Frequently Asked Questions: The Assassination

What happened here?

On April 14th, 1865, actor John Wilkes Booth entered the state box. The state box is the flag draped theatre box located in the balcony to your right as you face the stage. It was then that John Wilkes Booth shot President Abraham Lincoln in the back of the head with a .44 derringer pistol during a performance of the play Our American Cousin. Upon being shot, President Lincoln was immediately unconscious and subsequently examined by a Dr. Charles Leale. Dr. Leale determined that the head wound was mortal. He made the decision to have President Lincoln carried to the closest bed that was available in proximity to the theatre. Dr. Leale and several men carried the unconscious president to the Petersen Boarding House across the street from the theatre. A boarder at the house, Henry Safford, directed the group to the boarding house, and ushered them into a small room at the end of a first floor hallway. Lincoln was laid down onto a wood-framed spindle bed, diagonally as the bed was too short, and there died 9 hours later at 7:22 a.m. on April 15, 1865.

How many people were in attendance on the night of Lincoln’s assassination?

John T. Ford claimed his new theatre would hold 2500 spectators. The real capacity was probably closer to 1700. From eyewitnesses, we know that several attendees moved around the theatre for better seats, suggesting that it was not a completely full house. So, the number is likely to be around 1500, though we will never know very precisely. Through the years, many would later claim to have been present, and those claims can be difficult to substantiate because no list of attendees was taken or kept at the time.

Who else besides President Lincoln was seated inside the state theatre box on the night of April 14th, 1865? Was anybody in the other boxes that night?

President Lincoln was seated in the rocking chair situated to your far right as you face the state box. Seated alongside the president, on a black wooden cane-bottomed chair, was his wife Mary Lincoln. Two guests, friends of the Lincolns, Major Henry Rathbone and his fiancée Miss Clara Harris were also in the box. Rathbone was seated on the love sofa in the far back left area and his fiancée, Miss Clara Harris seated in the chair to the far left (looking up from the stage). In addition to being engaged to each other, Major Rathbone and Miss Harris were also step-brother and step-sister. Clara Harris was the daughter of a U.S. senator, Ira Harris from New York, who was a good friend of Lincoln’s. Ira Harris had married Henry Rathbone’s widowed mother in 1845.

None of the other boxes were occupied for that night’s performance.

What show was President Lincoln watching when he was shot, and what was it about?

The play was Our American Cousin, a comedy and satire about American Life and Culture written by a playwright named Tom Taylor in the 1850s. The play centers around an English refined aristocrat who attempts to show the backwardness and crude nature of an American living through a country bumpkin named Harry Hawk.

The play was written for a British audience in 1852 by a successful playwright, Tom Taylor, but never performed in Britain. The play reads as a melodrama about a country bumpkin from Vermont, who travels to England in order to claim an inheritance and incidentally saves the family from a villainous lawyer, Mr. Coyle. The humor of the play arises as the upper-class English aristocrats fall all over themselves to curry favor with the country bumpkin, Asa Trenchard, because they think that he is rich.

Actress Laura Keene got hold of the script in New York in the late 1850’s. Laura Keene did not consider the script to be of a high-quality. She thought that the only way the play would be a success was if she were to cast the highest quality actors of the time to perform within it. Two famous actors she recruited were Joseph Jefferson and Edward Askew Southern. E.A Southern agreed to play the part of the English aristocrat, Lord Dundreary, but only if he were allowed to completely ad-lib his part. He created a ridiculous stammer for his character and added a host of nonsensical aphorisms (e,g. “birds of a feather gather no moss”) to his ad-libbed speeches. Joseph Jefferson, playing the role of Asa Trenchard was supposed to be the lead of the play, but instead E.A. Southern’s role of Lord Dundreary took over the play, turning what was originally a melodrama into more of farce.

The play was a huge hit in New York in 1858 and then in London in 1861. It also created a merchandising boom related to the character of Lord Dundreary. The play made the careers of Laura Keene, Joseph Jefferson and E.A. Southern, each of whom had their own traveling productions of the play by 1865. Abraham Lincoln was watching Laura Keene’s production of the play the night of the assassination.

How old was President Lincoln when he was shot?

Lincoln was born on February 12, 1809 and died on April 15, 1865. He was 56 years, 2 months, and 3 days old.

What were Lincoln’s last words?

President Lincoln’s very last words were “She won’t think anything about it.” The Lincolns had drawn close together and were holding hands. Lincoln’s words were in response to Mary asking, “What will Miss Harris think of my hanging on to you so?” Five minutes later, John Wilkes Booth would enter the presidential box.

Where was the Secret Service when President Lincoln was shot? Why wasn’t Lincoln guarded?

Although Abraham Lincoln signed the bill creating the Secret Service on April 14, 1865, the day of the assassination, their primary mission was the prevention of counterfeiting and they were a part of the Treasury Department. The Secret Service was not assigned to protect the president until after 1901 with the assassination of President William McKinley. Some Secret Service agents had protected the president previously on occasion, but the agency was not charged specifically with presidential protection. Prior to 1901, there was no policy as to who protected the president, and presidents and those around them would grab whatever law enforcement agent was close at hand.

As for the evening of April 14, 1865, there was a lone Washington, D.C. police officer named John Parker assigned to escort the President from the White House to Ford’s and back. His whereabouts at the time of the assassination are unknown. Some have suggested Lincoln may have invited him to take a seat with a better view elsewhere in the theatre. There is some evidence that he may have taken a drink over at the Star Saloon next door with the president’s coachman and messenger at intermission, but there is no evidence on whether he remained there or not. Presidential security was a much more casual affair in the 19th century and keeping a constant guard on the president, as we might expect today, would not have been part of Parker’s duties.

The Superintendent of the Metropolitan Police did file charges against Parker in May 1865, however, alleging dereliction of duty in allowing the assassin to shoot the president. The charges were dismissed a month later and Parker continued on with the police force until 1868. Parker, unlike many others, was never questioned by any court at the time. The police file on him was lost in the 1940s, and further details of the charges levied against him have come to light.

Although the Civil War was the first war in which the average soldier could reliably aim their firearms, the surrounding culture continued to believe that guns were very unreliable. They believed so even after the Civil War. Hence presidential security at the time was not so concerned with assassins sneaking around with guns, but more with the threat of mob violence. John Parker was not disciplined for leaving his post because there was no person who could point to any written policy as to how he was supposed to behave. John Parker saw himself as a police escort, whose job was to escort the presidential carriage while it was out in the street. He did not see himself as a dedicated personal security guard for the president. That continued to be the policy through the assassinations of James A. Garfield and William McKinley before Secret Service was permanently assigned to the president in 1901.

Lincoln himself did not seek any form of personal protection, and was somewhat cavalier and fatalistic about his own security. Secretary of War Stanton was continually concerned with the president’s vulnerability to attack, and had two military units escort President Lincoln’s carriage on his travels in the city. Lincoln’s friend from Springfield, Illinois, Ward Hill Lamon, also often served a self-appointed informal role as the president’s bodyguard. Lamon was in Richmond on the night of Lincoln’s assassination.

Did theatre visitors witness the shooting?

Virtually no one inside the theatre actually witnessed the shooting except for one recorded eye-witness account. James P. Ferguson, owner of a restaurant directly north of Ford’s, was seated in the Dress Circle (balcony level) directly across from the president’s box and stated, “I saw a flash of the pistol right back in the box.” Ferguson described President Lincoln's head as leaning slightly forward and turned somewhat to his left at the time of the flash. Many others would report hearing the sound of the shot, and even Major Rathbone, in the box itself, only heard the report from the gun, and only saw Booth through the smoke after the shot was fired.

Last updated: August 15, 2020

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