Today, Ford’s Theatre is restored to look almost exactly as it did the night of April 14, 1865. That night John Wilkes Booth, a racist Confederate sympathizer, assassinated President Abraham Lincoln.
When managers at Ford’s Theatre learned Lincoln would attend a performance of Our American Cousin, they decorated one of the expensive boxes that overlooked the stage. The draped flags and lithograph of George Washington helped make it "presidential" for the evening.
Today, the theatre holds 655 people in modern seats. On the night of the assassination, more than 1,700 people sat in portable wooden chairs. It was advertised that Lincoln and General Ulysses S. Grant would be there, and the house was full.
The third level, called the Family Circle, had benches to hold as many people as possible. Seats here cost only 25 cents, compared to 75 cents in the Orchestra and 50 cents in the Dress Circle. Today, this level is used to support modern theatre technology.
The Lincolns arrived at the theatre late that night—around 8:30—walking up from the lobby and into the Presidential Box through the second level, known as the Dress Circle. Today, this level contains a bust of Lincoln that commemorates his life.
Although the theatre was full, only a few people noticed Booth walk through the Dress Circle towards the box late in the third act. Those who did notice him would not have been surprised to see such a prominent actor walking through the theatre.
The Lincolns and their guests, Major Henry Rathbone and his fiancée, Clara Harris, were seated in this box. The box was furnished with items from the theatre managers' office, specifically for the presidential party.
Lincoln Assassination Scene (1865) by Library of Congress and Currier and IvesOriginal Source: Library of Congress, LC-USZ62-2073
Just after 10pm, Booth entered the box and waited until the play’s biggest laugh line to fire a single-shot deringer pistol behind the president’s ear. This lithograph depicts the moment Booth shot Lincoln.
After Booth fatally shot Lincoln, he stabbed Major Rathbone, who tried to stop him, before jumping to the stage. As he leapt, Booth’s spur nicked the frame. If you zoom into the edge of the frame, you can see the nick.
Booth fell 12 feet onto the stage. He shouted, “Sic Semper Tyrannis!” the motto of Virginia(in Latin, “Thus, always, to tyrants!”). He ran across the stage and out the back door. The audience and actors, frozen in shock, did not stop him.
Lincoln Borne By Loving Hands (1865) by Carl BerschFord's Theatre
Realizing Lincoln would not survive the journey back to the White House, doctors asked audience members to carry him outside. Artist Carl Bersch sketched the scene from his porch on Tenth Street and later turned it into a painting.
Mary Lincoln initially remained with her unconscious husband. However, Secretary of War Edwin Stanton, horrified by her cries, ordered her to the front parlor. No pictures exist of the room, but it was, at the time of this photo, restored by the National Park Service to look as it might have that night.
From the house’s back parlor, Stanton oversaw the crime investigation. He conducted interrogations of witnesses to the assassination and directed the manhunt for Booth.
Doctors tended to the unconscious Lincoln trying to make him as comfortable as possible. More than 40 people came in and out of this room over the course of the night, hoping to hear Lincoln speak some last words.
Since a photographer who lived in the house took a photo after Lincoln’s body was removed, we know today what it looked like in 1865.
Outside the Petersens’ boarding house, thousands of people crowded onto Tenth Street and kept vigil throughout the night. Today, Tenth Street is a bustling tourist hub with souvenir shops.
Lincoln remained unconscious until he died at 7:22am the next morning. After the president’s body was removed, boarder Willie Clark returned home and fell asleep in the same bed.
News of the assassination spread over telegraph wires across the United States, allowing some communities to learn of the news immediately— while others did not find out for days. Many people mourned but some celebrated Lincoln’s death.
Click to see more reactions.
Here is a partial replica of the train car that carried Lincoln’s body to Springfield, Illinois. On April 19, 1865, Lincoln’s funeral procession wound its way through Washington, reversing the path Lincoln traveled when he became president.
This map shows part of the funeral train's path to Springfield, where Lincoln was buried on May 4th. Millions of people came out in several large cities, where the casket was removed from the train for official ceremonies.
President Andrew Johnson declared June 1, 1865 to be a “national day of fasting and prayer.” People collected mourning cards, like the ones in this case, to take part in observances.
After he shot Lincoln, John Wilkes Booth escaped to southern Maryland, stopping at the homes of Mary Surratt and Dr. Samuel Mudd before hiding in a swamp and making his way to Virginia. This map shows his escape route.
After 12 days on the run, United States soldiers caught up with Booth and his co-conspirator David Herold in a tobacco barn at the Garrett Farm in Virginia. Herold surrendered, but Booth refused. This exhibit contains a replica of the barn.
The soldiers lit the barn on fire to force him out. Sergeant Boston Corbett, possibly believing Booth was about to shoot his colleagues, fired a fatal shot into the assassin’s neck.
Here, learn about the trial of eight of Booth’s co-conspirators. Secretary of War Edwin Stanton ordered a military tribunal rather than a civilian trial because he considered the assassination to be an act of war.
Four conspirators (David Herold, George Atzerodt, Lewis Powell, and Mary Surratt) were given death sentences. They were executed by hanging on July 7, 1865. Three conspirators were condemned to life in prison, and one received a six-year sentence.
This exhibit is devoted to Lincoln’s multifaceted legacy, where you can explore Lincoln’s impact on popular culture, the presidency, and more.
After more than 100 years of various uses, Ford’s Theatre reopened in 1968 as a National Historic Site and a working theatre. Today, Ford’s offers theatrical, historical, and educational programming that explores Lincoln’s enduring legacy.
Laura Grant, Exhibition Developer
David McKenzie, Exhibition Manager
Sarah Jencks, Exhibition Editor
Liza Lorenz, Exhibition Editor