Washington, DC: President Lincoln and Ford’s Theatre

A Presidents’ Day look at Abraham Lincoln’s life, death, and lasting legacy

A bust of President Abraham Lincoln, displayed at Ford’s Theatre

Today is Presidents’ Day, the perfect day to talk about Abraham Lincoln, our 16th President and without a doubt one of our most important.  He ended slavery, kept America from falling to pieces, and kicked some serious vampire ass (oh wait, that last one is probably fictional–but I’m pretty sure he would’ve been up to the task).

In November, we visited Ford’s Theatre, the place where John Wilkes Booth shot President Lincoln, and it was fascinating.  The historical site, run by the National Park Service, actually consists of two buildings: Ford’s Theatre, where Lincoln was shot, and the Petersen house, across the street from the theater, where he died the next morning.

We figured it would be a quick in-and-out visit—here’s where Lincoln was shot, and there’s where he died.  What more could there be?  But it turns out that both the theater and the house have excellent museums, and we spent several hours there.  We learned a ton about the life and death of the President, but even more importantly, we were reminded why Abraham Lincoln is still larger-than-life and as relevant in America today as he was in 1865.

 The assassination of President Lincoln

Confederate General Robert E. Lee surrendered on April 9, 1865, at Appomattox Court House in Virginia, effectively ending the Civil War.  Five days later, John Wilkes Booth shot Abraham Lincoln in the back of the head at close range with a .44-caliber deringer pistol.

The deringer that John Wilkes Booth used to assassinate President Lincoln.  The gun’s small size was beneficial because it could easily be concealed inside a pocket.  Booth changed the course of history with a single shot.
Ford’s Theatre: an illustration depicting the assassination of President Lincoln

The President and his wife, Mary Todd Lincoln, were seeing Our American Cousin, a popular British comedy.  The box seated four, and they were accompanied by Major Henry Rathbone and his fiancé Clara Harris.

The President’s box


Lincoln’s bodyguard for the night was policeman John Frederick Parker, who supposedly abandoned his post at intermission and went to a nearby tavern for a drink.  Even if he had been at his post, however, it’s possible that Parker would have admitted Booth to the President’s box–Booth was a very famous actor and, ironically, President Lincoln was a fan, having seen him  in various performances.  The President had even expressed an interest in meeting Booth someday.

Regardless, Booth had no difficulties entering the President’s box, and, taking advantage of the fact that the play was a comedy, he timed his shot so that it coincided with a humorous moment.  The audience’s laughter concealed the sound of the gunshot; Lincoln was probably laughing at the moment Booth pulled the trigger.

It didn’t take long for the audience to realize what was happening, and a doctor in the audience rushed to the President’s box and found Lincoln paralyzed and struggling to breathe.

Soldiers carried the gravely-injured President across 10th Street to the Petersen House, where he was taken to a back bedroom and placed on a bed that was too short for him.

Petersen House: A replica of the bed in which Lincoln died, in the room where he died

Once Lincoln was taken to the Petersen house, the doctors attending him concluded that he was so badly injured there was nothing that could be done for him.  He would not survive the night.

The damage from the bullet wound was extensive and caused significant hemorrhaging, but what killed President Lincoln was something else: Dr. Blaine Houmes, a present-day physician who has studied the circumstances of Lincoln’s injury and death, states that he died from severe swelling of the brain tissue, which leads to herniation of the brain stem into the spinal canal, causing damage to the areas of the brain that control breathing and other vital bodily functions. He argues that President Lincoln’s injuries would have been 100% fatal in 1865 and that nothing could have saved him, and even today, with all of our medical advances, he might not have survived.

Several people stood vigil at the President’s bedside overnight, including Vice President Andrew Johnson and close friends.  Mrs. Lincoln, when not at her husband’s bedside, waited in the parlor, with their son Robert at her side.

Petersen house, the parlor where a grieving Mrs. Lincoln waited with son Robert

At 7:22 a.m., President Lincoln was pronounced dead.  He was 56.

Petersen house. The sign says, “President Lincoln died in this room at 7:22 a.m. on April 15, 1865.”

Lincoln was the first American President in history to be assassinated.

The conspiracy behind the assassination

After the President was shot, Major Rathbone immediately attempted to prevent Booth from escaping, and Booth drew a knife and stabbed him in the arm.  The injury was serious enough that, after he escorted Mrs. Lincoln across the street to the Petersen home, Rathbone collapsed soon after from loss of blood.  He survived his injuries.

Booth escaped Rathbone by jumping over the railing of the box and onto the stage, about twelve feet below.  He suffered an ankle fracture, but this did not prevent him from standing and facing the audience, where he raised the bloody knife over his head and was widely believed to have yelled, “Sic semper tyrannis!” which means, “Thus always to tyrants” and is the Virginia state motto.  Booth then ran across the stage and out of a side door.  Once the audience realized that he wasn’t a part of the show, pandemonium ensued.

While most of the audience fled the theatre, a few men chased after Booth but failed to catch him.  Booth leapt on a horse that was being held for him outside the theatre and rode away, fleeing Washington with the assistance of co-conspirator David Herold.

John Wilkes Booth
John Wilkes Booth

In the aftermath of the assassination, there was a massive manhunt not only for Booth but for his conspirators, for it turned out there were numerous people involved in the plot to take down the United States government.

Originally, Booth and others had planned in March 1965 to kidnap President Lincoln and hold him hostage in exchange for the release of Confederate prisoners of war, but that plot failed.  Then after General Lee’s surrender it was obvious that they would need to do something more drastic in order to save the Confederacy, and so they decided to assassinate the three most powerful men in the US government, Lincoln, Vice President Andrew Jackson, and Secretary of State William Henry Seward, all on the evening of April 14, 1865.  Their hope was that this would throw the government into disarray.

Co-conspirator David Powell (also known by the last name of Payne) attempted to assassinate Seward in his home.  He first had to get through Seward’s son, Frederick, who confronted the stranger.  He attempted to shoot Frederick but the gun misfired, so Powell beat Frederick with the pistol so severely that it fractured his skull and left him in a coma from which he eventually recovered.  The beating left Powell’s pistol nonfunctional; he therefore had to stab the Secretary of State with a knife.   While Powell inflicted several injuries to Seward’s face that would leave him permanently scarred, the Secretary of State was otherwise was uninjured and survived the attack.

Meanwhile, George Atzerodt, who was supposed to kill Vice President Jackson, got drunk, lost his nerve, and fled Washington.

After the assassination, Booth and Herold were forced to hide in the woods and swamps of Virginia.  They were discovered in a barn near Port Royal, Virginia ten days after the assassination.  While Herold surrendered, Booth refused to leave the barn, so authorities set it on fire.  Soon after he was shot by Seargeant Thomas Corbett, a Union soldier, and his spinal cord was severed.  He died around three hours later.

Eight other conspirators were rounded up and tried in military court; some, including Powell (Payne), Herold, and Atzerodt were sentenced to death by hanging while others were sentenced to life in prison.  (Note: the hanging of Mary Surratt, a Confederate sympathizer, was a controversial act and the subject of the movie The Conspirator.)


Ford’s Theatre

The staff at both Ford’s Theatre and the Petersen House were friendly and enthusiastic.  While we were checking out the theatre, a park ranger gladly answered our questions and talked to us at length about its history (I’ve supplemented this with information from the theatre’s website):

Ford’s Theatre, owned by John T. Ford, opened on Tenth Street in 1861 at the site of an abandoned church.  It became a popular place to watch both plays and musical productions, and President Lincoln had been to the theatre on eleven other occasions before attending the performance on the fateful evening of April 14, 1865.

Ford’s Theatre

After the assassination, Ford attempted to reopen the theatre, but public outcry prevented this.  The U.S. Government purchased the theatre from Ford for $88,000 as restitution and issued a decree that the site should never again be used as a place of entertainment.  The government used it to store documents and records for many years, and then in 1887 it became a clerk’s office for the War Department.  In June 1893, tragedy occurred: a part of the building collapsed, killing 22 clerks and injuring 68.  Some believed that the building was cursed, but it was repaired and used as a warehouse until 1911.

The first Lincoln museum opened in the building in 1932, but it wasn’t fully restored until 1968, after decades of discussion and lobbying for funding to renovate it.  On January 30, 1968, It opened as a national historic site, museum, and functioning theatre.  (Note: Because the theatre is still used for performances, it is sometimes closed to visitors; however, the museum remains open during normal business hours).

Ford’s Theatre

Because the museum wasn’t very crowded when we were there, we were allowed to enter the area right behind the President’s box.  We peered in through the doorway, which was closed off by plexiglass, and got a view of what Wilkes-Booth saw just before shooting Lincoln.  (Note: everything in the theatre, from the furniture to the stage to the President’s box, is a replica but was restored as close as possible to the original based on meticulous research).

Lincoln’s box (the furniture is comprised of authentic period pieces but are not the originals)


The Petersen House


The three-story townhouse at what is now 516 Tenth Street was built by William A. Petersen, a German tailor, in 1849.  The National Park Service purchased the house in 1933 and has maintained it as a museum ever since.


The first floor offers a view of several important rooms, including the parlor where Mary Lincoln sat with her son, the room where Lincoln died, and this bedroom:

The sign says, “In the bedroom, Secretary of War Stanton held several cabinet meetings, interviewed witnesses, and ordered the pursuit of the assassins.”
Placard outside of the room where Lincoln died

Lincoln’s legacy and popularity

The exhibits I loved the most were the ones that explored Lincoln’s legacy and his enduring popularity.  He is arguably America’s favorite President and he continues to be relevant in today’s society.

Exhibit in the Petersen House museum: images from the Civil Rights movement and Lincoln’s relevance during this time in US history

The exhibit included a massive book “tower” containing copies of every book ever written about President Lincoln.  It wraps around a pillar in the center of the stairwell and is over four stories tall (and growing).

A placard next to the book tower notes that there are over 15,000 books written about Lincoln–more than any other President–and more are being written every day.
An exhibit from the Petersen House museum; President Lincoln made the front cover of a Presidents’ Day Special Edition Spiderman comic book called the “Gettysburg Distress”

You don’t see Richard Nixon slaying vampires or William Howard Taft embroiled in a Celebrity Death Match (versus George Washington, rendered in glorious clay-mation).

Abraham Lincoln: Vampire hunter (By Source, Fair use, Wikipedia)  Can you imagine President McKinley in this role?  I think not!

He’s been featured in comic books, including this one, called “A Nation Divided,” where Superman goes back in time to save the President:

Panels from “Superman: a Nation Divided”  Note: I’m not sure Mrs. Lincoln approves of the cleavage being displayed by Clark Kent’s date. (Source: Bully Comics. Superman: A Nation Divided <February 1999>, script by Roger Stern, pencils and inks by Eduardo Barreto, colors by Chris Chuckry, letters by Bill Oakley)

Lincoln’s had cameos in episodes of The Simpsons, Saturday Night Live, Futurama, and Star Trek (in which he helps Kirk and Spock fight evil villains from the past).  In the movie Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure, Wayne and Garth coined the term “Baberaham Lincoln” to describe a girl they found to be as cool as President Lincoln, one of the historical leaders featured in the movie.

A 2012 article in The Atlantic noted that Abraham Lincoln has been portrayed in 297 different films and TV shows since 1911, making him way more popular than fictional heroes such as Batman or James Bond.

And maybe that’s the point–he’s one of America’s real-life heroes.  His feats–ending slavery, saving the Union from splintering apart– seem super-human, or at least beyond the capabilities of the average person.  He assumed the Presidency during the toughest time in American history.  Who knows if a lesser man could have saved the country?

He was also known for his humanity–he agonized over the decisions he had to make, and was traumatized over the thousands of Americans dying in a brutal war.

And in an age when many politicians are viewed as untrustworthy, the enduring view of President Lincoln is one of a man of integrity, hence his nickname “Honest Abe.”  The Ford’s Theatre website states that Lincoln’s ideals and principles included “courage, integrity, tolerance, equality and creative expression.”

And let’s not forget he had a smart sense of style:

Lincoln's iconic top hat (in the Smithsonian Museum of American History, Washington D.C.), taken during our visit in 2011
Lincoln’s iconic top hat (in the Smithsonian Museum of American History, Washington D.C.), taken during our visit in 2011

For all of these reasons (except for perhaps the one related to his clothing choices), people have turned to Lincoln for inspiration during our nation’s toughest crises.  In the 1960s and even earlier, Lincoln was held up as a symbol of civil rights, and The Lincoln Memorial has been a magnet for all kinds of civil rights demonstrations throughout the years.  On August 28, 1963, Martin Luther King, Jr. gave his “I Have a Dream” speech on the steps of the Memorial in front of 200,000 supporters.

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The Lincoln Memorial (we took this picture during a 2011 visit to D.C., one of our favorite cities)

Lincoln himself had many powerful things to say about freedom, including this, “In giving freedom to the slave, we assure freedom to the free – honorable alike in that we give and what we preserve. We shall nobly save, or meanly lose, the last best hope of earth.”

But it’s this quote that moves me on Presidents’ Day: “I do the very best I know how – the very best I can; and I mean to keep on doing so until the end.”  He certainly did that.


For a fascinating read about the myths and facts related to President Lincoln’s injury and death, check this article, “A Doctor’s View of the Lincoln Assassination.”