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Ford’s Theatre, Washington, D.C.
President Abraham Lincoln was the first American president to be assassinated. Ford's Theatre captures a snapshot of that sad event in American history, which occurred only days after General Robert E. Lee’s surrender at the Appomattox Court House.
A successful and popular venue for theatrical events during the Civil War, Ford’s Theatre became forever known as the murder scene where John Wilkes Booth shot President Lincoln as the president sat watching a production of “Our American Cousin.”
The National Park Service manages Ford’s Theatre and the Petersen House as a National Historic Site.
The mortally wounded president was taken to the Petersen House, the boarding house directly across the street, on the night of April 14, 1865, and he died there the next morning.
The Lincoln Museum housed in the theatre contains a large collection of artifacts related to the assassination. These include Booth’s diary and the derringer and knife that he used that evening.
Ford sold the building to the federal government after the tragedy. People did not want to patronize the establishment, and government authorities felt that it was improper that the site be used for amusement. The three-story brick building was turned into a military storehouse for almost a century until an act of Congress authorized funding for its restoration. It was opened to the public in 1968.
Thanks to the careful restoration, the theatre looks much as it did that fateful night.
The box where Lincoln and his party sat is decorated as it was that day, with a lithograph of George Washington and American and U.S. Treasure Guard flags. Lincoln was an avid theatre-goer, and the decorations had been added that day in honor of the special attendee. As you look up to those box seats, it is easy to picture the horrific events of that night.
Booth, a Southern sympathizer, was a well-known actor of the time and friend to the building’s proprietor; he had easy access to all areas of the theatre. Booth quietly entered the box as the play progressed. He shot the president in the back of the head.
Making his escape, Booth caught the spur of a boot on the patriotic bunting as he jumped to the stage. Despite breaking his leg, Booth was able to flee on horseback to southern Maryland and then to Virginia, where 12 days later, Union soldiers shot him as he hid in a barn.
The Petersen House does not contain its original furnishings, but has been restored with period items and furniture. The first-floor bedroom where Lincoln died did not have a bed that could accommodate the president’s 6-foot-4-inch frame—few beds of the day would have sufficed—so Lincoln was laid diagonally across the bed.
One can imagine how crowded and melancholy the lodging house must have been that night as doctors, who knew they could do nothing for the dying president, members of Lincoln’s cabinet, Lincoln’s son Robert, and his wife, Mary Todd Lincoln, kept a vigil until Lincoln’s death after 7 o’clock the next morning.
Ford’s Theatre is normally open daily from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Plays and performances are presented on the theatre’s stage, and rehearsal and performance schedules may affect visiting times, so it’s a good idea to check the Web site and plan ahead.
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Website and all photos copyright © 2001–2016 Lee W. Nelson