It’s February 1956, and 95-year-old Samuel J. Seymour is appearing on an episode of I’ve Got a Secret – a popular game show of the day. The format sees a guest appearing before a panel of four, who all fire questions at the individual in a bid to figure out the revelation. And once the quartet of guessers strike lucky, they’re completely stunned.
What’s more, Seymour’s secret stands as arguably the most incredible to ever be unveiled on the series. I’ve Got a Secret originally aired from 1952 to 1967, although there were also revivals in the 1970s and early 2000s. And among the guests during that run were drummer Pete Best, whose revealed on the show that he had been a member of The Beatles before they broke big.
Another notable appearance came by way of a certain Colonel Harland Sanders. His secret was that he’d opened the first of his fried chicken restaurants using a social security check as finance. Then there was Boris Karloff’s stint on the show, during which the iconic actor claimed that he was afraid of mice.
Many of the secrets were lighthearted, in fact, and the show’s makers even later admitted that some of them had been made up. That wasn’t the case with Seymour, however; his tale was in a different league altogether. You see, back when he was a small boy in the 1860s, he had witnessed something truly shocking.
And it’s hardly surprising that Seymour’s secret caused a sensation, as it involved arguably one of the most dramatic and somber moments in U.S. history. To be more specific, the incident was the result of a conspiracy that culminated in the demise of one of the most revered figures in the U.S. – both then and now.
But before we reveal what Seymour had to divulge, let’s first take a look at the game shows that have entertained viewers across the generations for decades. And, perhaps surprisingly, the first such show to hit the small screen was not actually American. Spelling Bee was the series in question, and it first appeared in Britain’s living rooms in 1938 courtesy of the BBC.
Broadcast live, Spelling Bee was indeed a spelling competition in which members of the public competed against stars of the period. And although only four episodes were ever made, it hardly mattered; after all, in 1938, Britons owned a total of just 9,315 TVs. After this British first, however, the Americans finally got in on the act.
Yes, in 1941 prototype television game show The CBS Television Quiz aired in the U.S. And in the following decade, the format really took off. Most game shows during the ’50s were quizzes with cash prizes – the highest of which could be won during series that aired in prime time.
But the prize quiz shows largely met their end when they became mired in scandal. In 1959, you see, it emerged that many of the shows were fixed; after that, most suffered catastrophic ratings collapses and were eventually canceled. Panel shows such as I’ve Got a Secret, though, continued to thrive on into the 1960s and after.
And so when Samuel Seymour appeared on I’ve Got a Secret, panel game shows were enjoying something of a heyday. At the time, the host of the CBS series was Garry Moore, who played that role on most of the episodes broadcast from 1952 to 1964.
Born in 1915 in Baltimore, Moore had been a high-school dropout. He proved that academic qualifications aren’t everything, though, by carving out a successful career as a comedian, entertainer and presenter. And Moore had a good run, too, appearing in a variety of radio and TV shows from the 1940s to the 1970s. The star marked himself out, moreover, through the bow tie that he habitually wore – at least while broadcasting.
And on the panel in the Seymour episode of I’ve got a Secret were Lucille Ball, who occasionally guested on the series, as well as regulars Bill Cullen, Henry Morgan and Jayne Meadows. Meadows had starred in a string of Hollywood movies in the 1940s before turning to television in the following decade – appearing on What’s My Line as well as I’ve got a Secret.
Cullen, meanwhile, had served with the Civil Air Patrol during WWII, even though childhood polio had left him partially disabled. Before that, he had started out his broadcasting career in radio in 1939 in Pittsburgh, following which he got his first break in television in 1952 in Winner Take All. And, interestingly, Cullen would go on to become a prolific game show host himself.
Morgan was another member of the team who started off his entertainment career in radio in the 1930s. After a short spell on Hollywood’s blacklist for his allegedly communist leanings, however, the humorist took to the small screen in 1948. As a long-serving panelist on the show, he also cultivated a somewhat grouchy character. And Ball is best remembered, of course, as the madcap redhead from I Love Lucy and its various spin-offs.
Meanwhile, each episode of I’ve Got a Secret would typically feature two or three standard rounds as well as one celebrity round – all featuring an individual with something to disclose. And the secrets divulged on screen tended to be either curious, awkward, surprising or amusing.
After Moore had introduced the secret-holder to the four-strong panel, the guest would whisper the secret to the host. Then, for the benefit of the TV and studio audience, the revelation would appear on the screen. And after those watching learned the truth, Moore would go on to choose a panelist to start questioning the guest – with the aim of uncovering the secret as quickly as possible.
If a panelist failed to guess the secret before he or she was buzzed out, though, the contestant would win $20. There was no set time for a panelist to be halted, either; the production team made that decision on a whim or to keep the live show on time. All in all, the contestant could potentially earn up to $80 or what amounts to $750 today – hardly a king’s ransom.
And when Seymour appeared on the February 9, 1956, edition of I’ve Got a Secret, he had already lived a long life. The Maryland native entered the world on March 28, 1860 – around a year before the outbreak of the American Civil War, to put that date into historical context.
Seymour was born on a farm near Easton, in fact, to parents George and Susan. And while the future game show contestant would subsequently move to Arlington, Virginia, he actually spent most of his life in Baltimore. The erstwhile carpenter had been married, too, and he and wife Mary Rebecca Twilley – who died in 1942 aged 80 – had had five children together. Later, there would also be 13 grandchildren and 35 great-grandchildren.
Then Seymour’s chance for celebrity came with his appearance on I’ve Got a Secret. His turn in the spotlight began as he came somewhat unsteadily onto the set of the show, although he was helped into his chair by host Moore. And while being a little frail is hardly unusual for a 95-year-old, there was another reason why Seymour was a touch wobbly.
As Moore explained to the audience, an accident had befallen Seymour the previous day. Unfortunately, the nonagenarian had taken a tumble down a flight of stairs at the hotel where he had been residing prior to his time on TV. As a result, then, Seymour was wearing a bandage above his right eye; he was also heavily bruised. And Moore added that he and the production team had tried to persuade the senior that he didn’t need to appear on the show after the mishap.
But Seymour was clearly made of sterner stuff, as he dismissed the idea that a trifling accident could stop him having his day on television. So here he was, and as usual Moore went through his routine of having the guest whisper their mysterious secret to him. As was convention, the information then appeared on the TV screen – although naturally the panelists didn’t get a look.
And to start off, Moore gave the panelists a clue, saying, “It concerns something that he [Seymour] witnessed.” Following that, the host chose Cullen to be the first questioner on the panel. Cullen began, then, by asking, “This thing that Mr. Seymour saw, does it have historical significance?” Given that that the elderly man’s life had stretched back to the mid-19th century, that was probably a good bet. And as it turned out, the answer was yes.
“Does it have political significance?” was Cullen’s next question, which elicited another yes. Then Cullen asked whether the incident had anything to do with the Civil War, with Moore responding that there was an indirect connection. The panelist followed this admission up by musing, “Did it concern a famous person?” And the answer to that was also in the affirmative.
Cullen may have been thinking along the right lines, then, when he chose to ask whether the secret concerned a man who had held political office. Yet again, you see, the answer was yes. But before Cullen got any further, the buzzer sounded, signaling the end of his question time. Next up in the hot seat was Meadows.
Meadows was already in possession of a lot of information pertaining to the secret, of course, and she honed in even further. Her first question was, “Mr. Seymour, would this person ever have been president of the United States?” Laid-back, Seymour responded, “I think he was once.”
Next, Meadows asked, “Would it have been Abraham Lincoln?” That was indeed the case. The actress followed this news up with the inquiry, “Was it a pleasant thing?” Seymour replied, however, “Not very pleasant, I don’t think. I was scared to death.” And Meadows was firmly on the right track, it appeared, when she received yet another answer of yes to the question “Would [the secret] have had anything to do with President Lincoln’s death, by any chance?”
Then Meadows hit the nail firmly on the head. “Did Mr. Seymour witness the shooting of President Lincoln?” she queried. And with that, the TV audience burst into enthusiastic applause, as the panelist had correctly guessed the secret. It had taken her less than a minute of questioning to get to the right answer – albeit after a little help from Cullen.
In fact, Seymour had been the last person alive to have been a witness to the assassination of Abraham Lincoln on April 14, 1865. And with the revelation now out in the open, Moore gave the senior the maximum prize of $80. As only one questioner had failed to get the answer, Seymour’s due was actually just $20, but denying him all the money available would have been a hard-hearted act indeed.
So, Seymour was a living link between one of the darkest events of the mid-19th century and the television age of the 20th. And as American history buffs may very well know, Lincoln’s assassination at Washington, D.C’s Ford’s Theatre was part of a wider conspiracy aimed at subverting the outcome of the Civil War.
In particular, the conspirators had planned to kill three of the leading government officials of the day: Lincoln, vice-president Andrew Johnson and Secretary of State William H. Seward. And through doing this, the plotters believed that they would energize the Confederate cause. Of the three targets, though, only Lincoln would ultimately die at the men’s hands.
According to the plan, George Atzerodt was to kill Johnson; he got cold feet, however, and seemingly chose to get drunk instead. Meanwhile, Lewis Powell and David Herold were picked to murder Seward. That decided, the two men thus arrived at Seward’s home, and Powell entered. A violent struggle involving injuries to several people ensued, with Powell going on to stab Seward five times. But the secretary of state failed to die, and Powell and Herold fled the scene.
And John Wilkes Booth – a renowned actor of his day – was assigned to kill Lincoln. On April 14, 1865, Booth went to Ford’s Theatre to collect his mail. He was familiar with the venue, too, having performed there a number of times – once in 1863 with Lincoln in the audience. Then, when the would-be assassin heard the president was due to attend a performance of Our American Cousin at Ford’s that very night, he realized that this would be his big chance.
In fact, Lincoln almost didn’t go to Ford’s that evening, as his wife Mary had complained of a headache. The president nevertheless insisted on their attendance, though, because news of the theater visit had already been reported in the newspapers. So, a little late, Lincoln, his wife and their companions duly arrived at Ford’s and made their way to their box.
Then, at around 10:30 p.m., Booth entered Lincoln’s box. The president was lacking police protection at that moment, as the officer assigned to guard him was absent. Booth was familiar with the play, too, and so he waited for a line that he knew would be met by laughter from the audience. Then he pulled the trigger of his derringer pistol, shooting Lincoln in the head. Mortally wounded, Lincoln initially survived but died the next day.
Upon carrying out his mission, then, Booth jumped from the box on to the stage and, despite breaking his leg, made good his escape. He was later shot dead by the police, however, while the other conspirators were themselves captured and later hanged. And Seymour would be one of those who witnessed that appalling drama at Ford’s Theatre. At the time, he had just passed his fifth birthday.
Indeed, in 1954 magazine The American Weekly magazine published an article by Seymour “as told to Spatz Leighton.” And in the piece, Seymour recalled the events of that fateful evening in April 1865. In particular, the now-elderly man remembered that his father’s boss Mr. Goldsboro had had to go to Washington to settle the legal status of the 150 slaves on his Maryland estate. As a treat, Goldsboro’s wife decided to take Seymour and his nurse Sarah Cook on the 150-mile trip, too.
Then, once the group were ensconced in a grand Washington, D.C. hotel – which the young Seymour thought was “like a thousand farmhouses pushed together” – Mrs. Goldsboro announced a special outing. They were going to the theater, she revealed, and President Lincoln would be in attendance. Seymour remembered Lincoln’s entrance to boot, saying of the leader, “He was a tall, stern-looking man. I guess I just thought he looked stern because of his whiskers, because he was smiling and waving to the crowd.”
But joy soon turned to horror. Seymour recalled, “All of a sudden a shot rang out – a shot that always will be remembered – and someone in the president’s box screamed. I saw Lincoln slumped forward in his seat… One man seemed to tumble over the balcony rail and land on the stage.”
Of course, a five-year-old couldn’t really understand what he’d just witnessed, and Seymour remembered being most concerned about the man who’d fallen onto the stage: none other than Booth himself. Then Seymour ended his piece by saying, “I sometimes still relive the horror of Lincoln’s assassination dozing in my rocker, as an old codger like me is bound to do.” But, of course, he would reveal the tale yet again on I’ve Got a Secret – giving him a small taste of fame before his death on April 12, 1956.