Biographies & Memoirs

CHAPTER THIRTY

FRIDAY, APRIL 14, 1865 

WASHINGTON, D.C. 

10:30 A.M.

Lincoln’s messenger reaches Ford’s at 10:30 A.M. “The president of the United States would like to formally request the state box for this evening—if it is available,” the note reads.

The state box is available, James Ford immediately responds, barely containing his excitement. He races into the manager’s office to share the good news with his brother Harry and then barks the order for the stage carpenter to come see him right this instant.

Ford’s may be the city’s preeminent stage, but business has been extremely slow this week. The postwar jubilation means that Washington’s theatergoers are making merry on the streets, not penned together inside watching a show. In fact, Ford had been anticipating yet another dismal night. Our American Cousin is no match for the Grover’s Aladdin, which has been made all the more spectacular by the postshow victory rally, thus allowing audience members to watch a play and make merry. Ford can almost hear the actors’ words echoing off empty seats, and the punch lines that will receive a yawn instead of the guffaw a packed and energized theater so often guarantees. But now, with word that the president will be in the audience, the night should be a sellout.

Ford’s was originally known as the First Baptist Church of Washington. When the Baptists moved out, in 1861, James’s brother John purchased the building and turned it into a playhouse. When Ford’s Athenaeum was destroyed by fire in 1862, some said it was God’s will, because many churchgoers considered the theater to be the devil’s playground. But John Ford was undeterred. He not only rebuilt the great brick building; he reshaped it into the nation’s most modern theater.

Ford’s Theatre, 1865

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Ford’s reopened to rave reviews in August 1863. The building is flanked on either side by taverns—the Greenback Saloon to the left and Taltavul’s Star Saloon to the right—so that theatergoers can pop next door for a drink at intermission. The outside of the theater itself features five decorative archways. Patrons enter through the center arch, leading directly into the ticket booth and lobby. The steps leading up from the street are granite. The unpaved streets are often muddy this time of year, so Ford has built a wooden ramp from the street into the lobby. This ensures that ladies won’t soil their evening wear when stepping out of their carriages.

Inside, three seating levels face the stage. Gas lamps light the auditorium until the curtain falls, when they are dimmed by a single backstage valve. The chairs are a simple straight-backed cane but, inside his special presidential box, Lincoln prefers to sit in the red horsehair-upholstered rocking chair that Ford’s reserves for his personal use.

Boxes on either side of the stage allow the more privileged patrons to look straight down onto the actors. The state box, where the Lincolns and Grants will sit this evening, is almost on the stage itself—so close that if Lincoln were to impulsively rise from his rocking chair and leap down into the actors’ midst, the distance traveled would be a mere nine feet.

The state box is actually two side-by-side boxes. When not being used by the president or some other national dignitary, they are available for sale to the general public and simply referred to as boxes 7 and 8. A pine partition divides them.

On nights when the Lincolns are in attendance, the partition is removed. Red, white, and blue bunting is draped over the railing and a portrait of George Washington faces out at the audience, designating that the president of the United States is in the house. Out of respect for the office, none of the other boxes are for sale when the Lincolns occupy the state box.

Now, with the news that this will be such a night, the first thing on James Ford’s mind is decorating the state box with the biggest and most spectacular American flag he can find. He remembers that the Treasury Department has such a flag. With governmental offices due to close at noon for the Good Friday observance, there’s little time to spare.

By sheer coincidence, John Wilkes Booth marches up those granite front steps at that very moment. Like many actors, he spends so much time on the road that he doesn’t have a permanent address. So Ford’s Opera House, as the theater is formally known, is his permanent mailing address.

As James Ford reacts to Lincoln’s request, an Our American Cousin rehearsal is taking place. The sound of dramatic voices wafts through the air. The show has been presented eight previous times at Ford’s, but Laura Keene isn’t taking any chances with cues or blocking. If this is to be her thousandth and, perhaps, final performance of this warhorse, she will see to it that the cast doesn’t flub a single line. This bent toward perfectionism is a Keene hallmark and a prime reason she has enjoyed such a successful career.

Booth’s mail is in the manager’s office. As he picks up a bundle of letters, stage carpenter James J. Clifford bounds into the room, curious as to why Ford wants to see him. When the theater manager shares the exciting news about the Lincolns, Clifford is ecstatic, but Booth pretends not to hear, instead staring straight down at his mail, acting as if he is studying the return addresses. He grins, though he does not mean to. He calms himself and makes small talk with Ford, then says his good-byes and wanders out into the sunlight. Booth sits on the front step, half-reading his mail and laughing aloud at his sudden good fortune.

Ford walks past, explaining that he is off to purchase bunting—and perhaps a thirty-six-star flag.

Until this moment, Booth has known what he wants to do and the means with which he will do it. But the exact details of the murder have so far eluded him.

Sitting on the front step of Ford’s Theatre on this Good Friday morning, he knows that he will kill Lincoln tonight and in this very theater. Booth has performed here often and is more familiar with its hidden backstage tunnels and doors than he is with the streets of Washington. The twofold challenge he now faces is the traditional assassin’s plight: find the most efficient path into the state box in order to shoot Abraham Lincoln and then find the perfect escape route from the theater.

The cast and crew at Ford’s treat Booth like family. His eccentricities are chalked up to his being a famous actor. The theatrical world is full of a hundred guys just as unpredictable and passionate, so nobody dreams that he has a burning desire to kill the president. So it is, as Booth rises to his feet and wanders back into the theater to plan the attack, that it never crosses anyone’s mind to ask what he’s doing. It’s just John being John.

The seats are all empty. The house lights are up. Onstage, the rehearsal is ending.

John Wilkes Booth prowls Ford’s Theatre alone, analyzing, scrutinizing, estimating. His journey takes him up the back stairs to the state box, where he steps inside and looks down at the stage. A music stand provides an unlikely burst of inspiration. He hefts it in his hand, nervous but elated, knowing how he will make use of it tonight. By the time he is done, Booth has come up with an audacious—and brilliant—plan of attack.

On Booth’s mind are these questions: Will he commit the perfect crime? And will he go down in history as a great man?

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