Ford’s Theatre, Washington, DC (2)

The exterior of Ford’s Theatre on 10th Street NW in Washington, DC, around 1909-1919. Image courtesy of the Library of Congress, National Photo Company Collection.

The scene in 2021:

As explained in more detail in the previous post, Ford’s Theatre is famous for having been the site of Abraham Lincoln’s assassination on April 14, 1865. The theater had opened in 1863, but after the assassination it was acquired by the federal government and converted into offices. This involved the entire reconstruction of the interior, and much of the interior was rebuilt again in 1893, following a tragic collapse of the interior floors.

The building continued to serve as government offices and storage until the early 1900s, and in 1932 it became the site of a museum in memory of Abraham Lincoln. Then, in 1933 it was acquired by the National Park Service, and in the 1960s the interior was again reconstructed, this time to convert it back into a theater.

The first photo was taken around 1909-1919, showing the exterior during its time as an office building for the War Department’s Division of Records and Pensions. Today, the exterior remains preserved in its original appearance, and the restored theater interior continues to be used for performances. It is open to the public for tours, as part of the Ford’s Theatre National Historic Site.

Ford’s Theatre, Washington, DC

The exterior of Ford’s Theatre on 10th Street NW in Washington, DC, in April 1865. Image courtesy of the Library of Congress. Civil War Glass Negatives and Related Prints collection.

The scene in 2021:

These two photos show Ford’s Theatre, which was the site of Abraham Lincoln’s assassination on the night of April 14, 1865. The origins of the theater date back to 1834, when the First Baptist Church was built here on this site, on the east side of 10th Street NW, between E and F Streets. The church congregation remained here until 1859, when it merged with another Baptist church, and in 1861 the building here was sold to John T. Ford. He converted it into a theater, and it opened in 1862 as Ford’s Athenaeum.

However, the original building was destroyed by a fire in December 1862. Ford subsequently rebuilt here on the same site, and the new Ford’s Theatre opened on August 27, 1863, with a performance of The Naiad Queen. The country was in the midst of the Civil War at the time, but for many Washingtonians the theater provided a welcome diversion from the conflict. Among them was Abraham Lincoln, who regularly attended plays here, including a November 9, 1863 performance of The Marble Heart, starring his future assassin John Wilkes Booth.

Lincoln visited the new theater on at least eight other occasions. On the night of his assassination, he was watching Our American Cousin, accompanied by his wife Mary Todd Lincoln, Major Henry Rathbone, and Rathbone’s fiancée Clara Harris. They were seated in the presidential box to the right of the stage when, around 10:15 p.m., John Wilkes Booth entered the box and shot Lincoln in the head with a pistol. After a brief struggle with Rathbone, Booth jumped down to the stage and made his escape out a side door.

There were several doctors in attendance at the theater. They rendered what aid they could, but determined that his wound was fatal. Rather than attempting to bring him all the way back to the White House, they instead brought him across the street to the Petersen House, where he died at 7:22 the following morning. The first photo in this post was taken only a few days after the assassination, showing the exterior of the theater and several surrounding buildings.  Immediately to the right of the theater was the Star Saloon, a three-story brick building where John Wilkes Booth had a drink of whiskey and water immediately before entering the theater to kill Lincoln.

Following the assassination, the government determined that it would be inappropriate to continue using the building as a theater. As a result, they leased—and then later purchased—it from Ford, and converted it into office space. In the process, the interior was completely gutted, and three new stories were built in the space that had once housed the theater. These floors were occupied by the War Department’s Division of Pensions and Records, and also by the Army Medical Museum.

The building would end up being the site of another tragedy on June 9, 1893. It was in the midst of being modernized with the installation of an electric plant, which involved excavation work in the basement. In the process, one of the supporting piers collapsed, causing a portion of the upper floors to likewise collapse. The building was occupied at the time, and 22 workers were killed in the collapse, with many others seriously injured.

The disaster did not affect the exterior walls, and the interior was subsequently repaired. It continued to be used by the Division of Records and Pensions for many years, but in 1932 it became the site of a museum in memory of Lincoln, and a year later the building was acquired by the National Park Service. Then, in the 1960s the interior was reconstructed into a theater, based on its original design.

Today, Ford’s Theatre is still standing, and it is still used as a performing arts venue while also serving as an important Washington landmark. However, because of the many renovations over the years, there is very little left of the original structure aside from the brick exterior walls. As for the adjacent Star Saloon, the present-day building is entirely a reconstruction. The original building was demolished in 1930 to create a parking lot, but it was rebuilt in the 1960s as part of the reconstruction of the theater. Both of these buildings, along with the Petersen House across the street, are still operated by the National Park Service as part of the Ford’s Theatre National Historic Site.

Presidential Box at Ford’s Theatre, Washington, DC

The presidential box at Ford’s Theatre, where Abraham Lincoln was shot on the night of April 14, 1865. This photo was taken several days later. Image courtesy of the Library of Congress. Civil War Glass Negatives and Related Prints collection.

The scene in 2021:

These two photos show the presidential box at Ford’s Theatre in Washington, D.C., which is famous for having been the site of Abraham Lincoln’s assassination on April 14, 1865. Lincoln regularly attended performances here at Ford’s Theatre during his presidency, and on this particular night he was sitting in this box, watching the play Our American Cousin. He was accompanied by his wife, Mary Todd Lincoln, along with Major Henry Rathbone and his fiancée, Clara Harris.

Lincoln’s assassin, John Wilkes Booth, was a famous actor and a southern sympathizer. With the Civil War essentially over following the surrender of Lee’s army on April 9, Booth and his fellow conspirators evidently believed that killing Lincoln and other high-profile government officials was the last chance to prevent the defeat of the south.

To that end, Booth entered Ford’s Theatre at around 10:10 p.m. His presence in the theater raised little suspicion, since he was such a prominent actor, and he made his way to the presidential box. Not only was he familiar with the layout of the theater, but he also knew the play itself, and timed his shot so that it happened right after one of the funniest lines in the comedy, when he knew the sound of laughter would cover up the sound of the gunshot.

Booth entered the presidential box, produced a single-shot Deringer pistol, and shot Lincoln in the head at 10:15 p.m. He then had a brief struggle with Major Rathbone, whom he stabbed with a knife, and Booth then jumped down onto the stage, 12 feet below the box. In the process, he caught his riding spur in one of the flags that was draped on the front of the box, which caused him to land awkwardly. He then stood up, shouted “sic semper tyrannis,” and made his escape via a door on the side of the building.

In the meantime, 23-year-old Army surgeon Charles Leale was the first to arrive at the presidential box to render assistance. After evaluating Lincoln’s condition, he discovered the wound in the back of his head, and used his finger to remove a blood clot, which helped to improve his breathing. However, it was soon obvious that his wound was fatal, and that Lincoln would likely not survive a carriage ride back to the White House. Writing soon after the assassination, Dr. Leale described what occurred here in the presidential box in the immediate aftermath of the shooting;

I immediately ran to the Presidents box and as soon as the door was opened was admitted and introduced to Mrs. Lincoln when she exclaimed several times, “O Doctor, do what you can for him, do what you can”! I told her we would do all that we possibly could.

When I entered the box the ladies were very much excited. Mr. Lincoln was seated in a high backed arm-chair with his head leaning towards his right side supported by Mrs. Lincoln who was weeping bitterly. Miss Harris was near her left and behind the President.

While approaching the President I sent a gentleman for brandy and another for water.

When I reached the President he was in a state of general paralysis, his eyes were closed and he was in a profoundly comatose condition, while his breathing was intermittent and exceedingly stertorous. I placed my finger on his right radial pulse but could perceive no movement of the artery. As two gentlemen now arrived, I requested them to assist me to place him in a recumbent position, and as I held his head and shoulders, while doing this my hand came in contact with a clot of blood near his left shoulder.

Supposing that he had been stabbed there I asked a gentleman to cut his coat and shirt off from that part, to enable me if possible to check the hemorrhage which I supposed took place from the subclavian artery or some of its branches.

Before they had proceeded as far as the elbow I commenced to examine his head (as no wound near the shoulder was found) and soon passed my fingers over a large firm clot of blood situated about one inch below the superior curved line of the occipital bone.

The coagula I easily removed and passed the little finger of my left hand through the perfectly smooth opening made by the ball, and found that it had entered the encephalon.

As soon as I removed my finger a slight oozing of blood followed and his breathing became more regular and less stertorous. The brandy and water now arrived and a small quantity was placed in his mouth, which passed into his stomach where it was retained.

Dr. C. F. Taft and Dr. A. F. A. King now arrived and after a moments consultation we agreed to have him removed to the nearest house, which we immediately did, the above named with others assisting.

The nearest house proved to be the Petersen House, which was located directly across the street from the theater. The men carried him there, and laid him on a bed on the first floor. Over the course of the night, other physicians arrived to evaluate him, but there was little that they could do beyond removing blood clots. He died at 7:22 a.m. on April 15, without ever having regained consciousness following the shooting.

Lincoln’s death turned the Union’s victory at the end of the Civil War into a period of national mourning. Soldiers eventually tracked down Booth, who was killed in a shootout 12 days after the assassination, and the other conspirators were arrested, tried, convicted, and hanged on July 7.

Here at Ford’s Theatre, owner John T. Ford planned to reopen the theater on July 10, with a performance of Octoroon. Proceeds from the ticket sales would have gone toward a national monument fund for Lincoln, but many thought that it would be in poor taste to continue using the building as a theater. So, the War Department took control of the building prior to the performance, and the government began leasing it for $1,500 per month, before purchasing it outright from Ford in 1866.

The first photo was taken sometime in April 1865, only days after the assassination. It shows the presidential box as it had appeared on that night, including the five flags and the framed lithograph of George Washington that had decorated the box. Several of the chairs and the sofa are also visible inside the box. At the time of the assassination, Clara Harris had been sitting in one of the chairs on the left side, with Major Rathbone in the sofa. Mary Todd Lincoln and Abraham Lincoln had been sitting further to the right, and the chair on the right side of the box appears to have been the president’s rocking chair.

This photograph, along with a similar one taken at the same time, proved to be a valuable resource for historians. Soon after leasing the building, the government began the process of converting the interior of the theater into office space. This involved essentially gutting the building, and the presidential box was dismantled sometime in August 1865, about four months after the assassination. The project was completed in November, by which point the former theater had been transformed into a three-story government office building.

Over the next few decades, the building would house the Army Medical Museum, along with the War Department’s Division of Records and Pensions. However, as it turned out, the Lincoln assassination would not be the deadliest tragedy to occur in this building. By the 1890s, the building was showing signs of serious structural problems. These were exacerbated by excavation work in the basement, which weakened a load-bearing brick pier. This pier collapsed on June 9, 1893, causing a large section of the interior structure to collapse as well. Many government workers were trapped in the debris, and a total of 22 were killed in the disaster.

The interior of the building was subsequently repaired, and it continued to be used by the Division of Records and Pensions into the 20th century. By this point, though, there were increased calls to preserve the building as a museum and memorial in honor of Lincoln, rather than just using it for storing government records. Among those who advocated for such a plan was Congressman Henry Riggs Rathbone, the son of Major Rathbone and Clara Harris. He died in 1928, before any action had been taken, but in 1932 a Lincoln museum opened on the first floor of the former theater, featuring the extensive collection of Osborn H. Oldroyd, which had previously been housed across the street at the Petersen House. Then, a year later, the building came under the control of the National Park Service.

The building’s interior remained in its altered form until the mid-1960s, when it underwent a massive restoration. As was the case a century earlier, the interior of the building was gutted, leaving little more than the exterior walls still standing. The theater was then reconstructed inside the building, including the presidential box, which was furnished and decorated as it would have appeared on the night of Lincoln’s assassination. It reopened on January 30, 1968, with a nationally-televised event that included dignitaries such as Vice President Hubert H. Humphrey.

Today, Ford’s Theatre continues to be used as a performing arts venue, and it is also open to the public for tours. With the exception of modern wiring, this view of the presidential box looks essentially the same as it did in the first photo, although in reality there is probably nothing in the present-day scene that predates the 1960s restoration. However, some of the artifacts from the first photo do still exist. Three of the five flags are accounted for, with one in the museum here at Ford’s Theatre, one at the Connecticut Historical Society in Hartford, and one at the Pike County Historical Society in Milford, Pennsylvania. The door to the presidential box, the sofa, and the lithograph of Washington are also in the Ford’s Theatre collections, although the latter two are not on public display.

As for Lincoln’s rocking chair, it was taken by the government as evidence after the assassination, and it remained in storage for many years. But, in 1929 it was returned to the Blanche Ford, widow of the chair’s original owner, theater treasurer Henry C. Ford. She then sold it at auction, and the buyer in turn sold it to a different Henry Ford, of automobile fame, who was not related to the original owner. The chair is now on display at the Henry Ford Museum in Dearborn, Michigan, where it is one of the highlights of the museum’s collections.

Petersen House, Washington, DC

The Petersen House at 516 10th Street NW in Washington, DC, around 1918-1920. Image courtesy of the Library of Congress, National Photo Company Collection.

The scene in 2021:

These two photos show the Petersen House, a rowhouse that is famous for having been the place where Abraham Lincoln died on the morning of April 15, 1865. It is located on the west side of 10th Street NW, on the block between E Street and F Street, and it was built in 1849. The original owners of the house were William and Anna Petersen, German immigrants who had arrived in the United States in 1841. William was a tailor, but the family also earned money by taking in boarders, including nine who were living here at the time of Lincoln’s assassination.

On the night of April 14, 1865, Abraham Lincoln was attending a performance of Our American Cousin at Ford’s Theatre, which is located across the street from here. During the play, at around 10:15, John Wilkes Booth entered the presidential box and shot Lincoln in the head, before jumping down to the stage and making his escape. In the meantime, several doctors who were in the audience rushed to Lincoln’s box to treat him, and they determined that the wound was fatal.

Rather than trying to move Lincoln all the way to the White House, the doctors decided to find a nearby house. Lincoln was carried outside, and around this same time one of the boarders at the Petersen House, Henry S. Safford, heard a commotion outside and went out to investigate. Seeing the men carrying the president, he waved them into the house, and directed them toward a bedroom in the rear of the first floor.

A number of physicians attended to Lincoln throughout the night, but there was little that they could do beyond removing blood clots. Mary Todd Lincoln was here for part of the night with her husband, as was their son, Robert Todd Lincoln. Other important visitors included Secretary of War Edwin Stanton, Secretary of the Navy Gideon Welles, Vice President Andrew Johnson, and Senator Charles Sumner. Many of them were present when Lincoln died at 7:22 in the morning, including Stanton, who famously said either “now he belongs to the ages” or “now he belongs to the angels” after Lincoln’s death.

For the Petersen family, having the president die in their house certainly brought them a great deal of attention, but it did little to help their financial situation. Hundreds of visitors streamed into the house every day, with many of them making off with whatever souvenirs they could take, including cutting off pieces of the carpet, the wallpaper, and even the bloody sheets. All of the boarders ended up moving elsewhere, because of the lack of privacy from the many curious visitors.

William Petersen eventually died of an overdose of laudanum in 1871, and his wife Anna died four months later. Their heirs owned the house for several more years, before selling the property to Louis and Anna Schade in 1878. They, in turn, sold the house to the federal government in 1896, which preserved it as a museum, making the house a very early example of historic preservation in the United States.

The first photo was taken around 1918-1920, showing the exterior of the house along with the adjacent buildings. As indicated by the sign on the front stairs, the house featured the “Oldroyd Lincoln Memorial Collection of over 3,000 articles,” and it was open to the public “at all hours,” for an admission price of 25 cents. This collection was owned by Osborn H. Oldroyd, who had lived in the house since the late 1890s. He served as the caretaker of the house, and in return he paid no rent, and he was allowed to charge a small admission fee for visitors to see his extensive collection. Oldroyd eventually sold this collection to the federal government in 1926, four years before his death. Then, in 1932, the collection was moved across the street to Ford’s Theatre.

Today, more than a century after the first photo was taken, the surrounding area has seen considerable changes. However, both the Petersen House and the neighboring building to the right are still standing from the first photo. The Petersen House is still owned by the federal government, and it is administered by the National Park Service as part of the Ford’s Theatre National Historic Site, which includes both the house and the restored theater across the street.