Lincoln's Lost Dog
Fido fl. 1860
Before leaving for the White House, Lincoln's sons took the family dog Fido to a Springfield studio,
where this formal portrait was made.
I [Dorothy Menserve Kunhardt] first ran across Fido some years ago when I started work on a book about little Tad, Abraham Lincoln’s youngest son. Hoping to find unpublished pictures of Tad and others concerned in his story, I began searching through the collection of Civil War photographs belonging to my father, Frederick Hill Meserve. (At 88 he is still adding to this, the last of such great picture collections to remain in private hands. The others are now all owned by universities, libraries or institutions.)
As I held old collodion negatives up to the light and went through cabinet after cabinet crammed with pictures of the period, I came upon the photograph of a dog mixed in with the impressive likenesses of Army officers. There was something curiously moving about this rough-coated, stubby-tailed little animal, stiffly posed and, I thought, obviously trying desperately to obey the order to hold still. The back of the card read "F. W. Ingmire, Photographer, Springfield, Ill.” Beneath the picture were the printed words: President Lincoln’s dog.
A dog always belongs really to the children in a family, so I determined to find out everything I could about this one. In 1940 good fortune led me straight to the knowledge I sought. In June of that year I went with my father to Lincoln Memorial University in Tennessee where he was being awarded an honorary degree. One of the guests was Isaac Diller of Springfield, known as the only person still living who had been photographed with Lincoln. Mr. Diller had been a playmate of the Lincoln children.
I spent every possible hour during the three days of ceremonies with 86-year-oid Isaac Diller, listening to the flow of his memory and writing it all down. He told how he ran across the street from his aunt’s house in 1860 to get into a "free” picture with the Lincolns, but — to his lifelong chagrin — turned his head at the crucial moment to look at a farm wagon. In the picture (next page) Isaac’s upper half came out as a blur, though the stripes on his socks and his high boots were splendidly clear.
Did Mr. Diller know Fido? He did. After three days of reminiscing, he also suggested that I get in touch with John Linden Roll, a neighbor in Springfield who was also in his 86th year. When the Lincolns went to Washington, Fido had been given to John.
In the end, after corresponding with these two old men, delving into little - known documents and records, and visiting Springfield to walk in and out of the Lincoln house and along the streets and across lots to the Roll house, I was able to piece together this story of Fido.
Fido’s date of birth is unknown. He may have been a small yellow butterball of a puppy in 1855 — it may have been for his benefit that a bill presented to A. Lincoln in that year by the Corneau and Diller Drugstore listed "Bottle Vermifuge —25¢." We do know that in his frisky middle age Fido rolled on the floor with Mr. Lincoln and his boys, ending the fun in a breathless pinwheel chase after his own tail. And this put Mr. Lincoln in mind of the conundrum: "If you call a tail a leg, how many legs does a dog have?" He caught his small sons with this one. "Five? No, you’re wrong. Calling a tail a leg don’t make it a leg.”
Up through the spring of 1860, the year Mr. Lincoln was nominated for the presidency, Fido’s must have been a carefree life. But everything changed on May 18, the day Mr. Lincoln was nominated. Every church bell in Springfield was ringing, cannons boomed, boys exploded firecrackers. That evening at the Lincoln home, hurrahing men and women and children pushed through the front door into the parlor and out the kitchen way. At this hour Fido usually lay asleep on the floor, but that night there could have been no thought of sleep. There was nothing to do but crawl to the old horsehair sofa and hide under it, trembling the way he did during summer storms. (Mrs. Lincoln shared the dog’s fear of thunder and lightning. She would stand trembling in the center of the room, away from draughts, until Mr. Lincoln hurried home from the law office, as he always did, to reassure her.)
The morning after the nomination Fido trotted along behind Mr. Lincoln as he walked as usual to market with basket on arm, but the walk was interrupted every few feet by people who made the candidate stop and talk. This day Mr. Lincoln did not let Fido, as he sometimes did, carry a parcel in his mouth. There was no chance today of a call on Billy the Barber, the remarkable West Indian Negro — flute player, poet, philosopher — whom Lincoln liked to visit, lounging around long after his shave and haircut to swap stories with the other men while Fido waited outside in unhurried communion with the other animals attending their masters.
The commotion affected even Old Bob, the Lincoln horse in the carriage house at the rear of the yard. Today his master came to feed him but did not spend the usual extra moment to rub his nose or examine his shoes. Mr. Lincoln left hurriedly, with Fido running after.
In the evening the notification committee — one man from each state in the union — arrived by train from Chicago to inform their candidate formally that he was chosen. That night Fido raced up and down the street with the children of the neighborhood, who were laboring to keep the big bonfires going. Willie was seen contributing what had clearly been a part of someone’s front fence only a few moments before.
July was a month of heavy rains, a double hardship to Tad and Fido, for they were confined to the house and had to keep quiet as well. Nine-year-old Willie lay upstairs dangerously ill with scarlet fever.
After a downpour Tad and his dog would venture out along sidewalks littered with fallen branches, both enjoying the feel of smooth mud oozing between their toes. At walk’s end the fine Lincoln carpet and the black horsehair covering of the furniture could be saved only by a stern warning from Mrs. Lincoln, and what looked like two clay figures had to proceed directly to the backdoor well to wash.
Even in days of comparative quiet there were many strangers arriving at that corner of Eighth and Jackson Streets. They patted Fido’s head and received his paw prints on their party clothes as mementos of their proximity to fame. Billy Herndon, Mr. Lincoln’s younger law partner, now working alone in the office on the square, remarked disgustedly that people were begging for a hair from the tail of Old Bob, and that even the dog running about the Lincoln house assumed a form of "beauty and power."
But Fido had no power to alter a fateful decision. After Mr. Lincoln was elected he gave his two sons a sad piece of news. It would be better, he said, for Fido not to come to Washington. A train filled to capacity and lurching and speeding across the country at 30 mph would be no place for a dog. In vain did Tad plead, "I could take care of him, Pa."
The problem was, what to do with their old friend and pet. There were so many children whom Mr. Lincoln knew because he had put up rope swings for them, let them sit on his tall shoulders when there was a circus parade, played marbles with them, told them stories about a bear hunt or the Indian war he was in and about the river pirates he had fought with on the Mississippi.
There were Henry Remann and his sister Josephine. Once Mr. Lincoln had run all the way to the railroad station with Josephine’s trunk when the hackman forgot to come for it and the little girl was crying out in front of her house.
There was Johnny Kaine, to whom Mr. Lincoln had given a 25f donation for a new pump for the juvenile fire brigade.
There were the three Dubois boys, Fred and Jess and Link. One dark night they had hidden behind a fence and knocked off Mr. Lincoln’s stovepipe hat with a stick as he went by. Then they all shouted and jumped on him and clung to his hands, and he dragged them up the street to a store and treated them to cake and nuts.
There was Dr. Melvin’s boy Charlie, who always sat waiting on his gatepost to call, "Hello, Mr. Lincoln." One day, when Mr. Lincoln stood talking to a friend., Charlie had to shout his greeting over and over before he was heard. "What is it, Charlie?" Mr. Lincoln asked at last. Flustered, Charlie suddenly didn’t know what it was, so he cried out, "Huwwah for you!" Mr. Lincoln laughed and laughed and told about it later in Washington.
Next there was little Isaac Diller, a year younger than Tad. Isaac’s father Roland was the owner of Diller’s drugstore. He sold the Lincolns their castor oil and soap, cologne, cough medicine, candy vanilla, hair balsam, ipecac, calomel and restorative. On a hot summer day Mr. Lincoln liked to go there to sit at the fountain, a recent novelty, holding a glass of fruit-flavored soda water alternately to Tad's and to Willie's thirsty mouths. Fido was very much at home there, and a drugstore dog would have the best of care should he be taken sick.
But all in all, perhaps the Roll family was best. John Linden Roll and Frank Roll, gentle, serious children, were about the same ages as Willie and Tad. Fido had always made a fuss over them, licking their hands and running halfway home with them when they left after playing with him. Moreover their father, John Eddy Roll, was Lincoln's oldest friend in Springfield. John Eddy Roll liked to recollect the day when the traveling magician came to town and asked for someone's hat to cook an omelet in and Abe hesitated, as he said, not out of fear for his battered hat but out of respect for the eggs.
But Fido didn't have to move for a while yet. The new year came, and then on Jan. 30 the public auction of the Lincoln furniture. Dr. Melvin took the big four-poster bed but, fortunately for Fido, it was Mr. John Eddy Roll who carried away the parlor horsehair sofa of mahogany veneer. It was more than seven feet long. Mr. Lincoln had had it built especially for himself, as no other piece of furniture allowed him to stretch out full length. This familiar landmark, its underside Fido's refuge in times of stress, was a piece of his old life coming with him into the new.
Almost too late, Willie and Tad suddenly remembered they had no picture of Fido to take away to Washington with them. So Fido had one last excursion with his young masters. They trooped over to F. W. Ingmire’s studio on the west side of the square. Mr. Ingmire draped a piece of fancy material over a washstand and put Fido on top as if on a royal couch. Willie and Tad watched but did not get into the picture.
At 7 in the morning of Feb. 11, Mr. Lincoln stood in the depot waiting room, taking his neighbors’ hands in his to say goodbye as he climbed on the train. Johnny Kaine had brought his drum and now stood beating on it. Fourteen-year-old Lincoln Dubois— "Link" —pressed himself tight against the bumper of the car, looked up and saw tears in Mr. Lincoln’s eyes, saw his lips tremble.
The Roll boys had been given explicit instructions for Fido’s care. They had promised never to leave him tied up in the backyard by himself. He was not to be scolded for wet or muddy or dusty paws. He was to be allowed inside whenever he scratched at the door and be allowed in the dining room at dinner time because he was used to being given tastes by everybody around the table.
For a time there is no record of Fido. Then almost three years later, after Willie had died in the White House, came a letter of condolence to the President from his old friend, Billy the Barber. "I was sorry to hear of the death of your son Willy. I thought him a Smart lad for his age, so Considerate, so Manly; his Knowledge and good Sence, far exceeding Most boys far advanced in years yet the time comes to all. all must die. . . . Tell Taddy that his (and Willys) Dog is alive and Kicking doing well as he stays Mostly at John E. Rolls with his Boys. ..."
Isaac Diller never forgot the morning of April 15, 1865. His family was sitting down to breakfast when they got the word that Mr. Lincoln had been assassinated the night before. Every member of the group burst into tears.
Not far away Dr. Melvin’s little girl, Mary Todd, the namesake often mentioned by the First Lady in letters home, was lying in her trundle bed beside the big four-poster that had been the Lincolns’. Her nurse, who had been early to market, came running back to tell what she had heard. Mary remembered her father’s sitting up straight in the bed and exclaiming, "Is it possible? Is it possible? Who could think of killing so great and good a man!"
Soon Old Bob, the horse, was brought out again. Only a week before, at the time of Lee’s surrender, he had been taken out to pasture and decorated with flags and led through rejoicing streets. On May 4 a black mourning blanket was laid across his back and he was led to the Lincoln home and photographed, standing there waiting for the funeral procession to start. Search the picture as you may, there is no trace of Fido. Nor can he be seen in the photograph of the crowd waiting at the station for the black-draped train with its tolling bell, or in that of the assembly on the quiet hillside where the extra-long coffin and the short one holding Willie were laid to rest.
Less than a year later the tragedy which seemed to follow the whole Lincoln family overtook Fido. This is what happened, as little Johnny Roll, an old man in his 90th year, wrote it to me in a shaking, penciled scrawl only a few weeks before his death:
"We possessed the dog for a number of years when one day the dog, in a playful manner put his dirty paws upon a drunken man sitting on the street curbing [who] in his drunken rage, thrust a knife into the body of poor old Fido. He was buried by loving hands. So Fido, just a poor yellow dog met the fate of his illustrious master — Assassination."
Source: Kunhardt, Dorothy Menserve. "Lincoln's Lost Dog," Life, 15 Feb 1954, pp. 83-84, 86.