April 14, 1865, was a day of celebration and thanksgiving in the Northern States. After four long years of war General Lee had surrendered, and the capitulation of Johnston's forces was expected soon. President Lincoln had chosen this day as a fitting occasion for again raising the shell-torn flag above Fort Sumter, on the fourth anniversary of its fall into Southern hands.
As a temporary escape from his arduous duties, Lincoln had arranged to attend the play at Ford's Theatre that evening. In the morning he breakfasted with his family; and Robert Lincoln, a captain on Grant's staff who had arrived the day before from City Point, Va., entertained with accounts of life at the front. President Lincoln met with his Cabinet at 11 a.m., the session lasting until 1:30 p.m. The main topic of discussion was the restoration of the Southern States into the Union. During the afternoon the President took a long carriage ride with Mrs. Lincoln and Tad. The drive carried Lincoln to the Navy Yard where he visited the monitor Montauk. Returning to the White House, he spent a pleasant hour with Governor Oglesby and General Haynie, two of his old Illinois friends. After dinner Lincoln visited the War Department and then prepared to go to the theatre. Several people were interviewed from 7:30 to 8 p.m., including Schuyler Colfax, Speaker of the House, who called by appointment. A congressman from Massachusetts, George Ashmun, called on the President regarding the claim of a client. It was after 8 o'clock and time to go to the theatre. So that Ashmun would be admitted early the next morning, Lincoln wrote on a card "Allow Mr. Ashmun & friend to come in at 9 A.M. tomorrow. A Lincoln. April 14, 1865." This was the last writing from the hand of Abraham Lincoln.
The Play / "Our American Cousin"
Tom Taylor's celebrated comedy, "Our American Cousin," was presented at Ford's Theatre on the evening of April 14, 1865. The distinguished actress, Laura Keene, was in the role of Florence Trenchard, a character she had enacted more than 1,000 times. It was announced in the afternoon newspapers that General Grant would accompany President and Mrs. Lincoln to the theatre. Although Lincoln was a familiar figure at Ford's Theatre, Grant was almost a total stranger, and Washingtonians were anxious for a glimpse of him. In the hope of seeing General Grant, many persons purchased tickets for the play, and a crowded house was anticipated.
A messenger from the Executive Mansion had come to the box office at Ford's Theatre at 10:30 on the morning of April 14th and reserved the state box for the Presidential party. Earlier in the morning, General and Mrs. Grant had accepted an invitation from the President to accompany him and Mrs. Lincoln to the theatre.
Preparations for the Presidential Party
In preparation for the occasion the acting manager, Harry Clay Ford, supervised the decorations of the President's box, situated on the south side of the stage. The partition between the two upper boxes was removed by Edman Spangler, the stagehand, converting it into a single box for the convenience of the Presidential party. Two American flags, each on a staff, were placed at either side of the box and two others were draped on the balustrades. The blue regimental flag of the U.S. Treasury Guards was suspended at the center pillar on a staff. An engraving of George Washington was hung in front of the pillar as an added touch to the decorative scheme.
During the afternoon General Grant informed the President that he and Mrs. Grant would be unable to go to the theatre. Late in the day they left by train for Philadelphia on the way to visit their children at Burlington, N.J. Lincoln then asked several other persons to join the theatre party, but all, including Robert Lincoln, declined. At the last moment Miss Clara Harris, daughter of Senator Ira T. Harris of New York, and her fiance, Maj. Henry R. Rathbone, accepted the invitation.
It was close to 8:15 p.m. when the Lincoln carriage left the White House grounds and drove toward the residence of Senator Harris, at 15th and H Streets NW. It was about 8:30 p.m. when the carriage drew up in front of Ford's Theatre. The performance had begun at 7:45 p. m. The house was filled, except for the boxes. Only the state box was reserved that evening.
There were five doorways opening into Ford's Theatre. The stairway leading to the family circle (gallery) was reached by the doorway on the extreme south. The doorway next on the north was the main entrance. The box office, with windows on the north and south, was located between these two doors. The other three doorways on the north were used as exits.
Entering the lobby of the theatre by the main entrance, the Presidential party ascended the stairway at the north end to the dress circle. Charles Forbes, the footman, and John Parker, a special guard waiting at the theatre, were in the party. Passing in back of the dress circle seats, they proceeded down the aisle to the vestibule leading to the double box.
The door to box 7, on the left side of the vestibule, was closed. The party entered through the open door to box 8, at the far end of the passage. In the afternoon, a sofa, a high-backed chair, and a black walnut rocking chair upholstered in red damask had been placed in the box. The rockers of the rocking chair fitted into the angle of box 7, behind the closed door, and nearest to the audience.
The President took this chair with Mrs. Lincoln on his right, toward the center pillar of the double box. Miss Harris was seated in the right-hand corner of box 8 and Maj. Rathbone at her left on the sofa.
When the President entered the theatre, William Withers, Jr., the leader of the orchestra, signaled for 'Hail to the Chief." The audience then caught sight of the President and, rising as a body, cheered again and again. In acknowledgment, the President came to the front of the box and smilingly bowed to the audience. After the Presidential party was seated, the play was resumed.
Events Preceding the Assassination
At noon, Booth walked to Ford's Theatre, where it was his custom to have his mail delivered. Several letters were handed him, and he seated himself on the doorsill to read them. After half an hour, Booth walked on. He was told by Harry Ford that the President and General Grant would be at the theatre that evening.
Booth then went to the livery stable of James W. Pumphrey, on C Street in the rear of the National Hotel, and engaged a small bay mare which he called for at about 4 o'clock. Sometime later he put the horse in his stable in the rear of Ford's Theatre. Edman Spangler, the stagehand, and Joseph 'Peanuts" Burroughs, who distributed bills and was stage doorkeeper at Ford's Theatre, were in charge of the stable.
Shortly after 9 o'clock, Booth came to the back door of the theatre and called for Spangler to hold his horse. Spangler was one of the sceneshifters and his almost continuous presence was required at his post. As soon as Booth passed inside, Spangler called for "Peanuts" Burroughs to watch the horse.
Booth crossed underneath the stage to an exit leading to 10th Street and entered the saloon of Peter Taltavull, adjoining the theatre on the south. Instead of his customary brandy, Booth ordered whisky and a glass of water.
Booth walked out and entered the theatre lobby. He was in and out of the lobby several times and once asked the time of the doorkeeper, John Buckingham. A short time later, at 10:10 p.m., he reentered the lobby, ascended the stairs and passed around the dress circle to the vestibule door leading to the President's box. Before reaching the door, Booth paused, took off his hat, leaned against the wall, and made a survey of the audience and stage. The play was now nearing the close of the second scene of Act 3. According to witnesses, Booth took a card from his pocket and handed it to Charles Forbes who occupied seat 300, the one nearest the vestibule door. He then stepped down one step, put his hand on the door of the corridor, and placed his knee against it. It opened and Booth entered, closing it behind him.
As it had no lock, Booth placed a pine bar against the door and anchored the other end in a mortise cut into the outside brick wall of the building. This precaution was taken to prevent anyone in the dress circle from following. A small hole which had been bored in the door of box 7, directly in back of Lincoln, enabled the assassin to view the position of the President. The actor had free access to the theatre at all times. It is probable that the mortise in the wall was cut by Booth sometime after the rehearsal on April 14. Notwithstanding the general belief that Booth also bored the hole in the door to the President's box, Frank Ford, the son of Harry Clay Ford, later said that his father had the hole cut so the guard could look in on the Presidential party without having to open the door.
The actor timed his entrance into the box when only one person was on the stage. The lone figure of Harry Hawk, playing the part of Asa Trenchard, was standing at the center of the stage in front of the curtained doorway at the tragic moment. Miss Clara Harris and Major Rathbone were intent upon the play and Mrs. Lincoln laughed at the words being spoken by Harry Hawk: "Don't know the manners of good society, eh? Well, I guess I know enough to turn you inside out, old galyou sockdologizing old mantrap." These words were probably the last heard by Abraham Lincoln.