The Petersen House

Petersen House by McGhiever, 2012. CA-SA


The Petersen House

The Petersen House is a four-story rowhouse in Washington, D.C. across from famed Ford’s Theater on 10th Street. The boarding house was constructed in 1849 by German-American tailor William Petersen, who lived there with his wife Anna. William became quite wealthy sewing fine uniforms for Union officers during the war and made additional income renting to boarders. [1] Despite the house’s relative inconsequentiality, it was delivered into interminable notoriety after the shooting of Abraham Lincoln in Ford’s Theater on April 14th, 1865. The expiring president was carried from the theater by a company of doctors and theater-goers. Recognizing that allowing Lincoln to die in the theater was inappropriate and that the White House was too distant, the party lingered on 10th Street before boarder Henry Safford guided them to the back bedroom of the Petersen House. [2] Guards were stationed outside as a large crowd gathered to support their ailing president, while 90 notables were allowed to enter Lincoln’s bedroom to pay their respects directly. [2] At 7:22 AM of April 15th, 1865, President Lincoln died and was soon removed from the home.

Photograph of Lincoln’s deathbed. Julius Ulke, 1865. 

After the death of the president, the tragic site of the Petersen House was immediately rectified; William and Anna Petersen continued to live in the house with their boarders. The renter of Lincoln’s death bedroom, William T. Clark, complained of tourists pilfering items from his room as mementos. [1] German-American attorney Louis Schade purchased the house in 1878. Schade used the building as a home and office for his newspaper, The Washington Sentinel, but was similarly bothered by visitors. Following Kenneth E. Foote’s system of memorialization, Petersen House graduated from rectification to commemoration when a marble tablet was fixed to its exterior in 1883 noting “House in which Abraham Lincoln died.” [1] The site began its transformation into a sanctified space after the Memorial Association of D.C. leased the house and permitted its occupation by writer and Lincoln admirer Osborn Oldroyd and his family. [1] Oldroyd, a former Union sergeant, assembled a significant collection of Lincoln memorabilia and correspondence, such as original collections of Lincoln’s poetry and Lincoln’s White House chair, which he displayed in the Petersen House. [3] Oldroyd’s occupation of the Petersen house seemed to be a compromise between rectification and sanctification, however. Modest public interest and increasing attention to Ford’s Theater likely stayed authorities from dedicating the house as a fully sanctified memorial. After Oldroyd’s death in 1930, the government committed by purchasing the house and commissioning its renovation to a state similar to its appearance on the night of the assassination. [1] The restored Petersen House is now a public monument where visitors are invited to experience Lincoln’s era and death through a simulacrum of the original house. Most notable artifacts related to Lincoln are housed in Ford’s Theater or other state-sponsored museums. Nearby is the Center for Education and Leadership, which “explores the aftermath of the assassination and Lincoln’s impact on the world.” [4]

Osborn Oldroyd in his later years. Photographer and year unknown. 

In Barry Schwartz’s “History, Commemoration, and Belief: Abraham Lincoln in American Memory, 1945-2001,” the author identifies five “images” of Lincoln that were originally conceived by Merrill Peterson in 1994. Peterson implied that these images, such as “the Great Emancipator,” “Savior of the Union,” and “Man of the People,” were equally prevalent through most of modern American history. [5] However, Schwartz surveyed professional historians on their conception of Lincoln and discovered that 66.3% indicated Lincoln was most importantly “the Great Emancipator.” Some respondents even made universalistic attributions to Lincoln’s accomplishments, like “He fought for civil rights, human rights.” [5]

“Emancipation of the Slaves,” J. Waeschle, 1863. 

“The Great Emancipator” is the officially preferable image of Lincoln because it fits into the official historical narrative of a progression from bondage to freedom and equality in America led by egalitarian prophets. Ford’s Theater is a convenient locus for the recollection of Lincoln’s death because the public’s memory of it supports this historical narrative: Lincoln was shot and killed in the theater, where he died a martyr for equality. Ford’s Theater is therefore instrumentalized to promote a specific historical narrative. Petersen House is an inconvenient memorial for President Lincoln because it does not promote the image of the Great Emancipator and therefore does not fit into the official historical narrative–despite that Lincoln actually died there.

It is well known that Ford’s Theater is the preeminent memorial of Lincoln’s death and that the Petersen House receives much less attention. Much of this disparity is likely due to the drama that occurred in front of an audience of 1,400 people in Ford’s Theater. However, perhaps media and other institutions support Ford’s Theater over the Petersen House in part to promote Lincoln as the Great Emancipator, prophet of American equality. That institutions routinely ignore Petersen House is undeniable. For example, the Wikipedia summary of Lincoln’s Assassination does not include a mention of the Petersen House at all. Other, more deliberate alterations to historiography may be exemplified by a structure in the Center for Education and Leadership near Ford’s Theater. The center features a large book tower that rises 34 feet into the air and is composed entirely of books about Lincoln. [6] However, only 205 books about Lincoln were chosen; this sequence of 205 is repeated to form a tower of 6,800 books. [Center for Education and Leadership]15,000 books have been published about Lincoln. The tower figuratively and physically rejects the endless constellation of memories that comprise the collective memory of Lincoln in a deliberate pruning of memory. One would have to be familiar with all of these books in order to know if the Center specifically promotes the Great Emancipator image and therefore the historical narrative of progression to equality in America.


Book tower at the Center for Education and Leadership, Washington, D.C. Ford’s Theater.

The Petersen house is better associated with the residual memories of Lincoln as “Savior of the Union” and “Man of the People,” images that fall outside of the narrative of bondage to freedom and are therefore disfavored. While Lincoln lay upon his death bed, the large crowd outside the house and his numerous personal visitors grieved the impending loss of the “Savior of the Union”—the man who had won the Civil War just a week before his death. Most of these Union members likely viewed their principle goal as saving the Union rather than the modern construal that they fought primarily to free enslaved people. The fixation on arranging the house as it appeared in 1865 is similarly irrelevant to the official narrativized memory. The inclusion of a couch from Lincoln’s home in Springfield, Illinois reminds visitors of Lincoln’s humble life as a lawyer fresh from the backcountry in congruence with his image as “Man of the People.” [1]



  1. Tetreault, Paul R. “Petersen House.” Ford’s Theater. Accessed April 13, 2015.
  1. “The Petersen House.” National Parks Service. Accessed April 14, 2015.
  1. “Guide to the Lincoln Collection, Osborn H. Oldroyd Collection 1830-1929.” The University of Chicago Library. Accessed April 15, 2015.
  1. “Center for Education and Leadership.” Ford’s Theater. Accessed April 15, 2015.
  1. Barry Schwartz and Howard Schurman, “History, Commemoration, and Belief: Abraham Lincoln in American Memory, 1945-2001,” American Sociological Review 7 (April 2005): 183-203.
  1. “Center for Education and Leadership.” Ford’s Theater. Web. 15 Apr. 2015. <>.

1 thought on “The Petersen House

  1. Camille Gonzales

    There seems to be a similarity amongst this site of Lincoln memory and other sites of Lincoln memory in that while there is some sanctification of the location or establishment, there is also rectification of some sort while still maintaining the effects of the residual memory of Abraham Lincoln. It is interesting that there were words such as: “preferable”, “instrumentalized”, “deliberate” as those all belong to the terminology regarded to the ideas of the “collective memory”. I particularly took note of the numerical inputs that were included to make a point on how many people were affected and took part in this particular memory and maintaining this memory within the proximities and at the actual location of the Petersen House. The approach to explaining the Petersen House is interesting that it digresses from one of a deity-like status to then associating Lincoln as being part of the common man. Overall intriguing analysis of this memory site and commendable usage of numbers to further the extent of Lincoln and how this specific site is embedded into this history.

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