(Photo credit: Presidential Box at Ford’s Theatre, courtesy Robert Goodwin, Flickr Creative Commons)
For those who haven’t yet seen The Conspirator, the 2011 movie about the plot to kill President Lincoln, beware, because I’m going to throw out a spoiler: the highlight of the movie comes right at the beginning. I’m talking about the assassination scene itself. It’s absolutely gripping. I remember experiencing a bit of an adrenaline rush as the shooting at Ford’s Theater unfolded on the big screen before my eyes. I felt a serious lump in my throat, my back tensed and my fingers pressed hard into the movie theatre seat armrests. Tears unexpectedly filled my eyes as the dying Lincoln, amid a scene of utter confusion, was carried across 10th Street to a row house owned by William A. Petersen, where he finally expired early the next morning. The scene was so powerful that it lessened the impact of the rest of the movie. Don’t get me wrong. The movie’s tale of the trial of Mary Surratt, the landlady charged as a co-conspirator in the assassination plot, was interesting and worth seeing. But as far as I was concerned, its high point had already been reached.
I wasn’t expecting to feel such an emotional punch from the assassination scene—after all, it wasn’t like I didn’t know it was coming. But I should have known better. Lincoln has given me goose bumps many times over the years. I can’t help it: I stand in awe of the man. I get a buzz whenever I visit the Lincoln Memorial or stand in a space that I know he once occupied. Every time I hear his Gettysburg Address or his Second Inaugural performed, the hairs on the back of my neck stand up. I should have reckoned on the power of Lincoln’s tragic end to really move me, especially as the scene had been directed by Robert Redford.
I felt that familiar Lincoln buzz the first time I walked up 10th Street NW to visit Ford’s Theatre National Historic Site in Washington, DC. The street has changed significantly since the 1860s, though the theater and the Petersen House are still there. Both are now run by the National Park Service.
The story of Lincoln’s 1865 assassination is well known. On April 14 Lincoln and his wife Mary had decided to attend Ford’s Theatre for a performance of the English comedy farce Our American Cousin. This was mere days after the surrender of General Robert E. Lee’s Confederate army to Union forces at Appomattox. Though the Civil War was finally grinding to a halt after four bloody years, some Confederate forces were still in the field fighting the Union Army, and tensions remained high. A popular Washington actor, John Wilkes Booth, at short notice hatched a plan with a group of co-conspirators to kill Lincoln and other senior officials. Booth was a man with no military experience but strong Southern sympathies and a burning desire to rescue the Confederacy before its final collapse. Tipped off about the president’s forthcoming visit and using his professional knowledge of Ford’s Theater, Booth gained access to the presidential box and, with his derringer, shot Lincoln in the head from behind. He then leaped from the box onto the stage, supposedly crying out “Sic semper tyrannis!” to the audience before making his escape through the rear of the theater. He was soon hunted down and shot by a Union soldier when he refused to surrender. The other conspirators were rounded up and put on trial.
From the outside the theater itself still looks the same as it did in 1865, even though it has had to undergo multiple extensive renovations in the intervening years. Following the assassination the federal government appropriated the building and determined it should never again be used as a functioning theater. Instead it was used for all sorts of non-theater-related purposes, mainly by the War Department. It continued in government service for many years, being repaired following a deadly partial collapse of the front of the building in 1893. For decades after the end of World War I the building stayed in federal hands but languished, unused and in a state of disrepair. It wasn’t till the 1960s that a major reconstruction and rehabilitation effort was undertaken, and the structure became a working theater again—albeit still under federal government control.
A further renovation and upgrade was completed in 2009, and a new building adjacent to the theater acts as a main lobby, rallying point for visitors and gift shop. (The big item on display there is the coat Lincoln was wearing when he was shot.) The theater itself, however, has been restored more or less to the way it looked in 1865. That includes the presidential box, above and to the right of the mainstage, and bedecked once again with red-white-and-blue bunting. The park service operates the site both as a historic memorial and as a working theater in the evening. When I visited, “Little Shop of Horrors” was playing at Ford’s Theatre, and the set of that manic comedy rock musical provided a somewhat incongruous background for a park service employee as he introduced us to the theatre. (I should add, just for clarity’s sake, that the park service doesn’t actually put on its own shows; it leaves that to professional theater companies.)
The theater also includes a museum, also completely renovated with the rest of the site. Inevitably, the most interesting exhibits are the most morbid, including the tiny derringer used by John Wilkes Booth to kill Lincoln, the door to Lincoln’s stall that was entered and then blocked by Booth, and the blood-stained pillow from the president’s deathbed. The museum is nicely laid out, but it’s also small and usually densely packed, since it also functions as a holding space for visitors until they are allowed entry to the main theater.
Ford’s Theatre experiences a heavy volume of visitor traffic, and as a result the park service tightly controls access to the site. Timed tickets are used here, and you have to get them in advance. When it’s time for your tour you’re typically taken as a group and shepherded into the museum, where you’re pretty much required to stay for 30 minutes—no more, no less—before being herded into the theater space. At the end of that component you have to leave. It gives the visitor experience a certain “get-them-in-get-them-out” quality, which is unfortunate. If you want to spend more time there you’ll have to grab another timed ticket for later in the day—if any are still available.
A timed ticket was also required for my visit to the Petersen House, and this time there was a long wait to get inside. Eventually I made it to the front of the line and a small group of us were directed to file in to see the ground-floor bedroom where Lincoln spent his last living hours on earth. The original death bed is no longer there, but it was still very moving to be in that space—especially, perhaps, because it was so small. It’s incredible to imagine that for one night the president of the United States and most of the federal government’s most senior officials, plus physicians and military officers, were all crammed into this claustrophobic space as Abraham Lincoln’s life slowly ebbed away. I definitely felt the hairs on the back of my neck stand up in there.
Ford’s Theatre is a fantastic site to visit, and one that should leave a strong impression on visitors. But this is the heart of Washington, DC, so it does get very busy. There’s not much time for reflection.
David Donald Herbert (1995). Lincoln. New York: Simon & Schuster.
Eva Reffell (2004). Ford’s Theatre’s Reconstruction: Warehouse, Museum, Pilgrimage Site (1865 – 1958). University of Michigan, School of Information. Available at http://www.si.umich.edu/~rfrost/courses/ArchivesSem/papers/EvaReffell.pdf .
Ford’s Theatre. Dakota Datebook. Prairie Public Radio. Available at http://www.prairiepublic.org/radio/dakota-datebook/page/18?post=7782
Ford’s Theatre National Historic Site. National Park Service. Available at http://www.nps.gov/foth/index.htm
C-SPAN and Lincoln’s coat: see http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=N0tLdsVoAHw