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Ford's Theater History

Fords Theater History

Inside theater box where Abraham Lincoln was shot looking down at stage.

Productions that fill its stage today echo with drama, pathos or laughter, but Ford's Theater will forever be associated with events of April 14, 1865, when President Abraham Lincoln, seated in Box 7, was assassinated by actor John Wilkes Booth.

Today Ford's Theater is an important part of the Washington cultural scene, but this is simply the latest chapter of its remarkable story.

Fords Theater history began in 1863 when John Ford opened his theater. It was regarded as one of the grandest in the nation, with many decorative touches in its interior. On April 14, President and Mrs. Lincoln were coming to the theater to see a production of the popular comedy, Our American Cousin.

Lincoln was to be accompanied by General Ulysses S. Grant and his wife, but the victorious general had left capital earlier than planned. In his place were Clara Harris and her fiance, Major Henry Rathbone. Many in the sellout crowd were hoping to get a glimpse of Grant, who had accepted surrender of Confederate General Robert E. Lee just five days earlier.

Booth's sympathies lay with the Confederacy, and he launched a conspiracy to murder Lincoln and other top government officials, including Secretary of State William Seward. Out of his motley group of plotters, only Booth succeeded.

His single shot derringer delivered the fatal bullet behind Lincoln's left ear. He then stabbed Major Rathbone in the left arm and leaped to the stage, making his escape on horseback into southern Maryland. Booth was eventually trapped in Port Royal, Virginia on April 26, and killed by a shot from a pursuing soldier.

Lincoln was rushed across the street to the house of a tailor, William Petersen, where he lay through the night, attended by Army surgeons who had been in the Ford's audience. Je died at 7:22 am the following morning.

Today the first floor of the Petersen House looks much as it did then, including a mantle clock in the front parlor, where first lady and other dignitaries spent an anguished night, still set at 7:22 am.

Ford tried to re-open his theater after the tragedy, an effort greeted with threats. The government bought the building from Ford for $100,000, eventually turning it into office space. But there was another tragedy in the life of the theater, when in 1893 interior floors collapsed, killing 22 office workers.

Used only for storage space thereafter, Ford's Theater renaissance came in mid-1960s, when Congress authorized a renovation. Re-furbished theater opened in 1968, and many a sell-out crowd have enjoyed shows there since, accompanied perhaps by ghost of slain president, inhabiting the box where he sat on April 14, 1865.

In lower level of the theater is a Lincoln Museum, which includes artifacts such as Lincoln's clothes worn on the night of the murder and Booth's derringer.

   
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