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  • General Grant had originally planned to attend the play on the night that President Lincoln was shot in Ford’s Theatre.   He declinied the invitation so he could travel with his wife to visit relatives in New Jersey.

On April 14, 1865, John Wilkes Booth a famous American stage actor had to make a decision.

Booth was a hard-core Southern sympathizer and wanted to assassinate President Lincoln that day, but he did not know what Lincoln’s schedule for the evening was. Where would he find the President?

What set Booth’s assassination plan in motion was the surrender of General Robert E. Lee, the leader of the Confederacy at Appomattox Court House, VA on Sunday April 9, just five days earlier. The South had officially lost the war. Booth wanted vengeance.

Booth knew that the Lincolns frequently went to plays and he expected that Lincoln would celebrate the Union’s win over the Confederacy that weekend by going to the theater. But which theater? Because Booth was an actor, he was well known at Washington’s two top theaters, and one of them, Ford’s Theater was almost brand new and glamorous, having opened just 18 months earlier. Booth knew the layout of both top theaters and had developed a plan for the assassination – it did not matter what show or which theater the Lincoln’s decided to attend, or when – Booth would be ready- he just needed to know which play the Lincoln’s would choose.

By midday on April 14, 1865 the Lincoln’s decided to attend a play at the Ford’s Theater, 511 10th St, NW – a new comedy, Our American Cousin. They then sent a note to Ford’s Theater so the staff would expect them that evening. Booth found out quickly from his theater friends and had plenty of time to dress for the evening’s performance and even had a drink at a nearby saloon beforehand. Earlier he had stashed planks of wood behind the door of Ford’s Theater’s Presidential Box (private balcony seating reserved for the US President). Booth planned to block the door so that no one could get into or out of the box after he entered. At that time there was no Secret Police!

The play began, but the President and First Lady arrived a little late and the show was halted as they were seated in the box while the orchestra played Hail to the Chief. Then the play resumed. Booth was already in the theater and as a well-known actor it was not unusual at all when Booth asked to be introduced to the President at an intermission. He was allowed to go into the Presidential Box where he quickly jammed the door with the wood planks and shot President Lincoln point-blank in the back of his head with a .44 caliber Derringer pistol.

Because Booth knew the play well, he shot during an applause line and then immediately jumped from the balcony to the stage below. Most people in the audience did not hear the shot and thought Booth’s leap onto the stage was somehow part of the play.

But Booth quickly made things clear, he announced from stage in Latin “sic semper Tyrannus”
(“thus always to tyrants”) – “the South is avenged.” Ford’s Theater was in an uproar as staff and physicians from the audience attempted to help the wounded President. Lincoln was soon moved to a boarding house located directly across the street from the theater, Peterson House, where he died on April 15.

Meanwhile, Booth needed a doctor himself. When he leaped to the stage, he broke a bone in his leg. Booth escaped on horseback with an accomplice. The two men eventually found a doctor 60 miles away on the Eastern Shore of Maryland. While they were on the run a manhunt ensued throughout the region and 10 days later a military sharpshooter killed Booth as he hid in a tobacco barn.

Ford’s Theater quickly became notorious and fell into ruin. Eventually, the Federal Government bought the building and used it as a warehouse. Today, Ford’s Theater has been renovated and houses an excellent Civil War museum on the lower level. Visiting Ford’s Theater is one of the top historical things to do because of the theater; in fact, it is still a working theater where plays are performed. Also, it is one of the best museums in DC for interactive displays

Ford’s Theater definitely is one of the top places to see in DC. The upper level has been preserved and appears exactly as it did in April 1865. The US Park Service gives free tours of the theater as well as Peterson House. Visiting both is one of the best activities in DC for the whole family. Check the Ford’s Theater website for the schedule of activities and how to get free tickets to Park Service tours. Unless there is a play or performance planned it is open on weekends and weekdays.

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