Wanted Poster for Conspirators, Library of Congress
It is the “most notorious crime scene” in America. Here, on the night of April 14, 1865, John Wilkes Booth shot Abraham Lincoln in the back of his head at point blank range.
For those sitting in Ford’s Theater, the shock must have been intense. A well-known actor, Booth was instantly recognizable when he jumped from the Lincoln’s box onto the stage after killing the president. Although Booth fractured his ankle in his jump, he was able to escape from the theater.
In the wake of the assassination, police fanned out across the city in an attempt to find and arrest Booth. Interviewing witnesses who saw Booth as he fled, the police discovered that the different events of that night --- which included an attempt on the life of William Seward, the Secretary of State --- were, in fact, part of a wider conspiracy which had as its goal not only the assassination of Lincoln but the overthrow of the American government.
For Americans, the events of that night are so familiar that we rarely stop to think about how terrifying they were at the time. But in 1865, no one knew exactly what had led Booth to kill Lincoln and no one knew if the assassination of Lincoln was an isolated event or part of what would be a widespread uprising of the former states of the Confederacy.
Ford's Theatre, c. 1865, Library of Congress
As Booth rode out of the city, Washington DC’s metropolitan police found themselves confronting multiple questions: was Booth acting alone during the assassination or was he a part of a wider conspiracy? If so, who was involved in this conspiracy? And was the attack on William Seward, Secretary of State, a part of this same conspiracy or was that attack an unrelated event?
The answers seem obvious to us in the twenty-first century but Ford’s Theater has created a program that encourages visitors to step back in time to see the assassination from the perspective of the Washingtonians who were involved, either directly or peripherally, in the events of April 14, 1865.
Investigation: Detective McDevitt, a living history event sponsored by the theater, allows you to join Detective James McDevitt as he crisscrosses Washington seeking out and interviewing the many different witnesses who saw the events of that night.
Like many living history events sponsored by museums or historic sites, the McDevitt tour encourages participation from the audience. Various participants are provided with witness statements: as the tour progresses, these statements are handed to Detective McDeviit---actor Eric Thompson (different actors play the role of Detective McDevitt on different days).
Eric Thompson (as McDevitt) behind Ford's Theatre
As the tour begins, McDevitt quickly involves audience members by asking if they come from the states that were recently in rebellion. Several audience members sheepishly raise their hands. But McDevitt is not here to cast blame---rather he is here to remind us that we are looking forward. The Union has been preserved and it will remain intact.
Still, it is pretty clear that the Union is in peril. Carrying Lincoln to the Peterson boarding house, across the street from Ford’s Theater, has the benefit of providing Lincoln, who is barely breathing, with a bed on which he can rest. But Lincoln’s presence in the house means that this room will become the center of a deathbed vigil.
In the hours after the shooting, various members of Congress join military leaders and members of the Cabinet here. Their presence in one place is alarming given that the police do not know if the killing of Lincoln is simply the first step in a massive conspiracy aimed at overthrowing and destroying the federal government.
Detective McDevitt, who has been tasked with determining what occurred that night, tells us that time is of the essence. To understand that night we need to hear from those who witnessed the different events.
McDevitt leads us to the back of the theater. Here, we meet Peanuts Burroughs, the young boy who had been holding the reins of the horse Booth seized when he fled the theater. Peanuts, who was brutally attacked by Booth as he escaped, quickly puts to rest any questions we may have as to his participation in the events that night. It is clear he was terrified when Booth came running out of the theater, grabbing the horse and fleeing up the alley toward F Street.
The infamous Surratt Boarding House where Booth conspired.
Peanuts is just the first Washingtonian we interview that night. We meet a hotel owner as well as Frances Seward, the daughter of William Seward and eventually, other members of the police. Along the way, McDevitt helpfully points out sites associated with Clara Barton, Walt Whitman, and the photographer Alexander Gardner, one of the most important photographers of the war.
Despite “the recent war,” the city clearly teems with southerners and northerners, all of whom have widely varying perspectives on the war and what they saw that night.
But it is the statements of the witnesses themselves and the sites where we stop that take us into the messiness that defined mid-nineteenth century Washington.
Gone are the neat and clean streets. McDevitt reminds us to watch our step, to avoid the mud as we cross the city’s busy thoroughfares.
He points with pride to a building which he calls the new Patent Office. This white Greek revival building is, he explains, a new departure for Washington’s architecture.
A few blocks from the White House, McDevitt warns us to watch ourselves as we have entered a neighborhood where even the police fear to go.
The city shrinks in size as we cover only a few blocks, tracking Booth’s movements as well as the actions of other men whom McDevitt and the police believe are connected to Lincoln’s assassination.
McDevitt (Thompson) with photo of George Atzerodt, conspirator
After listening to the testimony of Fanny Seward who tells us of the havoc that ensued when Lewis Powell entered her father’s house, bludgeoned her brother with his pistol, and stabbed both her father and her, we follow McDevitt as he walks a few steps across Lafayette Park toward the White House.
We are now, McDevitt reminds us, looking at a house and a nation in mourning. Young Todd Lincoln who had been attending a play at another theater learned of his father’s death when the theater erupted with the news that the president had been killed. Todd has now returned to the White House where his father’s body now lies in state.
Finally, McDevitt asks us to review the witness statements and determine the proper sequence of events that night. Looking at the White House, it is difficult to see the evening in simple terms.
As the witnesses have made clear, the assassination of President Lincoln, the attempts to kill both Secretary of State Seward and Vice President Johnson, were indeed part of a wider political conspiracy--but these events were also, for many Americans, very personal tragedies.
Information about the McDevitt tour can be found here. The tour is extremely popular and we recommend booking tickets at least a week in advance.