Ford’s Theatre is where John Wilkes Booth assassinated President Abraham Lincoln. The theatre’s address is 511 10th Street, NW, Washington, DC 20004. The theatre is restored to appear as it looked the night of President Lincoln’s assassination. Ford’s Theatre is an active theater that has live performances.
Tickets are $3 each and everyone needs a ticket to enter. Tickets can be reserved or purchased at the box office. Tickets are time controlled so attempting to purchase a ticket at the box office could mean an inconvenient time or an inability to purchase tickets. Entry times are 9 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. when it’s open for visitors. There is no coat check. Luggage and oversized bags are prohibited.[i] There are nearby parking garages. Finding legal parking spaces in Washington, DC is very difficult.
[i] Ford’s Theatre, https://www.fords.org/visit/visitor-guidelines/, June 5, 2020.
Ford’s Theatre Museum
In the basement of Ford’s Theatre there is a museum that has artifacts and storyboards about Abraham Lincoln’s presidency and the conspiracy that ended with his assassination. The artifacts include Booth’s derringer.[i]
The theatre was for many years a vacant lot surrounded by 4 walls. Today it is a faithful restoration to as it appeared on the evening of April 14, 1865. The only item that was actually in the theatre that night is the painting of President Georg Washington. The George Washington painting hangs outside the presidential box. Park Rangers tell visitors the background and the events of the fateful night, and aftermath.
Across the street from the theatre is the Petersen House. This is the house where Abraham Lincoln died on the morning of April 15, 1865. The house has the bed where Lincoln passed away. The building next to the Petersen House contains Aftermath Exhibits. These exhibits tell the stories of what happened in the aftermath of President Lincoln’s assassination.[ii]
[i] Ford’s Theatre, https://www.fords.org/visit/historic-site/, June 5, 2020.
[ii] Ford’s Theatre, https://www.fords.org/visit/historic-site/, June 6, 2020.
Ford’s Theatre is famous for its annual performances of “A Christmas Carol”.[i] The 1863 vintage seats and seating are uncomfortable. Ford’s Theatre is small so for certain plays the closeness with the performers makes for an excellent theatre experience.
[i] The 2020 “A Christmas Carol” schedule is from November 19 – December 31.
The Lincoln Assassination and Aftermath
John Wilkes Booth was a famous actor. He was a southern sympathizer. He became one of the Virginia Militia so he could witness the execution of the abolitionist John Brown on December 2, 1859. Booth was pro-slavery but he expressed admiration for John Brown’s bravery.[i]
In 1864 John Wilkes Booth devised a plan to kidnap President Lincoln and exchange him for Confederate prisoners. The policy of paroling prisoners of war, which helped the Confederacy replenish its ranks, ended in the summer of 1863. Exceptions were made for sick and wounded prisoners.[ii] The planned kidnapping was set for March 17, 1865. President Lincoln’s sudden change of plans foiled the attempt. After General Robert E. Lee surrendered Booth changed his plan to assassination.
On the night of April 14 Booth was to kill President Lincoln. George Atzerodt was to assassinate Vice President Andrew Johnson. Lewis Powell was to kill William H. Seward, the Secretary of State.[iii]
After 9 o’clock Booth came to the rear of Ford’s Theatre and asked for Edman Spangler. Spangler was a stage hand who tended to Booth’s horse when Booth was at the theatre.[iv] The performance of the comedy “Our American Cousin” was in progress. John Wilkes Booth was familiar with the play. He entered Abraham Lincoln’s box while Harry Hawk was delivering one of the funniest lines in the play. The line would no doubt cause roaring laughter from the audience. Booth shot President Lincoln in the head. Major Henry Rathbone, who was in President Lincoln’s box, struggled with a knife wielding Booth. Major Rathbone was injured but grabbed Booth’s coat. The leap from the box to the stage would have been easy for the athletic Booth. Major Rathbone’s grabbing Booth’s coat put Booth off balance and caused Booth to break his leg when Booth landed on the stage. According to Southern legend Booth yelled “Sic Semper Tyrannis”[v]. Many in the audience thought Booth, a famous actor, landing on the stage was part of the act. Booth made his way out of the theatre.
Dr. Charles Leale, a U.S. Army Officer, who was attending the play realized Lincoln was mortally wounded. All that could be done for the president was to keep him as comfortable as possible until he passed away. He was taken to the Petersen House and put diagonally on a bed.
George Atzerodt didn’t go through with his part to assassinate Vice President Johnson. He drank heavily at a bar on the night of April 14. Then wandered the streets. At some point Atzerodt asked the bar tender about the whereabouts of the Vice President. The bar tender got suspicious and notified the police. Atzerodt was arrested in Georgetown, Maryland 5 days later.[vi]
Lewis Powell failed in his attempt to assassinate Secretary Seward. Powell pistol whipped Secretary Seward’s son Frederick. Frederick Seward was in a coma for 2 months. He cut George Robinson, Secretary Seward’s bodyguard, with a bowie knife. He stabbed Secretary Seward, who was in bed recuperating from a carriage accident, multiple times before Robinson and two other men pulled him away. Powell broke away and made his escape on horseback. He was arrested on April 17 when he came to Mary Surratt’s home while she was being questioned about the conspiracy.[vii]
John Wilkes Booth rode to Maryland where he met David Herold. Booth and Herold stopped at Surratt’s Tavern and picked up guns and supplies. They stopped at the house of Dr. Samuel Alexander Mudd and Mudd set the broken leg. Booth and Herold crossed into Virginia on the evening of April 22. Booth and Herold were cornered in a barn at 2:00 a.m. on April 26. Herold surrendered. Booth refused to surrender and was shot and mortally wounded. [viii] The fatal shot was attributed to Boston Corbett.
A military commission tried those accused of involvement in the conspiracy. The commission had 9 judges, 5 votes were required for a conviction and 6 votes were required for a death penalty. David Herold, Lewis Powell, George Atzerodt, and Mary Surratt were found guilty and executed together on July 7, 1865. Dr. Samuel Mudd was found guilty of aiding Booth’s escape and sentenced to life at hard labor. Michael O’Laughlen and Samuel Arnold were sentenced to life at hard labor. Edman Spangler was found guilty of aiding and abetting Booth’s escape and sentenced to 6 years in prison. John Surratt, who fled to Egypt was returned to the United States in 1867. His trial for conspiracy ended in a hung jury. He went on a public speaking circuit.[ix]
Mary Surrat was the first woman executed by the U.S. government. On the morning of July 7, 1865 Judge Andrew Wylie signed a writ of Habeas Corpus which challenged the constitutionality of the trial. President Johnson suspended the writ. Mary Surrat and the others were hanged at noon.[x] Dr. Samuel Mudd told investigator he didn’t recognize Booth. This was false and Dr. Mudd was convicted. He was sent to the prison at Fort Jefferson. In 1867 there was a yellow fever outbreak at the prison. When the prison physician died Dr. Mudd took over and halted the spread of the disease. In 1869 President Johnson pardoned Dr. Mudd, Edman Spangler, and Samuel Arnold.[xi] Dr. Mudd was ostracized. Dr. Mudd apologists point out under the circumstances it’s understandable why Dr. Mudd would deny he knew Booth. Dr. Mudd’s descendants and some historians have made attempts to clear his name. As of June 15, 2020, Dr. Samuel Mudd’s conviction still stands.
[i] Iron Brigader, John Wilkes Booth Witnesses the Hanging of John Brown, by Mark, October 22, 2017, https://ironbrigader.com/2017/10/22/john-wilkes-booth-witnesses-the-hanging-of-john-brown/, last accessed 6/8/2020.
[ii] Essential Civil War Curriculum, Prisoner Exchange and Parole by Roger Pickenpaugh, https://www.essentialcivilwarcurriculum.com/prisoner-exchange-and-parole.html, last accessed 6/8/2020.
[iii] PBS.org, American Experience, https://www.pbs.org/wgbh/americanexperience/features/assassination-co-conspirators/, last accessed 6/8/2020.
[iv] UKC.edu, http://law2.umkc.edu/faculty/projects/ftrials/lincolnconspiracy/spangler.html, last accessed 6/8/2020.
[v] Sic Semper Tyrannis, “such always to tyrants”, is the motto of the State of Virginia.
[vi] Totally History, http://totallyhistory.com/george-atzerodt/, last accessed 6/13/2020.
[vii] http://law2.umkc.edu/faculty/projects/ftrials/lincolnconspiracy/powell.html, last accessed 6/13/2020.
[viii] Ford’s.org, https://www.fords.org/lincolns-assassination/investigating-the-assassination/manhunt-for-john-wilkes-booth/, last accessed 6/13/2020.
[ix] Ford’s.org, https://www.fords.org/lincolns-assassination/investigating-the-assassination/trial-of-the-conspirators/, last accessed 6/13/2020.
[x] http://projects.leadr.msu.edu/civilwarera/exhibits/show/mary-surratt-and-the-trial-of-/writ-of-habeaus-corpus---execu, last accessed 6/15/2020.
[xi] Ford’s.org, https://www.fords.org/lincolns-assassination/material-evidence-dr-mudd/, last accessed 6/15/2020.
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.
© 2020 Robert Sacchi
Robert Sacchi (author) on September 22, 2020:
Thank you for reading and commenting. Often times there is a lot of historical events that happened close by.
HaremCinema on September 21, 2020:
What a piece of history right here! Historical events and places always capture my attention.
Robert Sacchi (author) on September 12, 2020:
Thank you for reading and commenting. Glad you found the read worthwhile.
Devika Primić from Dubrovnik, Croatia on September 12, 2020:
In detail and of great interest of that time. Historical events are worth a read as well
Robert Sacchi (author) on June 16, 2020:
No, that's to see the museum. Ticket prices are at the going rate. I haven't been to a play in DC for decades. They use to be inexpensive compared to New York. I don't know what it's like now. Thanks for reading and commenting.
Peggy Woods from Houston, Texas on June 16, 2020:
You did an excellent job addressing the assassination of President Lincoln. I am amazed that ticket prices to Fords Theatre are only $3. Is this for all the plays held there, or is it for a film about the assassination?
Robert Sacchi (author) on June 16, 2020:
Thank you all for reading and commenting. The Lincoln conspiracy is a well documented event. In my American History class in college my professor had a great interest in that era.
Flourish Anyway - Did you see a play at Ford's Theatre or take a tour?
Pamela Oglesby - You touch on an interesting point. There are many historic homes in the area. Just across the river from Washington, DC, and from certain viewpoints you can see it from DC, is the home of Robert E. Lee. The land Lee owned is now Arlington National Cemetery.
MG Singh - I'm glad you found this part of American History interesting.
Liz Westwood - There are a lot more details surrounding the Lincoln Assassination. I didn't delve into the insanity aspect of things.
FlourishAnyway from USA on June 15, 2020:
What an excellent article! It’s been maybe 10 years since I visited Ford’s Theatre and I absolutely would recommend it and would go again. What misery the dying President must have been in as he lay diagonally in that bed with a bullet in his brain.
Pamela Oglesby from Sunny Florida on June 15, 2020:
This is an excellent article, Robert. I didn't realize that many people were involved in the president's death. This was a very interesting article and I would love to tour the theatre and homes.
Edna Straney on June 15, 2020:
Great article! Enjoyed learning the details!
MG Singh emge from Singapore on June 15, 2020:
This is a awesome article replete with lots of information. I knew about the assassination but you have given a detailed account making it interesting. Thank you.
Liz Westwood from UK on June 15, 2020:
This is a well-researched and detailed historical account of the events around Abraham Lincoln's assassination. It has filled in a lot of detail for me.