Ford’s 150: Remembering the Lincoln Assassination

Modern logo of Ford’s Theatre [1].

Ford’s 150: Theaters of Commemoration

Ford’s Theatre is the infamous location of Lincoln’s assassination, the Petersen house is the location of his death, and the Soldier’s Home cottage was his famous non-White House residence. Soon after the assassination, these sites became places of mourning, pain and, to some extent, shame. Now, however, these establishments, particularly Ford’s Theatre are hosting a multitude of events remembering Lincoln’s assassination 150 years later. From January to April, over a dozen events are being held by the theatre and associated locations/organizations under the umbrella title of “Ford’s 150: Remembering the Lincoln Assassination”.

That Ford’s Theatre claimed a key role is no surprise. The historical value, and subsequent financial value, largely outweighs the establishment’s function as a theatre, which ceased the moment Booth pulled the trigger.  The venue’s value took another hit in 1893, not long after Lincoln’s assassination, when the theatre partially collapsed, twenty-two individuals died as a result of the accident. The theatre remained inactive until 1968 when it was reopened largely as a site of Lincoln memory through a public-private partnership between the National Park Service and a private entity, Ford’s Theatre Society. The National Park Service also owns the Petersen House, which operates as a museum in conjunction with the theatre. Since reopening, the theatre has commonly hosted events regarding Lincoln’s memory. In fact, the logo and slogan of the theatre are Lincoln centric– the logo is a profile portrait of Lincoln and the slogan reads, “Where Lincoln’s Legacy Lives”. Most recently, the site acted as the primary site of Lincoln’s bicentennial celebrations in 2009.

The exterior of Ford’s Theatre a day prior to the commemoration events. (AP Photo)

Lincoln’s Cottage at the Soldier’s Home, the other major participating site of remembrance is more often than not forgotten as a site of Lincoln memory. Lacking the strong association with Lincoln that Ford’s Theatre has recently capitalized on, hosting annual events such as these are one of the only ways for the site to maintain their stake in Lincoln’s legacy.

The last ‘theatre’ of commemoration says more about developments that have occurred over the past 150 than the assassination. Though the celebration boasts being Washington D.C.’s main Lincoln assassination commemoration, Ford’s Theatre has attempted to transcend the traditional geographic confines of the Lincoln assassination’s memory. To this end they have provided free online streaming of “Now He Belongs to the Ages”, a virtual tour of the Ford’s Theatre campus, and an online, though paid, version of the History on Foot Tour at the price of $125 per hour [1].

 

Scheduled Events and Venues [2]

Ford’s Theater, Petersen House, and the Center for Leadership Campus

The Road to Appomattox
April 9, 2015, 10:30 a.m. and 11:30 a.m. A Theatre production recreating the meeting of  Robert E. Lee and Ulysses S. Grant following the surrender at Appomattox.

Now He Belongs to the Ages: A Lincoln Commemoration
April 14, 2015, 9:00 p.m. Ford’s Theatre. A large list of commemorative performances, speeches and tours. Live streamed online and recorded for future use.

The Lincoln Tribute
April 14-15, 2015. Ford’s Theatre. A tribute event revolving around first hand accounts of the assassination as told by historians.

National Park Service Commemorative Wreath Laying
April 15, 2015, 7:22 a.m. Petersen House. A ceremony re-creating the original wreath laying ceremony following Lincoln’s passing.

Freedom’s Song: Abraham Lincoln and the Civil War
Through May 20, 2015. Ford’s Theatre.  Musical retelling Lincoln’s presidency with a focus on his role in the Civil War.

Silent Witnesses: Artifacts of the Lincoln Assassination
Through May 25, 2015. Center for Education and Leadership. A collection of items present in Ford’s Theatre or used by Lincoln on the night of the assassination.

One Destiny
May 2015. Ford’s Theatre. A small play detailing facts and emotions of the assassination while capturing the emotions of that fateful night.

History on Foot Walking Tours
Through October 2015. Ouside the theatre complex. Guests go on a tour with an actor portraying Detective James McDevitt, the first officer to respond to the scene and investigate the conspiracy. Available online.

Lincoln’s Cottage at the Soldier’s Home

Lincoln’s Last Ride
April 13, 2015, 12-3:30 p.m. Washington, D.C.. A re-enactment of Lincoln’s last commute on hourseback to the White House.

originALs: Memorial Objects from the Collection
August 2015. Various personal affects of Lincoln’s saved from the cottage after his passing.

Other Locations of Commemoration

“His Wound Is Mortal; It Is Impossible For Him To Recover”- The Final Hours of President Abraham Lincoln
April 2015. National Museum of Health and Medicine. An educational and investigative event covering the autopsy of Lincoln’s body and the medical methods used in the period.

Free Lincoln Assassination Walking Tours
Apri Saturdays at 4:30 p.m.. Washinton D.C.. A special edition of the Free Walking Tours of Washington focusing on the events of the assasination.

President Lincoln Is Dead: The New York Herald Reports the Assassination
Through September 13, 2015. The Newseum. An exploratory commemoration observing the frenzied efforts of the 1860’s press to update the public on the unfolding events. Original copies of all seven editions issued by the Herald on April 15, 1865 will be displayed.

 

Motifs of Commemoration

The event series is characterized by various motifs in not only what is being portrayed, but in how, too. The scheduled events follow patterns regarding content and style that provide additional information regarding the present state of Lincoln assassination memories and their public utility.

The first, and most noticeable, motif is the fascination with the death, rather than life of Lincoln in the events. Of course, this is a commemoration of the assassination’s anniversary and a fixation on the death is to be expected. However, such a focus is a sharp deviation from the norm. Despite the infamy of the assassination, Lincoln is often immortalized within American culture– his image is on two forms of currency, one of which has managed to persist long past practicality, the political power of his memory was great enough to displace and rename Washington’s Day to Presidents’ Day, and the name of this very website is “Living Lincoln”. In fact, it seems that the Ford’s 150 series is a commercialization, rather than a mere commemoration, of Lincoln’s death. Having long suffered from a paralyzing historical deadlock wherein both utilizing or destroying the memory site risked insulting the legacy of Lincoln, it appears the theatre has finally been able to capitalize on its former crux [3].

The ability to do this displays a drastic transformation from a memory of painful mourning to one of fascination and reverence. Certainly, the stark difference between attitudes toward the assassination cannot be understated. When John Ford originally attempted to reopen the theatre, he received numerous threats by mail, the same threats were issued again when demolition was preposed [4]. However, not only does the theatre now thrive on this memory, but nearly all aspects of Lincoln’s death can be explore through the listed commemoration events, even a potentially morbid medical look at Lincoln’s last hours. The “His Wound Is Mortal; It Is Impossible For Him To Recover” event will showcase medical instruments used on Lincoln’s autopsy, the bullet that ended his life, and an modern doctor will

Bone fragments of Lincoln’s skull recovered during the autopsy, these fragments were presented as evidence during the investigation. [5]

walk participants through the medical trauma Lincoln’s injury caused. If utilization of the building in which Lincoln was assaulted was off-limits due to controversy following the assassination, imagine the outcry such an intimate and macabre exhibit would elicit.

The apparent commodification and monetization of Lincoln’s memory serves to explain to role of Ford’s theatre as the primary organizer of the events, rather than a more formal site of memory such as the Lincoln Memorial, which interestingly did not host an event commemorating the assassination. Though the theatre is owned, in part, by the government, it still operates to some degree as a non-profit theatre. In a time where live theatre is struggling to maintain an audience, Ford’s must utilize its history to remain active. However, constant over-utilization of Lincoln’s memory risks backlash as shameless or self-serving. Of course, they do have permanent Lincoln attractions, such as the “History on Foot” tours; however, during acceptable periods of commemoration it is not surprising that the theatre chooses to play a prominent role in order to further utilize their heritage.

Another motif revolves around a key aspect of the memory site, performance. Eight of the thirteen events involve some aspect of performance of Lincoln’s last days, including multiple performances off of the stage and outside of the theatre. This, too, relates to the ability to capitalize on the history of the theatre

An actor portraying Detective McDevitt, the Washington D.C. detective to respond to the case and investigate the conspiracy, displays a portrait of his character’s real life counterpart. [1]

 and simultaneously fulfill honor both the initial purpose of the theatre and the memory of Lincoln. However, the phenomena of re-enacting is not exclusive to events on the stage of Ford’s Theatre. Instead, other events such as “Lincoln’s Last Ride” and the “History on Foot with Detective McDevitt” feature performances of sorts. This too marks a deviation from emotional to historical.

 

 

References:

[1] “Exploring Lincoln.” Ford’s Theatre. The Ford’s Theatre Society. Web. 17 Apr. 2015. <http://www.fords.org/home/explore-lincoln>.

[2] Cooper, Rachel. “150th Anniversary of Abraham Lincoln’s Assassination.”About D.C. About Travel. Web. 17 Apr. 2015. <http://dc.about.com/od/specialevents/fl/150th-Anniversary-of-Abraham-Lincolnrsquos-Assassination.htm>.

[3] Foote, Kenneth E. Shadowed Ground America’s Landscapes of Violence and Tragedy. Rev. and Updated, Rev. ed. Austin: University of Texas Press, 2003.

[4] Olszewski, George. Restoration of Ford’s Theatre, Washington D.C.Washington D.C.: United States National Park Service, 1963. <https://archive.org/details/restorationoffor00olsz>.

[5] “The Final Hours of President Abraham Lincoln.” National Museum of Health and Medicine (NMHM): : The Autopsy. Accessed April 17, 2015. http://www.medicalmuseum.mil/index.cfm?p=exhibits.current.collection_that_teaches.lincoln.page_03.