Following his election as President in 1860, Abraham Lincoln undertook a train ride to Washington that took him through Albany. He arrived in the city on February 18, 1861 with his wife and three sons.
As their train passed the West Albany railroad shops, an electrical switch was turned off at the nearby Dudley Observatory, causing an electromagnet mounted on the roof of the Capitol in downtown Albany to release a metal ball that slid down a pole, signaling to military officials to start a 21-gun salute in Capitol Park.
Albany’s Congressman Erastus Corning, the founder and first president of the New York Central Railroad, had been instrumental in donating a high quality telescope and time-keeping system at the new Dudley Observatory. Each morning a worker started up a dynamo (generator) at the observatory and at exactly 12 noon he turned on an electrical switch that ran a wire to an electromagnet on top of a pole mounted on the roof of the Capitol. The energized electromagnet pulled up the metal ball. Every night at exactly midnight, the worker turned off the switch which caused the ball to drop.
One of these “Time Balls” controlled by the Dudley Observatory had also been mounted on the train station in New York City. It was important to the railroads that New York City and Albany were on exactly the same time so that trains could run accurately.
Since few people at that time had watches and the pocket watches that existed usually showed a variety of times, it became traditional in both New York and Albany for partiers to go downtown on New Years Eve “to watch the ball drop.” On that day in 1860, the ball was being used to signal the President’s arrival.
Albany’s Democratic Mayor George Thacher met Lincoln at the train station, and they rode in a carriage to the Capitol. Thacher, Thurlow Weed, State Republican Chairman and editor of the Albany Evening Journal, Republican Governor Edwin D. Morgan, U.S. Senator Ira Harris and probably Democratic Congressman Erastus Corning hosted Lincoln.
As the carriage proceeded down Broadway and turned up State Street, it passed Stanwix Hall, then the residence of John Wilkes Booth. Undoubtedly, Booth watched with almost all of Albany as the new President went by. Another spectator was Clara Harris, daughter of Senator Harris. Clara and her fiance Henry Rathbone would be reunited with President and Mrs. Lincoln at a later encounter with Booth.
Booth was in Albany starring in the play “The Apostate” at the Gayety Theater. He had fallen on his dagger during a performance earlier in the week and had been sidelined for several performances. He was spending his time in the Stanwix bar and lobby, criticizing Lincoln and the Union to the point where the Gayety’s treasurer, Mr. Cuyler, told him to keep his comments to himself or he would discourage attendance. Thurlow Weed’s Albany Evening Journal said of Wilkes’ performance: “Undoubtedly one of the finest actors this country has ever produced.”
Lincoln spoke to a joint session of the Legislature, attended a dinner with Gov. Morgan and returne d to a large reception at the Delavan House.
The main topic of conversation was the seceding of southern states, as Jefferson Davis was being sworn in as president of the Confederacy in Richmond, Virginia while Lincoln was speaking in Albany. Part of the reason for Lincoln’s visit was to judge the breadth and depth of support. At each stop in New York, Albany being no exception, he witnessed a strong demonstration of patriotism. Lincoln left Albany by train, departing for New York City and then Washington. Albany’s Major John Titcomb Sprague accompanied Lincoln.
Booth stayed in Albany continuing his performances at the Gayety, where he was joined by married Albany actress Henrietta Irving and they resumed their romance. On April 26, at the Stanwix Hotel, Booth tried to break off his relationship with Irving. Irving thrust a knife at Booth’s chest which he deflected with his arm, resulting in a slash to his face. Irving then turned the knife on herself, but, according to an Albany Police Report, “did no real harm.”
Thus, during the Lincoln and Booth visit to Albany, Booth was nearly killed – twice.
Illustrations, from above: The Delavan House on Broadway in Albany as it looked at the time of Lincoln’s visit; The first Dudley Observatory; John Wilkes Booth from a period carte de visitein north Albany; and a February 18, 1861 advertisement for New Gayety Theater in Albany Evening Journal..