Gawking at Ford’s Theatre

That Creepiness at the Crossroads of Tourism and Assassination

Is gawking at the presidential box at Ford's Theatre creepy? Photo credit: M. Ciavardini

Is gawking at the presidential box at Ford’s Theatre creepy?
Photo credit: M. Ciavardini

Despite living in the District of Columbia for more than a decade, I always dodged visits to Ford’s Theatre, the site of Abraham Lincoln’s assassination by actor John Wilkes Booth. “Too many fourth-graders on a field trip,” I’d mutter, dismissing the long lines snaking outside the venue’s doors. Really, what are all of them going to see?

That box, of course. The museum in the building’s basement provides a quick recap of where the nation was, and where Lincoln was, and what Booth and his co-conspirators were up to back in 1865. Finally visiting this space, just ahead of a busload of middle-schoolers, I am not patient enough to read all of the panels to learn when Booth became radicalized. In this part of my tour, I am most mesmerized by the gun, and the bullet, that killed the 16th president. The gun is small, the sort of thing that could definitely fit into a purse. The bullet is smaller than a marble.

Why do people go to Ford’s Theater? To see the presidential box, the stage, to imagine the drama of a gun shot in a theater lit by something other than electricity, to watch the lone gunman leap from that box quite a length to the stage, and to flee.

John Wilkes Booth leapt to the stage from the presidential box after shooting Abraham Lincoln. Photo credit: M. Ciavardini

John Wilkes Booth leapt to the stage from the presidential box after shooting Abraham Lincoln.
Photo credit: M. Ciavardini

What do we learn by looking at this space? That the president, until then, was still free; he felt comfortable going to a show on Easter weekend. Is it wrong to think about whether you would have planned it quite as Booth did?

Visitors can sit in the chairs of this working theater and see how close they would have been to the president if they had been there then. They can wonder how Booth escaped a roomful of theater-goers and begin to appreciate the element of surprise. Did audience members remain in their seats, stunned? What really went down that night? Why are tourists so drawn to the place still?

It brings Lincoln alive. We see a suit of his and marvel, not so much at how tall he was, but about how small—the shoulders are narrow, the pants slim.

Visitors to the Lincoln Memorial are reminded they are in a temple. Photo credit: M. Ciavardini

Visitors to the Lincoln Memorial are reminded they are in a temple.
Photo credit: M. Ciavardini

The opportunities to learn about Lincoln in Washington are so polarized. On one end of the National Mall is a temple where we are called to worship him, to deify a president. Over on 10th between E and F Streets, we are shown that he was really just a man, unable to rise again from one man’s vengeful act.

Which Lincoln do we prefer, God or theater-goer?

The presidential prison, 2015 Photo credit: M. Ciavardini

The presidential prison, 2015
Photo credit: M. Ciavardini

Personally, I’m all for his flaws and his Friday night out. Being president today means a term in a prison. Lincoln’s life may have ended badly, but at least he still got to live it.

—Lori Tripoli

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