Ford’s Theater

Ford’s Theater goes down in history as the place where Abraham Lincoln was assassinated. On April 14th, 1865, John Wilkes Booth shot President Lincoln at point-blank-range while he was watching the play, Our American Cousin, from the presidential box in the theater [4]. This particular sight, one infamous building, has years of history and memory associated with it.

Ford's Theater

Fords Theater, ca. 1870

It is important to understand the background of the building. Originally constructed in 1833, the building was designed and used as the second meetinghouse of the First Baptist Church of Washington. In 1861 the congregation moved out and in the spring of 1862, John T. Ford bought the church and made it into a theater named Ford’s Athenaeum. Ford payed $18,000 for the building and immediately renovated it into a theater. Unfortunately, in 1862, a fire destroyed large portions of the building. By 1863 the theater was rebuilt and given a new name, Ford’s Theater [5].

A few years later, Ford’s Theater would be changed forever. On April 14th, 1865 John Wilkes Booth shot the President. Booth was a well known stage actor at this time and started his theatrical ambitions at the age of 17. Ten years later, at the age of 27,  he committed the assassination. Booth was very familiar with not only the play, Our American Cousin, but he also understood the layout of Ford’s Theater. Both of these facts added to the success of his murderous plan that night. Here is a link to a timeline of the circumstances surrounding the assassination [1].

That night, the theater was thrown into a massive frenzy with various types of people serving as witnesses to the first assassination of a president in history. One such person, was W. J. Ferguson, who was as an employee of the theater and was backstage during the assassination. Ferguson served as the call boy, who is a messenger of the prompter and is often assigned a small role in the play. That night, he was standing the prompt box, directly across from the presidential box, and was in the direct line in which Booth fled when he jumped out of the box, ran across the stage, ran between him and the main actress that night, and fled out a backdoor [4].  He claims the theater was at first silent in shock but then people began yelling in search of the assassin and to get help for Lincoln. The immediate aftermath was obviously very confusing and full of panicked reactions.

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[4] Excerpts from W. J Ferguson’s Eye Witness Account of the Assassination, The Washington Post, 1905.

For more on the mourning culture following the assassination click here, or check out this page about Lincoln’s Funeral Train. For more eyewitness accounts look here [3].

After the night of the assassination, how was the theater transformed? Here is a brief timeline of the changes that occurred:

John T. Ford attempted to reopen his theater a couple of months after the murder, but the result was outrage and backlash as people could only associate the building as a place of an atrocious crime. From then on, the building could no longer be used as a sight of enjoyment and leisure. The federal government bought the theater from Ford the next year for $100,000 dollars [5]. The building was transformed into an office space for various parts of the War Department to work in from 1866 to 1887. The move from a theater, a place where the public convened to be entertained, to a federal office building is a drastic change in function and memory. The memory of the death was drastically erased from the building and forgotten about.

But tragedy struck again in 1893 when parts of the inner structure collapsed killing 22 people and wounding 168 others [5]. This horrific incident incited rumors of the building being cursed. This event brought back up the past memories of death, and really engrained the association with tragic deaths with this building.

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[2] Photographs of the collapsed area of Ford’s Theater, National Park Service. 1893.

For a majority of the beginning of the 20th century after this tragedy, the building remained empty and unused. It wasn’t until 1932 that the theater was designated as part of the Ford’s Theater National Historic Site. In 1955, a bill is passed to reconstruct the building back to how it was in the late 1800’s. The National Park Services now maintains the theater and it was fully restored and re-opened in 1968. The theater then had some other renovations done in the early 2000s and was re-opened once more in on February 12, 2009 in celebration and commemoration of Lincoln’s 200th birthday [2].

Renovations of the theater occurring throughout the 1960s.

Nowadays, 150 years after the assassination, it is important to understand how Ford’s Theater currently functions as an active sight of memory. Ford’s Theater National Historic Site consists of the theater, which functions as a working playhouse, and in the basement houses a museum. From the Ford’s Theater website, a description states that “as a working theatre, Ford’s produces renowned plays, vibrant musicals and newly commissioned works that captivate and entertain while examining political and social issues related to Lincoln’s legacy.” Even with plays still occurring in the theater, the Presidential box is never occupied after all these years [2].

In the museum, which functions as a interactive remembrance of Lincoln, there are various objects of memory in relation to the assassination. One of the most famous items is the Philadelphia Deringer pistol that Booth used to fire the fatal bullet into the head of Lincoln. Other items include articles of clothing worn by various people that night and also the diary of John Wilkes Booth [2].

Both Ford’s Theater and the Petersen House make up the Ford’s Theater National Historic Site. For more information about the Petersen House, click here. Both sites, have a dark tourism aspect, in which people are drawn to these particular sights of memory solely because they are were Lincoln was fatally wounded and then later died.

Most recently, for the 150th Anniversary of the assassination of Lincoln, Ford’s Theater has created a digital collection highlighting the story of his death titled Remembering Lincoln. You can read more about this project here.

 

References:

  1. Bailey, Frankie Y. “Booth, John Wilkes.” The Social History of Crime and Punishment in America: An Encylopedia. Ed. Wilbur R. Miller. Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE Publications, Inc., 2012. 143-44. SAGE knowledge. Web. 16 Apr. 2015.
  2. Ford’s Theater Website. “Ford’s Theater.” Fordstheater.org. March 2015. Web. 11 Apr. 2015.
  3. Lincoln Financial Foundation Collection. “The Assassination of Abraham Lincoln: recollections and accounts of eyewitnesses.” Archives.org. State of Indiana through the Indiana State Library. 1915. Web. 11 Apr. 2015.
  4. “Saw the Assassination of Lincoln.” The Washington Post (1877-1922). WP Company LLC. 24 Sep. 1905. Web. 11 Apr. 2015.
  5. Washington Letter to St. Louis Post-Dispatch. “Ford’s Theater.” The Washington Post (1923-1954). WP Company LLC. 16. Aug. 1930. Web. 11 Apr. 2015.
  6. Winchcole, Dorothy Clark. “The First Baptist Church in Washington, D.C.” Records of the Columbia Historical Society, Washington D.C. Vol. 57/59. 1959. Web. 11 Apr. 2015.

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