Ford’s Theatre

Ford's Theater

Ford's Theater


Dr. Op Walker gave the following brief history of Ford’s Theater to the UCHRA Congressional Delegation in Washington DC last March 2009. Dr. Walker was their spokesperson to Congress on Health issues. He also served as their historical guide. Enjoy! (B. Nash)




The site was originally a house of worship, constructed in 1833 as the First Baptist Church of Washington City. In 1861, after the congregation relocated to a newly built structure, John T. Ford bought the former church and renovated it into a theatre. He first called it Ford’s Athenaeum. The pastor of the church is said to have made the statement to the fact that the building was cursed due to a house of worship being made a theater. 

It was destroyed by fire in 1862, and was rebuilt, opening the following year as Ford’s New Theatre. With the assassination of President Lincoln on April 14, 1865, The United States Government seized the theatre, with Congress paying Ford $100,000 in compensation, and an order was issued forever prohibiting its use as a place of public amusement. The theatre was eventually taken over by the U.S. military and served as the home of the War Department records on the first floor, the Library of the Surgeon General’s Office on the second floor, and the Army Medical Museum, during the period 1866-1887. In 1887 the medical uses were eliminated and it became a War Department clerk’s office. The front part of the building collapsed on June 9, 1893, and killed 22 of those clerks, injuring another 68. This led some to believe that the former church turned theatre and storeroom was indeed cursed. The building was repaired and used as a government warehouse until 1931.

It languished unused until 1968. The restoration of Ford’s Theatre was brought about by the two decade-long lobbying efforts of Democratic National Committeeman Melvin D. Hildreth Jr. and Republican North Dakota Senator Milton D. Young. Hildreth first suggested to Milton the need for its restoration in 1945. Through extensive lobbying of Congress, a bill was passed 1955 to prepare an engineering study for the reconstruction of the building. In 1964 Congress approved funds for its restoration, which began in 1964 and was completed in 1968. Since then, Ford’s Theatre has been both an active theatre presenting plays and musicals and a historic site remembering the assassination of the 16th U.S. President. The museum beneath the theatre has on display multiple items related to the assassination, including the Derringer pistol used to carry out the shooting, Booth’s diary, and the original door to Lincoln’s theatre box. In addition, some of Lincoln’s family items, his coat (without the blood stained pieces), Lincoln’s blood-stained pillow that he had died upon, some statues of Lincoln, and some large portraits of the president, are on display in the museum.                               

It was a muddy, wet night as the attendants, including Dr.Charles Leale, carried the President onto 10th Street. The doctor decided to take him to Petersen’s boarding house across the street. The streets were extremely crowded with people, because of the uproar. A captain cleared the way to the brick federal style row house.  A boarder, Henry Safford, noticed what was going on and stood on the front steps crying, “Bring him in here! Bring him in here!” Then he was taken into the bedroom in the rear of the parlors and placed on a bed that was not long enough for him. Mrs. Lincoln was escorted across the street by Clara Harris, who had been in the box during the shooting, and whose fiancé, Henry Rathbone, had been stabbed by Booth during the assassination. Rathbone, bleeding severely from the knife wound in his arm, collapsed due to loss of blood after arriving at the Petersen House.

During the night and early morning, military guards patrolled outside to prevent onlookers from coming inside the house. A parade of government officials and physicians was allowed to come inside and pay respects to the unconscious President. Physicians continually removed blood clots which formed over the wound and poured out the excess brain fluid and brain matter from where the bullet had entered Lincoln’s head in order to relieve pressure on the brain. However, the external and internal hemorrhaging continued throughout the night. Lincoln died in the house on April 15, 1865, at 7:22 a.m., at age 56.

The theatre was authorized for federal purchase on April 7, 1866. The Petersen House was authorized as the House Where Lincoln Died on June 11, 1896. Both structures were transferred from the Office of Public Buildings and Public Parks of the National Capital to the National Park Service in 1933. They were combined as Ford’s Theatre National Historic Site in 1970, which is currently administered as part of National Mall and Memorial Parks.

Dr. Op Walker

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4 Responses to “Ford’s Theatre”

  1. Karen says:

    Glad that it is operating as a theater again.

  2. Dave Wiegers says:

    UCHRA – The Upper Cumberland Human Resource Agency

  3. Nate says:

    Dr. Walker- what does “UCHRA” stand for?

  4. B. Nash says:

    Great stuff Op!

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