Biographies & Memoirs

CHAPTER THIRTY-SIX

FRIDAY, APRIL 14, 1865 

WASHINGTON, D.C. 

8:05 P.M.

Would you have us be late?” Mary Lincoln chides her husband, standing in his office doorway. Speaker of the House Schuyler Colfax dropped by a half hour ago and was immediately granted a few minutes of Lincoln’s time. But those few minutes have stretched into half an hour and, across town, the curtain has already risen on Our American Cousin. Making matters worse, the Lincolns still have to stop and pick up their theater guests. They’ll be lucky to arrive at Ford’s in time for the second act.

It is five minutes after eight. Mary wears a gray dress that shows her ample bosom and a matching bonnet. She is eager to get to the theater but tentative in her approach because Mr. Lincoln’s moods have been so unpredictable lately.

Once again, he has lost all track of time. Speaker Colfax stopped in to discuss the possibility of a special session of Congress. Colfax has plans to leave in the morning on a long trip to California but says he will cancel it if Lincoln calls the special session. Lincoln won’t hear of it. He tells Colfax to enjoy himself and to enlist the support of the western states in reuniting America.

As he makes to leave, Colfax pauses at the door. He is a true admirer of Lincoln’s. Colfax has heard rumors of violence against Lincoln and mentions how afraid he was when Lincoln visited Richmond a week earlier. “Why, if anyone else had been president and gone to Richmond, I would have been alarmed, too,” Lincoln chuckles. “But I was not scared about myself a bit.”

Lincoln asks Colfax if he has plans for the evening, and, if not, would he be interested in attending Our American Cousin? Colfax replies that although he is deeply honored by the invitation, he cannot go.

This marks a half dozen rejections for Lincoln today. First the Grants, then Stanton and Thomas Eckert, then his son Robert just a half hour earlier, and now the Speaker of the House.

Former Massachusetts congressman George Ashmun waits to see Lincoln as Colfax exits. But Mary’s pleas finally have an effect. It is time to leave for the theater. Lincoln hastily pulls a card from his jacket pocket and jots a small note inviting Ashmun to return at nine in the morning.

Finally, Lincoln walks downstairs and out onto the front porch, where the presidential carriage awaits.

The roof is now closed, which is a comfort on this misty night. Footman Charles Forbes helps Mary up the steps and into her seat as Lincoln says a few final words to Ashmun and Colfax, who have followed him outside. Suddenly, yet another caller steps out of the night, seeking a few moments of Lincoln’s time. The president hears the footsteps on the gravel and the familiar voice of former Illinois congressman Isaac Arnold yelling his name.

Lincoln is about to climb into the carriage, but he waits until Arnold is close enough that they can shake hands. Arnold was a staunch backer of Lincoln’s during the war’s darkest hours, and the resulting dip in the president’s popularity cost him his seat in the House. The least Lincoln can do is acknowledge him. He bends his head to listen as Arnold whispers a quiet petition in his ear.

Lincoln nods but refuses to give an immediate answer. “Excuse me now,” he begs. “I am going to the theater. Come see me in the morning.”

The Harris residence, at H and Fifteenth Streets, is almost right across the street from the White House, so the Lincolns have little time alone before picking up their guests. But in that short interval Lincoln turns lighthearted and happy, chatting excitedly about the night. Mary is delighted at her husband’s sudden jocularity and his ability to seemingly leave the burdens of the White House behind the instant they leave the grounds.

As the carriage threads the seven blocks to the theater, Rathbone, with his muttonchops and broad mustache, sits facing Lincoln, talking about his experiences in the war. Along the way, another impromptu victory parade on Pennsylvania Avenue slows their progress and makes them even later for the show. Once they finally approach Ford’s, they can smell and see the tar torches casting their ghostly yellow light on the front of the theater. The carriages of theatergoers line Tenth Street. A crowd of soldiers gathers, there to see Lincoln and Grant. A barker calls out, “This way to Ford’s!”

Driver Francis Burns steps down and walks the horses the final few feet to the theater, fearful that the commotion might cause them to bolt. The two cavalry escorts trailing the carriage wheel their horses back to their barracks, knowing that they will return and finish their guard duty once the show ends.

It is eight twenty-five when Lincoln steps through the front door of the theater. A young boy, in a moment he will remember for the rest of his life, shyly offers him a program. The president accepts it with a smile. Now rejoined by bodyguard John Parker, the Lincolns and their guests climb the stairs leading to their box. Onstage, the actors are more than aware that the audience is in a foul mood. Having bought tickets in hopes of seeing Lincoln and Grant, the theatergoers had monitored the state box, only to find that neither was in house.

So when Lincoln finally arrives, there is relief onstage. Laura Keene ad-libs a line that refers to Lincoln, making the audience turn toward the back of the theater in order to witness his appearance. William Withers, the orchestra director who had a drink with John Wilkes Booth less than an hour ago, immediately stops the show’s music and instructs the band to perform “Hail to the Chief.”

The audience members rise to their feet and cheer, making a noise that Withers can only describe as “breathtaking.” Lincoln does not seek out such adulation. Indeed, he has “an almost morbid dread” of causing a scene. But he works the crowd for full effect, allowing Rathbone and Harris to enter the state box first, followed by Mary. Then Lincoln strides forth so the crowd can see him. As patriotic cheering fills the house, he honors his constituents by standing at the edge of the box and bowing twice.

Only when the applause dies down does Lincoln ease into the rocking chair on the left side of the box. A curtain partially shields him from the audience, giving him privacy should he decide to nod off and take a nap. The crowd can see him only if he leans forward and pokes his head over the ledge; otherwise he is entirely invisible to everyone in the theater, except for those in the state box and the actors onstage.

Lincoln takes advantage of the privacy, reaching out for Mary’s hand and holding it lovingly. She blushes at such scandalous behavior. “What will Miss Harris make of my hanging on to you so?” she giggles to her husband.

“She will think nothing about it,” he replies, squeezing her hand but not letting go.

Behind Lincoln, a single door leads into the state box. On the other side of the door is a narrow unlit hallway. At the end of the hallway is yet another door. This is the only route to and from the state box, and it is John Parker’s job to pull up a chair and sit in front of this door, making sure that no one goes in or out.

But on the night of April 14, 1865, as Abraham Lincoln relaxes in his rocking chair and laughs out loud for the first time in months, John Parker gets thirsty. He is bored, and he can’t see the play. Taltavul’s saloon calls to him. Pushing his chair against the wall, he leaves the door to the state box unguarded and wanders outside. Footman Charles Forbes is taking a nap in the driver’s seat of Lincoln’s carriage, oblivious to the fog and drizzle.

“How about a little ale?” Parker asks, knowing that Forbes will be an eager drinking buddy. The two walk into Taltavul’s and make themselves comfortable. The show won’t be over for two more hours—plenty of time to have a couple beers and appear perfectly sober when the Lincolns need them again.

President Abraham Lincoln’s only bodyguard, a man with a career-long history of inappropriate and negligent behavior, has left his post for the last time. Incredibly, he will never be punished for this gross dereliction of duty.

If you find an error please notify us in the comments. Thank you!