On this day, April 14, 1865, after four long years of the War of Northern Imperialism (what some refer to as “The Civil War”), Abraham Lincoln went to a production of a play, Our American Cousin, which was being held at Ford’s Theater. It was a comedy, which seemed appropriate; the Union was celebrating the surrender of the Confederate Army by General Robert E. Lee four days earlier at Appomattox Court House. (That happened on April 9th; 143 years ago from last Wednesday.)
Ford's Theater; c. 1870
Ford’s Theater is an easy 5 block walk east of the White House; it would be the last walk Lincoln ever took. Halfway through Act III, Scene 2, in the middle of loud laughter at one of the funniest lines in the play, John Wilkes Booth stepped into the President’s private box and shot Lincoln in the back of the head. He then leapt from the box to the stage, shouting the Latin phrase “Sic Semper Tyrannus” (“Thus always to tyrants”) and ran outside to his awaiting horse.
(On a side note, the phrase “Sic Semper Tyrannus” is accredited to Marcus Junius Brutus, who first uttered the phrase at the assassination of Julius Caesar. When Timothy McVeigh was arrested in 1995, he was wearing a t-shirt with the phrase written on it. It’s also the state motto of Virginia, adopted in 1776.)
After the assassination, the US Government seized Ford’s Theater, with Congress paying Ford $100,000 in compensation, and an order was issued forever prohibiting its use as a place of public amusement. It was used for a variety of different purposes over the next 75 years, and ownership of both buildings was transferred to the National Park Service in 1933. It’s now considered Ford's Theatre National Historic Site, and despite the order in 1865, is occasionally used as a stage and theater.
Ford's Theater; April 13, 2008; closed for renovations
Unfortunately, Ford’s Theater and the Peterson House are currently closed to the public during a major 18 month restoration period. It’s scheduled to reopen in 2009, so if you are in DC in 2009, be sure to pay it a visit.
As tragic as this event is, it also ties into three other sites around DC. I'll highlight those in a few days. . .