6}

Now granted there was utter confusion in the box that night and Mary Lincoln was understandably emotional and was comforted by Clara Harris. Would another lady in the box be remembered? There was no eyewitness account from others immediately reporting the presence of Laura Keene only Laura's words herself as told to the "New York Herald".

A Famous Blood-Stained Dress
At the time of the shooting, Laura was attired in a multi-colored floral pattern silk costume. According to accounts, she did not throw away the blood-stained dress but preserved the blood and brain matter that had oozed out from the stricken president. It soon became an object of curiosity. If she was in the box and held Lincoln’s head, it was told the blood stain on her dress is what alerted others that Lincoln had been shot in the head and not the chest.

It was also reported that when Laura Keene made her next acting experience in Cincinnati, she hung the blood stained gown for the public to observe however it turned out the theater goers were appalled at the sight and it was quickly put away. {6}

Laura Keene held on to her blood-stained costume. There were stories that she would occasionally wear the garment at social gatherings so her guests could view the famous dress. Eventually she entrusted the dress to her daughter.

There are reportedly five swatches that have survived through the years with one piece of the garment at the National Museum of American History in Washington, D.C. There was a piece of the dress at the Abraham Lincoln’s Presidential Library and Museum in Springfield, Illinois. The most unusual sighting was the “New Bedford Whaling Museum” when it stated:

“Without doubt, the most poignant is a relic. It is a small piece of silk fabric that bears witness to one of the most infamous incidents in American history. The fabric’s delicate floral design is marred by dried blood stains belonging to President Abraham Lincoln. The swatch is from the dress worn by actress Laura Keene, the British stage actress who played a leading role in Our American Cousin at Ford’s Theater in Washington, D.C., which was attended by President Lincoln on the evening of his assassination.” {7}

Within several years after the assassination, Laura’s stage appearances were infrequent. She was viewed more as a curiosity and her ill health resulted in many cancelled performances. While she was on stage in Tidioute, Pennsylvania on the 4th of July in 1873, Laura suffered a massive hemorrhage and died exactly four months later at her daughter’s Emma Taylor’s home in New Jersey. She was forty-seven. She was buried in Green-Wood Cemetery in Brooklyn, New York. She left behind her two daughters eventually Emma and Clara would join her in death at Green-Wood Cemetery.

Did she cradle President Lincoln’s head that night in the theater box like she claimed?
was she an actress that played the best role of her life?

* * *

In Memoriam to Laura Keene
by Col. T. Allston Brown
New York, November 8, 1873

“She's dead! and may she sweetly sleep
Within the silent grave,
Where willow-trees around her weep,
And dews her cold house lave;

And history, with her golden pen,
May she record her name,
Whilst memory wreath's a diadem

Of honor and of fame.”

Some More Interesting Tidbits
1. The play began at around 8:00 p.m. - the theater was overflowing and had a 1700 seating capacity.
2. At around 8:30 p.m. the play came to a stop as the band played to “Hail to the Chief” to announce and honor President Lincoln and his party.
3. At the time of his arrival Laura Keene was on the stage.
4. The evening of the 14th of April was the conclusion of the stage production of “Our American Cousin” and theater owner John Ford had promised Laura Keene that on that night she would receive all box office proceeds from the evening. Once it was known that the Lincoln’s would be in attendance it was a full house and Keene would enjoy a profitable evening.
5. There are some reports that Clara Harris was only heard screaming: “The president is shot!” and in some instances it is added: “Stop that Man”.
6. The only blood that appears to be documented in the presidential box is that of Henry Rathbone when he sustained a slash from Booth’s dagger and suffered a wound stretching from left arm from elbow to shoulder.

1. https://truewestmagazine.com/she-cradled-lincoln-head/
2. https://civilwar.gratzpa.org/2012/01/laura-keene-and-the-bloody-dress/
3. https://www.thevintagenews.com/2019/03/06/claude-des-armoises/
4. https://archive.org/details/lifeoflaurakeene00increa
5. https://www.smithsonianmag.com/history/the-blood-relics-from-the-lincoln-assassination-180954331/
6. http://civilwar.gratzpa.org/2012/03/laura-keene-and-the-bloody-dress-in-cincinnati/
7. https://www.whalingmuseum.org/pressroom/presidential-objects-on-view
8. https://www.findagrave.com/memorial/3009/laura-keene
9. https://www.womenhistoryblog.com/2013/09/clara-harris-rathbone.html