On April 12, 1956, Samuel J. Seymour died in his daughter’s home in Arlington, Virginia. This isn’t really noteworthy on its own. People die every day. Mr. Seymour was 96 years old on the day he died, though, which means he was born in 1860, the year before the American Civil War began, and was the longest-surviving witness to one of the nation’s great tragedies.
In the spring of 1865, when Seymour was 5 years old, he joined his father on a business trip to Washington, D.C. While the elder Seymour attended to business at his client's estate, Samuel and his nurse were entertained by the client’s wife, Mrs. Goldsboro.
“Sammy, you and I and Sarah are going to a play—a real play,” Seymour recalled Goldsboro telling him. The play was called Our American Cousin, and they went to the evening performance on April 14 at Ford’s Theater.
As they took their seats in one of the balconies, Goldsboro pointed across the theater to a draped balcony box.
“See those flags, Sammy? That’s where President Lincoln will sit.”
When the president and his party arrived and took their seats, Goldsboro lifted Seymour up so he could have a clear view.
“He was a tall, stern-looking man,” Seymour said of Lincoln. “I guess I just thought he looked stern because of his whiskers, because he was smiling and waving to the crowd.”
During the play’s third act, Seymour wrote, “all of a sudden a shot rang out—a shot that will always be remembered—and someone in the president’s box screamed.”
Seymour didn’t actually see anyone shoot Lincoln, but he watched as the president slumped over in his chair and a man jumped from the balcony to the stage. He landed awkwardly, and appeared to have hurt himself.
“Hurry, hurry,” Seymour begged Goldsboro. “Let’s go help the poor man who fell down.”
Not knowing who the man was or what he had just done, Seymour was concerned for his well-being, but John Wilkes Booth's landing was smooth enough that he escaped the theater and evaded pursuit for almost two weeks.
Samuel Seymour did not sleep easy when he finally escaped the commotion of the theater and returned home.
“That night I was shot 50 times, at least, in my dreams,” Seymour later said. “And I sometimes still relive the horror of Lincoln’s assassination, dozing in my rocker as an old codger like me is bound to do.”
In February 1956, Seymour appeared on the TV game show I’ve Got a Secret, where the panelists were able to guess his secret in just a few minutes. He died just a few months later, survived by five children, 13 grandchildren and 35 great-grandchildren.