Stranger Than Fiction
Precursor to Tragedy
By Joel Allyn
|On the eve of his death, a man reflects on being rescued by a stranger when he fell from a train platform sixty years ago and debates whether or not others died because he lived. The surreal discovery involved with the identity of his rescuer and that of his father’s killer leaves him wondering if all these odd coincidences hold some hidden meaning.|
None of my brothers made it past their teenage years, and just a short while before my father’s life was taken I nearly lost my own. I have thought at times what a blessing it was that a stranger took the trouble to pull me from the cold embrace of the abyss that day in 1865, for thanks solely to him I was able to marry, see the birth of my two daughters and that of my son, whom I named for my father. And yet, certain occurrences which have taken place since what should have been my death have led me to question whether it was in fact a good thing I lived at all. You must excuse me, but I feel quite ill this evening so I shall move my pen with the greatest of haste, for I have already put off the telling of the start of these odd events for over sixty years already and refuse to procrastinate one day more. So though my body tells me to jump ship now, I shall put down all as I remember it, and then I shall retire.
I do not recall if I had already left Harvard or if I was just on a break, but it was near enough to the end of my academic career that it matters not. I do remember clearly that I found myself in a train terminal in New Jersey. It was extremely busy that evening and on the platform with me was a great many people all crowding and pushing towards the waiting train car. The whole lot of the passengers were attempting at once to purchase their sleeping cars from the conductor, who stood on the station platform at the entrance to the car. The platform itself was about the height of the car floor, and there was of course a narrow space between the platform and the car body. I had managed to make my way to the front of the unthinking horde when I felt the group crowding in against me. I looked down and found I had reached the edge of the platform, and was rather frightened to find the toes of my shoes jutting just over the lip.
I attempted to push back against the great body to my rear and as if I had attempted to fight a strong river current I was forced forward again, this time I was pressed directly against the car body. As I waited, balanced awkwardly over the small gap for my turn and some relief the car gave a sudden forward jerk.
My heart sank, and I followed down after it.
The motion of the train caused me to lose my balance; I was twisted off my feet and began to drop into the space between, where I knew I would become an unrecognizable corpse beneath the great iron horse. I descended, personally helpless, when my coat collar was vigorously seized and I was quickly pulled up and out to a secure footing on the platform. I turned around to thank my rescuer and upon doing so looked directly into a face that was well known to me, a great actor I knew by name; it was that of Edwin Booth. I conveyed my gratitude best that I was able in such a shaken state, and then we parted ways never to cross paths again.
A short time after my own deus ex machina had appeared my father was shot and killed. I had already lost my brothers Edward and William before this tragedy struck and Tad would follow suit six years later, leaving only mother and I. Losing two children so young had done irrevocable damage to her mental health, but I believe now it was losing father in such a violent manner that finally pushed her beyond the precipice, and nobody could simply yank her back to sanity by the collar.
The name of the shooter was familiar to me but so common a name it was I didn’t dwell on it for a moment. It was not until I read the man’s biography in the paper later that I fully comprehended the tremendous weight of the coincidence. The man who shot my father dead was named John Wilkes Booth, brother of the actor who had saved my life such a short time before the assassination.
I collapsed more than sat, and then read the words over again out loud to make sure I was not mistaken. I read them again after. And again. And again. It was staggering and I kept searching for some great meaning in the precursor to the tragedy, then after some long while came to accept that there was none to be found. Though as more time passes and I dwell on the situation further, I wonder…
As I have stated I am far from sure that it was in fact good that I did not perish that day. Perhaps my death could have served to keep my father alive by keeping him home in mourning, far away from the Ford’s Theater. I was not nearly so close to the man as my brothers, and my most vivid image of him is still how he looked as he packed his saddlebags to prepare for his travels through Illinois, but the distance between us is much greater now.
Before I go further let me make clear I don’t believe in curses, bad luck, or any other ridiculous notions of the sort, but I must admit my being alive has proved lethal to more presidents than just my father. Call it coincidence, but at President Garfield’s invitation I joined him at a train station in Washington D.C. in 1877, where he was assassinated in front of me. It had been over ten years since Edwin Booth’s brother John had shot my father, and then ten years after Garfield’s death there was another incident. This time the year was 1901 and the presidential invitation came courtesy of William McKinley. I was at the Pan-Am Expo in New York and – thank you for small mercies – was not actually a witness to the shooting, though I was present and later could not help but dwell on this fact, much to the distress of my wife. I shouldn’t have been there you see, just a like a year prior to McKinley’s shooting I should not have had to bury my little boy Abraham as I had buried his namesake. I should not have had a son at all for I would have been long dead were it not for the heroic actions of the actor who then shed his own mortal coil in 1893. I heard later that poor Edwin Booth was deeply distraught over his brother’s actions, I had always meant to send him a correspondence, but time and again I failed to do so. I only hope he knew somehow who he had saved that day on the train platform and that the knowing provided him some peace before the end.
Feeling I had the blood of three presidents on my hands I henceforth politely declined all future presidential invitations. I even responded once after repeated requests were sent, stating that ‘No, I’m not going, and they’d better not even ask me, because there is a certain fatality about presidential functions when I am present.’ So I said no, no and no again, at least until 1922. I received news that Warren G. Harding would be dedicating the recently completed Lincoln Memorial along with former president Taft, and they wished dearly for the last living Lincoln to be in attendance. So against my better judgment I accepted, and though nobody was shot Harding ended up dying in office, barely half-way through his only term, he passed fifteen months and one day after the dedication ceremony. Taft had been fortunate enough to no longer be president when he made my acquaintance and therefore has survived to this day.
That dedication was four years ago, and I have kept away from presidents in the interim, just to be on the safe side. The only president I visit now rests in Springfield, Illinois and I can do him no further harm. I am relieved to have finally put down this odd tale and have set down with it a large weight, yet I notice I feel more ill than when I first began. Before I take my rest however I must state my feelings as I look back over this confession of sorts. Had I or some other writer put all this down under the label fiction, many would dismiss it out of hand as far too fantastical and unlikely to be believable at all, as it stands they may simply insist it to be an apocryphal tale. No matter what any other thinks however, it happened, all of it, and I have no doubt if there is any meaning hidden in such a strange series of events it shall elude me to my death.
July 26, 1926