While the country was celebrating the end of the Civil War, President Abraham Lincoln decided to go to the theater and take a break from the burdens of the office. On the night of April 14, 1865, the Lincolns attended a performance of a popular comedy called Our American Cousin at Ford's Theatre, now Ford's Theatre National Historic Site, in downtown Washington. Clara Harris, daughter of New York Senator Ira Harris, and her fiancé Major Henry Reed Rathbone joined the Lincolns in the presidential box. At about 10:15 p.m., while the audience was laughing, John Wilkes Booth entered the presidential box and shot Lincoln. A well-known actor and Southern sympathizer who saw Lincoln as the source of the South's problems, Booth had been planning for months to kidnap Lincoln and had recruited several conspirators, including John Surratt, whose mother, Mary, ran a boardinghouse where the group often met. The kidnapping plan had failed, but the assassination plot succeeded.

Ford's Theatre National Historic Site
© Library of Congress
Ford's Theatre National Historic site preserves the theater in which President
Lincoln was shot by John Wilkes Booth.

Lincoln was carried across the street to the back bedroom of a tailor's home. Several doctors attended Lincoln; one held his hand all night, knowing that if the President awoke he would be blind, and the doctor wanted him to know that a friend was nearby. At 7:22 the next morning, Abraham Lincoln died.

In the chaos following the shooting, Booth leapt from the presidential box to the stage, but he tripped in the bunting that decorated the box and landed off balance, breaking a small bone in his left leg. He limped across the stage to the theater's back door, mounted his horse, and rode south. On April 26, he was shot and killed by Union troops while hiding in a tobacco shed near Port Royal, Virginia. Booth's alleged conspirators were soon arrested, and four were eventually sentenced to death, including Mary Surratt, the first woman hanged by the government.

The theater where Lincoln was shot and the house where he died are preserved today as Ford's Theatre National Historic Site. Both buildings have been restored to look as they did the night of the assassination. Graphic reminders of that evening are on display, including a bloody pillow upon which Lincoln rested, hoods worn by the conspirators during their trial, and Booth's .44-caliber single-shot derringer. The bed in the back room of the house is similar to the original, which was not long enough for Lincoln, who had to be laid diagonally across it. The front parlor is where Mary Todd Lincoln and her eldest son spent the night. Ford's Theatre is a memorial to Lincoln, but it lives on as an active theater, putting on a full schedule of plays during the year.

A Tragic End for All

The Lincolns had originally invited General and Mrs. Grant to Ford's Theatre, but the Grants were unable to attend. At the last minute, the Lincolns asked Clara Harris and Major Rathbone to join them.

Tragedy seemed to follow the people who had shared the presidential box that night. Clara Harris Rathbone was shot by her insane husband in 1883. Rathbone was committed to an insane asylum, where he died in 1911.

Mary Todd Lincoln fared no better. Three of her four sons died during her lifetime, and in 1875 she was judged insane and admitted to a sanitarium for several months. She died in her sister's home in Springfield, Illinois, in 1882.

Ford's Theatre National Historic Site Information

Address: 900 Ohio Drive, SW
Washington, D.C. 200224
Telephone: 202/426-6841
Hours of Operation: Daily, 9 a.m. - 5 p.m. except Christmas Day
Admission: Free

Learn more about these other national historic sites:

Abraham Lincoln Birthplace National Historic SiteClara Barton National Historic Site
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Grant Kohrs Ranch National Historic Site
Knife River Indian Villages National Historic Site
Pennsylvania Avenue National Historic Site
Theodore Roosevelt Birthplace National Historic Site
Adams National Historic Site
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ABOUT THE AUTHOR:

Eric Peterson is a Denver-based freelance writer who has contributed to numerous guidebooks about the Western United States.