Wednesday, April 15, 2015

Photo of the Day: Ford’s Theatre, Washington DC

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 notice.

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 crazier crime.

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: unlikely.)

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 him 

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.

Virtually the only person capable of action in the heartbreaking final scenes by Lincoln’s Peterson House deathbed (which, incidentally, was too small to contain his lanky frame) was his Secretary of War, Edwin G. Stanton. Unfortunately, in the case of the Ford’s Theatre employees, many of his actions that night were wrong-headed or unfair, according to Backstage at the Lincoln Assassination: The Untold Story of the Actors and Stagehands at Ford's Theatre, by Thomas A. Bogar. 

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.

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