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THE PRESIDENTS of the United States
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Historic Sites and Buildings

National Park Service Ford's Theatre National Historic Site
District of Columbia
Ford's Theatre
Ford's Theatre

Ford's Theatre, 511 - 10th Street NW.; and Petersen House, 516 - 10th Street NW., Washington.

This national historic site consists of two units: Ford's Theatre, the scene of one of the most tragic events in U.S. history—the assassination of President Abraham Lincoln; and the Petersen House, also known as the House Where Lincoln Died. Restored Ford's Theatre now offers regularly scheduled theatrical performances and serves as a museum and shrine to Lincoln. Complementing it across the street is the Petersen House, whose historical appearance has also been recreated.

In the spring of 1865 the Nation's future seemed promising. After 4 long years of devastating warfare, the Civil War had virtually come to an end. On April 9 Gen. Robert E. Lee, commanding the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia, surrendered to Gen. Ulysses S. Grant at Appomattox Court House, Va., and the capitulation of another large force under Gen. Joseph E. Johnston was imminent. In the South, the weary task of Reconstruction was already underway. In the North, many citizens, determined to forget the past, looked forward to national harmony.

For all these reasons, President Lincoln proclaimed April 14 as a day of thanksgiving. To conclude a long list of his scheduled activities on that date, he decided to attend Ford's Theatre, a popular entertainment center in Washington. The play to be presented was a light comedy, Our American Cousin, which starred the celebrated actress Laura Keene.

Ford's Theatre
Ford's Theatre. (National Park Service, Boucher, 1976.)

On the morning of April 14, a White House messenger informed the manager of the theatre of President and Mrs. Lincoln's plans to attend that evening's performance and that they would be accompanied by General and Mrs. Grant. Excitement mounted among Washingtonians as the news filtered out into the streets that the President and Grant were to be present. The theatre's manager prepared for a capacity crowd.

Stagehands scurried to make preparations for the Presidential party. For more spacious accommodations, they converted the two upper boxes at the south side of the stage into a single one by removing a partition between them. They flanked the box with two American flags on staffs and draped two others over the balustrade. At the front of the center pillar in the box, they hung an engraving of George Washington and suspended on a staff the blue regimental flag of the U.S. Treasury Guards. For the party's maximum comfort, a sofa and some chairs, including an upholstered rocker used by Lincoln on previous visits, were moved into the box.

During the afternoon, the Grants notified the President that they would be unable to attend the performance. In their place, Lincoln invited Miss Clara Harris, daughter of New York Senator Ira T. Harris, and her fiancé, Maj. Henry Rathbone. About 8:30 p.m., after the play had already begun, the Lincoln carriage arrived in front of the theatre. When the Presidential party entered the box, stage action ceased, the orchestra struck up "Hail to the Chief," and a full house rose and cheered. Lincoln moved forward, bowed to the audience, and then took a seat in the rocker at the front of the box. The play resumed.

At approximately 10:15, while one of the actors was delivering a monologue, Lincoln leaned slightly forward to peer into the audience below. Simultaneously, John Wilkes Booth, an actor who frequented the theatre and who knew its layout intimately, slipped silently though the unguarded door at the rear of the box and fired a pistol shot at close range into the back of Lincoln's head. He slumped forward unconscious. Instantly, Rathbone lunged at Booth, and the two men struggled. Booth dropped his pistol but managed to slash Rathbone with a knife he was carrying.

Handbill for the performance at Ford's Theatre during which Lincoln was assassinated. (Library of Congress.)

When the injured Rathbone broke his hold on Booth, the latter vaulted over the box balustrade. In doing so, he entangled the spur of one of his boots in a flag, lost his balance, and landed on the stage below in a kneeling position, fracturing his left leg. Regaining his balance within seconds, he hurried across the stage and through the wings to the back entrance of the theatre, mounted the horse he had left outside, and galloped away.

Meantime, the audience, many of whom thought that Booth's leap was part of the play, had reacted slowly. When they began to realize what had actually occurred, a stunned silence turned into pandemonium. Several doctors rushed to the Presidential box, examined the wound, and ordered that Lincoln be carried to the nearest bed, which happened to be across the street in the home of tailor William Petersen.

The assassination of Lincoln was part of a conspiracy organized by 26-year-old John Wilkes Booth, who as a youth had cultivated an intense admiration for the South and its institutions. Member of a prominent family of actors, but less successful than his father Junius Brutus or his brother Edwin, John Wilkes had occasionally performed at Ford's Theatre, once in Lincoln's presence. Talented, handsome, and popular though he was, throughout his life Booth had displayed signs of eccentricity, occasional erratic behavior, and a thirst for fame. During the Civil War, his hatred of the North and his love for the South became an obsession. Brooding over the sinking fortunes of the Confederacy, he had originally planned to kidnap Lincoln and hold him hostage, probably hoping to win the release of Confederate prisoners.

Abetting Booth in this scheme were several of his friends, with whom he often met and plotted in a boardinghouse on H Street, in Washington, D.C. It was operated by Mrs. Mary E. Surratt, the mother of John Surratt, who was a member of the group. Following an abortive attempt to abduct Lincoln in March 1865, they separated. Booth and several of them later reassembled and conceived an even more drastic plot: the assassination of Lincoln, Vice President Andrew Johnson, and Secretary of State William H. Seward.

When Booth visited Ford's Theatre at noon on April 14, he learned of Lincoln's plans to attend. Realizing that his moment of opportunity had come, he called together his accomplices and hastily devised a course of action. He was the only one of the conspirators who successfully carried out his mission. One other, Lewis Powell, also known as Lewis Payne, did gain entrance to Secretary of State Seward's quarters and stabbed him in the neck but not fatally. George A. Atzerodt, who was supposed to kill Johnson, lost his nerve and made no attempt. Within days, all the conspirators except Booth and John Surratt were rounded up, including a couple of men who had only been involved in the kidnapping plot.

On April 26 a cavalry detachment trapped Booth in a barn near Port Royal, Va. Shortly after the troops set fire to the barn, Booth suffered a fatal gunshot wound. Surratt, apprehended in Alexandria, Egypt, in 1866, was tried in civil court, but was released after the jury deadlocked. Also arrested were Mrs. Surratt, who was probably innocent; Dr. Samuel Mudd, who had set Booth's fractured leg during his flight; and Edman Spangler, a Ford's Theatre stagehand who was charged with aiding Booth to escape.

In one of the most sensational and irregular trials in U.S. history, they were all tried in the summer of 1865 by a military tribunal. Payne, Mrs. Surratt, and two others died on the gallows. Three, including Dr. Mudd, were sentenced to life imprisonment at Fort Jefferson, Fla. One of them died in an 1867 yellow-fever epidemic, and President Johnson pardoned the other two, as well as Spangler, who had received a 6-year sentence.

interior of Ford's Theatre
Interior of Ford's Theatre. Lincoln was sitting in the flag-draped mezzanine loge when he was shot. (National Park Service, Boucher, 1976.)

AT the time of the assassination, Ford's Theatre, an imposing brick structure three stories high, was one of the finest and most modern in the Nation. In 1863 theatrical producer John T. Ford had built it to replace one on the same site that had burned the previous year. Shortly after the assassination, the War Department placed guards outside the theatre and cancelled all future productions. Ford planned to reopen it later in the year, but public opinion prevented him from doing so.

In 1866 Ford sold the theatre to the Federal Government, which fireproofed it by removing the woodwork and converted it into an office building. For years, the structure housed the Army Medical Museum and the records and pension office of the War Department. On June 9, 1893, tragedy struck once again when a section of the third floor collapsed, killing 22 Government employees and injuring 65 others. Thereafter, the edifice served as a storehouse for official records.

In 1932 the building became the Lincoln Museum, depository of the Lincoln Collection of Osborn H. Oldroyd. A private citizen who had acquired more than 3,000 items of Lincolniana over a period of 60 years, he had sold the collection to the Government in 1926. In 1933 the National Park Service took over administration of the museum. Following World War II, public interest in restoration of the theatre began to mount. In 1960 the National Park Service undertook an extensive program of historical and archeological research, and 4 years later Congress provided funds for a total restoration, completed in 1968.

Historical Handbook
Historical Handbook

Although the architectural plans of Ford's Theatre were not extant, the National Park Service restored its exterior through the use of original photographs and other records. At the front facade on 10th Street, five arched entranceways are on the first story, and brick pilasters on the second and third stories separate the bays. The gable roof ends in a triangular pediment above a false parapet.

Today, Ford's Theatre again offers live dramatic productions. When plays are not in progress, visitors may tour the theatre and witness a regularly scheduled sound-and-light program from the orchestra seats on the main floor. The program recreates the atmosphere of the Civil War era in Washington, relates the history of the theatre, and dramatically recounts the story of the assassination. The interior of the theatre is furnished with period pieces and authentic reproductions; the Presidential box appears exactly as it did on the night of April 14, 1865; and the stage is set for the scene in Our American Cousin during which the fatal shot was fired.

In the basement is the Lincoln Museum, the nucleus of which was the Oldroyd Collection. In the center of the room are three crescent-shaped display areas, containing objects associated with three phases of Lincoln's life: his youth, legal and public careers, and the Presidential years. Recorded messages explain the significance of the items. Numerous other Lincoln memorabilia occupy specially designed glass cases throughout the room. One alcove is devoted exclusively to items associated with the assassination. Also on display are the plaster casts of the hands and life mask of Lincoln. In a lounge at the east end of the room, visitors may hear recorded passages from some of his speeches.

Petersen House
House Where Lincoln Died. (National Park Service, Boucher, 1976.)

THE Petersen House, across the street from the theatre, was built in 1849 by William Petersen, a tailor. A three-story brick rowhouse over a high basement, it contained more than enough space for Petersen, who rented out extra rooms to lodgers. On the night of April 14, 1865, as doctors were carrying Lincoln out of Ford's Theatre, an unidentified man, probably either Petersen or one of his lodgers, appeared on the landing of the house and beckoned to them. The doctors then carried the President across the street, up the curved steps to the first floor of the house, and placed him in a small bedroom at the rear of the entrance hall that was rented by a William Clark.

Throughout the night, the doctors maintained a solemn vigil over the dying President, while a continuous stream of Cabinet members, Congressmen, Army officers, and friends, as well as Vice President Andrew Johnson, paid their respects at the bedside. Mrs. Lincoln, who sat stricken with grief in the front parlor, wandered in periodically to gaze at her husband. At one point, she fell into a faint so prolonged that she was denied further access to the room. In the rear parlor, Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton began an investigation of the assassination, conferred with Cabinet members, and carried on Government business. About 7:00 a.m., Dr. Robert K. Stone, the Lincoln family doctor, announced that death was near. Within a half hour, Lincoln passed away. Approaching the bedside, Stanton is said to have uttered the words "Now he belongs to the ages.

This is the most historically authentic of the many artistic renditions of Lincoln's deathbed scene. As Surgeon-General Joseph K. Barnes provides medical attention, Lincoln's son Robert Todd, personal secretary John M. Hay, and military and governmental officials look on. Engraving, after a drawing by Edwin F. Faber, in Harper's Weekly, May 6, 1865, Library of Congress.)

THE Petersen House remained in the hands of the Petersen family until 1878, when newspaper editor Louis Schade purchased it. He used it as a residence and office for his newspaper, the Washington Sentinel, which he published for many years in the basement. Throughout the years, curious visitors desiring to see the room where Lincoln died became such a nuisance that in 1893 Schade moved out and rented the residence.

The new tenant was Osborn H. Oldroyd, who had been collecting Lincoln memorabilia for nearly three decades. He moved his collection into the house and opened it to the public as a museum. Three years later, the Federal Government purchased the building, but allowed him to continue to live in it and operate his museum. He died in 1930, or 4 years after the Government had purchased his collection. In 1932 the Oldroyd Collection was moved to Ford's Theatre to form the Lincoln Museum. At that time, several women's organizations refurnished the Petersen House. Under the jurisdiction of the National Park Service since the early 1930's, it has undergone only one major rehabilitation, in 1958-59.

The room where Lincoln died. (National Park Service, Boucher, 1976.)

A semicircular stairway, equipped with a wrought-iron railing, leads to the entrance of the first floor, the only section of the house open to the public. The first room to the left of the entrance hall is the front parlor, where Mary Todd Lincoln spent the night of April 14-15 with her son Robert and friends. From this room, a double doorway leads to the back parlor, which features the marble-top center table that Secretary of War Stanton used on the same night. At the rear of the house and at the end of the hallway is the room where Lincoln died. Its furnishings approximate those of April 14-15, 1865, including replicas of the pictures hanging on the walls and similar wallpaper.

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Last Updated: 22-Jan-2004