- The Washington Times - Friday, August 6, 2004

After the Lincoln assassination, the hundreds of people in and about Ford’s Theatre found themselves linked in a select group.

Most of them had been strangers to each other before then, but now they all shared the same niche in American history. As time passed, some moved away, some lived the rest of their lives in Washington, and a few even became fixtures on the local scene for several more decades.

An example of the latter was John E. Buckingham, the doorman at Ford’s Theatre.

Born in Baltimore in 1828, Mr. Buckingham’s first theater job was as a call boy for Junius Brutus Booth in the city’s Front Street Theater. This Booth was the father of John Wilkes Booth.

Buckingham became a close friend of the family. Eventually he worked as a doorman at Ford’s Theatre in Baltimore and became a friend of impresario John T. Ford.

In late 1862, Buckingham came to Washington at Ford’s request to work at Ford’s new theater there. The young Buckingham was the doorkeeper at the main entrance in the evenings, and for a while also worked by day as a woodworker at the Washington Navy Yard.

Mr. Buckingham got to know Abraham Lincoln, too. During one attendance at Ford’s, the president left his seat and, making his way to the exit, paused to talk with the young doorman about his work at the theater. Mr. Lincoln then went outside for a moment, perhaps for a bit of air, and asked Buckingham for a door check.

It’s hard to believe the president would need one to get back inside, but perhaps he had something else in mind. Upon returning to the house, Lincoln handed over the door check — and a $5 bill.

Buckingham was drafted during the war, but Mr. Ford pulled a few strings to keep him at the theater. Neither Ford nor an increasing number of the public wanted to lose their favorite doorkeeper. On at least one occasion, Buckingham read in the newspapers of his exploits at the front.

Not surprisingly, Mr. Buckingham had vivid memories of the assassination.

He was interviewed in the newspapers from time to time, and even wrote a book about it. Buckingham saw Booth five times that night. Although Buckingham could see that his childhood friend was excited about something, he gave it no special heed, knowing that Booth “was naturally a nervous man and restless in his movements.”

The first time Booth came in, he asked his friend what the time was. The second time, Booth asked for and received a chew of tobacco. Next, Buckingham wandered over to the saloon on the south side of Ford’s and saw Booth there drinking brandy.

The fourth time, Booth walked into the house for a few moments, then left again. Finally, he came back in, and since he had free run of the place, joked about not needing a ticket. Then Booth, humming a tune, went upstairs to the balcony, where the presidential box was.

Buckingham was just putting the day’s checks and tickets away when he heard a pistol shot. Then, according to one Buckingham account, he was just in time to see Booth leap from the box, while in another version he missed his old friend’s leap and saw him crouching on the stage.

Buckingham did agree with the most common version of what came next: that Booth raised a dagger aloft and cried, “Sic semper tyrannis.”

Mr. Buckingham hastily began to unlock the theater’s front doors, intending to help empty the place peacefully and avoid a stampede or panic.

At Mr. Ford’s request, he went outside and found Washington Mayor Richard Wallach, who came back in and asked the audience to leave. Eventually, Lincoln was carried out of the theater, while Buckingham held a door open to let the small group pass. Then he locked all the front doors and left.

As it happened, Mr. Buckingham forgot and left behind a new overcoat in a closet under the stairway. A stage carpenter friend managed to save it, and a couple of months later told Buckingham it had been left in a nearby cafe.

The cafe probably needed a visit from the health inspector, for the overcoat had been gnawed by rats.

Along with many other people, Buckingham was closely questioned by the authorities, but was then let go. He later married Miss Katherine Cole, and they had 12 sons and a daughter. He lived the rest of his life in Washington, dying on March 26, 1909.

During those 44 years after the assassination, Buckingham continued to work as a doorman at theaters around the city and had hundreds of friends in show business and in everyday life.

Luckily, he had an excellent memory for names and faces. The Washington Post of March 28, 1909, said “the genial old doorkeeper used to take tickets with one hand, while he shook hands with the other. He was always so courteous and friendly that playgoers used to declare that ‘Old Buck’s‘ cheerful greeting put them in good humor to stand even a poor play.”

John Lockwood is a Washington writer.

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