- The Washington Times - Friday, May 25, 2007

Comets, importing change of times and states Brandish your crystal tresses.

Henry VI, Part I Act I, Scene I, Lines 2-3 (William Shakespeare).

T here are times when an air of prophecy hung over the life of Abraham Lincoln. The most famous example was just before the assassination, when Lincoln had a dream about his funeral at the White House.

Well before that, in April 1861, at the start of the Civil War, several members of Lincoln’s circle also were given a prophecy of his death in office. It’s an odd little story that includes Tad and Willie Lincoln, a friend of theirs named Julia, an elderly slave woman, and a comet.

It all began with a government official named Horatio Nelson Taft, whose Civil War diary of life in Washington makes fascinating reading. He had a daughter, Julia, and two sons. Sometime during March 1861, his children were invited to the White House as playmates for Tad and Willie.

The five of them hit it off, and for the next year, they had many childhood adventures together. Then, for whatever reason, after Willie’s death on Feb. 20, 1862, the Taft children were welcome no more. Perhaps they had become too poignant a reminder of happier days.

Long after, in 1901, Julia wrote a book about her experiences, under her married name of Julia Taft Bayne — “Tad Lincoln’s Father.” It provides a keen inside look at the Lincoln family, and any reader probably would wish it were longer. There are several amusing anecdotes, such as when Tad and Willie slapped together a homemade fort on the roof of the White House in April 1861, when war had broken out, and Washington was almost defenseless. “Let ‘em come,” said Tad. “Willie and I are ready for ‘em.”

However, the book’s most arresting story, by far, concerns the Taft children meeting a very old slave woman named Oola. She was a slave for some family friends, the Andersons. Julia remembers her as follows: “She was tall and large of frame, with gray-black skin wrinkled yet drawn tight over [her] forehead and cheek bones, and eyes whose sudden glance made us wince as though actually pricked.”

Oola gave the young Tafts a prophecy about Lincoln and the war. Julia didn’t give the exact date, but because it happened during the city’s defenseless period to which Willie and Tad were responding, it must have been in mid- or late April 1861.

A comet had just appeared in the night skies, what Julia called “the great war comet blazing in the sky.” Throughout history, many people have considered comets to be omens of evil, and this time was no exception.

Removing the book’s labored attempt at dialect, here is what Oola had to say: “You see that great fire sword, blazing in the sky? That’s a great war coming, and the handle’s toward the North, and the point toward the South, and the North’s going to take that sword and cut the South’s heart out. But that Lincoln man, children, if he takes that sword, he’s going to perish by it.”

The Taft children then told Tad and Willie, leaving out the part about the death of the president. They in turn told their parents. Tad asked his father if he thought the prophecy might come true. “I hope not, Tad. I hope it won’t come to that,” Lincoln answered Even so, Julia noticed Mr. Lincoln “a few evenings later, looking out of the window intently at the comet.”

Which comet was it? The local Evening Star of April 19, 1861, ran a brief announcement that a comet had just become visible in the night skies of Washington. The first Washingtonian to see it was Lt. Matthew Maury, head of the U.S. Naval Observatory. Maury didn’t stick around long after that. On April 20, he resigned and went south to join the Confederacy.

The comet was visible in the constellation Draco, the dragon, or serpent. Because Draco is a circumpolar constellation that seems to revolve slowly around the North Star each year, the comet must have been fairly high up in the sky. Its discoverer, on April 5, had been a Mr. Thatcher of New York.

Whether the comet itself was a harbinger of bad times or not, Oola’s prophecy certainly came true.

As for Oola herself, it’s uncertain what happened to her. The next year, on April 16, 1862, the slaves of Washington were freed on April 16 by peaceful, compensated emancipation. There is no Oola listed in the emancipation rolls, however. Did she die before then? There was an “Oceola” (no last name), but that name was not listed with any Anderson family. Perhaps she was sold to another family or the Andersons left town to avoid emancipation, as several families did.

At any rate, though she appears for just three pages, Oola dominates Julia Taft Bayne’s book more than anyone else except for Lincoln himself.

When beggars die there are no comets seen;

The heavens themselves blaze forth the death of princes.

Julius Caesar, Act 2, Scene 2, Lines 30-31 (William Shakespeare).

John Lockwood is a Washington writer.

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