A hush falls over the crowded historic theater as a quiet spoken man, Boston Corbett, dressed in a Union Army Uniform, recounts the days leading up to Lincoln’s assassination. Guests include tourists and school aged children, chatting loudly, until the man in period costume begins to speak, and immediately silence fills the room.
I am on the edge of my seat as he begins a one act play, (referred to as a talk). The narrator gives intimate details of the lives of the key players involved in Lincoln’s assassination. They include the story of President Lincoln and his guests that evening. John Wilkes Booth (Lincoln’s assassin), and Boston Corbett, a local hat maker serving in the Union Army at the time the war ended, who killed John Wilkes Booth 12 days after the assassination.
The president’s box is to the right of the stage with heavy drapes still pulled back. The entire theater was photographed extensively during the investigation into Lincoln’s assassination, enabling the accurate preservation of history, and re-creating the theater 103 years later to resemble the night of Lincoln’s last attendance. A picture of George Washington, hanging below the box, designating the place of honor, has a chip in the left-hand corner, from when John Wilkes Booth fell after the shooting.
I imagine watching the play, Our American Cousin, in 1865, when the famous actor, John Wilkes Booth, emerges from the president’s box, falling to the stage floor. Around 1700 people packed into the theater, which now only seats 665. Theatre goers sit on bench seats with a straw floor as Booth fires the fatal shot that killed President Lincoln. The audience does not immediately realize the commotion to the right is not part of the performance. It takes several minutes to understand the president is shot and panic ensues. The upgraded lighting and sound systems are the only thing out of place in this well preserved 150-year-old theater.
It turns out I am sitting one seat away from where the current president sits when he visits the now working theater, in the front row, not one of the box seats.
After the Assassination
I am drawn to the words of the man playing Boston Corbett. He describes the chaos pouring out into the street. A boarder at the Peterson house heard the commission across the street. He hurried the president into the humble Brownstone home. The tightly packed rooms offer a place of refuge for the bewildered family. They lay the president in a small back bedroom in a bed too short for the president’s 6’4” frame, so they must position him diagonally. There is little comfort to a family that has already lost their young son, Willie, just three years earlier at the age of 11.
Preservation of History
Lincoln’s well documented days as president give us a glimpse of his life in 1865 and before. In his writings, we catch notions of his thoughts regarding the war. He struggled with the hard choices he must make as president. Among the stories of President Lincoln is one of a dream he had a few nights before his death. In his dream, Lincoln enters the East Wing of the White House where a corpse guarded by soldiers lies. When Lincoln asks who has died, a soldier tells him the president has been assassinated.
A Visit to Ford’s Theatre
Self-guided tours can be taken year round at Ford’s Theatre. The historic site requires tickets, but there is no charge to tour the museum and theater. The working theater sells tickets to live performances throughout the year. During summer months, the museum sometimes runs out of tickets by 9 AM. Expect to spend about two hours.
The tour begins in the basement, where the rooms are dark and the lighting low. Artifacts and timelines detail Lincoln’s life, the conspiracy, and the days leading up to the assassination. Guests enter the theater 30 minutes later for the one act play. During the spring and summer months, the tour includes the play One Destiny in the theater.
Across from the theater sits the Peterson House, where they brought Lincoln’s body after the shooting. The tour includes the home and room where Lincoln died the next morning and a museum in the upper floors of the building. Take the elevator up to the fourth floor which opens to a train car resembling the “The Lincoln Special’. As the country grieved the loss of their president, “The Lincoln Special” carried Lincoln’s body through 150 cities in seven states.
In each city, officials loaded the coffin onto a horse-drawn hearse to lead processions on the journey from Washington to Springfield, Illinois. There he was buried with his 11-year-old son Willie.
In the museum, the four-story tower of books contains books written about the life and influence of Abraham Lincoln. In many ways, he united the country and ended a terrible war that took the lives of over 620,000 soldiers, or roughly 2% of the population of the nation. Lincoln continues to be honored today through museums like Ford’s Theatre.
Other Places around DC Celebrating Lincoln’s Life
Lincoln’s Cottage 140 Rock Creek Church Road NW Washington, DC