John T. Ford, a successful theatrical entrepreneur, leased the First Baptist Church on Tenth Street in 1861. He turned it into a music hall. The building burned in December of 1862. Ford raised money to rebuild and the first performance in the new Ford’s Theatre was August 27, 1863.
President Abraham Lincoln and Mrs. Mary Todd Lincoln arrived at Ford’s Theatre around 8:30 pm with their guests, Major Henry Reed Rathbone and Clara Harris, on April 14, 1865. Our American Cousin was playing and Lincoln enjoyed going to the theater.
This night was different.
John Wilkes Booth stepped into the Presidential Box around 10:15 pm and shot Lincoln. Booth stabbed Major Rathbone and then leaped onto the stage and escaped.
Dr. Charles Augustus Leale was the first person inside the box. He removed a blood clot from Lincoln’s head wound to release pressure and allow him to breathe. Dr. Leale knew it was a mortal wound.
Soldiers carried their President down the stairs and onto Tenth Street. William and Anna Petersen’s boarding house was across the street. They placed the dying President in Willie Clark’s room, who was out celebrating the war’s ending.
It was a dark, gloomy morning. It had started to rain earlier. Large groups of people gathered outside the Petersen house, praying for Lincoln to live … yet fearing the worst.
Throughout that long, tragic night, First Lady Mary Lincoln sometimes sat beside her dying husband with her oldest son nearby. Other times she went to the Front Parlor. Neither family member was in the crowded room when Lincoln died at 7:22 am.
The country that had seen so much death and dying for the past four years experienced a deep tragedy. Leaders turned their attention to apprehending John Wilkes Booth, the assassin, and his conspirators.
Ford’s Theatre was closed by the federal government for the investigation. The owner received permission to reopen after the trial. When threats were made if the theatre reopened, the War Department closed it. They leased the building, in August of 1865, to convert it to an office building and bought it a year later.
Three interior floors collapsed in 1893. Twenty-two clerks were killed and sixty-eight people injured. It was repaired and used again by the government for offices.
Today, about 650,000 visitors tour Lincoln’s Museum, Ford’s Theatre, the Petersen House, and Aftermath Exhibits each year.
Ford’s Theatre still has performances and tours are closed during rehearsals and matinees.
Lincoln has inspired many authors to write books about him. A 34-foot tower of these books stands beside a winding staircase at The Ford’s Theatre Center for Education and Leadership.
-Sandra Merville Hart
“Ford’s Theatre,” National Park Service, 2020/01/02 https://www.nps.gov/foth/index.htm.
“Ford’s Theatre Yesterday and Today,” Ford’s Theatre Pamphlet, Last Updated 2008.
“Lincoln’s Death,” Ford’s Theatre, 2020/01/01 https://www.fords.org/lincolns-assassination/lincolns-death/.