Saturday, September 20, 2014

Cursed Bed of the Monongahela House

Abe Lincoln slept here (photo by Steve Mellon of the Pittsburgh Post Gazette)
This tale isn't too spooky; no ghosts and a curse that last worked in 1901. But it is a fairly well-known bit of Pittsburgh lore and rich in 19th century Steel City history that's still preserved today.

The Monongahela House in downtown Pittsburgh was once the Ritz of Three Rivers hotels. Built in 1840 at the corner of Smithfield and Front streets (Front later became Water Street and then Fort Pitt Boulevard), the five-story hostelry featured 210 rooms and was considered among the first of the grand hotels west of NYC. Pittsburgh's Great Fire of 1845 reduced the hotel to ashes, but by 1847, it was rebuilt at the same spot, bigger and better with nearly 300 grand rooms.

The hotel's diverse guest list of the famous included Mark Twain, Charles Dickens, Stephen Foster, PT Barnum, Henry Ward Beecher, Robert Ingersoll, Lilly Langtry, Buffalo Bill, Tom Thumb and Chang the Chinese giant. Politicos that slept there were Prince Edward (who became Edward VII) of Great Britain, James Blaine, Teddy Roosevelt, Ulysses Grant and Grover Cleveland.

Abraham Lincoln, who stopped overnight in 1861 on his way to his first inauguration, was a guest, and after his visit (the only time he came to Pittsburgh), the room was considered a special lodging where only the creme de la creme could stay. James Garfield and William McKinley met that criteria. They shared two fates with Ol' Abe: they slept in the same walnut bed at the hotel and later were assassinated. And that in a nutshell is the legend of the cursed bed.

(As a side note, Robert Todd Lincoln, Abe's son, may be even more intimately associated with the assassinations. He was supposed to be at Ford Theater when his father was shot, but returned to Washington late from duty as an aide to US Grant and instead turned in. Both Garfield and McKinley were said to have contacted him about dreams of future doom, having Lincoln-like premonitions of death, and he was present for both assassinations, arriving too late to speak to the presidents about their foreboding omens.) 

The bed those souls slept in went to a small county museum in South Park after the Monongahela House closed in 1935, ignominiously razed for a bus depot. That museum closed during World War II, and the bed was stored away in a county work shed until a carpenter discovered it in the early 2000s. Covered in decades of...well, you can imagine the detritus, it was positively ID'ed from old photos.

The County voted to send the bed to an appropriate space, the Soldiers & Sailors Memorial Hall & Museum in Oakland, and from there it went to the Heinz History Center in the Strip District. There, it was featured as part of a major exhibit during President Lincoln's 200th birthday in 2009, and is now included with the Special Collections display on the center's fourth floor.

So it's still there for the viewing over 150 years after Honest Abe laid his head to rest on its downy pillows. Oh, and a word to the wise...don't take a nap on it. Just sayin'...

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