RISMEDIA, July 17, 2009- (MCT)-Shortly after 10 p.m. on the night of April 14, 1865, one of America’s most admired actors, John Wilkes Booth, shot and mortally wounded his most illustrious fan, President Abraham Lincoln. Nine hours later, at 7:22 a.m., Lincoln died across the street from Ford’s Theater at the home of merchant William Petersen. A nation wept, and Vice President Andrew Johnson, himself one of the missed targets of a vast conspiracy, became the 17th president of the United States.
Today more than a million visitors a year come to what is perhaps the most visited assassination site in the world, and the small room across the street where the spirit of Abraham Lincoln began its return flight home. This month the opening of a museum at America’s most famous theater completes a $50 million restoration of this national landmark, which continues to stage musicals and dramas while answering many important questions about the most heinous crime of the 19th century.
The museum, opening July 15, puts the finishing touches on a 40-year-long project to both recreate the terrorist crime scene and restore live theater in the venue. While Lincoln knew and admired Booth’s considerable stage talents, he had no idea that the actor was secretly leading a conspiracy designed to decimate the executive branch by killing the president along with Johnson, Secretary of State William H. Seward and General Ulysses S. Grant. Seward was badly injured but recovered from his attack. Grant and Johnson were not hurt.
Booth was shot and killed 12 days later. The murderer had written shortly before the assassination that “the world may censure me for what I am about to do but I am sure that posterity will justify me.”
Thanks to the new museum, it’s possible to more fully understand Booth’s deranged view of Lincoln. Here visitors can see the assassin’s derringer, knife, diary and compass, as well as the weapons and belongings of his coconspirators. Also exhibited are the clothing and boots Lincoln wore to Ford’s Theater on the night he died. Another highlight is life-sized figures of Booth and his coconspirators planning their day of infamy inside Mary Surratt’s inconspicuous boarding house.
But the new museum is much more than “CSI Washington.” The collection, which also features Ford’s Theater playbills, focuses on Lincoln’s presidential life in Washington.
“We didn’t want to exclusively focus on one night in Abraham Lincoln’s existence,” says Paul Tetreault, director of the Ford’s Theater Society. “The museum takes you through the four years in his presidency and tells what really made Abraham Lincoln Abraham Lincoln.”
Among the important highlights scheduled for display this summer is a quilt created for an auction at a Sanitary Fair fundraiser for Union soldiers, signed by Lincoln, his entire cabinet and several Northern generals. Another best bet is a video featuring presidents Jimmy Carter, George H.W and George W. Bush, and Bill Clinton reading the Gettysburg Address.
Ford’s Theater, originally a church, closed after the assassination and became a government office building until structural failure killed 22 employees in 1893. Rebuilt and later turned into a warehouse, the site became a museum during the Great Depression and finally, in 1968, was reopened as a national historic site and theater.
While the theater stages an impressive range of plays, operas and musicals, it honors Lincoln’s memory by not reviving “Our American Cousin,” the play he watched that night with his wife, Mary. Visitors who plan ahead can catch one-act plays focusing on the assassination and Civil War generals Robert E. Lee and Grant. Ford’s Theater also stages popular musicals like “Little Shop of Horrors” and new works such as “Black Pearl Sings,” a tribute to songs rooted in the African tradition.
Nearly every visitor joins ranger-led interpretive talks at the rebuilt theater. This tour reinforces the view of many Americans who believe Lincoln was our greatest president. Among them is National Park Service ranger Ricca Sarason, who has been guiding visitors for nearly two decades: “People come just to look at the box where he spent his last moments on Earth. There is a feeling of sadness. He did so much for this country and he never saw the fruits of his labor.”
Across the street, the Petersen House, where Lincoln died in a room not much bigger than the log cabin where his life began, is an increasingly popular sight for visitors, who often have the same kind of emotional reaction they might experience at a funeral parlor.
Clearly Lincoln’s love of theater made him vulnerable to the crazed assassins’ conspiracy.
“Lincoln wasn’t just assassinated at a theater, he was assassinated by an actor who knew the layout of the theater and the president’s habits as a frequent member of the audience,” says director Tetreault.
“People think it was the first time he came to the theater in his presidency. Actually he came to the theater all the time. Lincoln may have been the last great president who enjoyed the theater as much as he did. It gave him relief and allowed him to do his job even better. It was also a natural place for him to be off guard.”
Despite the popularity of Ford’s Theater and the Petersen House, some visitors are not entirely comfortable with the idea of staging plays, including comedies, in the space where Lincoln was shot. Tetreault is often asked, “Why do you have a working theater? It should be a memorial.”
“I think,” says the director, “if you had a chance to meet Lincoln in the beyond and ask him if he thought this theater should be enshrined as a memorial where people could think about that night or make it a living breathing theater and a tribute to the arts, the answer would be clear. It is a tribute – not to that singular act that happened here 144 years ago, but to Lincoln’s love for the performing arts and his love for the theater.”
If You Go:
Ford’s Theater, at 514 Tenth St. NW in Washington, D.C., is open daily from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. The Petersen House, located across the street, is open daily (except for Dec. 25) from 9 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. Although tickets are available on a walkup basis at the theater, they do sell out. You can order advance tickets through Ticketmaster. Advance reservations are always recommended. Tickets are free, but there is a small convenience charge for advance purchase. Information on tours, plays and musicals staged at Ford’s Theater, including schedules, is available at www.fordstheatre.org.
Depending on the date, visitors can include a ranger presentation and occasionally one-act plays about the assassination and Lincoln’s presidency. Because this is a working theater, tours can be closed for a rehearsal. Reconfirm your reservation by visiting the theater Web site or calling ahead.
Besides the regular tours, two highly recommended “History on Foot” walking tours are available by reservation. You can revisit assassination conspiracy sites or walk with a docent portraying a free black woman from the period, who explains how she helped freed slaves to find their way in Washington.
More books have been published on Abraham Lincoln than any historical figure except Jesus. Two excellent volumes worth reading before you visit are “Lincoln” by David Herbert Donald and “Team of Rivals” by Doris Kearns Goodwin.
(c) 2009, McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.