The Collapse of Ford's Theatre

Newspaper Headline on the "Awful Calamity"
After the assassination of Abraham Lincoln On April 14th, 1865 Ford’s Theatre was seized by the United States government as part of the assassination investigation. The Theatre was shut down, access restricted, and military guards were placed outside. After the trial and execution of the conspirators in July of 1865 the theatre was returned to John T. Ford.

Ford immediately announced that the theatre would reopen with the play The Octoroon on July 10th. He sold over 200 tickets, but he also received many threats warning him not to reopen the theatre, with at least one of these a threat to burn the building down. In response to the perceived threat, Secretary of War Edwin Stanton sent a detachment of soldiers to seize the theatre and turn away ticketholders. Several hundred patrons showed up for the reopening, and after milling about Tenth Street for several hours, departed without incident. The following day, Stanton informed Ford that the theatre had been confiscated by the federal government and arrangements were later made to compensate Ford for the property.

The government decided to turn the theatre into an office building. Contractors gutted the inside of the theatre, and some of the ornate fixtures were sent to Ford’s Holliday Street Theatre in Baltimore, Maryland. These features included the steel support columns that supported the Dress Circle (second floor) and Family Circle (third floor). The box occupied by Lincoln was dismantled and placed “under lock and key,” quite likely at one of Ford’s theatres in Baltimore.
 
Black and White Photo of older mustached man wearing a military uniform and fluffy black bicorn hat.
Colonel Fred Crayton Ainsworth

Library of Congress

By November 27, 1865, the renovations were complete. The War Department's Record and Pension Bureau moved into the first two floors. The second floor also housed the Library of the Surgeon General’s Office, with several thousand volumes of medical reference books. The Army Medical Museum moved into the third-floor space on 1867 but relocated to a new building on the National Mall twenty years later. The Record and Pension Bureau took over that space as well.

Over the years, many of the pension clerks complained about the poor and unsafe conditions of the building. In 1886, the War Department hired a new bureau chief, Colonel Fred C. Ainsworth, and authorized interior improvements. Ainsworth made several updates to the building systems but also implemented heavier workloads and longer hours for the military clerks, which made him quite unpopular.
 
black and white photo of a large room with dozens of men sitting and working at tables.
Pension Clerks working on the 2nd floor of Ford's Theatre, ca. 1890

Keystone/Mast Collection, UC Riverside

There were over 500 government clerks working in the building by 1893, and many expressed concerns about the safety of the building. Parts of the building were cordoned off by ropes due to concerns with the structure. At the end of the workday, the supervisors released the workers floor-by-floor, so as not to put too much weight on the main staircase. Many of the clerks were concerned over a noticeable bulge in the east wall. Some also observed pieces of plaster falling from the walls and ceiling. Ainsworth's superiors told him that the wall was secure and that the whole building was safe.

In 1893, Ainsworth received permission to install an electric light plant for the building as part of the modernization efforts. To install the light plant and provide ventilation for the area, workers had to excavate 12 feet between two partition walls in the basement, near the brick piers that held up the posts and beams throughout the building.
 
black and white photo showing three story building where the floors have partially collapsed about half way. The view looking towards the front of the building showing the doors and windows. On the photo is written view from second floor looking west, Bra

Library of Congress

On Friday, June 9, 1893, at 9:30 am one of the brick support piers in the basement collapsed. One clerk reported a “rumble like an earthquake” followed by a “great roar” and a crash “like the end of the world.” Floor by floor, in a domino-effect working upwards, the columns collapsed, releasing the beams and floors they supported, which in turn dropped the higher columns and beams and floors, leaving a forty-foot hole through all three stories of the building. Desks, chairs, tables, pension files, floorboards, and the dead and dying lay in a chaotic and dusty heap on the lowest level of the building. Twenty-two workers were killed with at least 68 others injured.

During this tragedy, there was a great moment of heroism. Basil Lockwood, a young African American man, rushed to a back window to help. He climbed a telegraph pole and held a ladder to one of the third-floor windows helping survivors to escape. His efforts saved around twenty clerks. For his heroics, the War Department clerks gave him an inscribed gold watch. They also petitioned Secretary of War Daniel Lamont to give Lockwood a job. Three months later, the War Department rewarded Lockwood with a job as a messenger that paid $55 a month. Sadly, he lost this job seven months later due to budget cuts.
 
black and white photo showing three story building where the floors have partially collapsed about half way. The ground floor is covered with rubble.
View of the collapsed floors of the Theatre looking Southeast from the Tenth Street side.

Library of Congress

 
Large three story building with 5 bays, windows in each story and bay, and arched entrances. A large crowd and wagon is gathered around the entrances.
Workers gathered to remove the victims and debris from the collapse, while onlookers gather across Tenth Street. June 10, 1893, from Harper's Weekly.
It would take days to remove the bodies and rubble. Even before the work was completed, the surviving clerks and the public wanted to know who was responsible for the collapse. Many blamed Colonel Ainsworth, others the contractor, George Dant, who had been hired for the work. A coroner’s inquest was held to rule on any criminal responsibility. After deliberations, the jurors of the inquest found Ainsworth, Dant, the building superintendent, and the engineer guilty of criminal negligence and recommended prosecution. The jury particularly found fault with Dant, who they determined was responsible for not properly shoring up the brick piers prior to excavation. The findings of the inquest were forwarded to the district attorney who determined that the superintendent and engineer were not criminally responsible, and eventually dropped the charges against Ainsworth and Dant as well.

The families of the deceased clerks received $5000 from the federal government and those that were injured received between $50 and $5000. Workers repaired the damaged floors and from 1893 to 1928 the building was used as an office and storage facility for the War Department. On July 1, 1928, the War Department transferred the building to the Office of Public Buildings and Public Parks of the National Capital. In 1933 the National Park Service took control of the theatre and the Petersen House.

Last updated: June 8, 2021

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