Ford's Theatre History

Photo of 19th-century Brick Theatre building with mourning ribbons across the windows
Ford's Theatre, April 1865, taken just days after the assassination. Note the mourning crepe draped from the windows and the soldiers posted as guards out front. (Library of Congress)
On the night of April 14, 1865, President Abraham Lincoln was shot at Ford’s Theatre in Washington, DC, while watching the play Our American Cousin. This tragedy happened as the nation celebrated what most believed to be the end of the brutal four-year Civil War, which had occurred just five days earlier when Union General Ulysses S. Grant accepted the surrender of Robert E. Lee and his Confederate Army.

But the history of the Ford’s Theatre doesn’t end there. The murder of a beloved president launched what would be a fascinating 150+ year evolution-of-thinking on the importance of preservation, memorialization, and how to best remember all facets of our past, both the good and the bad. This progression of our national consciousness aligns, in many ways, with the history of Ford’s Theatre.
Drawing of the 19th Century First Baptist Church
Drawing of the First Baptist Church built in 1833 on the site of the later Ford's Theatre (Ford's Theatre Collection, FOTH 5008)

Timeline of Ford’s Theatre; from 1834 to Today

June 1834: The future Ford’s Theatre opened as the First Baptist Church. The church was founded in response to the growing population in the nation’s capital, and chose a convenient downtown location from which to serve its congregation: 10th Street NW, between E and F Streets, less than one mile from the White House.

1859: The First Baptist Church merged with the Fourth Baptist Church, in an effort to resolve some financial issues. Both congregations were now located at a building on 13th Street NW. This left the building on 10th Street vacant.

1859 – 1861: The Fourth Baptist Church hosted concerts in the otherwise vacant structure on 10th Street.

March 4, 1861: Abraham Lincoln is inaugurated as the 16th President of the United States under the backdrop of a looming civil war. Seven southern states had already seceded from the country, as the northern and southern states were deeply divided over the issue of slavery.

April 9, 1861: Confederate forces fired the first shots of the American Civil War at Fort Sumter, located in the harbor of Charleston, South Carolina.

Color lithograph of four of Ford's theaters and his home in Baltimore
Color lithograph of Ford's theaters in Baltimore and Washington, D.C. and his house in Baltimore, 1873. (Library of Congress)
December 1861: Baltimore-based entrepreneur John T. Ford started to lease the vacant 10th Street building from the First Baptist Church, believing that this could be a good opportunity for a new business. He and his brother Henry were recognized throughout the theatre community as capable owner-managers of venues in Baltimore, MD, Richmond, VA, and Washington DC, where the two had supervised operations at the National Theatre (which is still an active theatre today). The Fords capitalized on the prospect of catering to a growing, young population in the nation’s capital who were in need of an escape from the horrors of the war. But not everyone was enthusiastic about the new theatre in town. Many residents did not think highly of the transient crews and actors associated with local theatres, considering them lewd and raucous. This sentiment was reflected by a member of the First Baptist Church who predicted for Ford’s Theatre a “dire fate for anyone who turned the former house of worship into a theatre.”

March 19, 1862: John T. Ford opens the doors to the “Ford’s Athenaeum” (as it was known then), welcoming his first guests to the show The French Spy.

December 1862: A fire destroys Ford’s Theatre. Undaunted, John T. Ford rebuilds, and increases the size and grandeur of the building.
Photograph of President Lincoln, 1865
Photograph of President Abraham Lincoln, 1865 (Library of Congress)
August 27, 1863: Ford’s “New” Theatre opened. President Abraham Lincoln enjoyed live theatrical performances at various venues around town as a respite from the demands of the office, and the war. He attended shows at Ford’s Theatre at least 10 times during his presidency.

April 9, 1865: Union General Ulysses S. Grant accepts the surrender of Confederate forces under the leadership of Robert E. Lee at Appomattox Court House, VA.

April 9 – April 14, 1865: Most of the nation celebrated what was perceived to be the beginning of the end of the brutal four-year Civil War.

April 14, 1865, 10:15pm: President Abraham Lincoln is shot while watching the play Our American Cousin. His assassin is John Wilkes Booth, a southern sympathizer and racist, who despised Lincoln for his efforts at ending slavery and granting citizenship rights to freed slaves. Lincoln, unconscious, is carried across the street to the Petersen Boarding House.

April 15, 1865, 7:22am: President Lincoln dies from a single bullet wound to the head.

April 15 – July 1865:
Secretary of War Edwin Stanton seizes control of Ford’s Theatre, now a crime scene. He places guards around the theater and limits access to the building as the murder investigation unfolds. Public outcry and grief in the wake of Lincoln’s death prompted closures of other theaters throughout the city.

Matthew Brady’s photography studio is permitted to take crime scene photos of the interior of Ford’s Theatre. Almost a century later, these images would be invaluable when the theater is restored.

The War Department’s control of the theater during this time is significant because it marks the start of federal management of Ford’s Theatre.

Ford’s Theatre remained closed throughout the trial of Booth’s associates.

A national debate plays out over the future of Ford’s Theatre. Should the building be destroyed? Should a suitable memorial be established in its location? Or should Ford’s Theatre continue operations as a site for live performances?

July 6, 1865: John T. Ford announces the re-opening of the theater via newspapers in Washington, DC. The performance scheduled for July 10 was planned as a benefit for the Lincoln National Monument Fund. He sold over 200 tickets to Octoroon, the play that had been scheduled to run on April 15. Stanton and the War Department were opposed to the re-opening of Ford’s Theatre.

July 10, 1865: The night of the first performance scheduled at Ford’s Theatre since the assassination. From an account published in The Sun about the events of that night:

“…an order was issued from the War Department on Monday afternoon directing the building to be closed; and about half-past 5 o’clock in the evening Capt. Peabody, with a detachment of about thirty men, appeared on the ground, and took possession of the building, placing guards at all the entrances of the same, and notifying the manager that he would not be allowed to open the theatre for the present. Shortly afterwards a large poster (bearing the words, “Washington, July 10 – Closed by order of the War Department”) was placed upon the door of the theatre. At about 7 o’clock, the hour at which it was announced the doors would be opened, numbers began to flock towards the theatre, the majority of whom, after pausing a few moments on the pavement in front of the building, quietly took their departure. Parties continued to linger about the building as late as 9 o’clock, but there were no riotous demonstrations manifested. In anticipation that some disturbance might occur, General Augur, commanding this department, instructed Captain Hill, who has charge of the “provisional cavalry” stationed in the city, to hold himself in readiness for service at a moment’s notice. All, however, passed off quietly, and at 10 o’clock the guard having charge of the theatre was greatly reduced.”

July 12, 1865: The New York Herald voiced the same concerns that were being echoed around the country when it said that allowing performances to continue at Ford’s Theatre was “a violation of the public sense of propriety… an attempt to coin the blood of a great man.”

July 1865:
The Cabinet of President Andrew Johnson discussed the ethics of seizing private property that deprived an individual from earning an income. Did the federal government have the right to stop performances at Ford’s Theatre, thus preventing Ford from his livelihood?

Ford threatened legal action as the War Department continued to prevent the operation of the theater. The Federal Government began leasing the building for $1,500 per month.
Box seats above the stage decorated with Flags and a portrait of Washington
Photograph of the state box at Ford's Theatre, taken just days after the assassination (Library of Congress).
August 4, 1865: The office of the chief quartermaster requested proposals from builders with the intent of converting Ford’s Theatre into a three-story office building. A few days later, interior demolition had begun and the presidential box was removed and taken to an undisclosed location.

Fall 1865:
Although Congress had not formally approved funding to purchase the building, the government continued to dismantle the interior of Ford’s Theatre, making it unsuitable for plays and other entertainment. By now, the very theater interior that had been the center of a national dialogue on how to commemorate the murder of a president, was completely gone.

The removal of the interior at Ford’s Theatre quieted memorial discussions surrounding the site. The theatre was now completely under government control, with updates on its progress reported by newspapers around the country. The New York Herald wrote that “large number of strangers visit Ford’s theatre every day, but the place has been so entirely changed that there is little gratification to be obtained.”

November 1865:
The construction project is finished. The interior demolition of the theatre allowed for the building to be converted into three floors. The structure still maintained the original four exterior walls and front facade, all present the night of the assassination. These silent witnesses to a national tragedy are still in place at Ford’s Theatre today.

The War Department and the Army’s Surgeon General’s Office make plans to move into the newly remodeled Ford’s Theatre.

April 1866: Congress approved appropriations for “the purchase of the property in Washington city, known as Ford’s Theatre, for the deposit and safe-keeping of documentary papers relating to the soldiers of the army of the United States, and of the museum of the medical and surgical department of the army…”
Engraving of 19th-century visitors perusing display cases filled with skulls and other bones
Main Hall of the Army Medical Museum at Ford's Theatre, 1873. (Library of Congress)
October 1866:
The United States Army Medical Museum, founded in 1862, began moving their collections from the Corcoran Building on H Street to the third floor of the former theater. The new offices at Ford’s Theatre allowed space for the museum to showcase and archive the rapid changes that army medical services had experienced during the Civil War. Their efforts to create a medical reference book of the museum’s collection began prior to the move to 10th Street and continued in the new offices.

The first and second floors were designated as offices for the Division of Records and Pensions, providing needed space for staff to work through the immense backlog of Civil War pension applications.

December 1866: The Division of Records and Pensions relocated over 16,000 bound document groups and an accompanying library of 2200 books.

April 16, 1867: The U.S. Army Medical Museum opens at Ford’s Theatre. The New Ford’s Building is active again with the traffic of a curious public. In its first year, the museum hosted 6,000 visitors.The museum is operated in tandem with what was now also a work site for government employees.

By 1870: The library of The Division of Records and Pensions had grown in size to 10,000 books, an increase from its initial inventory of 2,200 volumes.

By 1874: The former Ford’s Theatre, now referred to as the New Ford’s Building, served as the workplace of 134 clerks, an anatomist, an engineer, a messenger, and 22 employees who served as either “laborers or guards”.

1870 to 1880: The U.S. Army Medical Museum published the Medical and Surgical History of the War of the Rebellion from the New Ford’s Building. Eerily, a piece of John Wilkes Booth’s spine was displayed in the museum in the New Ford’s Building.

By 1874: The U.S. Army Medical Museum’s annual visitation exceeded 31,000 people.

By 1881: The museum’s annual visitation had grown to over 40,000.

By 1890: Displays at the Army Medical Museum allowed visitors to examine the remains of both Union and Confederate soldiers. The authenticity and stark reality of these exhibits enabled visitors to contemplate the meaning and purpose of the Civil War, and the legacy of Abraham Lincoln, some 25 years later.

By 1892: John T. Ford’s Theatre had been transformed into a multi-level structure with an interior that bore no resemblance to the elegant 1865 structure that had hosted a president. Yet, despite the fact that 27 years had passed, people came to the site because it was where Abraham Lincoln had been assassinated. Employees of the museum were able to point out the general location of the presidential box to curious visitors, and provide them with the details of that terrible night.
View of collapsed interior of building
Collapsed interior of Ford's Theatre, viewed from the second floor near the Tenth Street entrance side, 1893. (Library of Congress)
June 9, 1893: Tragedy strikes Ford’s Theatre again. Basement excavations had destabilized the building causing 40 feet of the third floor to collapse into the two floors below, killing 22 and injuring 65 people. A horrified public gathered as workers searched for survivors amidst a pile of bricks and rubble. Once again, Ford’s Theatre was engulfed in a heartbreaking loss of life. More on the Collapse of Old Ford's Theatre.

In addition to the outcry from the public over the causes of this disastrous event, there was concern over the loss of important pension records. By this time, the Division of Records and Pensions was responsible for original Civil War medical records, and were in the process of generating references that would help to expedite pension claims, and requests for records of military service.

December 1893: Repairs to the building were completed. It remained a storehouse for various records and publications until 1931. However, after much discussion, most of the staff from the Division of Records and Pensions were relocated.

1893: The Petersen Boarding House (where Lincoln died) becomes a public site for the first time. It was transformed into a museum through an agreement with the Memorial Association of the District of Columbia and amateur Lincoln historian Osborn H. Oldroyd. This provided Oldroyd with the perfect place to showcase his large collection of Lincoln artifacts.

1896: The federal government purchases the Petersen Boarding House, located across the street from Ford’s Theatre. Oldroyd continued operating his museum here. Prior to his death in 1930, Congress purchased his collection of Lincolniana.

Late-1920s: Congress shifted management of the Ford’s New Building warehouse and the Petersen House (also referred to as “The House Where Lincoln Died”) from the War Department to Office of Public Buildings and Public Parks.

1927: It was during this period of management transition that Representative Henry Riggs Rathbone revived the 1865 discussions around creating a national memorial at Ford’s Theatre. Rathbone was the son of Major Henry Rathbone and Clara Harris, the couple that was in the presidential box with the Lincolns on the night of the assassination. He presented a “Bill to Establish a National War Memorial Museum and Veteran’s Headquarters in the Building Known as Ford’s Theater [sic]” to the 69th Congress, and continued to lobby for the idea of a museum at Ford’s Theatre until he died in 1928.

By 1931: Although Rathbone’s bill never passed, the public dialogue that it generated, and the transfer of the building to the Office of Public Buildings and Public Parks, created a path for Ford’s Theatre to become a museum. In addition, there were concerns regarding the fire safety of the Petersen House, and whether it was an appropriate place to display the Lincolniana. All of this contributed to the development of an exhibit space on the first floor of Ford’s Theatre.

By 1932: The role of the National Park Service (NPS) changed. Its important mission of conserving and protecting America’s most significant natural areas now also included the protection and management of historic sites.
Photo of an open hall with support columns and display cases with Lincoln memorabilia
The Lincoln Museum at Ford's Theatre, 1964 (Library of Congress)
February 12, 1932: Ford’s Theatre reopened with a first-floor museum dedicated to the exhibition of the Oldroyd collection, on what would have been President Lincoln’s 123rd birthday. There was widespread public praise for the exhibits and information now available in the Lincoln Museum, and visitation reached as many as 500 people a day. Softened by the passage time, open access to Ford’s Theatre and the use of the building to tell the story of the assassination no longer incited outrage. Instead, the enjoyment and educational benefits of Ford’s Theatre were embraced and accepted by the public.

1933: This new NPS era was made official with the Executive Order of 1933, which placed federally-owned historic sites, like Ford’s Theatre and the Petersen House, under the direction of the NPS.

1933 – 1939: The NPS staff for the Lincoln Museum were aware that some of the artifacts most crucial to telling the assassination story were under the jurisdiction of the War Department. Included were some of the key items entered as evidence in the Lincoln conspirators’ trial, like the Deringer pistol Booth used to kill Lincoln, the bullet with which Lincoln was shot, the dagger Booth used to attack Major Rathbone, a boot worn by Booth during the assassination, Booth’s diary, the doctor's probe, and pieces of Lincoln's skull. These important historical artifacts were in the basement of the State Department building and the NPS requested that they be transferred into its collection for possible public display.

1936: With the Lincoln Museum occupying only the first floor, the second and third floors of Ford’s Theatre were still vacant. To fill this space, the Eastern Museum Laboratory, an exhibit-building workshop, was relocated from Morristown, NJ. Now there were dioramas, exhibits, topographic maps, and other three-dimensional exhibits being built at Ford’s Theatre for NPS parks such as Fredericksburg, Morristown, Fort Frederick, the Jefferson National Expansion Memorial, and the Museum at the Department of the Interior.

1939 – 1940: The War Department relinquished a group of these artifacts to the Lincoln Museum, on an indefinite loan, with the expectation that they would be placed on display. However, this treasure trove of high-quality pieces, launched a debate around the ethics of how to interpret the assassination. Some of the items were deemed as too inappropriate to display, and were not included in the exhibits. Those items included the Deringer pistol,pieces of the president's skull, and the doctor's probe.

1941 – 1945: During World War II, historic cannons and other artillery from various locations were stored in the basement of Ford’s Theatre. This provided a space that protected these artifacts from the threat of meltdown during the wartime scrap drives that occurred throughout the war.
Small wood-handled single shot pistol used by John Wilkes Booth to assassinate President Lincoln
Deringer pistol used by John Wilkes Booth to assassinate President Abraham Lincoln, now on display in the Ford's Theatre museum. (NPS Ford's Theatre Collection, FOTH 3224)
July 8, 1942: An article from the Washington Post indicates that the Deringer pistol used to kill President Lincoln was placed on display at Ford’s Theatre: “Yesterday (July 7), the NPS placed on public view, the pistols, photographs and other exhibits that helped convict the conspirators against Abraham Lincoln….” All other evidence suggests that the gun has been on public display at Ford’s Theatre ever since.

From 1932 – the 1950s: Visitors to the Lincoln Museum wanted to see the interior as it appeared at Ford’s Theatre on the night of Lincoln’s assassination. However, it wasn’t until the 1950s that the restoration campaign began to gain support within Congress.

1946 – 1961: Senator Milton R. Young (R-North Dakota) publicly and tirelessly advocated for the restoration of Ford’s Theatre, introducing several bills to Congress over these 15 years. His voice was instrumental in the renovations that we enjoy today. Young proclaimed, “The restoration of the stage, the boxes, and the scenery in Ford’s Theater [sic] is a duty which should be carried by us all.”

April 1947: The boots that Lincoln wore to his deathbed were donated to the NPS by schoolteacher Ruth Hatch of Lynn, MA. Hatch was the granddaughter of Justin H. Hatch, a friend of William Clark. It was Clark’s room where Lincoln was taken after he was shot at Ford’s Theatre, and where he died 9 hours later. They were removed from Lincoln’s feet, and then left in Clark’s room. Clark gave the boots to Hatch as collateral and never returned for them. The cherished piece was oiled for preservation and placed on display that September.

In 1950: The Lincoln Museum received over 112,000 visitors and the “House Where Lincoln Died” hosted over 52,000.

By 1953: Annual attendance for the Lincoln Museum had increased to over 152,000.

1954: “Public Law 83-372” was passed by Congress requiring the Department of the Interior to prepare studies to estimate the cost of restoring Ford’s Theatre to its state on the night of Lincoln’s assassination.

1964: Congress approves over $2 million to restore Ford’s Theatre to its April 14, 1865 appearance.
Photo view of excavated basement of Ford's surrounded by three-story brick walls
Excavation of Ford's and securing the foundation in preparation for recreating the theater interior, 1967 (Ford's Theatre Museum Collection)
1964-66: In the aftermath of the 1963 assassination of President John F. Kennedy, the social climate dictated that the Ford’s Theatre Museum should focus on Lincoln’s life and presidency rather than on his murder. For several decades, artifacts associated with the assassination would be showcased and interpreted across the street at the Petersen House.

November 29, 1964: Ford’s Theatre closed its doors to the public in preparation for construction and restoration. At that time, it was projected to re-open in late-1966. The “House Where Lincoln Died” continued to operate during the closure of the Theatre.

May, 1965: Secretary of the Interior Stewart L. Udall approved changes in the reconstruction plans of Ford’s Theatre to allow for live theater, and the accommodation of about 600 patrons. He preferred that the productions would focus on “Lincoln’s historical time in Washington”, but gave his approval without a set plan for the type of live theater. NPS leadership realized that they would need help implementing live theater performances.

June 1967: Ford’s Theatre Society is founded, and partners with the NPS to run the theater, hire the theater company, and help raise additional funds.

January 30, 1968: Ford’s Theatre reopens as a working, live theater, 103 years after its lights had gone dark. It was a nationally-televised celebratory event, marking the start of Ford’s Theatre serving as a living memorial to the legacy of Abraham Lincoln.
Plush red carpeted interior of the state box, with luxurious red furniture
Recreated interior of the State Box at Ford's Theatre. President Lincoln sat in the rocking chair, Mrs. Lincoln on the small wooden seat beside, Major Rathbone on the sofa, and Miss Clara Harris in the far upholstered chair. (reproduction furniture commissioned for Ford's in the 1960s)
1968 - 1971: Public interest soared after the 1968 reopening. Ford’s Theatre was receiving between 240,000 and 280,000 visitors per year in the early 1960s and in the three years after reopening, annual visitation increased to between 434,000 - 460,000.

1970: Ford’s Theatre, the Star Saloon, and the Petersen House are combined and named the “Ford’s Theatre National Historic Site.” This site is administered by the NPS.

In the 1970s and 1980s: The focus of interpretation shifted again. The 1981 museum plan proposed a “total rehab of exhibits to shift emphasis from Lincoln’s career to the events surrounding the assassination.” This was a radical departure from the approach of the mid-1960s when the site deliberately deemphasized the assassination.

1985: The final version of the museum’s plan included these themes: 1) Assassination and Aftermath; 2) Temper of the Times; 3) The Legacy of Lincoln; and 4) The History and Restoration of Ford’s Theatre.” The site’s overall interpretive themes were listed as 1) the Lincoln assassination and surrounding events; 2) President Lincoln and the memorial concept; and 3) Washington, DC, 1865: the city and its environment in relation to the assassination.
Photo of Fords Theatre Museum with large central circular carpet and floor to ceiling display case with Lincoln figure displaying his clothing and personal effects.
Ford's Theatre Museum, 1988. (Library of Congress)
1988: Extensive renovations were launched at the Ford’s Theatre Museum. Booth’s pistol and a fragment of the fatal bullet were displayed prominently in the museum for the first time. New exhibits also addressed Lincoln’s funeral and the prosecution of Booth and his co-conspirators.

August, 2007: Ford's Theatre closes for restoration and another round of upgrades and renovations to the Ford’s Theatre Museum. The new, more contemporary concepts focused on layered interpretation, visitor comprehension, and a chronological progression through the museum.

February 12, 2009: Ford's Theatre reopens on President Lincoln's birthday with a completely new museum exhibit.

Today: Ford’s Theatre National Historic Site continues to interpret the events surrounding the assassination of President Abraham Lincoln and Lincoln's legacy, as well as continuing as an active theatre. Our partners at the Ford’s Theatre Society produce four performances each year. For the current theatrical schedule, and for information on tickets:

Ford’s Theatre National Historic Site is proud to welcome an average of 650,000 annual visitors from all around the world.
Photo of theatre stage and audience seating on three levels, with the box seats decorated with flags on the other side of the stage
Ford's Theatre Interior Today (NPS)

Last updated: August 26, 2021

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