- The Washington Times - Saturday, June 22, 2002

At 10:15 p.m. on April 14, 1865, at Ford's Theatre in Washington, John Wilkes Booth shot Abraham Lincoln through the head. With Lincoln's death at the Petersen House across the street from the theater, at 7:22 the following morning, all hope of compassionate treatment for the vanquished South died, too.
Ford's Theatre also died. A mob threatened to burn it down as Lincoln lay unconscious, and troops had to guard the building. John T. Ford, who came originally from Baltimore, leased the building from a Baptist church. Opened as Ford's Athenaeum, the theater burned down in 1862 and was rebuilt. Handsomely appointed, Ford's Theatre opened in August 1863 with "The Naiad Queen," a pageant.
Two months later, when John Wilkes Booth, from a distinguished theatrical family, appeared there in Charles Selby's "The Marble Heart," first seen at London's Adelphi Theatre in 1854, Lincoln was in the presidential double box.
When Laura Keene, an actress-manager born in England, brought her company to Ford's Theatre in 1865 it was intended to be for a two-week engagement. Born in April 1820 (although some authorities give the year as 1826), Keene had first appeared on an American stage in 1852. As leading lady, producer and playwright, she had enjoyed much success, but her career was now on the turn. She could hardly have opened with a less appropriate play, for "The Workmen of Washington," long forgotten, had a temperance theme, and Washingtonians were drinking themselves insensible in celebration of the fall of Richmond.
When Lincoln attended Ford's to see Keene in "Our American Cousin," the Civil War was almost over and the four-year struggle had left the president in poor health and close to exhaustion. A night at the theater with his wife might do him good, provided Mary Todd Lincoln did not fly into one of her rages. One could never predict when or why the volcanic first lady would erupt. The play they were going to see was once a very popular if slight comedy, but was now somewhat time-worn.
Keene, the leading lady, was supported by comic actor Harry Hawk as "Asa Trenchard," the American of the title, and E.A. Emerson as "Lord Dundreary." Another member of the cast, John Matthews, had in his possession an unopened letter, thrust at him by Booth, who wanted him to take it to the National Intelligencer after the show, explaining he would have no time to do so himself which turned out to be true.
New York audiences had applauded "Our American Cousin" when it opened at Laura Keene's Theater in October 1858, running for 138 performances. In November 1861, it began at London's Haymarket Theater, where it was revived in December 1863. Perhaps unpopular in America after Lincoln's assassination, it was again staged at the Haymarket in 1867 and at other London theaters in 1885 and 1890. After that, the West End dropped it and it would have been forgotten, as would have been Keene, had not both been involved in the tragedy at Ford's Theatre.
What hope could there be for Ford's as a theater after the assassination?
"Oh, that dreadful house!" sobbed Mrs. Lincoln, passing the building shortly after her husband's life ended. For a time it was used as offices, then became the Army Medical Museum. In the 1960s it was restored, and today it is both a theater and another Lincoln museum, like the Petersen House a place of pilgrimage.
Booth was killed by Federal troops on April 26, 1865. Others among his fellow conspirators were tried, convicted and hanged, including Mary Surratt, a Southern sympathizer who owned the boarding house where the assassination was planned.
Mrs. Lincoln, for whom many historians show scant sympathy, died at age 64 in 1882. She had been married for 23 years, widowed for 17. She must often have recalled that April night at Ford's Theatre when laughter at "Our American Cousin" became the climax of the tragedy that had begun four years earlier when the first shot was fired at Fort Sumter.
Peter Cliffe, who lives in Hertfordshire, England, is a retired administrator for a multinational firm who became interested in the Civil War when working in this country.


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