Podcast 268 – Bangor Library’s Death Couch

On July 4, 1891, former Vice President Hannibal Hamlin drew his last breath on a couch that now sits in the Bangor, Maine, Public Library.

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In Episode 268, Jeff Belanger and Ray Auger explore the Bangor Public Library in Maine, in search of a couch where former Vice President Hannibal Hamlin drew his last breath. The couch has become a macabre attraction in the library due to its connection with presidential royalty… but you can’t sit on it! What happened? And how did it get here?

Read the episode transcript.

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Produced and hosted by: Jeff Belanger and Ray Auger
Edited by: Ray Auger
Theme Music by: John Judd

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The couch where Vice President Hannibal Hamlin died is on display at the Bangor Public Library.

The couch where Vice President Hannibal Hamlin died is on display at the Bangor Public Library.

*A note on the text: Please forgive punctuation, spelling, and grammar mistakes. Like us, the transcripts ain’t perfect.

RAY: Wow, the Bangor Public Library is a gorgeous building!
JEFF: It is! Right in the middle is a domed, glass structure over a rotunda that allows in plenty of sunlight. There’s marble columns. Tons of books. A café. An art gallery. This might be the nicest library I’ve ever seen. They’ve spared no expense. And the place is huge!
RAY: It almost looks like a state house you might find in a capital city.
JEFF: It does. Let’s head upstairs to the circulation desk.
RAY: Are we looking for a book? Maybe something by Stephen King who lives in town?
JEFF: No, we’re looking for a couch you can’t sit on.
RAY: A couch we CAN’T sit on? What’s the point?
JEFF: It’s more of a museum piece now. This couch is where a former United States Vice President drew his last breath.
JEFF: Hello, I’m Jeff Belanger, and welcome to Episode 268 of the New England Legends podcast.
RAY: And I’m Ray Auger. Thanks for joining us on our mission to chronicle every legend in New England one story at a time. We’re glad you’re with us in our community of legend seekers who are always on the hunt for weird history, ghosts, monsters, roadside oddities, and anything else that bumps in the night.
JEFF: If you’ve got a story lead for us, please reach out to us through our Web site any old time. Our Web site is also the place to find all of the upcoming dates for my ongoing story tour, dates to see Ray’s band The Pub Kings, and an archive of all of our past episodes and clips from the New England Legends television series that you can watch right now on Amazon Prime.
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RAY: Okay, Jeff. We’re looking for a couch that we can’t sit on inside the Bangor Public Library.
JEFF: That we are. It’s located at the top of stairs in the rotunda near the circulation desk.
JEFF: And here it is!
RAY: Okay, it looks like a simple, red-leather couch with wooden arm rests and a wooden board that rises above the stuffed leather back. I see there’s a sign on the couch. It reads: The couch is a historic object once housed in the Tarratine Club. Hannibal Hamlin drew his last breath while lying on it. In an effort to help us preserve this important object, please do not touch it. Thank you for your cooperation.
JEFF: So there it is.
RAY: Okay, I feel like maybe I didn’t pay enough attention in History Class. I admit I don’t know who Hannibal Hamlin was, other than someone’s Vice President according to the sign.
JEFF: I completely understand. I don’t know who he is either. Let’s face it… we don’t remember most vice presidents unless they go on to also serve as president. Still, ALL vice presidents are just a heartbeat away from being Commander and Chief.
RAY: Good point. And that makes me feel better. I always wonder if I should play along and pretend that, of course I know who Hannibal Hamlin was…. You know… imposter syndrome.
JEFF: I’m right there with you. The good news is, we’re in a library. Let’s go look him up. There’s plenty of books here.
RAY: While you search for books on him, I’m going to Google Hamlin on my phone. Let’s see…. Hannibal Hamlin…. Born August 27, 1809 in Paris, Massachusetts Bay Colony, which is now part of Maine. He was an attorney who was elected to the U.S. House of Representative, and then served in the Senate. (SURPRISE) Oh cool! Hannibal Hamlin was Abraham Lincoln’s first Vice President! It says Lincoln picked Hamlin because he was an abolitionist, and because he was a New Englander, and Lincoln, being from the northwest…
JEFF: Right… Illinois would have been the northwestern United States back then….
RAY: Anyway, they won. But Lincoln dropped Hamlin for his reelection ticket for Andrew Johnson, a southern Democrat, to appeal to people in the South who favored staying in the Union. After his vice presidency, Hamlin was elected to the Senate two more times, served as the U.S. ambassador to Spain, and retired to Bangor, Maine, in 1882.
JEFF: Sooooo I guess we don’t need these books anymore.
RAY: Probably not.
JEFF: So Hannibal Hamlin was kind of a big deal. No question. And his story ended right here on this couch. To find out what happened, let’s head back to 1891, and meet Vice President Hamlin.
RAY: It’s July 4th, 1891. Independence Day. It’s been a quiet day here at the Hamlin home in Bangor. By the afternoon, 81 year old Hannibal, is getting fidgety. So his wife suggests he head over to the Tarratine Club in town. Hannibal agrees.
JEFF: The Tarratine Club in Bangor is an exclusive establishment located over on Park Street. It was founded seven years ago in 1884 by 31 wealthy Bangor men who wanted to create an exclusive club where they could hobnob with each other, have a drink, and congratulate each other on being masters of the universe. Lots of cities and towns have places like this. The Tarratine Club, is Bangor’s. It’s also worth noting that one of the original 31 men, and the first official member, was Hannibal Hamlin, and he’s also the current president of the club.
RAY: Hannibal arrives at the Tarratine club just in time to sit down to a card game of peedro.
JEFF: Sitting at the table is Philo Strickland, he owns a bunch of timber land.
RAY: There’s also F.W. Carr, the superintendent of the Adams Express Company.
JEFF: And there’s Gilbert Howell, he’s with the firm Ross and Howell.
JEFF: And Hannibal Hamlin makes the fourth.
RAY: The four men start playing cards.
JEFF: Peedro is kind of like Pitch. You take tricks as the cards go round. It’s a four-player game with two teams. So each person has a partner. The four men have been playing for about an hour when…
JEFF: Something’s wrong with Hannibal. He’s holding his back and said he just felt a sharp pain that came out of nowhere.
RAY: F.W. Carr thinks it might be an attack of pleurisy—which is when the tissue around your lungs suddenly inflames causing shooting pains.
JEFF: The waiter just rushed over and brought Hamlin a small drink. He takes a sip, a deep breath. Maybe that was it. Just a bad spell.
JEFF: So the game continues for another hour. It’s about 5:30 when…
RAY: Hannibal Hamlin just slumped over on the table!
JEFF: He doesn’t look good at all.
RAY: No. He’s so pale. This is bad. The men at the table are carrying Hannibal over to a nearby couch.
JEFF: Dr. Robinson is in the next room here at the Tarratine Club. He’s rushing over. The doctor is also a member. It’s lucky he’s here today.
RAY: Okay, the waiter just gave Hamlin a shot of brandy.
JEFF: I think he’s unconscious…. Is he breathing?
RAY: I can’t tell if he’s breathing. Dr. Robinson is filling a hypodermic needle with a mixture of brandy and ammonia.
JEFF: That shot seems to have woken Hannibal up. He’s stirring.
RAY: A Tarratine employee has already sprinted from the building to fetch Hamlin’s wife and family.
JEFF: It’s about 6:00 PM when Hannibal’s wife rushes to hid side.
RAY: Whatever Dr. Robinson gave him, he seems to be perking up. I mean, Hannibal is weary, but he’s looking better than before. He’s trying to greet his wife. It’s barely a whisper, but he’s trying to smile at her.
JEFF: He’s still very weak, but there’s hopes this was some kind of bad spell and they can send him home soon. But for now, the doctor says they should let him rest here on the couch.
RAY: It’s just after 8:00 PM, and Hannibal Hamlin seems to be taking a downturn. His breathing is growing shallow.
JEFF: No… this isn’t good.
JEFF: It’s 8:15. Hannibal Hamlin is gone. And that brings us back to today.
RAY: Today, Vice President Hannibal Hamlin is buried in Mt. Hope Cemetery in Bangor. There’s a statue of him that you can see in downtown Bangor. The Tarratine Club is now a restaurant on Park Street where you don’t need to be a member to dine there or grab a drink. And then there’s this couch.
JEFF: Yup. There is this couch right here in the Bangor Public Library. Not only is there a sign asking you not to touch it, but there’s a tiny brass plaque tacked into the wooden part of the couch that reads: Last Used by Hannibal Hamlin. U.S. Vice President, Tarratine Club President, on 4 July 1891.
RAY: Do really you really believe NO ONE has so much as sat on this couch since 1891?
JEFF: Not for a second. At the very least, someone walked by this couch, was tired, and sat down without looking or thinking. What’s not clear to me, though, is WHEN this couch was brought to the library and put on display.
RAY: Right, there’s no mention on the sign.
JEFF: So we asked around the library. The person at the circulation desk said something to the effect of: Huh… it’s kind of always been here. Then she thought maybe someone in the reference desk might know. The reference desk said something similar. They asked their history room person who, as of this recording, is still checking.
RAY: The cornerstone of the Bangor Public Library was laid in June of 1912, which is a year after a huge and devastating fire ravaged downtown Bangor. We read on one Web site that the couch was rescued from the fire and brought to the library. While that may be the case, it wasn’t immediate because the library hadn’t been built yet.
JEFF: We checked the newspaper archives, and there’s a mention of the couch in the library in the January 27th, 2003 Bangor Daily News, but we could find no reference to the couch earlier than that. Which means it’s safe to say the couch has been here for at least 20 years, though possibly a lot longer.
RAY: It’s a macabre artifact, isn’t it?
JEFF: Yeah it is. I get that this famous, prominent person once lived in Bangor. And that you want to keep items of his on display. In fact, Hamlin’s desk was once displayed in a history parade years ago.
RAY: That I get! It was his desk. He probably wrote letters there. Read books. Answered correspondence from national leaders. It makes sense to save that. But this couch…
JEFF: It was the nearest place Hamlin could recline after his health failed him at a card game back on July 4th 1891. I feel like this couch never asked for this distinction. It was just there. Abraham Lincoln’s Vice President died here. Drew his last breath, and that made this thing almost sacred. At the very least, important enough that it was worth saving, worth displaying, and worth not using again.
RAY: That makes it legendary. What a great roadside oddity.
JEFF: I agree. And that brings us to After the Legend which is brought to you by our Patreon Patrons! Our patreon patrons kick in just $3 bucks per month to get early access to new episodes, plus bonus episodes and content that no one else gets to hear. That little goes a long way when you help out too. You keep our lights on, help with our hosting and production costs, marketing, and everything else it take to bring you a new story each week. If you can help, please head over to patroen.com/newenglandlegends to sign up.
The description of Hannibal Hamlin’s final hours was pulled from the July 6, 1891, Evening Express newspaper out of Portland, Maine.

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