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The Assassination of President Lincoln: Visiting Ford's Theatre in Washington DC

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The room seems so ordinary for such a history-altering event. It's hard to imagine that the theatre once hosted a United States President. Yet the actions that took place there on April 14th in 1865 shattered the country and destroyed the sense of safety that surrounded presidents and public figures. The end result, the death of America's President Lincoln

When we visited Ford's Theatre we thought we knew the story of the assassination of Abraham Lincoln. Deranged out-of-work actor in a moment of rage kills the President. Clearly we had not paid sufficient attention in history class.

An Evening of Sorrow
The evening's tragedy started with President Lincoln's interest in seeing a play. He was an avid theatre-goer and on April 14th he and his guests were to attend the performance of Our American Cousin, a comedy being presented at Ford's Theatre. President and Mrs. Lincoln were accompanied by Clara Harris, daughter of New York Sen. Ira Harris, and her fiancé, Maj. Henry Reed Rathbone.

While tragedy certainly found President Lincoln that fateful night, none of the survivors escaped sorrow. Clara Harris married Rathbone and was later shot by him in 1883. Rathbone himself died in an asylum for the insane in 1911. Mary Todd Lincoln was frequently criticized by the press and ultimately judged insane in 1875, dying a few years later in 1882.

Of course, no one knew what lay ahead when the party started out for Ford's Theatre. They were simply going out for an evening's entertainment.

For John Wilkes Booth, a successful and popular actor, this evening was anything but simple. His actions were in reality part of a larger plot to destabilize the government of the United States and allow the Confederate troops to attack and overthrow the government.

Historical Background - Civil War

The story probably begins in 1860 when Lincoln ran for president promising to prevent slavery from expanding into other states in the Union. Lincoln won the election, and several southern states seceded from the Union, forming the Confederate States of America, and precipitating the Civil War. When the Confederate army, led by General Robert E. Lee, was defeated, the northern states were jubilant. Not so the South or John Wilkes Booth who was fiercely loyal to the Confederacy. He blamed Lincoln for the war and the defeat of the South.

The Conspiracy
At first, he tried (unsuccessfully) to kidnap Lincoln, believing he could exchange the abducted president for Southern soldiers. But when General Lee surrendered on April 9th 1865 Booth and his co-conspirators decided to assassinate not only Lincoln but also Vice-President Andrew Johnson and victorious Union general Ulysses S. Grant.

The conspirators created an elaborate plan, but only Booth was able to carry out his audacious part. So it happened that Booth attacked Rathbone with a dagger and shot Lincoln in the head before jumping down from the Presidential box, breaking his leg in the process. Ever the actor, as he limped across the stage he stopped briefly to show the bloody dagger and say "Sic semper tyrannis," which translates as "thus ever to tyrants," as the audience sat stunned into silence.

After the Shooting
And so we sat in the theatre one sunny day listening to the Park Service guide describe Booth's plan and the events preceding it. The building is historic and by present-day standards a bit austere. But it's hard to miss the sense of history, or the flag draped box where Lincoln sat. The Interpreter is fascinating and we sit reliving Booth's actions step by step.

After Lincoln was shot and there was little hope for his recovery, he was moved to the Petersen House, a boarding house across the street. It was felt unseemly (and probably uncomfortable) for a President of the United States to spend his last hours in a theatre.

Later, we go downstairs to visit the museum with the artifacts and then across the street to the rooming house where Lincoln died early the next morning (and which is also under the auspices of the National Park Service. For more information on the Ford's Theatre Complex

Booth didn't live much longer himself. He was shot and killed on April 26th in a barn in which he was hiding.

A Place of History, and of Live Theatre
Ford's Theatre is still in operation, performing a dual role as a place of historical importance and as an operating theatre where you can buy a ticket, watch a play, and once-in-a-while glance up to the flag-draped box where Lincoln sat that fateful day.

Ford's Theatre
511 10th Street, NW - between E and F Streets
Washington, DC
202 347-4833
FordsTheatre.org

Petersen House
516 Tenth Street, NW
Washington, DC

Historical Information comes from the National Park Service Official Park Guide - Ford's Theatre and The House Where Lincoln Died, and The Assassination of Abraham Lincoln by Brendan January, Children's Press, New York, 1998

© 2002, updated 2013