On April 14, 1865, President Abraham Lincoln was in the audience at Ford’s Theatre, one of the most popular playhouses in Washington. Everyone was laughing at a funny line from Tom Taylor’s celebrated comedy, Our American Cousin, when John Wilkes Booth crept into the President’s Box, shot the president, and leapt to the stage, shouting, “Sic semper tyrannis!” (“Thus ever to tyrants!”). With his left leg broken from the vault, Booth mounted his horse in the alley and galloped off. Doctors carried Lincoln across the street to the house of William Petersen, where the president died the next morning.
The theater was closed after Lincoln’s assassination and used as an office by the War Department. In 1893, 22 clerks were killed when three floors of the building collapsed. It remained in disuse until the 1960s, when the National Park Service remodeled and restored Ford’s to its appearance on the night of the tragedy. Grand renovations and developments completed in phases between 2009 and 2012 have since brought about a wholly new experience for visitors.
Ford’s Theatre today stands as the centerpiece of the Ford’s Theatre National Historic Site, a campus of three buildings straddling a short section of 10th Street and including the Ford’s Theatre and its Ford’s Theatre Museum; Petersen House, where Lincoln died; and the Center for Education and Leadership, which debuted in 2012 and is dedicated to exploring Lincoln’s legacy and promoting leadership.
I recommend visiting all four attractions if you have the time. Briefly, here’s what you’ll see at the Ford’s Theatre National Historic Site:
The Ford’s Theatre: The National Park Service presentations vividly recreate the events of that night, so try for a tour that includes one of these. The President’s Box is still on view, but no, you are not allowed to enter it and sit where Lincoln sat. A portrait of George Washington hangs beneath the President’s Box, as it did the night Lincoln was shot. Ford’s remains a working theater, so consider returning in the evening to attend a play. Ford’s productions lean toward historical dramas and classic American musicals. The production schedule means that the theater, and sometimes the museum, may be closed to sightseers on some days; check the online schedule before you visit.
The Ford’s Theatre Museum, on the lower level of the theater, displays artifacts that tell the story of Lincoln’s presidency, his assassination, and what life was like in Washington and in the United States during that time. Unfortunately, when the museum is crowded, as it often is, it can be hard to get close enough and have enough time at each of the exhibits to properly absorb the information. An exhibit about life in the White House shines a little light on Mary Todd Lincoln; a display of artifacts that includes the Derringer gun used by John Wilkes Booth connects the dots between the assassin and those who aided him.
Across 10th Street from the theater and museum is Petersen House. The doctor attending to Lincoln and other theatergoers carried Lincoln into the street, where boarder Henry Safford, standing in the open doorway of his rooming house, gestured for them to bring the president inside. So Lincoln died in the home of William Petersen, a German-born tailor. Now furnished with period pieces, the dark, narrow town house looks much as it did on that fateful April night. You’ll see the front parlor where an anguished Mary Todd Lincoln spent the night with her son, Robert. In the back parlor, Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton held a cabinet meeting and questioned witnesses. From this room, Stanton announced at 7:22am on April 15, 1865, “Now he belongs to the ages.” Lincoln died, lying diagonally because he was so tall, on a bed the size of the one in the room. (The Chicago Historical Society owns the actual bed and other items from the room.) The exit from Petersen House leads to an elevator that transports you to the fourth floor of the:
Center for Education and Leadership, where your tour begins with the sights and sounds of the capital in the days following the assassination of Lincoln. You hear church bells tolling and horseshoes clopping and view exhibits of mourning ribbons, coffin handles, and newspaper broadsheets announcing the tragic news. Details convey the sense of piercing sorrow that prevailed: Twenty-five thousand people attended Lincoln’s funeral on April 21, 1865, though not Mary Todd Lincoln, who was too overcome with grief. A staircase that winds around a sculptured tower of some 6,800 books all to do with Lincoln leads down to the center’s third floor. Here, a short film, videos, and exhibits explore Lincoln’s influence and legacy: Lincoln’s name and image pop up on all sorts of commercial products, from the children’s building game of Lincoln Logs to jewelry. Lincoln’s words and life have inspired leaders around the world including, we learn, the founder of modern Chinese government, Sun Yat-sen, who hung a portrait of Lincoln in his home. Following the staircase another level down takes you to a gallery whose displays use real-life examples of brave individuals, such as Rosa Parks, to pose the question “What Would You Do?” in their circumstances.The how to: You’ll need a timed ticket to tour any part of the campus. Tickets are free and tours take place daily. Visit the website, www.fords.org, for a list of offerings, which can range from a simple museum and theater walk-through (45 min.) to a full tour encompassing the museum; the theater, including either a National Park Service ranger’s interpretive program or a mini-play (highly recommended); Petersen House; and the Center for Education and Leadership (for a total of about 2 hr. and 15 min.).
A single ticket admits you to all parts of the campus, so don’t lose it! Ford’s really wants you to order tickets in advance online—only 20% of the daily allotment of tickets are available for same-day pickup. And even though Ford’s says tours are free, the fact is online tickets incur processing fees, starting at $3 per ticket. You order the tickets online and can print them yourself or pick them up at the theater’s will-call booth. Good to know: When the Ford’s Theatre website shows same-day tickets as unavailable, that just means they are unavailable to order online; go in person to the box office and you may score one of those same-day passes.
Spring through early fall, Ford’s also sells tickets ($17 each, available online) to its popular “History on Foot” 2-hour walking tours. A costumed actor brings to life the events of April 14 and 15, 1865, leading tourists on a 1[bf]1/2-mile traipse to about eight historically significant locations.
- Elise Hartman Ford