Abraham Lincoln: Ford's Theatre, the Peterson Home, Seward's Home

On April 14, 1865, James Wilkes Booth assassinated Abraham Lincoln. Lincoln died the next morning. Ford’s Theater, located on 511 10th Street, between E St. And F St. NW, was erected in 1863 while Washington, D.C. was a Civil War boomtown. The theater opened to immediate, but short-lived success. President Lincoln, with his wife and two guests, traveled to the theater to view Tom Taylor’s celebrated comedy, Our American Cousin. At this time, a president did not have the protection of the Secret Service. It took two more presidential assassinations before the Secret Service appeared on the scene.

Booth’s Plot

Earlier, in March, Booth planned to kidnap Lincoln, but Lincoln changed his plans and attended a reception at the National Hotel, which, ironically, was where Booth lived. In another bit of irony, a couple years earlier, Lincoln’s son Robert nearly fell from a train platform to his apparent death, but was saved by Edwin Booth, the younger brother of John Wilkes Booth.

On April 10, 1865, General Robert E. Lee surrendered at Appomattox and the following day, Lincoln gave an impromptu speech from a White House window. Booth was there with Lewis (Powell) Payne. Booth ordered Payne to shoot Lincoln, but Payne refused. When Good Friday arrived, Booth heard that Lincoln would be attending Ford’s Theater that night. Booth hatched a plan to assassinated Lincoln while Powell would assassinate Secretary of State William Seward and George Atzerodt would kill Vice-President Andrew Jackson.

William Seward

Seward, born in Florida, New York, lived much of his life in Auburn, New York. The Sewards had a sense of history and preserved their home. If in Auburn, pay the small fee and receive a guided tour of the Seward Home. One of the tour guides is actually a descendant of Seward. The house is in immaculate shape. The offices, the parlor and bedrooms are just as they were more than 150 years ago. Atop the winding staircase the walls are covered with photographs and paintings of important political figures and heads of state whom Seward had met over the years. He numbered each frame so visitors would know who was who. Lincoln is number 66 while Seward numbered his own picture 66 ½. Maybe because he was almost president or that he thought he was a bit better than Lincoln.

Seward could have been the president of the United States. Seward was the Republican favorite going into the convention, but many felt his abolitionist view too strong, alienating staunch abolitionists like Horace Greeley. When the final votes were cast and the cannons in Auburn were ready to fire to celebrate Seward’s victory, no candidate had received enough votes to earn the nomination, but Seward had the most. When runoff votes were held, Lincoln emerged victorious. Seward became Secretary of State when Lincoln became president.

When Payne entered Seward’s bedroom in Washington, D.C. the night of Lincoln’s assassination, Seward was convalescing in his bed, recovering from a carriage accident. The carriage is still at Seward’s home in Auburn. Though Payne stabbed Seward repeatedly, Seward survived.

After Booth snuck in the presidential booth and killed Lincoln with a .44 Derringer, Booth jumped from the balcony, caught himself in the American flag and broke his leg. During his escape, he shouted in Latin: “Thus ever to Tyrants!” Standing in Ford’s Theater, many are amazed how close the presidential box was to the audience. Anyone could have shot him if they wanted. It was only about seven feet to the stage.

Ford’s Theater and the Petersen Home

After experiencing the theater, visited the museum in the basement. Three things are must sees: the gun that killed Lincoln, the pillow that Lincoln died on – complete with blood stains – and Booth’s diary, in which he rationalizes his actions.

Across the street to the Petersen home, the doctors and others carried a morally-wounded Lincoln. The home, now a museum, does not house the actual bed on which Lincoln died. The Chicago Historical Society owns the real bed. Visitors can walk through the back parlor where Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton announced at 7:22 A.M. on April 15, 1865, “Now he belongs to the ages.” Both Ford’s Theater and the Petersen House are free to visit as are many of the historical sites in Washington, D.C.

Seward survived and purchased Alaska from Russia for a ridiculous low price, but many though the United States paid too much for the land. Many called it “Seward’s Folly.” Alaska now celebrates “Seward’s Day.”

Booth escaped with the help of David Herrod. Dr. Samuel Mudd set Booth’s leg in a split; hence, the phrases “lower than dirt” and “my name is mud.” On April 26, 1865, a posse shot and killed Booth on a farm near Bowling Green, Virginia.

Atzerodt, Herrod, Payne and Mary Surratt were hanged for their parts in the assassination. Many feel that Suratt had nothing to do with the plot – a case of guilt by association since the conspirators met at her at boarding house and her son, John, was involved in the plot to kidnap Lincoln.

The four others were sentenced to long terms of imprisonment at Fort Jefferson on the Dry Tortugas, 70 miles west of Key West. A vacation area today, in the 1860s, Fort Jefferson was akin to Alcatraz or Devil’s Island. After Mudd had tried an escape aboard a steamer, the conspirators sent twelve hours a day chained in the cell. However, President Johnson pardoned Mudd after he saved many during a yellow fever epidemic.