Ford’s Theatre was not on my radar when I was in Washington, DC last June. I walked by it thinking it was just another place of entertainment. What brought it to my attention was the house directly right across the street from it. The marker says “House Where Lincoln Died” which was the Petersen House. I became so intrigued and decided that I really wanted to see this significant place in history.
In order to tour Petersen House where Lincoln took his last breath, a ticket is needed and it includes a tour of Ford’s Theater first. It made sense because Ford’s Theater was the place of Lincoln’s assassination. I came upon the theatre serendipitously on my second day in DC. I tried to get a ticket but it was about to close in less than half an hour at 4:30 pm. I told myself that I would try to visit before I fly back to San Francisco. I was in DC for work for 7 days and was not really there for leisure. I got to re-visit a couple of historical sights which I already saw in 2016. However, I have not been to Ford’s Theater and Petersen House. I really hoped to visit these places before I left DC.
On my last day in DC, I made sure to go in the morning before catching my flight home in the afternoon. I only had the exact amount of time to walk from my hotel which was only a 10 minute walk, do the tours which I read was only 30 minutes (not true!) and walk back to my hotel to get to the airport in time.
I made sure to buy the ticket online which saved me from waiting in line. Tickets are only $3 which I thought I could afford to lose if I did not get to go. I picked up my ticket from the theatre’s box office 15 minutes before the tour. Entrance is timed and I waited in line for about 15 minutes to get into Ford’s Theater.
Tour of Ford’s Theatre Museum
I was surprised to be ushered into a dark basement as the first half of the tour. Guests were pretty much left there to browse and read about politics, life, Civil War milestones, architecture of Washington DC and Ford’s Theatre history circa mid-1800’s around the time of Lincoln’s assassination. The dark basement is a museum where information were on display about lives of John Wilkes Booth and his co-conspirators. There were also artifacts such as Booth’s diary (which I was disappointed to have missed seeing!). The guests were left in the museum for what seemed like half an hour which I thought was too long before we were guided to the actual theater. (But maybe I was also rushing a little as I had a flight to catch.)
Inside The Theatre
About half an hour later, guests were guided along narrow stairs that led to the theatre itself where we remained seated for the rest of the visit. Guests were allowed to stand and take photos and given another 15 minutes to do so. Facing the stage, on the right hand side of the theatre where US flags were hanging on the banister, was the president’s box . This was the very exact spot where the unsuspected Lincoln was shot by John Wilkes Booth on April 14, 1865.
A docent wearing a ranger uniform led us into a journey back on that fateful day 154 years ago. Sitting so close to where the incident took place, with the gripping story as told in the voice of the docent, it was not hard to go back and imagine being part of the crowd who witnessed that tragedy on that actual day. The docent was a good story teller and with the somber mood of the theatre, the guests were mesmerized. Even though I did not retain much of the other historical details during the tour, I remember these — Abraham Lincoln loved the theatre and loved to laugh. He was late to the show that evening, Our American Cousin, which was a comedy. He tried to sneak in with his wife and couple of friends. He did not want to draw attention but the show stopped to play “Hail To The King.” John Wilkes Booth, who was a Confederate sympathizer and vehemently against the abolition of slavery, premeditated the assassination. He sneaked into the Lincoln’s booth where Lincoln sat with his wife, Mary Todd Lincoln, put a wedge in between the door, and shot Lincoln in the head. People could not open the door and get to Lincoln. It was also unfortunate that Lincoln gave his personal guards a holiday to celebrate Easter with their families.
John Wilkes Booth jumped from the president’s box to the stage where he raised his knife and shouted “Sic semper tyrannis” (Latin for “Thus always to tyrants,” attributed to Brutus at Caesar’s assassination and the Virginia state motto). Booth was an actor and came from a prominent family of actors which were well known at the time.
The rest of the story was about carrying Lincoln to the Petersen House across the street, and the manhunt for Booth and his accomplices. The bounty for Booth was $100,000. I wonder how much that was amounting to in today’s dollars! Booth was a true narcissist, in my opinion, because he was disappointed that the bounty was not half a million dollars that he thought he deserved. He also thought that he would be hailed as a hero but he was regarded as a common criminal even by the Southerners.
Even though the assassination took place a century and half ago, it was actually sad. There was a solemn feeling in the theatre among the guests. Lincoln, who was just a historical figure that I read about in history books (and even a victim of such tasteless Hollywood movie “Lincoln: Vampire Hunter”), became a real person to me during my very enlightening visit to Ford’s Theatre. He was only 56 years old when he died in the early morning of April 16, 1865.
- Tickets are required to see Ford’s Theatre. Tickets can be purchased in advance online. (I recommend this!) The $3 ticket also includes entrance to Petersen House (where Lincoln died) across the street from Ford’s.
- Only bottled water is allowed inside the theatre.
- Allow about an hour for the entire tours of Ford’s Theatre and Petersen House.
- You can chance going to Petersen House without a ticket as the two girls that I briefly met. I saw them trying to figure out how to visit Petersen. They said that they did not have time to do the entire tour of Ford’s Theatre. I told them that they can just to try to go in as tickets were randomly checked. (I was not asked to present as ticket along with people before me.) I do not see this as cheating because they can just either leave or go across the street to buy tickets.
- More information here on how to buy tickets online and visitor guidelines.
Stay tuned for my next post of Petersen House….