Posts Tagged With: Ford’s

John Wilkes Booth’s Movements at Ford’s Theatre

It is well known that John Wilkes Booth assassinated President Lincoln in his theater box, jumped to the stage, and escaped out of the back door of Ford’s Theatre.  These hurried moments at Ford’s instigated a massive manhunt that lasted twelve days and ended with the death of the assassin.

The moments that preceded John Wilkes Booth’s firing of his derringer are not as well known.  John Wilkes Booth was intimately familiar with the layout, and people, of Ford’s Theatre.  It was like a second home to him insomuch that he even had his mail delivered to Ford’s when he was in Washington.  This familiarity allowed Booth to move about Ford’s Theatre without arousing suspicion.  What follows is an account of Booth’s movements at Ford’s Theatre in the time before he shot the president.

Ground Floor of Ford's Theatre and Baptist Alley plan

John Wilkes Booth had a busy day on April 14th.  His preparations to assassinate the President took him to the Herndon House hotel to alert his conspirators, the Kirkwood House hotel to leave a suspicious note for Vice President Johnson, and near Willard’s hotel to give a note to John Mathews which would justify his later actions.  Booth also visited Mary Surratt’s boarding house on H street three times that day.  It was after his third visit, where Mrs. Surratt confirmed she had given John Lloyd the message that parties would be calling for the hidden weapons tonight, that John Wilkes Booth walked to Ford’s Theatre.  He first went into the Star Saloon owned by Peter Taltavul. It was located right next door to Ford’s Theatre.  He briefly drank there with some of the stagehands from Ford’s, including Edman Spangler, since the play for that night, “Our American Cousin“, was at an intermission.  He found himself drinking alone when the men we called to curtain.

From the Star Saloon, Booth made his way to Baptist Alley behind Ford’s Theatre and got his horse, a bay mare, out of her stable. Spangler built the stable for Booth and took care of it for him.  Booth walked his horse to the back door of Ford’s Theatre. At the back door, Booth called for Spangler, who he hoped would hold his horse until he would need it.   Booth was told by another stagehand that Spangler was needed for an upcoming scene change and so Booth waited with his horse.  After the change, Spangler came out and agreed to hold Booth’s horse.  Booth entered the back door of Ford’s.  The current scene of the play left Booth with no room to sneak across.

The back wall of Ford's Theatre from backstage.  When Booth tried to go across here, there was not enough room.

The back wall of Ford’s Theatre from backstage. When Booth tried to go across here, there was not enough room.

Instead, he lifted a trap door and descended a staircase that led under the stage.  This was a T shaped passageway that was used by stagehands to cross the stage underground and for the musicians to reach the orchestra pit.  Booth emerged by ascending another flight of stairs and opening a trap door on the opposite side.

From there, Booth exited a stage door and into a covered alleyway between Ford’s Theatre and the Star Saloon.  He exited the passageway right out onto Tenth St.  Various witnesses put Booth in the theater lobby and at the Star Saloon at different times which makes knowing his precise course impossible.  However, a likely scenario would have Booth entering the lobby of Ford’s Theatre after exiting the alleyway.  He walked past the ticket taker, John Buckingham, who instinctively held out his hand for a ticket until he realized it was Booth.  Buckingham said that Booth entered the theater and stood behind the seats watching the production (and the President’s box) for some time.

As this was going on, Spangler had grown tired of caring for Booth’s horse.  He called for Peanut John, a young man who acted as an errand boy for the theater, to come out and take his place.  With Peanut holding the reigns, Spangler returned to work.

John-Wilkes-Booth-at-Ford's

An animated clip showing, approximately, Booth’s movements at Ford’s Theatre on April 14, 1865.

Booth exited the theater and walked next door to the Star Saloon.  Here he had a glass of whiskey and some water to chase it down.  He also acquired a cigar and began puffing away.  Cigar in mouth, Booth returned to the lobby of Ford’s.   Booth entered the main floor of the theater again and watched the production some more.  Upon exiting, he conversed with Harry Ford who was in the ticket office counting receipts.  Booth placed his half smoked cigar down on the window’s ledge and joked with Ford that no man should disturb his cigar.

As stated before, Booth’s movements are not an exact science.  It is likely that Booth, anxiously passing the time while waiting to strike, repeatedly traveled between Ford’s Theatre and the Star Saloon, attempting to gain courage with every drink.  Eventually, however, Booth realized that it was time to strike.  From the lobby of Ford’s Theatre, Booth ascended the staircase which led him to the balcony level.

Booth crept across the back of the dress circle level.  As he approached closer to the president’s box he stopped and noticed a guard sitting in front of the entryway to the boxes.  He removed his hat, and took out something, probably a calling card, from his pocket.  He then approached the man and presented the card to him.  He was allowed to pass and entered the vestibule with led to the boxes.  Booth closed the door and, using a bar he had hidden there earlier, he wedged the door shut.  The door to Box 8, which was at the end of the passageway, was open.  With his single shot derringer in hand and a large Rio Grande Camp knife at the ready, Booth entered the President’s box through door 8, turned left, and shot Abraham Lincoln in the head at close range.

The Shot 14 National Police Gazette 4-22-1865

Booth cried out “Sic Semper Tyrannis” and dropped the gun.  He raised the knife in his hand as Major Rathbone, one of the President’s guests that night, rushed at him.  Booth tried to stab Rathbone in the chest but Rathbone parried the strike and took it in his left arm instead.  Booth then ran to the front of the box, put his hands on the railing, and leaped over.  He fell almost twelve feet to the stage below.  He landed awkwardly, either due to a last minute grab by Rathbone or his spur catching one of the decorative flags adorning the box.  In a moment he raised himself up and with quick speed made his way across the stage, perhaps pausing briefly at center stage to raise his knife and shout “The South shall be Free!”  Booth ran into the wings and towards the back door he originally entered through.  William Withers, the orchestra director, unknowingly got in his way and Booth pushed him away, cutting his vest in the process.  Booth reached the back door, rushed through it, and shut the door close behind him.

In the alley, Booth shouted at Peanut John to, “Give me the horse!”  Booth knocked Peanut away using the butt of his knife and a firm kick.  He swiftly mounted the horse and put spurs to her.  She dashed down Baptist Alley.  Booth turned her northward and exited out onto F Street.  He would soon escape D.C. via the Navy Yard bridge and America’s largest manhunt would begin.

References:
Backstage at the Lincoln Assassination by Thomas A. Bogar
Restoration of Ford’s Theatre by George Olszewski
American Brutus by Michael W. Kauffman
The Art Loux Archive

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The National Museum of Health and Medicine and the Lincoln Assassination

The National Museum of Health and Medicine is a medical museum located in Silver Spring, Maryland.  The museum has a long history and was originally founded during the Civil War as the Army Medical Museum.  Its original purpose was to be a repository for, “all specimens of morbid anatomy, surgical or medical, which may be regarded as valuable; together with projectiles and foreign bodies removed, and such other matters as may prove of interest in the study of military medicine or surgery.” Since its founding to today, the museum has amassed a collection of nearly 25 million medical artifacts.  Though less than 1% of the collection is on display at the Silver Spring facility due to space constraints, the museum is, nevertheless, filled to the brim.  Walking into the museum, guests quickly come face to face with medical oddities and fascinating exhibits.  A wonderful museum in its own right, the NMHM has also become intimately connected with the story Lincoln’s assassination through the years.

A Place to Rest My Bones

Having been founded during the Civil War, the collection grew rapidly during its first few years as surgeons on the field of battle began sending in specimens.  By 1866, the museum was on its third home in Washington, D.C. and required even more space.  Luckily for them, on April 6, 1866, an Act of Congress was passed providing for the purchase of a building “for the deposit and safekeeping of documentary papers relative to the soldiers of the army of the United States and of the Museum of the Medical and Surgical Department of the Army.”  The chosen building was Ford’s Theatre the site of Abraham Lincoln’s assassination almost a year before.

Ford's Theatre Army Medical Museum Label

The building was closed down by the U.S. government in the aftermath of the assassination.  Though the building was returned to John T. Ford for a time, public outcry and threats to burn the building if it was once again opened as a theater forced the government to seize the building permanently.  At first they rented it from Ford before buying it straight out thanks to the approval of the above mentioned Act of Congress.  The interior of the building was remodeled from a theater into a three story office building.  On December 22, 1866, the top floor of Ford’s Theatre officially became the Army Medical Museum’s fourth home.

Here are some pictures of the interior of the Army Medical Museum when it was held on the third floor of Ford’s Theatre.  Most of these come from the blog “A Repository for Bottled Monsters” which is written by a former archivist of the museum:

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By 1887, the museum had once again outgrown its surroundings and moved into a building made solely for its purpose. This brought an end to the Army Medical Museum’s occupation of Ford’s Theatre. In hindsight the move in 1887 proved lucky. Six years later, in 1893, poor workmanship by a crew excavating in the basement of Ford’s caused a structural pier to give way, causing a 40 foot section of all three floors to come crashing down, killing over 20 government clerks and wounding many others.

Booth’s Spine Tingling Return

When it was housed inside Ford’s Theatre, the Army Medical Museum was a popular tourist destination in Washington. The museum saw about 40,000 visitors in 1881 alone.  In 1873, a book was published called, Ten Years in Washington: Life and Scenes in the National Capital as a Woman Sees Them by Mary Clemmer Ames.  In her book, Ms. Ames described a visit to the Army Medical Museum and points out the many oddities on display.  The book also contains this engraving of the museum inside of Ford’s:

Army Medical Museum in Ford's Theatre engraving 1873

As part of her description of some of the artifacts, Ms. Ames states the following:

“Amid the thousands of mounted specimens in glass cases, which reveal the freaks of bullets and cannon-shot, we come to one which would scarcely arrest the attention of a casual observer. It is simply three human vertebra mounted on a stand and numbered 4,086. Beside it hangs a glass phial, marked 4,087, filled with alcohol, in which floats a nebulse of white matter. The official catalogue contains the following records of these apparently uninteresting specimens:

‘No. 4,086. — The third, fourth and fifth cervical vertebrae. A conoidal carbine [sic] ball entered the right side, comminuting the base of the right lamina of the fourth vertebrae, fracturing it longitudinally and separating it from the spinous process, at the same time fracturing the fifth through its pedicles, and involving that transverse process. The missile passed directly through the canal, with a slight inclination downward and to the rear, emerging through the left bases of the fourth and fifth laminse, which are comminuted, and from which fragments were embedded in the muscles of the neck. The bullet, in its course, avoided the large cervical vessels. From a case where death occurred in a few hours after injury, April 26, 1865.’

‘No. 4,087.— A portion of the spinal-cord from the cervical region, transversely perforated from right to left by a carbine [sic] bullet, which fractured the laminse of the fourth and fifth vertebrae. The cord is much torn and is discolored by blood. From a case where death occurred a few hours after injury, April 26, 1865.’

Such are the colorless scientific records of the death wounds of John Wilkes Booth. All that remains of him above the grave finds its perpetual place a few feet above the spot where he shot down his illustrious victim.”

After John Wilkes Booth was killed at the Garrett farm, his body was brought back to Washington and deposited aboard the ironclad ship, the U.S.S. Montauk. It was there that Booth’s autopsy was performed. The body was thoroughly identified and the section of Booth’s vertebrae, through which Boston Corbett’s pistol ball had passed, was removed. In addition, an inspection of Booth’s broken leg was made and, for some reason, his thoracic cavity was opened. Shortly after the autopsy was performed, Booth’s body was taken to the Arsenal Penitentiary and secretly buried. In 1869, Booth’s body and the bodies of the executed conspirators were released to their families.  Booth’s vertebrae along with a piece of his spinal cord, however, found their way into the collection of the Army Medical Museum and were in the collection by 1866 according to one of the museum’s collection catalogs. John Wilkes Booth’s vertebrae and spinal cord were publicly on display at Ford’s Theatre in 1873 when Ms. Ames visited. Here is an 1873 engraving of the bones that she included in her book:

Booth's Vertebrae drawing Ten Years in Washington

The vertebrae and spinal cord of John Wilkes Booth are still part of the collection of the National Museum of Health and Medicine though they are not currently on display at the Silver Spring facility.  Here is a picture of the specimens taken a few years ago by the AP:

Booth vertebrae spine AP

I am hoping to make an appointment to view the vertebrae and piece of spinal cord in person and to look through the NMHM’s records regarding this artifact.  Hopefully a follow up will be posted at a later date. UPDATE: Click here to read about my research visit with John Wilkes Booth’s vertebrae.

When Powell Lost his Head

At the same time that John Wilkes Booth was assassinating President Lincoln at Ford’s Theatre, conspirator Lewis Powell was attacking William Seward, the Secretary of State, in his home.  Powell stabbed and bludgeoned five people in the Secretary’s home, but, miraculously, they all survived their brushes with death.  Powell was tried with the other conspirators and executed on July 7, 1865.  His body was immediately buried next to the gallows on the Arsenal Penitentiary grounds.

9 The Pine Boxes

In 1867, Powell’s body was disinterred and reburied in a trench that was dug inside a warehouse on the Aresnal property.  There he was joined by the bodies of fellow conspirators John Wilkes Booth (minus his vertebrae), David Herold, George Atzerodt, and Mary Surratt.  The trench also contained the remains of Andersonville Prison commandant Henry Wirz who had been executed for his wartime crimes in November of 1865.  In the waning hours of Andrew Johnson’s presidency in February of 1869, Johnson finally consented to the release of the conspirators’ bodies to their respective families.  The bodies of Booth, Herold, Surratt, Atzerodt, and Wirz were all claimed and reburied by their families.  Powell’s family, who had previously tried to claim the remains and had been denied, were not made aware that they could now take possession of their kin.  For a year, Powell’s body remained the only one still buried on the Arsenal grounds.  Finally, in February of 1870, an undertaker named Joseph Gawler (who also handled the reburial of David Herold) took possession of Powell’s body and had it buried secretly in one of D.C.’s cemeteries.  1870 newspaper accounts stated that, “family and friends could find his grave by contacting him [Gawler] as he had a record of where he is buried.”  The Powell family, who had moved a few times in Florida since Lewis’ death, apparently never heard the news.

The location of Powell’s remains from 1870 onward is a little fuzzy, but an extremely probable series of events was determined by Lewis Powell’s biographer, Betty Ownsbey, in an article she wrote for the October 2012 edition of the Surratt Courier entitled, “And Now – The Rest of the Story: The Search for the Rest of the Remains of Lewis “Paine” Powell“.  Using newspaper sources and cemetery records, it appears that Powell was originally transported from the Arsenal and interred in Graceland Cemetery.  At some point between 1870 and 1884 Powell was removed from Graceland and placed in Holmead Cemetery.  Not long after he was placed there, Holmead Cemetery was discontinued as it was considered a public health hazard.  The land was slated to be sold and developed in January of 1885.  Families with means disinterred their loved ones from Holmead and reburied them elsewhere.  All the unclaimed bodies still left in Holmead were exhumed in December of  1884 and dumped into a mass grave at nearby Rock Creek Cemetery.  Joseph Gawler was one of the undertakers who assisted with this endeavor.  By 1884 it had been almost 20 years since Lewis Powell’s death and it must have been very clear to Gawler that no one was coming for the body and that he was not going to be paid for the work he had done keeping track of it over the years.  It is with a very high likelihood that Gawler added Lewis Powell’s remains to the mass grave at Rock Creek and his body is there today in Section K, Lot 23.

The assumed resting place of Lewis Powell's body, Section K, Lot 23 in D.C.'s Rock Creek Cemetery

The assumed resting place of Lewis Powell’s body, Section K, Lot 23 in D.C.’s Rock Creek Cemetery (approximate location)

While Lewis Powell’s body may be at Rock Creek Cemetery, his head definitely isn’t.  The conspirators were not embalmed upon their deaths and through their subsequently reburials, their bodies were consistently exposed to oxygen which accelerated their decay.  The connective tissues of Powell’s head and neck, likely damaged by his hanging in 1865, would have quickly decomposed away separating his head from the body.  According to newspaper accounts, a few of the conspirator’s heads were separated from their bodies when they were disinterred in 1869.  Almost 20 years of decomposition later would have essentially stripped the bone of all tissues.  Therefore, when Joseph Gawler or his associates opened Powell’s casket at Holmead in 1884, it would have been a very easy task for them to collect the skull and take it.  That is exactly what occurred for on January 13, 1885, the Army Medical Museum added a new artifact to their collection.  Numbered 2244, the anonymous donation was entered into their catalog as a, “Skull of a white male.” A short description followed:

“P. Hung at Washington, D.C., for the attempted assassination of Secretary of State, W. H. Seward, in April, 1865.”

Powell's skull entry Army Medical Museum catalog

The museum, still located inside of Ford’s Theatre in 1885, now held the remains of not only the assassin of President Lincoln, but the would be assassin of his Secretary of State.

Lewis Powell's Skull Ownsbey

Unlike John Wilkes Booth’s vertebrae and spinal cord, Lewis Powell’s skull is no longer in the collection of the National Museum of Health and Medicine.  In 1898, the skull was transferred, along with many Native American remains, to the Smithsonian Institution.  For about 94 years the skull sat in storage in the Smithsonian’s Anthropology department.  In 1990, the Native American Graves and Repatriation Act became law.  The act required any institutions that accepted federal funding to return Native American cultural items, including remains, to their appropriate tribes.  In adherence to this law, the Smithsonian began the process of going through their collections.  In 1993, a government anthropologist named Stuart Speaker, who had once worked at Ford’s Theatre, discovered Lewis Powell’s skull among a collection of Native American remains.  Assassination researchers Michael Kauffman, Betty Ownsbey, and James O. Hall were brought in to help identify the skull:

Authors Michael Kauffman and Betty Ownsbey with Lewis Powell's skull

Authors Michael Kauffman and Betty Ownsbey with Lewis Powell’s skull

On November 11, 1994, one hundred and twenty-nine years after his death, a part of Lewis Powell was finally buried by his living relatives.  His skull rests today at Geneva Cemetery in Geneva, FL, next to the grave of his mother.

Relics of a Martyr

If you were to take a  visit to the National Museum of Health and Medicine today, you would come across an exhibit case entitled, Lincoln’s Last Hours.

NMHM Lincoln's Last Hours exhibit

This exhibit contains several artifacts relating to the death and autopsy of President Lincoln.  The items on display include the Nélaton probe used on the dying president to trace the path and depth of his wound, a snippet of his hair taken at his deathbed, fragments of his skull taken at his autopsy, a shirt cuffed stained with Lincoln’s blood, and  the bullet that ended his life.  The exhibit case also contains a plate that was given to Surgeon General Barnes by William Seward as a thank you for tending to his wounds at the hands of Lewis Powell.  Here is a slideshow of the artifacts on display:

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Most of these Lincoln relics did not come into the collection of the medical museum until around WWII. Prior to that, the pieces were held by the War Department as the bullet which killed the president had actually been an exhibit at the trial of the conspirators in 1865. In 1940 the bullet, skull fragments, and probe were transferred from the Judge Advocate General’s office to the newly created “Lincoln Museum”. This museum was housed inside of Ford’s Theatre and contained Osborn Oldroyd’s collection of Lincolniana. While the Lincoln Museum kept most of the items given to them by the JAG office (including the murder weapon), they decided against retaining these, almost literal, blood relics of Abraham Lincoln. They were transferred from Ford’s to the Army Medical Museum. Further research is needed to determine exactly when they entered the collection but it is likely that, for the briefest of time, these pieces of Abraham Lincoln were housed at Ford’s Theatre.

Conclusion

The National Museum of Health and Medicine is a modern treasure that tells the story of America’s medical past, present, and future. If you get a chance, visit the NMHM.  They are a free museum open every single day (except Christmas) from 10:00 am to 5:30 pm. During its lifetime, the museum has crossed paths with the Lincoln assassination story several times.  It was the first museum to be housed inside of Ford’s Theatre, it reunited a piece of the assassin with one of his conspirators at the scene of the crime, and, today, it displays relics of our 16th President.

References:
National Museum of Health and Medicine History
A Repository for Bottled Monsters
NMHM’s Flicker page
Ten Years in Washington: Life and Scenes in the National Capital as a Woman Sees Them by Mary Clemmer Ames
Alias “Paine”: Lewis Thornton Powell, the Mystery Man of the Lincoln Conspiracy by Betty Ownsbey
And Now – The Rest of the Story: The Search for the Rest of the Remains of Lewis “Paine” Powell” by Betty Ownsbey, Surratt Courier, Oct. 2012
Army Medical Museum Collection, Anatomical Section IV Logbook (MM 8759-3)
The Lincoln Assassination: Where are They Now? A Guide to the Burial Places of Individuals Connected to the Lincoln Assassination in Washington, D.C. by Jim Garrett and Richard Smyth

A very special thanks to Betty Ownsbey for talking me through the saga of Lewis Powell’s burials and for providing the pictures of his skull.

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Reagan Library’s former Lincoln Exhibit

Reagan Library Lincoln Exhibit catalog

From June through September of 2013, the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library in Simi Valley, California hosted an exhibit entitled, “A. Lincoln: Railsplitter to Rushmore“. The exhibit showcased a multitude of objects borrowed from the collections of private individuals; institutions like the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum, Library of Congress, Smithsonian, and Ford’s Theatre; and even the production designers of Dreamworks Pictures who produced Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln. Over 250 unique artifacts relating to Lincoln’s life and presidency were on display along with sets from the Lincoln movie like this one of Lincoln’s office:

Lincoln Office Set Regan Library 2013

Appropriately, one room of the exhibition was devoted to the assassination and death of Abraham Lincoln.  Here is a nice panorama of the exhibit room showing the recreated bedroom of the Petersen House, a mock up of the Ford’s Theatre box, and a replica of President Lincoln’s casket:

Click to enlarge

Click to enlarge

Here is a slideshow which further highlights the artifacts and displays from the assassination gallery:

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A few of the artifacts that were on display came from the Ford’s Theatre collection.  These included a Confederate cipher machine, a ticket to Ford’s Theatre, a key to a cell that imprisoned on of the Lincoln conspirators, and some funerary items.  One of Ford’s Theatre most iconic items was also loaned to the Reagan Library for the exhibit; a blood stained pillow from the death chamber of the President.

Petersen bedroom Assassination Exhibit Reagan Library

The Reagan Library’s recreation of the death chamber of Abraham Lincoln in the Petersen House. An authentic blood stained pillow from that night can be seen in a display to the left.

These images, sent to me by Carolyn Mitchell of the Spirits of Tudor Hall, show the blood stained pillow further:

Blood stained pillow Mitchell 1

Blood stained pillow Mitchell 2

Under this lighting, it’s hard to see the actual blood stains on the pillow.  The obvious dark splotches are not blood stains but ink stains that occurred long after Lincoln’s death and before modern artifact preservation techniques.  For many years, this pillow was on display at the Petersen House in Washington, D.C.  Today, however, the artifact is too fragile to be on display without a climate controlled display as seen here.  I’ve been told by a National Park Service employee that the pillow is so delicate that you could poke your finger straight through the pillow with ease.  Another, less fragile, pillow from Lincoln’s deathbed is on display in the basement museum of Ford’s Theatre.

References:
Ronald Reagan Presidential Foundation and Library
A. Lincoln: Railsplitter to Rushmore Exhibit Catalog
Ford’s Theatre NPS
A huge belated thank you to Carolyn Mitchell who visited the exhibit and sent me photographs and a copy of the exhibit catalog.  You’re the best, Carolyn!

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Photo of the Day: The Stage of Ford’s Theatre

This is how the stage scenery appeared for Our American Cousin at the time of Lincoln’s assassination.  It was photographed by Mathew Brady on Monday, April 17 after the War Department ordered the scene of the crime to be recreated for government detectives.

Notice the music stands in the orchestra pit.  They are likely still holding the music to “Honor to Our Soldiers”, a song that was planned to be performed for Lincoln that night.

Honor to Our Soldiers Playbill excerpt
Image Source: National Archives

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John Wilkes Booth in the Woods: Parts 1 – 3

For about four and a half days between April 16 – April 21, 1865, John Wilkes Booth and his accomplice, David E. Herold, hid from federal troops in the southern Maryland woods.  Near the 149th anniversary of Abraham Lincoln’s assassination, I undertook a project to reenact, as accurately as possible, this often forgotten part of the assassin’s escape route. My hope was to gain a better understanding of Booth’s conditions and the impact those days in the woods had on his state of mind.  The follow videos are parts of a series I’m calling “John Wilkes Booth in the Woods” which documents my endeavor.

I’m very pleased to present the first three parts of the “John Wilkes Booth in the Woods” project for your viewing pleasure:

Part One:

Part Two:

Part Three:

 

As editing of the footage continues, new parts will be uploaded and released here on BoothieBarn.  Stay tuned for much, much more!

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Give Ford’s Theatre YOUR Opinion!

fords-150-remembering-lincolnA couple weeks ago, I was invited by the Ford’s Theatre Society to take part in a focus group for Lincoln enthusiasts.  The purpose of the focus group was to gauge our interest and experience using websites as educational tools.  The Ford’s Theatre Society is preparing to launch an exciting new project which will coincide with the 150th anniversary of Abraham Lincoln’s assassination next year.  It is entitled the “Remembering Lincoln” project and will involve a website geared around the aftermath of Lincoln’s assassination and the national reaction towards his death.  As part of their preparation for this project, the Ford’s Theatre Society would love to hear your input about what interests you about the Lincoln assassination and what ideas you might have for the “Remembering Lincoln” site.  They asked me if I would be willing to spread the word about a survey that they will be conducting over the next few days, which I am more than happy to do.

https://www.surveymonkey.com/s/RL-enthusiasts-survey

Please, as soon as possible, take the short survey created by the Ford’s Theatre Society linked above and provide your thoughts on a new website to teach about Lincoln’s assassination.  If you complete the survey, you will be entered into a drawing to win a new book about the history of Ford’s Theatre.  Even if you don’t win the book, however, you’ll still be helping an important institution in the Lincoln assassination saga develop their programming and strengthen their mission of educating the public about Lincoln’s last day.  The survey will only stay up for a few days, so please let your voice be heard soon.  They would love to get as many responses as they can in that time in order to help them craft the “Remembering Lincoln” website in a way that would be useful and enjoyable to you.

You can read a little bit more about the “Remembering Lincoln” project by clicking HERE or HERE

 

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The Memorials on Tenth St.

Today, Ford’s Theatre and the Petersen House across the street constitute the “Ford’s Theatre National Historic Site”.  Operated by the National Park Service in partnership with the Ford’s Theatre Society, both buildings exist for the purpose of educating the public about Lincoln’s last hours.  Standing as they are today, it is sometimes difficult to imagine that, historically, they have not always been dedicated to serving Lincoln’s memory.  In fact, it was not until several years after Lincoln’s death that an effort was made to commemorate these buildings in anyway.  The modern museums of Ford’s Theatre and the Petersen House started off quite humbly as mere memorial plaques.

While the site of Lincoln’s assassination and the house in which he died were well known and hardly forgotten sites of Washington history, there was no move to commemorate either one of the buildings until nearly 14 years after the Great Emancipator’s death.  The first building to receive some sort of physical recognition was the Petersen House.  In 1879, it was the home of lawyer and newspaper publisher, Louis Schade.  You can read more about Mr. Schade and his connections to the assassination story HERE.  Schade had bought the Petersen House from the Petersen heirs in 1878.  In August of 1879, a couple of newspaper articles announced the installation of a marble tablet on the exterior wall of the Petersen House commemorating the historic nature of the house:

1879 marble tablet at Petersen House 2

1879 Marble tablet at Petersen House

As reported, the tablet was created and put up by a private citizen, Charles Rousseau.  Mr. Rousseau was a Belgian native who learned the art of sculpture at the Royal Academy of Fine Arts in Brussels.  He made his living carving tombstones and was quite talented at it.  One of Charles Rousseau’s creations is this tombstone for Benjamin Grenup, believed to be the first Washington, D.C. fireman to have been killed in the line of duty when he was run over by the fire wagon:

Charles Rousseau Benjamin Grenup

Whether Mr. Rousseau took it upon himself to make a tablet for the Petersen House, or whether Schade commissioned it, is not known.  Regardless, the tablet with its gold lettering was installed high on the exterior wall, far out of reach.  Here is a picture of the Petersen House as it appeared when Schade lived there as published in John E. Buckingham’s 1894 book, Reminiscences and Souvenirs of the Assassination of Abraham Lincoln:

Petersen House Buckingham 1894

In the image, Buckingham retouched the tablet to make lettering readable:

Buckingham Marble Petersen tablet 1894

This marble tablet remained the only marker on the site for many years.  After the house was sold by Schade to the federal government in 1896, Osborn Oldroyd became its curator and started displaying his Lincoln collection inside.

Petersen House w Oldroyd Marble Tablet

As time went by, the small marble tablet began competing with Oldroyd’s large signs hawking admission to the house to see his collection.

Petersen House Oldroyd Tablet

Almost 30 years passed and the small marble tablet remained fixed high on the exterior.

Petersen Original Marble Tablet Transcription

However, by 1909 the marble tablet was no longer on display.  Photographs during this time only show the three holes and the discoloration of the bricks from where the tablet had hung for so many years.

Petersen House No tablet

Whether Rousseau’s tablet fell or was purposefully removed is unknown. One text states that the tablet was removed because of complaints from visitors who stated it was placed too high up on the wall to read easily. If this is correct, perhaps Oldroyd felt his large museum signs provided the necessary information. Regardless, for a time in the early 1900’s, the only memorials on the Petersen House were the advertising for the Oldroyd collection of Lincolniana.

Meanwhile, across the street, the edifice that witnessed the horrible crime of April 14th, 1865, remained bare of any memorials. No private citizen had adorned the exterior wall of “Old Ford’s Theatre” like Charles Rousseau had done for the Petersen House. Instead, the building had been transformed into an office building, suffered a tragic collapse of the interior in 1893, and talks of demolishing it reappeared every few years or so in the press. Through it all, however, the scene of the crime remained.

It was not until 58 years after the death of Abraham Lincoln that a group of citizens decided it was time to commemorate the site of Lincoln’s assassination. The group, established by the Commissioners of the District of Columbia, was called the Citizens Committee of Historic Sites. With the help of the commissioners, the committee appealed for funds from Congress for the, “erection of suitable tablets to mark historical places in the District of Columbia”. For several years the committee was appropriated $500 and placed bronze plaques at various sites in D.C. On February 28, 1923, their appropriations were renewed and the committee started the design of two new plaques. One plaque was going to take the place of Rousseau’s marble tablet on the Petersen House while the other was to be placed on the long neglected Ford’s Theatre.

The formal unveiling of the new plaques occurred on April 29th, 1924.  I quote from the 1925 book, Abraham Lincoln in the National Capital by Allen C. Clark:

The exercises began at 3 o’clock in the afternoon. The invocation was by the Rt. Rev. Mongr. Cornelius F. Thomas. A History of the Ford Theatre Site was presented by Allen C. Clark. Eloquent addresses were made by the Hon. Henry R. Rathbone and by Frederick L. Fishback, Esq., of the Washington Bar. Mr. Rathbone vividly described and minutely, the scene of assassination. Mr. Fishback touchingly told of the last hours and of the funeral journey to Springfield. The tablet on the Ford Theatre site was revealed by Miss Maud Burr Morris; and Mrs. Osborne H. Oldroyd drew the cord which held the drapery to the tablet on the house where Lincoln died. It was the American flag which draped the tablets. The band from the Military School under the direction of Prof. W. J. Stannard interspersed selections. Frederick D. Owen was in charge of arrangements. Allen C. Clark presided.

As mentioned in the above quote, one of the speakers at the ceremony for the plaques was Representative Henry Riggs Rathbone.  Rep. Rathbone’s father was Henry Reed Rathbone, the army Major who was present in the box when Lincoln was assassinated.  Though the exact details of what he stated do not appear to have been recorded, the ceremony was attended by over 200 people.

Ford's and PetersenTablets - Washington Post 4-30-1924

In addition to this newspaper article from the Washington Post, there is also the following photograph of Rep. Rathbone speaking at the ceremony.  This fascinating photograph of a Rathbone speaking in front of Ford’s Theatre was the genesis for this post:

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Rep. Henry Riggs Rathbone speaking at the unveiling of the memorial plaques on Ford’s Theatre and the Petersen House on April 29, 1924. Click to greatly enlarge. LOC

The plaque that the Committee of Historic Sites placed on the Petersen House still stands on the house today.  It is located at a much more readable level than its predecessor, now hanging between the basement and first floor.

Petersen House with plaque

Petersen House Plaque

The plaque on Ford’s Theatre hung on the exterior of the building for many years, marking the location of the great crime of ’65.

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In the early 1960’s public support swelled to restore Ford’s Theatre to its former glory as a working theatre and a Lincoln museum.  During the periods of restoration and construction the plaque was taken down for obvious reasons.

Ford's during reconstruction no plaque NPS

When the newly restored Ford’s Theatre was unveiled in 1968, the plaque hung by the Committee of Historic Sites in 1924 was not restored to its place.  While the exact location of the Ford’s Theatre plaque is not known to this author at this time, it is likely that it entered the collection of the National Park Service and is being safely stored away.

The historic nature of a location is rarely appreciated in its time.  In most instances, plaques are markers to note where something historic once was but is no longer.  For many years it was a strong possibility that Ford’s Theatre or the Petersen House could be sold and torn down.  If events had played out differently, the magnificence that is Ford’s Theatre or the emotional impact that is the Petersen House would have been reduced to raised lettering on a piece of bronze.  We are fortunate that the generations that came before us had the forethought to preserve and protect these sites so that they may be enjoyed today.  Still, we also must remember that, like Rome, the structures we respect were not built in a day. The glorious museums on Tenth St. were founded on the actions of private citizens like ourselves and some memorial words on a tablet.

References:
Abraham Lincoln in the National Capital by Allen C. Clark
Restoration of Ford’s Theatre by George Olszewski
William A. Petersen House: House Where Lincoln Died – Historic Structure Report by the National Park Service
GenealogyBank.com
Washington Post
Library of Congress
Meserve Collection
Reminiscences and Souvenirs of the Assassination of Abraham Lincoln by J. E. Buckingham, Sr. (1894)
National Park Service

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Grover’s Theatre and the Lincoln Assassination

Ford’s Theatre was not the only theatre in Washington, D.C. visited by President Lincoln and his family.  Here are some interesting facts about the National Theatre owned by Leonard Grover.

Grover's National Theatre

The rivalry between the Ford and Grover

There had been a friendly rivalry between Leonard Grover and John T. Ford ever since Ford opened his first theatre in Washington in 1861.  The huge increase in population in Washington D.C. during the Civil War allowed both theatres, and their owners, to prosper.  Still, the two men attempted to one up each other in their attempts to get a bigger piece of the pie.  After the burning of Ford’s old theatre, he rebuilt, creating a smaller, but far more luxurious and comfortable theatre.  This was at odds with Grover’s, whose theatre which was described as,  “an ice vault in winter, and a sweatbox in summer”.  Grover advertised his theatre as the capital’s only “Union” playhouse, highlighting John Ford’s more “Secesh” sentiments.  Both houses had vied for Mr. and Mrs. Lincoln’s attendance on April 14th, 1865, but it was Ford’s Theatre, with Laura Keene’s Our American Cousin, that won the honor.

Tad Lincoln Attended Grover’s on April 14th

Unlike his parents, Tad Lincoln was more interested in seeing “Aladdin” at Grover’s Theatre on April 14th, 1865.  It was there that poor Tad learned of his father’s assassination.  Another individual who was attending Grover’s that night was Corporal James Tanner, a wounded Union veteran whose training in shorthand would prove invaluable later.  Tanner described the moment when the news of Lincoln’s assassination reached the theatre:

“While sitting there witnessing the play about ten o’clock or rather a little after, the entrance door was thrown open and a man exclaimed, “President Lincoln is assassinated in his private box at Ford’s!” Instantly all was excitement and a terrible rush commenced and someone cried out, “Sit down, it is a ruse of the pickpockets.” The audience generally agreed to this, for the most of them sat down, and the play went on; soon, however, a gentleman came out from behind the scenes and informed us that the sad news was too true. We instantly dispersed.”

Tad, quite distraught over the shocking news about his father, was quickly removed from Grover’s and taken to the White House. White House doorkeeper, Thomas Pendel, recalled what happened when Tad returned home:

“Poor little Tad returned from the National Theatre and entered through the east door of the basement of the White House. He came up the stairway and ran to me, while I was in the main vestibule, standing at the window, and before he got to me he burst out crying, “O Tom Pen! Tom Pen! They have killed papa dead. They’ve killed papa dead!” and burst out crying again.

I put my arm around him and drew him up to me, and tried to pacify him as best I could. I tried to divert his attention to other things, but every now and then he would burst out crying again, and repeat over and over, “Oh, they’ve killed papa dead! They’ve killed papa dead!”

At nearly twelve o’clock that night I got Tad somewhat pacified, and took him into the President’s room, which is in the southwest portion of the building. I turned down the cover of his little bed, and he undressed and got in. I covered him up and laid down beside him, put my arm around him, and talked to him until he fell into a sound sleep.”

Tad Lincoln

Tad Lincoln

Leonard Grover Wasn’t in Town

At the time of the assassination neither John T. Ford or Leonard Grover, were at their namesake theatres.  Each man owned or leased other theatres in other cities and were tending to business elsewhere.  John T. Ford was in Richmond at the time of the assassination and Leonard Grover was in New York.  After the news had reached Grover’s Theatre and the building had emptied, Charles Dwight Hess, the manager of Grover’s Theatre, sent a telegram to Leonard Grover in New York.  Grover later recalled:

“On that eventful day I was in New York, busily getting ready for my approaching Easter season of opera at the Academy of Music. I had passed a laborious day and retired an early hour, at the old Metropolitan Hotel. I was soundly sleeping when a sharp rap at the door awoke me, and some one called, ”Mr. Grover, here’s a telegram for you.” Thinking it was the usual message from one of the theaters (for I was then managing a Philadelphia theater as well) which would simply convey the amount of the receipts of the house, I called back: “Stick it under the door.” But the rapping continued with vigor, and there were calls, ”Mr. Grover, Mr. Grover, please come to the door!”

I arose, hastily opened the door, when the light disclosed the long hall compactly crowded with people. Naturally, I was astonished. A message was handed to me with the request: “Please open that telegram and tell us if it’s true.” I opened it and read:

“President Lincoln shot to-night at Ford’s Theatre. Thank God it wasn’t ours. C. D. Hess.”

What follows is a copy of the Grover’s Theatre playbill that was used for the April 14th, performance of “Aladdin”.

Aladdin Playbill

The handwritten text at the top reads, “The night President Lincoln was shot at Fords Theatre. “Tad” Lincoln with his Tutor was with me at -“. Though the playbill is credited as belonging to Leonard Grover, we know Grover was not at his theatre at the time of the assassination. It is likely that this playbill was actually owned by Charles D. Hess, the manager of Grover’s who as present at theatre and shared the news with the audience.

The Assassination could have been at Grover’s Theatre

In April of 1909, two articles were published in Century Magazine which theorized that Lincoln still would have been assassinated even if he had attended Grover’s Theatre that night instead of Ford’s. For a wonderful recounting of this theory, please visit the corresponding page on Roger Norton’s Lincoln Assassination Research Site.

Booth carried Aladdin with him

When John Wilkes Booth was cornered and killed at the Garrett farm, the detectives thoroughly searched his person, removing any papers and objects they could find. Inside his small memorandum book (better known as his diary), they found five photographs.  One of the photographs was of this woman:

Effie Germon CDV

Her name is Effie Germon and she was an actress friend of John Wilkes Booth. If you look at the playbill for Grover’s production of “Aladdin” you can find her name.  She was the star of the night, portraying the eponymous Aladdin.

References:
Backstage at the Lincoln Assassination by Thomas Bogar
Thirty-Six Years in the White House by Thomas Pendel
“What if the Lincolns had attended the play at Grover’s Theatre” by Roger Norton
Lincoln’s Interest in the Theatre by Leonard Grover
“Lincoln and Wilkes Booth as Seen on the Day of the Assassination” by M. Helen Palmes Moss as printed in the Century Magazine (April, 1909).

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