The Night He was Shot

When I heard that Ford’s Theater National Historic Site was planning a two day, all-through-the-night event on the 150 anniversary of Abraham Lincoln’s assassination, I got excited. Then I learned that tickets were necessary.  I assumed (and you know what they say about assumptions) that it was to get into the theater, perhaps for a 150th anniversary extra-special tour. I got even more excited.

Ford's Theatre 001

What a disappointment.  Not the full event – that was great – but the ticketed event.

It was raining lightly and there was a heavy mist laying low over DC.  It wasn’t the best of conditions for the dozens of 19th century costumed actors performing on the blocked-off streets near Ford’s Theatre, or for the visitors who had to stand in long lines in the rain. But it did cue an appropriate melancholy for the events ahead.

Patricia and I were there about 30 minutes before our ticket time.  And so we waited.  In line.  In a very, very long line.  The wait, wet though it was, was not awful, however. The aforementioned performers, playing 19th century citizens, interacted with the crowds.

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The Mayor of New York (the one in red) told me that he had a meeting with President Lincoln the next day.  I told him that he should try to get in to see the President that day.

We were ushered into Ford’s Theater promptly, and Patricia and I choose seats that gave us the best view of the Presidential box where Lincoln was sitting, watching an English play called, “Our American Cousin,” when he was shot by Confederate supporter John Wilkes Booth. Then the disappointment began. We got a half-hour lecture on the events surrounding the assassination. The lecturer, in a National Park Service uniform, was a very good speaker. But it was still a lecture.

“Don’t know the manners of good society, eh? Well, I guess I know enough to turn you inside out, old gal — you sockdologizing old man-trap.” That’s the line from the play spoken right before Booth shot Lincoln. It’s supposed to be the funniest in the play — there’s no accounting for 19th century humor — and the audience laughter was to cover the gun shot. The line was spoke and the audience howled, but not loud enough to cover the gun.

Booth jumped from the box onto the stage, breaking his leg in the process.  “Sic semper tyrannis,” the NPS lecturer told us he said, before he limped away.  I thought there was some question as to whether he really said that, but the NPS ranger didn’t prevaricate.

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Patricia and I were sitting at the end of a row, and midway through the lecture, a door in the wall beside us opened and two Secret Service agents came out. How do I know that they were Secret Service agents? They were two matching 6’2” tall guys in black suits with ear pieces, walking stiffly next to a young woman who looked like museum staff.  I’ve lived and worked long enough in DC to recognize Secret Service when I see them, and in the history tourist field to recognize a museum person. They walked up the side aisle and disappeared into the lobby.  What, I wondered, were they doing there?  There was a gala at Ford’s that evening, but I knew that President Obama was not going to be in attendance. He would be at a rival musical event at the White House. Would there be anyone else at Ford’s that night worthy of Secret Service attention? Not that I could gleam from reading the attendance lists in the newspaper.

The end of the lecture came and with it, the next disappointment.  We were ushered back out onto the street.

Wait a minute – what about our theater tour?  Wouldn’t we at least be allowed to go into the basement museum?

No, a staff member told me firmly.  People with tickets on the hour were allowed to see the museum.  People with tickets on the half hour were not.  My ticket was on the half hour. That was the end of my Ford’s Theater experience.

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You can go into the Peterson House across the street, staff told us, and to the special exhibit in the education center.  We looked toward the Peterson House, where Lincoln was taken after he was shot and where he had died the next morning.  A long line snaked from its entrance and down the block.

The lecture sans museum had made me grumpy.

It was freakin’ cold and I was dressed for summer.

I don’t do lines.

So.

I went and stood in line.

 

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2 Responses to The Night He was Shot

  1. Hmmmm, sockdologizing, eh? How can we work that into a conversation, I wonder, as it seems a truly wonderful word. Was it somber in the theater? Do you think it might have more impact were you to sit in there without all the reenactors and the lecturer? I, too, have heard it is myth that JWB uttered “sic semper tyrannis.” Interesting to contemplate whether he would have evaded capture permanently had he not broken that leg. And whether “your name is Mudd” would have entered the vernacular another way perhaps. I’m rambling, sorry, history does that to me. Enjoyed this!

  2. Yes, sockdologizing is a truly wonderful word, as are many pre-late 20th century terms that seem to have gone by the wayside (wayside being one of them). My husband laughs at me because I occasionally use archaic phrases and words. But I read so many historical documents that they seem natural to me. He can be a Counter Hon.

    I don’t know if I’d characterize it as sober in the theater. But everyone was very respectful. And quieter than a gaggle of tourists would normally be.

    For me, a few minutes to sit silently and reflect would have been more appealing than the lecture. I think for the other people too. As I said, the lecture was very basic and if people were interested enough to visit on the anniversary of his death, I think most would have been well versed in the events surrounding it. The reenactors weren’t inside — they were all outside entertaining the crowds.

    Would not have been surprised to see Booth get away, if not for the leg. He made it pretty far with the broken leg. And I think “your name is Mudd” is pretty well tied to the Lincoln assassination. But who knows what Harry has done that could come to light in the future.

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