“Anxiety is an imperialism; it takes over
everything. One must equip oneself against it, organize a resistance. Does love
make you strong? It also makes you weak, because it creates nightmarish
vulnerabilities, and haunts you with the imagination of loss. Courage is not
the whole answer when one is afraid not for oneself but for others. And the way
we live now, a life of devotion means perpetual movement—a hurrying life.” —
Leon Wieseltier, “Washington Diarist: Binocular,” The New Republic,
December 12, 2013
if I take him out for three hours every day, and go and chat to him for another
hour, that leaves twenty hours for him all alone with nothing to do. Oh, why
can't dogs read?” ― Nancy Mitford, The Pursuit of Love(1945)
The pooch looking at you now is named Bentley. I met
him on a vacation in Hilton Head, S.C., this past fall, and he fascinated me
enough that I made him the subject of a prior post. Even though Nancy Mitford was an aristocrat with more high-toned tastes than mine, I don’t
think that Bentley would have had any trouble securing and sustaining her
In the background of this photo I took the other
morning on my way to work is #SetintheStreet.
The set display, by thirtysomething photographer Justin Bettman, grew out of unwanted
materials and furniture, mostly found on the street. .
Late last year, when it was located elsewhere in the
city outside of Times Square, this ongoing arts project attracted so much attention
that New York Magazine named it #13 among “Reasons to Love New York.” From
April 15 to 20, when this intentional bit of ephemera sits in Times Square, it
promises to garner even more notice.
Even at the point when I caught up with it yesterday,
as you can see in the foreground of this photograph, people were training their
cameras on this small set in the big city, a flock of Martin Scorseses in
The sites of Presidential assassinations, even when
they can be recalled, embody a kind of formlessness—even the Texas School Book
Depository in Dallas, which, other than providing a sixth-floor perch from
which Lee Harvey Oswald could shoot John F. Kennedy, would attract little
Not so Ford’sTheatre, which I have visited twice—once in the late 1980s, the other a
year and a half ago, when I took this photo. Even the first time I visited, this
Washington DC site was, according to Stephen B. Oates’ Abraham Lincoln: The Man Behind the Myths, “the most authentic Lincoln shrine we have.”
The red brick building in the photo is the remaining
outer shell of the theater where Abraham Lincoln was shot. But there’s an adjacent building included under the
site’s umbrella after an extensive renovation and expansion six years ago. Though the theater has, after a very long interval, mounted plays again, the real magnet of the site is downstairs, in the basement, where artifacts--gruesome relics--of the assassination are displayed.
Together with the Petersen House
across the street, where Lincoln died the morning after the shooting, 150 years
ago today, it all forms part of what might be thought of as an entire
“assassination complex,” designed to increase understanding of the life and
death of American’s most beloved President.
These days, one word to describe the interest in
this traumatic event is “fascination.” But for the longest time, the operative
word was “revulsion.” Facing relentless public pressure, John Ford, owner of
the theater, was forced to sell the property, which was converted, for several
decades, into the Office of Records and Pensions and the Army Medical Museum.
But the popular entertainment that held sway until
the assassination remained off the table. In the 1920s, when Congressman Henry
Riggs Rathbone of Illinois—son of the Major Henry Rathbone who, with his
fiancée Clara Harris, sat in the Lincoln’s box as their guests—called for converting the
building back to a theater, a public outcry quickly helped scuttle the idea.
It was not, in fact, until 1968—103 years after the
assassination—that the site returned to its onetime use. Because of all its prior uses, and everything that happened in the intervening century--including a fire--the interior had to be reconstructed, largely with the help of the extensive photos that Matthew Brady took in the mid-1860s.
One would have to think that Lincoln would have been
gladdened by that long-overdue change in public sentiment. He loved to attend
plays, and especially Ford’s Theatre, and nothing so much as a comedy, which,
in the form of Our American Cousin,
was on the bill the night of his death.
He could never have foreseen that an actor whose
work he had seen and enjoyed immensely would be the one to slip behind the
President’s box and put a bullet in his head.
For most of the last century, oddly enough, the
aspect of the Lincoln assassination that received the least attention was the
professional community in which it took place—not just the 46 stage hands,
actors, and theater workers who witnessed the murder and were detained in the
dragnet for the President’s killer, but also, believe it or not, John Wilkes Booth himself.
At the Ford's Theatre Center for Education and
Leadership, next to the Petersen House, there’s an eye-grabbing "Lincoln
Book Tower," a four-story winding staircase with a 34-foot-high tower of
books about the President in the center. A good number of these deal
specifically with his assassination rather than his life and career.
Considering his notoriety, it is surprising that
there was no full-length, comprehensive biography of Lincoln’s assassin until the newly
published Fortune's Fool: The Life of John Wilkes Booth, by Terry Alford.
But that is not the only surprising fact about the President and his killer.
Consider this: Lincoln, unlike most assassination victims I can think of, had
already seen him on a prior occasion, in November 1863 at Ford’s, in a play
called The Marble Heart. He had liked
Booth’s performance in the play so much that he had actually asked to meet the actor. Booth, a Confederate
sympathizer, made excuses in order to decline the invitation.
Kidnapping the President and bringing him south in
an effort to change the course of the war had been Booth’s original plan. The
surrender at Appomattox—and with it, the collapse of the Confederacy—ended that scheme. A political trial balloon floated by Lincoln a few days later, however—advocating the
right to vote for black soldiers and better-educated blacks—resolved Booth on a
Because no other role in his life promised to surpass
this one, Booth invested unprecedented preparation in it. Because he had acted
at Ford’s Theatre a number of times before, he knew every bit of its layout—a necessity
if he wanted to get close to the President and make his getaway quickly. (A very interesting post by Norman Gasbarro on the “Civil War Blog” considers an ancillary question of the night: the
likelihood that lead actress Laura Keene could, after the shooting, make her
way, amid all the pandemonium that night, into the President’s Box, occupy most
of that confined space in her hoop skirt, and hold the President’s lifeless
body in her arms until it was transported to the Peterson House. The answer:
In addition, Booth knew just about every member of
the cast and crew, enough to know that many were quite sympathetic with his
secessionist views. Many knew his ravings enough so that they at least could
possibly have heard the actor talk about kidnapping the President, if not kill
Likewise, he knew this comedy by heart, enough to know when the stage would
contain only one actor and an applause line would muffle the sound of his shot.
The 11-foot jump from the President’s Box to the stage was long and high, but
he had done similar acrobatic feats before, and he could, with some luck, pull
it off again.
His luck didn’t quite hold this time, as Rathbone’s struggle with Booth in the box threw the actor off balance as he
fell to the stage, injuring his leg.
While some cast
and crew members were not questioned at all about what they knew, others were
pursued ruthlessly—most notably, stagehand Edman (Ned) Spangler, who was sent
to prison as one of Booth's accomplices. The not-very-bright stagehand might
have admired Booth, but seems to have been as stunned as everyone else by what
happened that night. It took his boss, Ford, to pay for his defense attorney,
and then work to get him pardoned by President Andrew Johnson.
I'm a librarian (no, NOT a "cybrarian" or "information scientist" or any of the other trendy terms the profession has come up with), as well as a freelance writer/researcher; my political leanings are contrarian, much to the dismay of friends on the left and right, and so I will give anyone looking for my vote exactly what they deserve -- the back of my hand