Silent Witnesses: Artifacts of the Lincoln Assassination

Ford's Theatre

Abraham Lincoln’s assassination on April 14th, 1865, transformed ordinary objects that were in Ford’s Theatre that night into historic artifacts. For 150 years, these artifacts have been scattered across the country. In spring 2015, Ford’s Theatre brought them together to mark the 150th anniversary of the assassination. Explore these artifacts that bear silent witness to this tragic moment.

On April 9, 1865, Confederate General Robert E. Lee surrendered to Union General Ulysses S. Grant at Appomattox Court House in Virginia. This event signaled the approaching end of the Civil War. Washington, D.C., erupted in celebration. The Lincolns wanted to celebrate as well; on April 14, they decided to go out for a night of light comedy at Ford’s Theatre. The Lincolns received a string of regrets from other invitees, but their invitation was finally accepted by Major Henry Rathbone and his fiancée, Clara Harris.

Act 1: A Night Out
Abraham and Mary Lincoln and their guests, Major Henry Rathbone and his fiancée, Clara Harris, took this carriage to Ford’s Theatre on the evening of April 14, 1865, to see the comedy "Our American Cousin." 

This playbill was not a ticket or program for the play, "Our American Cousin." It was an advertisement for that night's performance. This common, insignificant piece of paper was transformed into a priceless artifact by the assassination.

The Cast of Characters:
This exhibition takes the form of a play in five acts. After the first act, in which we set the scene, we meet the cast of characters: the President and First Lady, the Young Couple, the Bystanders and the Assassin. On the night of April 14, 1865, at Ford’s Theatre—specifically in the President’s Box— their stories all converged.  

On April 14, 1865, the president was a month into his second term, and less than a week had passed since the Confederate surrender at Appomattox. That evening, President Abraham Lincoln looked forward to a night of light comedy. Earlier that day he took a pleasant carriage ride with Mary Lincoln; they looked forward to a new period in their life together.

The Lincolns were still mourning the 1862 death of their son, Willie. The afternoon of April 14, 1865, however, during a carriage ride with her husband, Mary Lincoln was hopeful as she imagined life after the war. Entering Ford’s Theatre that evening, Mrs. Lincoln leaned affectionately on her husband’s arm.

When he accompanied his fiancée and the Lincolns to Ford’s Theatre, Major Henry Rathbone was a 27-year-old Union officer. During the war, his health suffered repeatedly, so his stepfather, Senator Ira Harris of New York, secured a desk job for him.

Clara Harris, 30 years old at the time of the assassination, was a friend of Mary Lincoln and the daughter of New York Senator Ira Harris. Clara had been engaged to Henry Rathbone for several years.

Dr. Charles Leale had seen Abraham Lincoln deliver a public address prior to April 14 , 1865. Captivated by Lincoln’s words and demeanor, Leale resolved to catch another glimpse of the president by attending "Our American Cousin" at Ford’s Theatre. At the time, he was 23 years old and only six weeks out of medical school.

On the night of April 14, 1865, the performance of "Our American Cousin" was a benefit for Laura Keene, meaning she would receive the box office proceeds from that night. An acclaimed British actress and the star of the show, Laura Keene was also the first female theatre manager in the United States.

John Wilkes Booth, aged 26, was a popular actor and well-known figure at Ford’s Theatre. On the morning of April 14, 1865, as he picked up his mail from the theatre, Booth learned that the president planned to attend that evening’s performance. With this knowledge, he and his co-conspirators set into motion their plans to upend the federal government by killing the president, vice president, secretary of state and the lieutenant-general of the Union army.

Act 2: Hail to the Chief
On the night of April 14, 1865, the Lincolns and their guests arrived late to Ford’s Theatre. As the expected guests of honor walked towards their seats, the band struck up “Hail to the Chief.” The audience gave Lincoln a rousing round of applause and a standing ovation.

A member of the orchestra used this pair of drumsticks on the night of April 14, 1865. They were used to play “Hail to the Chief” as President Lincoln and his guests made their way through the balcony to their box.

This violin was apparently used by a member of the orchestra on the night of April 14, 1865, to play “Hail to the Chief” as President Lincoln and his guests entered Ford’s Theatre. In 2009 for the re-opening of Ford’s Theatre and Lincoln’s 200th birthday, this violin was played once more by a renowned musician, Joshua Bell.

Act 3: The President is Shot
John Wilkes Booth made no secret of his approach to the Presidential Box. He presented his calling card to Charles Forbes, Lincoln’s footman, and Forbes allowed him to enter the box. As a famous actor, Booth’s card opened almost any door in Washington.   Once inside, Booth wedged the door shut with the leg of a broken music stand that he had stashed there earlier in the day. This prohibited anyone from entering the box immediately following Booth’s gunshot.   Booth took his aim in the shadows behind Lincoln’s chair.

From the stage, actor Harry Hawk delivered the play’s funniest line, “you sockdologizing old man-trap!” As the audience laughed, Booth pulled the trigger of his single-shot deringer pistol. The gun’s bullet lodged behind Lincoln’s left eye and changed the course of history. Booth dropped the eight-ounce, hand-sized weapon after using it. Because it was muzzle-loaded, the assassin would not have had time to load and fire it again.

The top hat is an iconic symbol of the 16th president of the United States. The smaller ribbon with the buckle is original. Lincoln added the wide ribbon—black at the time, but now faded to brown—as a public emblem of mourning for his son, Willie, who died in the White House in 1862.

After Booth shot President Lincoln, Henry Rathbone attempted to stop his escape, and Booth slashed Rathbone’s arm to the bone. Even though Rathbone was bleeding profusely, he directed medical attention to the unconscious president. Thus, the blood on these gloves likely belongs to Rathbone, not President Lincoln.

Booth’s Escape 
After shooting President Abraham Lincoln in the back of the head at point-blank range, Booth jumped to the stage. This action likely caused him to break his leg. Before darting across the stage, he shouted, “Sic Semper Tyrannis!” the state motto of Virginia, meaning in Latin, “Thus, always, to tyrants!” 

Mary Lincoln sat in a small chair next to her husband as they watched the play. This fabric swatch was cut from her dress some time after the assassination, probably by a souvenir seeker. The rest of the dress has been lost to history.

The Lincolns originally invited General Ulysses S. Grant and his wife, Julia, to join them at the theatre that evening. However, Gen. and Mrs. Grant left the city in the afternoon to visit their children in New Jersey. Clara Harris and Henry Rathbone, the young couple that eventually accompanied the Lincolns, are permanently intertwined with the tragic events. This is a fragment of the dress that Clara Harris wore to the theatre.

Laura Keene rushed from the stage up to the Lincolns’ box, carrying water to the mortally wounded president. As Keene—star of the play—cradled Lincoln’s head, drops of his blood stained her silk dress and cuff. This silk dress fragment is from Laura Keene’s stage costume. The darker brown stains are purported to be Lincoln’s blood.

Actress Laura Keene hastily brought a pitcher of water to the Presidential Box and asked the young Dr. Leale for permission to cradle the president’s head in her lap so it need not lie on the floor. On April 15, 1865, Laura Keene gave this pearl-buttoned, linen cuff to her husband’s nephew, M. J. Adler. Stained with Abraham Lincoln’s blood, it is a memento of that tragic night. Macabre souvenirs like this cuff were a common part of 19th-century mourning rituals.

This bunting flag adorned the Presidential Box, hanging near a portrait of George Washington that remains there today. Thomas Gourlay, the stage manager that night, grabbed the flag when doctors laid Abraham Lincoln on the floor of the box. No one wanted the president’s head to rest directly on the floor.

Act 4: The Vigil
Soldiers in the audience that night carried Abraham Lincoln’s body across the street to Petersen’s boarding house, now called the Petersen House, just opposite the theatre. A nightlong vigil for the wounded president took place at his bedside in a back bedroom of the house and outside along Tenth Street. At 7:22 a.m., April 15, 1865, President Abraham Lincoln died.

This floor-length cloak is made of black velvet and decorated with filigree designs. It is bloodstained in five places. The blood is thought to that of Major Rathbone, who guided Mary Lincoln from the theatre across Tenth Street to Petersen’s boarding house, where her husband lay dying.

On the night of the assassination, Lincoln carried these objects in his pockets. The humble items, such as the spectacles he repaired with a piece of string, offer a rare glimpse into Lincoln’s day-to-day life.

This is Abraham Lincoln's gold quartz watch fob. The fob acted as a counterbalance or weight to secure a pocket watch to a particular location.

Abraham Lincoln carried this ivory and silver pocket knife with him to Ford’s Theatre on the night of his assassination.

This Irish linen handkerchief was in Abraham Lincoln’s pockets when he was assassinated. It is embroidered on one side, in red thread, with “A. Lincoln.”

This tri-fold, silk-lined leather wallet belonged to Abraham Lincoln. It was among a set of artifacts found in his pockets after he was assassinated.

This Confederate Bill may have been a souvenir from Abraham Lincoln’s trip to Richmond, Virginia, the fallen Confederate capital, less than two weeks before his assassination. There are folds on the bill that match up with the folds of Lincoln’s wallet. Paper money began to circulate in throughout the Union and Confederacy as a result of the Civil War.

This chamois eyeglass lens cleaner was among the contents of Lincoln’s pockets when he was assassinated.

Abraham Lincoln carried two pairs of spectacles on the night of April 14, 1865. This is one of those pairs. They fold across the nose bridge so that they can fit easily into pockets.

Abraham Lincoln carried two pairs of spectacles on the night of April 14, 1865. This case held one of those pairs.

Abraham Lincoln carried two pairs of spectacles on the night of April 14, 1865. This pair is fixed with a string (on the right), perhaps demonstrating Lincoln’s frugality.

Abraham Lincoln carried two pairs of spectacles on the night of April 14, 1865. This case held one of those pairs.

Abraham Lincoln wore this gold and onyx cufflink on the night of his assassination. Dr. Charles Sabin Taft, a friend of the Lincoln family, removed this cufflink while searching for Lincoln’s wound.

This great coat was made by Brooks Brothers for Lincoln’s second inauguration. He also wore it on the night of his assassination. Pieces of the bloodstained left shoulder were snipped off to be given as mementos, eventually causing the left arm to separate from the body of the coat. The coat, especially its elaborate silk inner-lining, is extremely fragile and thus rarely displayed in public.

Abraham Lincoln’s great coat had the words “One Country, One Destiny” stitched into the inner lining. They are attributed to New Hampshire Senator Daniel Webster. The words are contained within a banner held by an eagle.

Dr. Charles Leale, the first doctor to reach the Presidential Box, was in charge of the president’s care until later that night. This eight-page letter is addressed to a friend and colleague, Dr. Dwight Dudley. It retells the events of April 14 and 15, 1865.
To see all pages, click the image, then click details in the upper left. An external link will lead you to the full letter.

Epilogue
The first presidential assassination stunned the nation. Already struggling to come to terms with the bloodiest conflict in United States history, the country descended deeper into turmoil. Some mourned the loss, but others celebrated the murder as retribution for Lincoln’s refusal to let the southern states secede. For many of those present as witnesses, the event proved to be life-changing. 

After the death of her husband, Mary Lincoln entered an extended period of mourning. Suffering many losses throughout her life, this was among the greatest. For the rest of her life, aside from select occasions, Mary wore only black. This rendered most of her lavish wardrobe useless, which is one explanation for an 1867 exhibition of her clothing in New York.

Major Henry Rathbone and Clara Harris married the year after Lincoln’s death and went on to have three children together. Henry Rathbone never overcame the events of the assassination and his failure to prevent Booth’s escape. In 1883, the family was living in Germany, where Rathbone served as U.S. Consul in Hanover. Rathbone, tormented by paranoia and delusions, stabbed his wife to death. He spent the rest of his life in a German asylum.

After assassinating the president, John Wilkes Booth was pursued through Southern Maryland and into Virginia for12 days with his co-conspirator, David Herold. Finally, Union soldiers cornered the fugitives in a tobacco barn in Virginia just south of the Rappahannock river. Herold surrendered when the soldiers threatened to set fire to the barn but Booth refused to do the same. Without orders, Sgt. Boston Corbett fired a fatal shot into Booth’s neck. Booth died hours later.

The night of April 14, 1865, marked the end of Laura Keene’s production of "Our American Cousin." She refused to speak publicly of the assassination but continued her career, managing a theatre in Philadelphia and later publishing a literary and arts magazine. In 1873, at the age of 47, Laura Keene died of tuberculosis. Published in 1884, this song book demonstrates Keene’s lasting impact on the theatre industry .

Dr. Charles Leale went on to have a long and successful medical career. However, he is best known for his role in caring for the mortally wounded president. Today, his accounts are among the most valuable sources of information about that night.

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