First visit to Ford’s Theater in Washington DC

My son Tom had not been to Ford’s Theater since his 6th grade class trip from Mentor, Ohio, a decade ago. I had NEVER been to the theater (or even driven or walked past it)  despite a couple dozen business trips and five or six vacations or outings to DC. Today, I took an elective holiday from work, and Tom and I drove from our current home in York PA to Greenbelt, Maryland, and caught the Green Line Metro train down into Washington DC. 

The restored Ford’s Theater was a lot smaller and more intimate than I had imagined. We were unable to visit the presidential box or peer inside, but were allowed to stand in the upper balcony and stare across the theater to the box where Lincoln was shot. The leap down to the stage from there didn’t seem terribly daunting from our vantage point. We were then ushered by the NPS park rangers into the theater’s basement to the Lincoln assassination museum. I had not realized what an awesome collection of artifacts and relics the government has on display in this small museum.

A blood-stained pillow that once cradled Lincoln’s head as he lay dying across the street in tailor William Peterson’s boarding house. Lincoln’s clothes he wore to the theater (his top hat is currently over at the Smithsonian’s Air & Space Museum in a temporary exhibit while the American History Museum is being renovated).  Mrs. Lincoln’s opera glass case. Booth’s pistol, boot, spurs, rifle, and other personal effects. Hoods, manacles, pieces of the rope used to hang the conspirators. Artifacts from the young couple in the box with the Lincolns. The wooden door to the presidential box with the peephole bored out by Booth. The U.S. Treasury Guards blue regimental flag that Booth caught with his spurs as he leaped from the box after shooting Lincoln. Various pieces of evidence collected against the assassins. Bits of the original wallpaper from the private box. Drumsticks and a violin played that night in the orchestra. Original tickets to the play. A playbill from a March 1865 play in Ford’s Theater starring none other than J. Wilkes Booth, less than a month before he killed the President. Lots and lots more of interest in this hidden gem that I had never visited before.

We then went across the street and toured the Peterson house where Lincoln died on April 15, 1865, at 7:22 a.m. We came out from this somewhat cramped place of reverence, and I was stunned to find that “the American way” was in full effect next door. Greed and tackniess… to the left and right of the Peterson house were very tacky souvenir stands selling the latest Lincoln statues made in China, as well as garish T-shirts, cigarette lighters, coffee mugs, and the like. Of course, in the days following the President’s death, early souvenir hunters swiped whatever they could lay their hands on related to the assassination, so perhaps the modern day vultures should not surprise me much.

The rest of a very long and tiring, but exceptionally rewarding day, saw us visit the nearby Hard Rock Cafe for an excellent lunch, hike through the Smithsonian’s Natural History Museum, and then visit the National Archives to see the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution (they have a special display on the Civil War movie Glory currently). With some time left in the afternoon, we tramped over the American Indian Museum (visually striking building design and architecture, but a horribly boring place to visit). We wound up going to the Air & Space Museum to see the Moon Flight exhibit, as well as the 100 items temporarily on exhibit from the American History Museum while it is closed. We then walked past the original Smithsonian buildings and castle to the Metro for the twenty-minute ride back up to Greenbelt and the 90 minute drive from there back home to York.

A great day! I had never before been to Ford’s Theater, the Natural History Museum, the National Archives, or the American Indian Museum. Skip the last one and definitely see the others! The Hope Diamond by itself is worth a trip through the Natural History Museum.

Ever visit any of these places? What did you like or dislike about them?

Categories: Civil War sites | Tags: , , , | 2 Comments

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2 thoughts on “First visit to Ford’s Theater in Washington DC

  1. Great post, Scott. The theatre is one place I’ve never visited, but I plan to later this year when I speak to the Capitol Hill CWRT on my Stuart book.

    I expect your observation that it’s smaller than one would expect is very true. It seems larger than life when you have never seen it personally. I look forward to it.


  2. J.D.,

    You will enjoy it. It takes about an hour to tour the theater and the basement museum. There is the usual NPS book and gift shop adjacent to the museum, but it does have a wide assortment of Lincoln titles to browse.

    Booth’s controversial diary is on display (were the missing 18 pages ripped out by Booth over the months before the assassination to use as scratch paper and notes, or did they contain writing that was incriminating to Ed Stanton as some conspiracy fans allege)?

    Some accounts suggest that the missing pages were located in 1977 in some of Stanton’s personal effects by his descendants, and subsequently, the pages were sent to the FBI for analysis. However, the FBI never received them, nor any formal request to take a look at these supposed diary pages (if they existed). It is true that that same year, the FBI did analyze the diary and conclude that it contained no hidden messages, invisible ink, or secret codes, contrary to the wild postulations of one of those strange movies that Sunn put out during my college days (the same movie company did shows on Martians, ancient astronauts, the Loch Ness Monster, and other tabloid topics).

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