Ford’s Theater in Washington, D.C. is a working theater to this day, but historically it is best known as the site of Lincoln’s assassination. On April 14, 1865, while Lincoln was attending a play at Ford’s Theater with his wife and Major Henry Rathbone, John Wilkes Booth, an actor and Confederate spy, shot Lincoln in the back of the head. He died 9 hours later on April 15, 1865 of his injuries across the street at the Petersen House.
This moment in history, just after Lee’s surrender and the ending of the Civil War, but just before Reconstruction, was a pivotal junction.
The tour of Ford’s Theater which includes self-guided tours of exhibits, a ranger talk in the theater, and partially guided tours of the Peterson house, does a wonderful job of contextualizing both Lincoln and Booth as well as providing the context of what Washington, D.C. was like in 1865. All of this context helps the audience to better understand how the assassination was able to take place and why Booth targeted Lincoln.
Before entering the actual theater, we toured exhibits that presented Lincoln’s Washington. These exhibits showed what D.C. was like in the 1860s, gave context about the Civil War, Lincoln’s stance on slavery, the war, and reconstruction. The exhibits also gave background on John Wilkes Booth, his political leanings, his acting career, and more. The exhibits lead up to the night of the assassination and include on display the gun used to kill Lincoln.
The next stop was the theater itself where a ranger (since the site is public-private partnership with the National Park Service) walks the audience through the series of events leading up to and immediately after Lincoln was shot. Again, the information provided is clear and does an excellent job of contextualizing the event and not sensationalizing it.
The tour follows the series of events, leaving the theater and crossing the street, just as Lincoln’s body did that night, to the Petersen House where the aftermath of Lincoln’s assassination is described including Mary Todd Lincoln’s reaction, Lincoln’s death, the succession of power, and Lincoln’s funeral procession. More exhibits then detail Lincoln’s legacy and the many ways he has continued to inspire people through the present.
I highly recommend visiting Ford’s Theater and doing the full tour including the museum exhibits, the theater talk, and the Petersen House across the street. Tickets are $3.00 but are timed and it’s recommended to reserve them in advance. The Museum is not included with all entry times and the theater part varies from a ranger talk to a walkthrough. I enjoyed the ranger talk though and recommend it for those who want more information.
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Beth Nevarez is a public historian and museum professional. She currently works as an independent consultant for museums in Eastern North Carolina, working on collections projects, exhibits, and outreach. She has her master’s degree in public history from the University of North Carolina Wilmington.