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.