I was exploring Washington DC during my work travel in June of 2019 when I walked by a placard that says “House Where Lincoln Died.” I knew that I had to see it before I went back to San Francisco.
On my last day in DC, I got to finally go in the morning before I boarded my flight in the early afternoon. In order to see Petersen House which is the boarding house where Lincoln passed, a $3 ticket is required. It covers a tour of Ford’s Theatre (where Lincoln was shot by John Wilkes Booth) and visit to Petersen House. Petersen House is directly right across the street from Ford’s Theatre.
A visit at Ford’s Theatre included a 30 -45 minute self-guided tour and an actual visit to the theatre itself where the president’s box is preserved, the very same spot where Lincoln was shot. Seeing the actual room where Lincoln passed at Petersen House needed just a quick walk-by that could be covered in a less than five minutes before moving on the museum area of Petersen House.
Right after I finished the tour of Ford’s Theatre, I walked across the street and saw that line was forming. The line was quite long but it moved pretty fast. I waited about 10 minutes. Only less than 10 people were let in at the time.
When I was finally allowed to go in, I understood why. The house was very small. The tour was self-guided. We walked by an empty living room with a fireplace, another room and finally, the room that contains the bed where Lincoln took his last breath in the early morning on April 15, 1865 at 7:22 am.
(Unfortunately, my camera ran out of battery that I had to use my cell phone. I missed taking pictures of the rooms where period furniture were on display. At least I got to take a picture of the bed where Lincoln died as morbid as it was.)
The room was sparse and was protected by a glass. I had to research after my visit to understand how Lincoln, who was 6′ 4″ in height, could fit in such a short bed. I read that Lincoln was laid diagonally across the bed because his tall frame would not fit normally on the smaller bed.
Going back to the evening of April 14, 1865, while attending a play across the street with his wife and their friends, Lincoln was shot by John Wilkes Booth. In the midst of the chaos, while Lincoln was carried out of the theatre, William Petersen offered his house. Petersen House was a boarding house owned by William and Anna Petersen. William was a tailor, and he and his wife rented out rooms to earn extra income. It is located directly right across the street from the Ford’s Theatre. The house became the venue where the doctors tried to save Lincoln’s life, and where Mary Todd, Lincoln’s wife sat by his side. Friends and politicians were in and out of the Petersen House that evening as Lincoln was being attended to. People held a vigil all night outside of Petersen House while guards guarded the house against onlookers. One of the rooms was also turned into an interrogation room where witnesses were interviewed.
The Petersen House is a 19th-century federal style row house located at 516 10th Street NW in Washington, D.C with the three rooms furnished in 1865 period pieced. It eventually became a private Lincoln museum with historically accurate wallpapers and furniture and modern fire protection.
After a quick walk-thru of the rooms, another section of the house was devoted to memorabilia relating to the epic two-week manhunt and capture of John Wilkes Booth and his accomplices. It tells the story of Lincoln’s funeral and the grief of the nation over the loss of the president as covered by every media at that time.
The visit was quite emotionally powerful for me as if the event just took place and not over 150 years ago. The three dimensional exhibit of the capture of John Wilkes Booth showing a replica of a barn where he was hiding that was purposely set on fire at the time to get him out added to the feeling of being at the event instead of being a mere museum spectator two centuries later. Booth was eventually killed by a bullet wound to the neck for fighting back while two of his two conspirators surrendered.
What made an impression on me was reading about Mary Todd’s grief in the loss of her husband. I have read that she never recovered from it. The engaged couple who were Lincoln’s friends, and who were with him when he was shot also could not escape the trauma of witnessing such horrific event. They married but the husband ended up killing his wife and taking his own life. Mary Surratt, an alleged collaborator in the plot to kill Abraham Lincoln, was the first woman to be hanged in the history of the United States. (She was also a distant cousin of F. Scott Fitzgerald.)
Lincoln’s assassination was a tragedy that continued to ruin many lives that were affected by it. I felt the darkness of the grief while inside the Petersen House. Emerging into the hot, bright Washington DC noonday sun, the heaviness stayed with me for a little bit more until it slowly dissipated as I rushed to go back to my hotel room to gather my luggage and catch my flight back to San Francisco. The emotional experience though stayed with me and I am glad that got the opportunity to learn this part of the tragic US history where it took place.
- Reserved your tickets online. During the summer months, same day tickets could run out as early as 9 am.
- Tickets are $3 which include a tour of Ford’s Theatre across from Petersen House.
- The ticket is good all day. If the line is long, come back sometime during the day. I walked by Petersen House on few occasions and there were no lines at all.
- I and the people before me were not asked to present our tickets. If you are strapped for time, maybe you can try to go in without a ticket. If you are stopped at the door, you may just leave or get a ticket across the street. I do not think that this is cheating. Just donate money to support the National Park when you go to the gift shop.
- Get your camera ready as you will be asked to keep on walking as you arrive by the bedroom where Lincoln died. We were kindly asked to keep on moving as there were people behind us.
- Look for Booth’s memorabilia including the set of keys that was found on him when he was captured (killed).
- Check out the “pillar of books” at the gift shop after emerging from the Petersen House.
- Ford’s Theatre and Petersen House are gateways to the National Mall. Keep walking or hail a cab or Uber/Lyft!
- Here is my written post on Ford’s Theatre.