In 1863, the president gave the virus to the valet.
William Johnson, Abraham Lincoln’s 30-year-old African-American White House valet, had joined the president’s retinue for its important train trip to Gettysburg on Nov. 18. No doubt, he attended Lincoln that night as the president labored over the final draft of the “few appropriate remarks” he was set to deliver at the new Soldier’s National Cemetery the following day. On the Nov. 19, Johnson surely helped the president dress for the ceremony.
Following the storied event, Johnson traveled with the official party by train back to Washington. It should have been a happy journey. But during the trip, Lincoln, listless all afternoon, fell seriously ill with a blinding headache. Johnson helped him to a berth where the president lay down and tried to rest. Then the valet brought a wet cloth and placed it over Lincoln’s brow.
Doctors were summoned once the president returned safely to the White House, . They diagnosed Lincoln with a mild form of smallpox — serious enough to leave him bedridden for three weeks, his first and only protracted illness since taking office.
He had likely contracted the disease from his young son, Tad, who had been so sick with the disease a few days earlier that Mary Lincoln had begged her husband not to travel to Gettysburg, certain the boy would die if his beloved father left his bedside. Tad was now much improved.
The usually hale president took to his bed. When a rash erupted on his homely face, he merrily suggested that his endless stream of office-seeking visitors be directed to his room. “Now,” he joked, “I have something I can give everybody.”
For days, Johnson waited on the patient-in-chief. Slowly, Lincoln regained his health. But then, according to a tiny item in a Washington newspaper, Johnson himself caught the disease as a smallpox epidemic continued to plague the capital. In January 1864, he entered a hospital. But doctors there could not save him. On the Jan. 28, the valet succumbed. The papers duly noted William Johnson’s death — from smallpox—which he undoubtedly had caught from the president.
For days, as the valet grew sicker, Lincoln had made sure that Johnson’s $12-a-week salary checks were reliably directed to his valet’s wife. Officially, Johnson had worked on the Treasury Department payroll because the White House staff itself actually remained segregated. Whenever Lincoln needed Johnson’s help, however, Treasury dispatched the loyal aide to the executive mansion to serve as a barber or messenger. After Johnson died, Lincoln did even more. He paid off half of Johnson’s home mortgage (the bank forgave the remaining debt, probably at the president’s behest).
And though Lincoln had failed to keep a promise he had made to his beloved stepmother before leaving Illinois for his inaugural — to install a tombstone on his own father’s grave — Lincoln not only paid for Johnson’s interment, but arranged for a headstone to be erected over his valet’s burial spot at Arlington cemetery.
Today, that marker — no one knows for sure whether it is the original stone — bears an inscription that makes manifest the president’s regard for the employee who had attended him so loyally: “William Johnson / Citizen.”
“No man is a hero to his valet,” so the saying goes. The wag who originated that widely attributed remark never knew about Abraham Lincoln and William Johnson.
President Trump likes to point out that he has absorbed as much press criticism as the constantly maligned Abraham Lincoln. Now, as a virus again infiltrates the White House, we will see whether he displays as much empathy toward his afflicted valet.
Harold Holzer, winner of the National Humanities Medal for his work on Lincoln, is director of Hunter College’s Roosevelt House Public Policy Institute.