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Ford's Theater

On the night of April 14, 1865, a theatre in Washington, D.C. would become infamous as the sight of the assassination of a beloved American president.  

Ford’s Theatre, located at 511 10th Street NW, had originally been the First Baptist Church of Washington. It was constructed in 1833, but when the congregation built a new church in 1861, John T. Ford bought it and renovated it into a theatre. Ford had served as a business manager for the Serenaders, and managed the Holiday Street Theatre in Baltimore before opening his own theatre in Washington. The original theatre, called Ford’s Athenaeum, burned in 1862. Ford used the site to rebuild, now calling the theatre Ford’s New Theatre.

The country had just seen the end of the Civil War. The Confederacy’s most prominent general, Robert E. Lee, had just surrendered to Union General Ulysses S. Grant at the Appomattox Court House in Virginia on April 9, 1865.  Just five days later, well-known actor John Wilkes Booth was despondent. A longtime Confederate sympathizer, Wilkes and several co-conspirators had planned to kidnap President Abraham Lincoln in an effort to help the Confederacy’s cause as early as 1864, but those plans never panned out. Because Lincoln loved the theatre, the two men had crossed paths several times in the past, with Booth even shaking his finger at Lincoln during one performance.

The day of April 14th, Booth was not performing at Ford’s Theatre, but having performed there many times in the past, he knew the theatre well. He found out that day that Lincoln would be there that night to see the performance of “Our American Cousin.” This gave him all the ammunition he needed to pull of his new plan – to kill the president. With this, plus a plan for co-conspirators to kill the Secretary of State William H. Seward and Vice President Andrew Johnson, Booth hoped to disrupt the government enough to allow the Confederacy to regroup and continue the war.

Booth drilled a spy hole into the door to the presidential box at Ford’s Theatre so he could make sure the president did attend the play. Around 10:00 p.m., Booth slipped into Lincoln’s box and with a .44 caliber Derringer, shot him in the back of the head. Booth stabbed Major Henry Rathbone as he tried to apprehend him. Booth managed to leap from the box to the stage, but the fall injured his leg. He shouted “Sic simper tyrannis,” Latin for “Thus always to tyrants.” President Lincoln was carried across the street to the Peterson House where he died the next morning.

Booth escaped through the stage door and fled to his getaway horse. The assassination of Lincoln didn’t have the affect Booth desired – even Southerners were upset at the president’s death. He was eventually surrounded by Union troops at the Garrett farmhouse in Virginia. Refusing to come out of the farmhouse, the soldiers set it on fire and Sergeant Boston Corbett shot Booth to death on April 26, 1865.

After the assassination, the government seized the theatre, giving Ford $100,000 and issuing an order that the theatre never be used again as a place of public amusement. The military took it over and it held War Department records, the library of the Surgeon General’s Office, and an Army Medical Museum until 1887. It was then used as a government warehouse until 1931. It remained unused until 1968, when it was reopened after a two year restoration. In late 1966, the theatre was added to the National Register of Historic Places. It has recently reopened after undergoing another renovation.

Since then, Ford’s Theatre has presented plays and musicals as well as storing portions of the Olroyd Collection of Lincolniana, including the Derringer used to shoot Lincoln, Booth’s diary, Lincoln’s coat, and a door from the original theatre.

Ford Theatre Online Resources:

Images of Ford’s Theatre

Podcast with the curator of Ford's Theatre from the Speaking of History Podcast

Report of Lieut. Edward P. Doherty, Sixteenth New York Cavalry