The piano left unplayed April 14, 1865

It was to be a grand night; the night of April 14, 1865. At Ford’s Theater, Washington City, actress Laura Keene was to give her 1,000th performance of  the play “Our American Cousin.” It was to be the final performance of the play by the celebrated actress. To add to the specialness of the event, the Lincolns and the Grants were expected to be there. Washington- the whole North, had been in high spirits as the Civil War was all but over and the Union was saved.

In honor of the soldiers and President Lincoln, William Withers, the orchestra conductor at Ford’s theater that evening, had composed a tune called: “Honor to Our Soldiers.” Miss Keene was to lead the audience and the cast in singing the song while playing her piano-which had been brought to the stage expressly for that purpose. My guess is that it was to be counted by her as a highlight of her career. Imagine the honor of performing in a tribute to the nation’s troops and the Commander-In-Chief.  The song was originally planned to occur after the first act of “Our American Cousin.” I’m not sure why it didn’t happen then. Some say because the President and his party arrived arrived late to the theater. Others say Miss Keene actually felt a bit overwhelmed by it all and begged to perform it after the second act.   However, at the end of the second act, she still was not ready (for whatever reason). The plan then became to close out the evening with the tribute.

John Wilkes Booth created a victim of Abraham Lincoln that evening. He shot the President while he watched the play. But there were many other victims from his actions also- Laura Keene is not often mentioned as one but she really was. Instead of performing that special song as planned-to honor Lincoln and the troops, she had quite a different stage duty to perform. She stood out on the stage, among a frightened and bewildered audience, and urged the crowd to “keep their places.” It is said that she then made her way to the box where the mortally wounded Lincoln was laid on the floor and held his head in her lap for a time. His blood stained her theater dress.

The opportunity to perform that song was lost to her.  She didn’t  recover from that horrible event. Her career waned. The piano that was to play “Honor to Our Soldiers” never played anything again. It was placed back into Laura Keene’s residence. she never touched it’s keys again. Interestingly, some claim that she later sold shards of her costume dress due to financial difficulties because she was for the rest of her career associated with Lincoln’s assassination. She died in 1873 at age 47. 

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12 Responses to “The piano left unplayed April 14, 1865”

  1. B. Nash says:

    Thank you Bruce!

  2. B. Nash says:

    George: that certainly is a fascinating bit of your family history. Who knows? It could be. Have you contacted the curator at Ford’s?

  3. George beyer says:

    im not sure it was a story told to me by my grand parents in the 50 that there were 2 pianos at fords theatre that nite one was donated bty my great great great uncle to this day my sister has it in her den at her home in ohio. like I said it maybe just a story not sure of it age or really any more discription other than it looks like a coffin on legs

  4. Bruce Dornfeld says:

    The piano is now located in Kansas City, KS. It is in the Jack Wyatt Museum belonging to the Piano Technicians Guild Foundation. A recent photo of it can be found on our website: on page 8.

  5. Dan says:

    No idea where it is now but not at Ford Theter, I’ve been told
    Wish I knew. Would be nice to see my grandfathers work again

  6. B. Nash says:

    Dan: Thanks for sharing with us! Any idea where it is now?

  7. Dan Shulla says:

    The piano that was in the Theater that night reportedly was kept in a warehouse in NYC for 100 years, with a hole in the top “like someone put their foot through it”. in 1966 or so, it went to Aeolyan American Piano Works (Rochester,NY) for repair. Repaired by Gerald D. Hutchinson (my grandfather)

  8. Chris says:

    Cool stuff!

  9. Nate says:

    Where is the piano today?

  10. Paul R says:

    Good story. Amazing how one event can go with you the rest of your life.

  11. Jim says:

    Who knew? What a tragedy for Miss Keene.

  12. Geoffrey says:

    Very interesting. How sad.

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