History of the Petersen House

Ford's Theatre

Watch as the House Where Lincoln Died changes through the years

The Petersens and their Home, 1849-1865
Before the Lincoln assassination, the Petersen House was just a house—another place for boarders to stay while living in Washington City. But after President Abraham Lincoln died in one of its rooms, the building became a destination for tourists, securing its place in history. For years, it functioned as a Lincoln museum. Then demand came to restore the interior to its 1865-era appearance. Although the building is remembered as the place where Lincoln died, it now helps to keep Lincoln’s legacy alive. 

William Petersen, a German tailor, purchased the lot in 1849 and built a four-story house. He lived here with his family but rented extra rooms to lodgers. During the Civil War, up to 21 people at once lived in its rooms. This image looks east from the White House toward the Capitol.

Born in Germany in 1816, William Petersen immigrated to the United States with his wife, Anna, on June 23, 1841. A tailor by trade, he earned a substantial fortune during the Civil War by making high-quality uniforms for officers. He and his wife remained in the house until their deaths in 1871.

Born in Germany in 1819, Anna Kloman[n] Petersen immigrated to the United States alongside her husband when she was 23. She and William had 10 children together, five of whom survived to adulthood. She was away at the time of the assassination but returned the next morning to find that the President had died in her home. She and William died within months of each other.

The Assassination, April 14-15, 1865
On April 14, 1865, John Wilkes Booth snuck into the Presidential Box at Ford’s Theatre. He fired one bullet into the back of Abraham Lincoln’s head before jumping over the railing and escaping into the night. Immediately, doctors recognized the severity of the President’s wound. He could not survive and the most pressing question was where should he spend his last hours. 

Doctors present decided that President Lincoln could not die in a theatre, and knowing he could not survive the journey back to the White House, asked audience members to carry him outside, ultimately bringing him into the Petersen House.

This engraving of President Lincoln's death misrepresents the size of the small room. But many people did visit throughout the night before he died at 7:22 a.m. on April 15, 1865.

This photograph, taken by boarders Henry and Julius Ulke the morning of April 15, 1865, captures the bed and room in which Lincoln died. In a touch of irony, rumor has it that John Wilkes Booth rested in this very bed a month earlier when he visited friend and fellow actor Charles Warwick, who was renting this room at the time.

Residents, 1865
At the height of the war, the Petersen House did not want for boarders. The rooms filled quickly as so many people flooded Washington City needing places to stay. This depiction of President Lincoln’s death incorporates many of the boarders. It remains the only known depiction of many of them in an era when photography was in its infancy.

A former private in the 13th Massachusetts, William T. Clark spent the night of April 14 out celebrating the end of the war and was not at home when President Lincoln was shot. Clark returned the next morning after Lincoln’s body was removed and climbed into his bloodied bed to sleep. He later wrote a letter to his sister describing the constant influx of tourists and souvenir hunters, who often stole mementos from his room. Clark himself kept a lock of Lincoln’s hair.

Henry Safford was reading at home at the time of the assassination, but the commotion outside attracted his attention. Upon seeing the group of men carrying Lincoln and searching for a place to go, Safford shouted, “Bring him in here!” and led the men into William Clark’s first-floor room.

An accomplished painter, Henry Ulke operated a popular portrait studio on Pennsylvania Avenue and rented a room in the Petersen House in 1860. It is believed that he helped his brother Julius take a photograph of the death room after the removal of President Lincoln’s body.

Julius Ulke, with the aid of his brother Henry, took a photograph of the room in which Lincoln died.

Thomas Proctor was 17 years old at the time of the Lincoln assassination. He was working as a clerk for the War Department.

Post-Assassination Museum, 1871–1920
After the deaths of William and Anna Petersen, their house transferred ownership multiple times. It was used as a home, an office space, and for decades, a Lincoln museum. By the 1930s, public interest dictated that the building should be restored to its 1865-era appearance.

A well-known German-American attorney, Louis Schade, purchased the Petersen House in 1878 for $4,500. He used it as his home and as office space for his newspaper, The Washington Sentinel. While he and his family initially enjoyed living in the home, they eventually tired of the constant curious visitors and sold the building to the federal government in 1896.

In 1883, a marble tablet was added to the Petersen House identifying it as the place where Lincoln died. (Image from 1920s.)

Frustrated by nonstop visitors, Louis Schade leased the Petersen House to the Memorial Association of D.C. In 1896, this group then allowed Osborn Oldroyd, a Lincoln enthusiast, to live there and showcase his extensive display of Lincoln-related objects. He poses on the stoop in this photograph.

Osborn Oldroyd, a Civil War veteran, became entranced with Abraham Lincoln during the 1860 presidential election. He dedicated the rest of his life to collecting as many Lincoln-related objects as he could. He created and operated his own Lincoln museum in the Petersen House until his death in 1930.

Oldroyd’s Lincoln collection included items such as the Lincoln family Bible, Lincoln’s chair from his White House office, a log from his original home, photographs and newspapers, among other items. The “x” marks the location of the bed in which Lincoln died.

In 1926, Congressman Henry Riggs Rathbone (R-Ill.), son of Major Henry Rathbone and Clara Harris, who were Lincoln’s guests the night of the assassination, arranged for the government to purchase Oldroyd’s collection for $50,000. Many of the items were then moved into the newly created Lincoln Museum inside the former Ford’s Theatre.

Restoration, 1932-2009
The Petersen House underwent three renovations between 1932 and 1959. Initially five women’s patriotic organizations were in charge of the renovation. They modeled their plans on examples of Civil War-era middle-class homes. The Department of Interior intervened in 1944-1945 and 1958-1959 to make the house more historically accurate.

The Interior Department decided to renovate the Petersen House to its appearance on the night of the assassination. Using photographs and drawings from Lincoln’s last night, those involved were able to produce a historically accurate restoration. Oldroyd brought the sofa at left from Lincoln’s family home in Springfield.

Thanks to the many images of this room that were produced following the assassination, those in charge of the restoration were able to obtain similar furnishings.

While standing in the death room, Dorothy Kunhardt, a Lincoln photograph collector (and author of the children’s classic "Pat the Bunny") holds a framed copy of Julius Ulke’s photograph of that very room from nearly a hundred years earlier.

Present Day
Today the Petersen House entices many visitors who wish to deepen their understanding of Lincoln’s assassination by seeing the room in which he died. From there, people can visit the adjoining Center for Education and Leadership, which explores the assassination aftermath and President Lincoln’s legacy. 

Ford’s Theatre Society purchased the 10-story building next to the Petersen House and in 2012 opened the Center for Education and Leadership, which explores the aftermath of the assassination and Lincoln’s impact on the world. Museum exhibitions focus on Lincoln’s funeral, the capture and prosecution of his killers, and his evolving legacy.

Ford's Theatre Society
Credits: Story

Exhibition Developer:
Anna Snyder, Digital Public History Intern

Exhibition Manager:
David McKenzie, Digital Projects Manager

Editors:
Sarah Jencks, Director of Educational Programming
Tracey Avant, Curator of Exhibitions
Liza Lorenz, Director of Communications and Marketing

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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