The Night Lincoln Was Shot: Minute-by-Minute Backstage With John Wilkes Booth at Ford's Theatre

News   The Night Lincoln Was Shot: Minute-by-Minute Backstage With John Wilkes Booth at Ford's Theatre
 
To commemorate the 150th anniversary of the assassination of President Abraham Lincoln, Playbill.com turns back time to one of the most famous historical events to happen in a theatre that was also tragedy of history-changing proportions.

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The fact that the crime had occurred in a theatre — Ford's Theatre in Washington DC — and that the assassin, John Wilkes Booth, was a major actor of the time, cast a shadow over the whole theatrical profession that lasted for years.

History remembers Lincoln and Booth vividly. But what about the rest of the people working at Ford's that night — the actors, stagehands and managers who were the unwilling witnesses and participants in history?

Historian Thomas A. Bogar researched and answered that question in his 2013 book “Backstage at the Lincoln Assassination." This story is adapted from that book by the permission of Mr. Bogar.

Historic photo of Ford's Theatre
Historic photo of Ford's Theatre

On the evening of April 14, 1865, things were going more or less normally backstage at Ford’s Theatre on 10th Street in Washington DC, just a few blocks from the White House. True, the President and Mrs. Lincoln had sent word that they would be in attendance, but that was scarcely unusual as the Lincolns were regular patrons at Ford's and other Washington playhouses. The president often visited there to see shows and relax from the stresses of the Civil War that had been grinding on for the past four years. Lincoln wrote, "Some people think I do wrong to go to the opera and the theatre, but it rests me. I love to be alone and yet to be with the people. I want to get this burden off; to change the current of my thoughts. A hearty laugh relieves me; and I seem better able after it to bear my cross." But the Confederate Army of Virginia had surrendered at Appomattox just a few days before, on Sunday of the same week. It was now Friday, and the great struggle at last was over with victory for the Union. The President and First Lady Mary Todd Lincoln decided to unwind in the best way they knew: a Friday night trip to the theatre.

Playing that night was a familiar comedy, Our American Cousin, Tom Taylor's portrait of a clash of cultures between the hoity-toity British and their country bumpkin distant American cousin who had somehow managed to inherit the family estate. The same vein of humor would later be mined in many movies and TV shows, notably "The Beverly Hillbillies." Our American Cousin had debuted at Laura Keene's Theatre on Broadway in 1858, and seven years later Keene, an actress who also became a powerful and innovative theatre manager in New York, was still touring successfully with it. Keene had engaged popular comedian Harry Hawk to play the title character, Asa Trenchard. Lincoln knew of them all, and he didn't want to miss their performance.

The White House had sent word ahead to alert the management that the president was coming. The owner, John T. Ford, was away that night, visiting long-separated family members who lived in Richmond, and who were in dire straits after the war. With Monday’s surrender the border with Virginia had been opened, so he raced down to aid them, leaving his 21-year-old brother Harry Ford in charge of the theatre that night. But Harry knew what to do; Lincoln was a regular customer at Ford’s. He directed his staff array the house-right box in American flag bunting.

Ford's Theatre employees had been split in their sympathies. Today's rancorous discord between Democrats and Republicans gives some small sense of the hatreds that existed during the Civil War between North (the United States of America) and South (Confederate States of America). Today's anger is played out on radio and TV talk shows with inflammatory speeches. In the 1860s, it was played out on battlefields with guns, cannon and live ammunition.

John Wilkes, Edmund and Junius Brutus Booth in <i>Julius Caesar</i>
John Wilkes, Edmund and Junius Brutus Booth in Julius Caesar

Washington, D.C. stands on the north bank of the Potomac River that once separated the North from the South, and lay closer to the Confederate capital of Richmond than to northern cities like Philadelphia or New York. The city had been carved out of Maryland, a slave-owning state whose sympathies, as we know from the musical Hamilton, was considered part of the South but had stayed in the union. A lot of Southern sympathizers lived there, and not a few of Ford's Theatre employees among them.

None moreso than John Wilkes Booth, a member of the famous acting family that included his father, Junius Brutus Booth, and his brother, the era’s master actor Edwin Booth, for whom Broadway’s Booth Theatre is named. All three Booths had once appeared together in a production of Shakespeare's great assassination drama, Julius Caesar, with Wilkes playing Mark Antony.

Wilkes was a dedicated Southern sympathizer and a confirmed, proud white supremacist. He felt that Lincoln was a tyrant and a dictator out to destroy the Constitution and the rights of states to make their own laws. He believed that Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation was an affront to God, America and the white race. There also was rivalry between the Booth brothers. Wilkes, though more dashing, handsome and popular with the ladies than his brother, was considered by some critics to be the inferior actor. Ironically, one of Wilkes' biggest fans was President Lincoln, who had seen him perform and was either unaware of his political leanings, or didn't care. Lincoln admired Booth to the point that he had once sent word through Ford that he wished to meet the actor. But Booth had refused, saying he would "rather have the applause of a [racist epithet for a black person]."

On the afternoon of the assassination, Booth was in a rage over the South’s defeat. He had previously been involved with plans to blow up the White House or to kidnap Lincoln and take him south as a hostage. He spent a good part of April 14 drinking at the Star Saloon next to Ford's Theatre where he encountered some of his old Ford's Theatre friends who told him the president was coming that night. And that appears to be when Booth made his final decision to take action. His new plan was a simple one: use his familiarity around Ford’s Theatre to get close to the president. And shoot him dead, thereby fulfilling a fantasy envisioned by so many in the South — and not a few in the North.

Booth was not performing that night, but it scarcely mattered. He had played at Ford's Theatre so often that he knew the layout of the backstage intimately. He also knew many of the actors and stage employees personally. Even the ones he didn't know, knew of him, especially the ladies. Booth also knew the Ford brothers and was permitted free run of the theatre whenever he wished.

The presidential box at Ford’s Theatre
The presidential box at Ford’s Theatre

Booth was waiting when Lincoln arrived and settled into his seat, and Booth was disappointed that the North’s great general, Ulysses S. Grant, had chosen at the last minute not to accompany the president. Booth had hoped to kill them both. But the bigger target was now within his reach.

In addition to knowing the theatre and its employees, Booth also knew the script of Our American Cousin well enough to remember that there was a big laugh line in Act III, Scene 2, on the phrase "You sockdologizing old man-trap." “Sockdologizing” was a now-extinct funny-sounding frontier word, like "scalawag," "skedaddle" and "hifalutin," and it was always a sure laugh. If the laugh was big enough, Booth hoped, it would help drown out the sound of the gunshot so he might have just enough time to make his escape. He left a boy holding a horse at the stage door for his escape.

During the first two acts Booth ducked out several times to reinforce himself with drinks at the Star Saloon. Each time he returned, he asked Ford's employee John E. Buckingham what time it was, and each time Buck directed him to the clock that hung in plain sight in the lobby. During the second intermission, Lincoln was seen leaning forward in his box, elbows on the ledge, watching the audience “as if to ascertain how many persons he recognized,” according to audience member Annie Wright.

The gaslights went down for Act III. In the lobby Booth once again asked Buckingham what time it was and Buckingham once again directed him to the lobby clock, which now read 10:05.

A few minutes later, actor Edwin Brink was the middle of Scene 1 when his attention was pulled by the sight of the handsome Booth standing in the back of the house. He later recalled that Booth was picking his teeth with a penknife while watching the president, not the play.

As Scene 2 began, actress Helen Truman was also distracted by movement in the house. She saw Booth making his way from the back of the theatre toward the presidential box. Because both Booth and Lincoln were regulars and because it was not unusual for theatre folk to visit the president in his box during performances, she thought little about it. But Booth saw her watching him. Their eyes met and they subtly exchanged nods of recognition.

John Wilkes Booth
John Wilkes Booth

As Booth continued his way toward the box, Truman went back to her performance. She needed to concentrate because a big laugh line was coming.

Harry Hawk as Asa Trenchard, the American cousin of the title, confessed his newfound indigence. Actress Helen Muzzy rose to her full height and delivered her setup line, “I am aware, Mr. Trenchard, you are not used to the manners of good society, and that, alone, will excuse you the impertinence of which you have been guilty.” Having delivered her zinger, she swept from the stage, passing Keene and the other performers ready to make their entrance.

In the back of the presidential box, the door opened softly. President and Mrs. Lincoln were absorbed in the play and didn’t notice. Booth stepped close to the president and drew his Philadelphia Derringer pistol, aiming it point blank at the back of the president’s head, behind his left ear.

On the stage, Hawk, facing upstage and bent over in mock civility, rotated his comic face to the audience and made his retort: "Don't know the manners of good society, eh? Well, I guess I know enough to turn you inside out, old gal; you sockdologizing old man-trap!"

The resulting laughter was stopped suddenly by the terrible thunderclap of a gunshot.

Weakened though he was by age, stress and illness, tough backwoodsman Lincoln took hours to die. He was carried across 10th Street to a rooming house where his wounded brain began to swell around the bullet. Without x-rays, effective anesthetic, or much in the way of antiseptic, there was nothing doctors of the time could do for such a wound. Lincoln breathed his last at 7:22 on the morning of April 15. He had survived his shooting by about nine hours and survived the Civil War by six days. At least the last thing he enjoyed on earth was the "hearty laugh" he had so treasured.

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In their rage and grief a mob gathered to burn down Ford’s Theatre, as if the theatre itself was to blame. Only intervention by the military stopped it.

All the people who worked backstage at Ford's Theatre would be involved in months of investigations and interrogations. Some would be jailed and mistreated, accused — falsely and not — of abetting the assassin. Careers would be ruined and lives derailed. However, a hit being a hit, Keene eventually went back to performing Our American Cousin on tour. For years, Edwin Booth carried the stigma of being the brother of the assassin, but he, too, was eventually forgiven and continued acting Shakespeare into the 1890s. John Wilkes Booth remained on the run for more than a week after the shooting, but finally was tracked down in a barn in northern Virginia, which was set ablaze with him inside it. When he tried to escape, he was shot dead by a Union soldier who was a member of the search party.

Ford's Theatre was closed for years. No one could bear to see shows there, but no one wanted to tear it down either. After the assassination it was prohibited by an act of Congress from being used as a "place of public amusement" in perpetuity. However, Congress changed its mind in the 1950s and appropriated money for its restoration. It reopened as a performing arts center in 1968, and today in run by the National Park Service as a National Historic Site. A 24-hour program of activities is planned there for the night of April 14-15 to commemorate the 150th anniversary of the assassination. Visit Fordstheatre.org for more information.

As for Lincoln, a line from Assassins sums up his legacy. A president who "once got mixed reviews, now gets only raves." The "Great Emancipator" is regularly listed as one of the U.S.'s best presidents. His head appears on two types of money, the five-dollar bill and the penny. Each February Lincoln's birthday is commemorated as a national holiday, though lumped in with George Washington's as Presidents Day.

As Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton, is quoted, "Now he belongs to the ages."

Adapted from the book “Backstage at the Lincoln Assassination” by Thomas A. Bogar (Regnery History, 2013). Excerpted by the express permission of the author.

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