Ford’s Theater for the DC Visitor

by Gray Cargill on April 22, 2015

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Ford’s Theater, as students of American history know, is where President Abraham Lincoln was assassinated by John Wilkes Boothe in 1865. Aside from the Lincoln Memorial, it’s probably the most Lincoln-centric tourist attraction in Washington, DC. I visited Ford’s Theater on a rainy Wednesday in Washington, DC. (Thank God for museums on rainy days.) Before you head to Ford’s Theater for a rainy day tour, you might want to be aware that you’ll probably have to stand in a line outside to wait for your tour time, so bring an umbrella, hat and/or rainjacket just in case.

The Theater is free if you get your ticket on the spot. If you order online ahead of time, you have to pay a processing fee for it. Whether you get a ticket in advance or take your chances that day would entirely depend on whether you’re visiting during a busy tourist season or not. I was not, so I took my chances and it paid off. I only had to wait about 30 minutes for my tour.

Tickets are timed. Because it was raining out, I decided to kill some time in the gift shop before stepping outside to get in line for the tour. It’s a small gift shop, so it didn’t keep me occupied for long.

Here’s what you can expect on your tour of Ford’s Theater:

Theater playbills

Theater exhibit featuring historic playbills.

At the time of our tour, we were ushered into the basement museum before visiting the actual theater. We had about 20 minutes down there to see the displays. It’s a very good little museum that serves as a reminder of the background of LIncoln’s entire presidency, the Civil War, the plot to assassinate him, etc. via multimedia and historical artifacts–including the deringer pistol that John Wilkes Boothe used to kill Lincoln.

My ticket included a Ranger “tour”–which wasn’t really a tour, but a talk. After we’d seen the museum, we were allowed upstairs into the actual theater. The theater is relatively small and has been restored to its historic appearance–including the presidential box on the upper right, near the stage. It felt surreal to be sitting in the same theater where President Lincoln was shot.

Museum exhibit

Museum exhibit

We had another 20 minutes in the theater, and about 10-15 of that featured a talk by a National Park Service Ranger. He was great. He set the stage for what happened the night of Lincoln’s assassination. It’s been many years since I studied the event in school, so it was a good refresher for me, and I’m fairly sure some of the details were new to me. For instance, I don’t recall hearing before that the Grants (General and Mrs. Ulysses S. Grant, of course) were supposed to accompany the Lincolns to the theater, but Mrs. Grant could not stand Mary Todd Lincoln, so they begged off. The Lincolns found another military couple to attend with them.

The Ranger described what theater owner John Ford did that day to get ready for the President’s attendance at his play, including decorating one of the boxes as a “Presidential box” to the right of the stage. He walked us through John Wilkes Boothe’s preparation for the assassination–drilling a hole in the door to the Presidential box that he later could look through to see where the President was sitting before he burst in and fired the fatal shot. Boothe also used a stick to jam a door behind him so nobody could follow him into the hallway leading to the Presidential box.

Theater seats

Theater seats

This begged the question to me of: When exactly did the President of the United States get a security detail? Because if Lincoln had one, they were slacking that night. But according to the Ranger, at that time, no one would have thought twice about an actor stopping by to see the President, because the President was a huge fan of the theater and of certain actors, including one actress who was in the play they were watching that night.

While the Ranger described the events of that night in detail, my gaze wandered around the theater, imagining the Lincolns entering, the crowd standing to acknowledge them, and later, Boothe walking behind the audience to get to the box, him jumping to the stage. It’s one thing to read about the events in a history book. It’s something else entirely to be sitting in the same theater where it happened. It was chilling.

Fords Theater stage

The stage at Ford’s Theater

With only so many days in the city and all the other free museums and activities in Washington, DC, I can see where Ford’s Theater often doesn’t make it onto a visitor’s “to do” list, but it should. It is absolutely a worthwhile visit to learn about one of the most shocking and tragic events in U.S. history, in the very setting in which that event took place. It’s so much more powerful than just reading about it in a history book. They’ve done a fabulous job restoring the theater to its historic appearance.

Ford’s Theater is also a working theater, not just a museum, so if you’d like to experience it the way theater-goers of the mid-1800s did, you can buy tickets to see plays there. (Driving Miss Daisy was playing when I was in town.) If you want, you can also visit Peterson House across the street from the Theater, a boarding house at 516 10th Street where the President was rushed after being shot, and view the small room where he later died.

Peterson House

Peterson House is the short building in the middle

De'Jav April 23, 2015 at 1:59 am

Seems like there was a piece of history that escaped my memory. DC is definitely a city I need to make it too. Lots of history and museums to offer.

Gray Cargill April 25, 2015 at 11:01 am

Definitely, De’Jav, if it’s (US) history you’re looking for, DC is the place.

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