The Lincoln Centenary Celebration, Simpson Auditorium, Los Angeles, 12 February 1909

by Paul R. Spitzzeri

Abraham Lincoln is widely accounted as among the greatest of Americans, but you’d be hard pressed to find any local public event today that honors the 16th president of the United States, with the conspicuous exception of the 27th annual Abraham Lincoln Remembrance, held this morning at the Los Angeles National Cemetery, part of the former National Soldiers’ Home branch that has been mentioned in this blog in previous posts.  Notably, the founder of the event, Duke Russell, who worked in television lighting, started it in 1993 because he learned that nothing was being planned that year and recited the Gettysburg Address to a nearly empty Hollywood Bowl.

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Los Angeles Herald, 13 February 1909.

It was certainly a very different scenario in 1909 when the centennial of The Great Emancipator’s birth was commemorated in many ways in greater Los Angeles, despite heavy downpours in the region.  The Los Angeles Herald of 13 February described the day in dramatic terms:

The ever-penetrating echo of the assassin’s bullet that robbed the world of Abraham Lincoln was deadened and forgotten yesterday.  Memory of his death gave place in every part of the city and nation to beautiful and patriotic tribute in speech and song in honor of the hundredth anniversary of the great emancipator’s birth.  Patriotism was the keynote of every expression.

In Pasadena, the Reverend Robert J. Burdette, a noted orator, kept “his audience spellbound between tears and laughter for an hour” as he lionized Lincoln at the First Methodist Church.  It was reported in the Herald that “never in the history of Pasadena has such a crowd turned out in the rain as was present at this service.”  Almost in passing, it was noted that, at the Maccabee auditorium, “the negro citizens . . . paid tribute to the best friend that race has ever had,” but no details of the gathering were printed.

At Long Beach, the Los Angeles Times observed that 3,000 persons packed the city auditorium, with a third of them students from local schools, for a program including a flag salute, recitations and music by the high school band, and a tribute to Lincoln by Reverend Charles E. Locke of the First Methodist Church in Los Angeles.

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Los Angeles Times, 13 February 1909.

At the National Soldiers’ Home, a plan to decorate the graves at the cemetery was postponed until either Washington’s Birthday or Appomattox Day (marking the end of the Civil War) because of the rain.  Ward Memorial Hall, however, was packed to the gills with celebrants and Henry H. Markham, former California governor and the home’s administrator, presided over the proceedings.  This included an invocation, a rendition of the Star-Spangled Banner, and a speech by Judge Charles Noyes, who spent some time relating the story of the famous debates between Lincoln and Stephen A. Douglas before ending with how the president shepherded the nation through the trying times of the Civil War.

Finally, because this year is the centennial of the enactment of the national Prohibition of alcohol production and consumption, it is noteworthy that there were two major events celebrating Lincoln that were mounted by temperance advocates, including one by the California Anti-Saloon League at the First Methodist Church.

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Herald, 13 February 1909.

The Temperance Temple, located, appropriately on Temple Street (developed by Jonathan Temple in the 1850s) at Broadway, had a “Lincoln Prohibition Rally.”  The event was sponsored by the Los Angeles County Prohibition Party, the Women’s Christian Temperance Union, the Junior Prohibition League, and others.

Catherine Wheat of the Los Angeles Federation of Women’s Clubs “declared that as soon as women are given suffrage, prohibition will be assured.”  In 1911, California gave women the right to vote in state elections, but a Prohibition amendment five years later, though supported in greater Los Angeles, failed to pass.  In 1917, however, Los Angeles voters did approve an ordinance banning alcohol sales and consumption in saloons, bars and taverns, though restaurants could serve until 9 p.m.

Wheat added:

Women have shown that they can put something good in the place of the bad.  Men will finally wake up to the fact that they should be given the right to vote.

Tonight’s highlighted artifact from the Homestead’s collection is a program for a “Lincoln Centenary Celebration” held at Simpson Auditorium on Hope Street south of 7th Street in Los Angeles.  The site was developed as a church, denoted Simpson’s Tabernacle when it opened in 1889, and the large auditorium was added to the complex subsequently.

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Times, 13 February 1909.

Strangely, the front cover listing the event name, location, and date doesn’t have an image of the martyred president, which is on the third page, but instead displays a photograph of the obscure Timothy Wilfred Coakley, a Boston attorney and writer, who came to Los Angeles for his health and was the featured orator.

The remainder of the program included “patriotic airs” by the drum corps of the Grand Army of the Republic, the veterans’ organization composed of those who fought for the Union Army during the Civil War; a prayer by Reverend Will A. Knighton of the United Methodist Church; a recitation of the Gettysburg Address by advertising executive Stanley Hale; patriotic songs; and reminiscences by Walter Gould Lincoln, a Los Angeles lawyer.

This and the following two images comprise a program from the Homestead’s collection for a “Lincoln Centenary Celebration” held at Simpson Auditorium in Los Angeles on 12 February 1909.

In newspaper coverage of the celebration, however, there was a greater focus on the afternoon portion of the Simpson Auditorium celebration, which was carried out by the G.A.R.  This evening program was held under auspices of the New England Society, the Lincoln Family Club, and the Civic League of the City of Los Angeles and also received some coverage in the Times.

Relative to the afternoon event, The Herald reported that some 2,000 people showed up at the Simpson in spite of the day’s drenching, adding “songs of patriotism were the only ones sung and words breathing a love of country were the only ones spoken.”  It went on to note that:

The large audience joined in the singing of national airs with a vim and the music of fife and drum was accompanied by inpatient beat of foot that told plainly of the never-dying memories of other and more stirring times.

The fife-and-drum corps and an organ recital composed the musical portions and an invocation was delivered.  This was followed by a reading of Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation by the sole black participant in the day’s proceedings, Colonel Allen Allensworth.   Born into slavery in Louisville, Kentucky in 1842, Allensworth escaped in the early days of the Civil War by joining an Illinois volunteer regiment and serving as a civilian aide in the hospital corps.  He then enlisted in the Navy and served as a steward and clerk on Union gunboats.


In the postwar period Allensworth ran a restaurant, taught school and was ordained as a minister.  In 1886, he was appointed an Army chaplain and was assigned to the 24th Infantry Regiment, a black unit known as “The Buffalo Soldiers.”  By the time he retired twenty years later, he became the first black lieutenant colonel in the Army.

Coming to Los Angeles after he retired, he soon developed a concept for a self-sustaining colony for blacks that was named for him and located north of Bakersfield in Tulare County.  Allensworth was launched in 1908 just before he read the Emancipation Proclamation.  The Times noted that he did so “in a voice that reached every part of the hall” and that “several times during the reading the eloquent soldier-chaplain was interrupted by bursts of applause.”

Lincoln Centenary program p3

Judge Curtis Wilbur read the Gettysburg Address and added “a magnificent burst of impassioned oratory” closing with:

Abraham Lincoln, we do here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain, that your life shall not have been lived in vain, that this nation, under God, shall give to every other a new birth of freedom, until liberty shall enlighten the world; that “government of the people, by the people and for the people shall not perish from the earth,” but shall rule from pole to pole and from sun to sun.  We are coming, Father Abraham, one hundred million strong.

After the singing of the national anthem, the orator of the afternoon was Dr. John Pitner, who reviewed the life of the 16th president and added many anecdotes to the enjoyment of the crowd.

As for the evening event represented in the program, the Times observed that among the noted guests were Mayor Arthur C. Harper, who spoke briefly and then resigned a month later, in March 1909, because of scandal-ridden administration that brought about a recall movement; Allensworth; and Los Angeles resident Edward Wearne, who was a guard when Lincoln’s body was taken through Indianapolis on it way to internment at Springfield, Illinois.

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Times, 13 February 1909.

There were also a dozen persons surnamed Lincoln and residents of the city who were present, including the aforementioned Walter Gould Lincoln, who stated that Abraham’s family could be traced back to the president’s great-great grandfather Samuel Lincoln, a settler in Massachusetts (where Walter Lincoln was born), and that Nancy Hanks, Lincoln’s mother was descended from early residents of Plymouth.

Coakley delivered his oration in about an hour and “held the great audience spellbound” as he was “a most pleasing speaker, and his flights of eloquence, and his marshaling of events in the life of the President who gave his life to the nation, was most masterly.”  He reviewed Lincoln’s early life on the frontier, living in poverty, but devoted to reading and knowledge, through to his years in Illinois and his entry into politics.  He, too, discussed the Douglas debates and then the presidency and the war.

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Times, 13 February 1909.

After reviewing how Lincoln led the nation through a terrible conflict in which “the soldiers in the field were fighting for a principle,” Coakley concluded by claiming that, while George Washington created freedom for the colonies, “it was not a harmonious whole.”  Instead, he went on, it was Lincoln who was the true father of the nation “and had builded better than he knew when he fashioned the world-wide power that we have since become.”

In its coverage of a busy and varied day, the Times summarized by saying:

Los Angeles, always patriotic, paid tribute to the memory of Lincoln yesterday from early in the morning until late at night.  From the pupils in the schools, who gathered at their respective buildings in the forenoon to hear addresses, to the veterans who served under the martyred war president as their commander-in-chief, the people turned out by tens of thousands in honor of the centenary of his birth.  Great public assemblages, impressive, unique and strikingly appreciative, marked the day as different from any ever observed.  Religious gatherings and banquets of various civic, patriotic and political organizations completed the celebration of an event that must have made a lasting impress.

In fact, there was a striking note of pervasive nationalism and patriotism that did reflect what Coakley identified—that, in 1909, the United States was a “world-wide power” and ascending rapidly—and this attitude would only grow in the next two major wars in which America took part.

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Herald, 13 February 1909.

The Simpson Auditorium was razed after the 1971 Sylmar earthquake, though one of the smaller structures of the complex, acquired by the Church of Christ Scientist a few years after the Lincoln centennial, remains as a Christian Science reading room.  The auditorium site is a parking lot today and when I did a lot of research at the nearly Central Public Library years ago, I would park in what may be the city’s earliest multi-story indoor parking garages next door and walk by this location to and from the library.


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