As you probably already know, one of the most infamous moments in American history happened at a theatre in Washington, D.C. On April 14th, 1865, President Abraham Lincoln was shot by John Wilkes Booth while attending a production of the comedy Our American Cousin at Ford’s. He died later the following morning morning, mere days after Confederate General Robert E. Lee surrendered to General Ulysses S. Grant, bringing an end to the Civil War. What you may not realize is Lincoln could have been somewhere else that night: The National Theatre, which sat just half a mile away. In fact, Lincoln and his assassin both had ties to The National, and could very well have had their fateful encounter there instead.
Booth’s attachment to The National actually predates his own appearances on the stage. His father, Junius Brutus Booth, Sr., was one of the leading actors of the American stage in the first half of the 19th century. Junius Sr. emigrated from Britain to the United States and made his debut at the Washington Theatre on August 1st, 1822 in the role of Richard III. While Booth’s brilliance was undisputed, he was also a cantankerous and combative figure, traits he demonstrated by criticizing Presidents Andrew Jackson and Martin van Buren, neither of whom went to The National often while Booth was onstage. Junius Sr. sired four illegitimate sons, three of whom went on to careers in the theatre with various degrees of success. The eldest, Junius Jr., became a successful manager and director in New York, while his younger brother, Edwin, enjoyed great success on the stage. In fact, Edwin was among the first American tragedians to win approval in Europe, and went on to become one of the leading American actors of the second half of the 19th century. John, the youngest of the three, never quite achieved the level of success enjoyed by his father and elder brother. In fact, John’s failure to compete with his brother contributed to his angry and violent nature, which some have blamed for his decision to kill the President. For all their dysfunction, the Booths did find success in one shared venture: a lucrative production of Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar at the Winter Garden Theatre in New York in 1864. Edwin and John also found success playing one of their father’s favorite roles, Richard III, at The National Theatre, Edwin in 1856 and John in 1863. In fact, there are conflicting reports that John may have had a notable spectator in the audience when he took on the conniving Richard at The National: President Lincoln himself.
While the claim that Lincoln saw Booth in a production at The National in 1863 is disputed, we do know that he saw and admired Booth’s work at Ford’s Theatre prior to the night he was shot. The show in question was Charles Selby’s The Marble Heart; or, The Sculptor’s Dream, in which Booth took on multiple roles. Despite earning Lincoln’s praise for the performance, Booth refused to meet with the President. Apparently, his hatred of Lincoln, whom he (somewhat fittingly) considered a tyrant on par with the title character in Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, was already deep-seated. As a Confederate sympathizer, Booth was stung deeply by General Lee’s surrender and Lincoln’s subsequent victory speech mere days later. This appeared to be the final tipping point in his journey toward becoming an assassin.
While it may seem like a cosmic coincidence or twist of fate, the fact that Lincoln saw his future killer perform at least once is hardly surprising. The President was an avid theatre-goer and frequently escaped from the pressures of the office by taking in shows at The National and Ford’s. While in office, Lincoln developed a strong relationship with Leonard Grover, The National Theatre’s manager (who, as a matter of fact, named the institution “Grover’s National Theatre” in his own honor). Lincoln would often attend “benefit” productions for a particular actor, knowing that his presence was always good for ticket sales, and managers like Grover loved him for this. Lincoln was even in attendance at The National when word reached him via Grover that he had retained the Republican nomination for President in 1864. Lincoln’s son Tad was perhaps an even bigger fan of the theatre. Apparently, Grover gave the young man props and costumes to use at his own informal “stage” at the White House. The young Lincoln even broke through onto The National’s stage in the middle of a production, much to the amusement of the audience and his father. Lincoln’s love of the theatre did not meet with everyone’s approval. In fact, Secretary of War Edwin Stanton wished Lincoln would refrain from attending in the interest of his own safety. Fittingly, Lincoln was already keenly aware of his own mortality: according to some accounts, he even had a vision of his own death mere days before taking his fateful trip to Ford’s Theatre.
As April 14th, 1865 approached, the President was presented with two choices: attend a production of Aladdin and the Wonderful Lamp at The National Theatre, or take in the British comedy Our American Cousin at Ford’s. Lincoln at first intended to go to The National, hoping General Ulysses S. Grant and his wife would join him there. Lincoln’s wife Mary Todd, on the other hand, wanted to go to Ford’s, and when it became clear the Grants would not be joining them, her preference won the day. While the Lincolns were enjoying a final carriage ride around the city, Booth was setting his plans in motion. He was already intimately familiar with Ford’s Theatre, having performed there several times and familiarized himself with the house procedures. After meeting with his co-conspirators, who were charged with killing Vice President Andrew Johnson and Secretary of State William Seward the same night, Booth waited for the right moment to sneak into Ford’s and wait. Being familiar with Our American Cousin, Booth surmised that the best time to fire the fatal shot and flee would be during a big laugh. After the Lincolns had arrived late and taken their seats to thunderous applause, Booth waited for the right moment, then snuck into the box and pulled the trigger when the laughter was at its loudest. As pandemonium ensued, Booth leapt from the box to the stage, injuring his leg. According to his subsequent diary entry, he shouted “sic semper tyrannis” – Latin for “ever thus to tyrants” – as he fled. Lincoln, meanwhile, was taken to a boarding house across the street.
News of the assassination traveled quickly to The National Theatre. C.D. Hess, Leonard Grover’s business partner, stopped the production of Aladdin and broke the news to young Tad Lincoln. The president, meanwhile, died at the boarding house early the next day, plunging the city, and much of the nation, into a period of mourning. Grover, who was in New York at the time, received word of Lincoln’s death from Hess, who remarked (somewhat crassly) that he was glad Lincoln wasn’t shot in their own theatre. Indeed, the event was so traumatic that some even threatened to burn Ford’s Theatre down out of anger.
The theatre played a unique role in the lives of Lincoln and Booth long before their fateful encounter. It has also ensured that Lincoln’s assassination remains at the forefront of the American consciousness. Indeed, after being threatened with total destruction, Ford’s Theatre has dedicated much of its institutional life to documenting and recounting the night’s events. The assassination has also become the fodder for subsequent plays and musicals. Two of the most notable are Suzan-Lori Parks’s Topdog/Underdog, a show about two Black brothers forced to reenact the key roles in Lincoln’s assassination, and Stephen Sondheim’s musical Assassins, which features several killers and would-be killers of presidents lamenting the lives that brought them to the point of murder. To think, it could have been quite different if Lincoln really had chosen to spend a night at The National instead.
From his storied upbringing in a log cabin to the enormous memorial that graces the National Mall, President Lincoln has always been a larger-than-life figure. John Wilkes Booth, meanwhile, is almost a pantomime villain, as evidenced by some of the depictions listed above. The story of their lives are interspersed with tidbits which seem to be taken straight from a storybook: Lincoln’s premonitions about his death, Booth’s reference to Julius Caesar, Lincoln’s special love of the theatre coming back to haunt him, Booth’s hatred so fierce it apparently colored his performance in The Marble Heart. These stories have been built on in numerous theatre, film, and television adaptations, making the assassination every bit as much an American myth (a story that tells a distinctive truth about America) as a historical event. But what if Lincoln had never gone to Ford’s that night?
Before embarking on this alternative history, consider what you know about Lincoln and Booth and take a look at the facts we have thanks to information from two fellow D.C. institutions: the extensive exhibit at Ford’s Theatre and this transcript of a Shakespeare Unlimited episode on the Booth family, courtesy of the Folger Shakespeare Library. Then, think about what would have happened if the President and Mrs. Lincoln had chosen to join their son at The National that evening. Based on what you know, answer the following questions:
- Considering how well Booth knew local theatres and Lincoln’s habits, would he simply have adjusted his plans and committed the act at The National instead?
- If Lincoln had survived an unsuccessful attempt on his life, would his future at theatre changed at all? Would he even still be able to go?
- If Lincoln had died at The National, what might that have done to the institution? Would it have tried to make do with that history as Ford’s has done?
“The Actor and the Assassin: Edwin and John Wilkes Booth.” Shakespeare Unlimited. Folger Shakespeare Library, https://www.folger.edu/shakespeare-unlimited/edwin-john-wilkes-booth, accessed 16 March, 2021.
Bogar, Thomas A. American Presidents Attend the Theatre: The Playgoing Experience of Each Chief Executive. Jefferson, N.C.: McFarland & Co., 2006.
Goodwin, Doris Kearns. “The Night Abraham Lincoln Was Assassinated.” Smithsonian Magazine Online. Smithsonian Institution, 8 April, 2015, https://www.smithsonianmag.com/history/abraham-lincoln-team-of-rivals-180954850/?page=1.
Lee, Douglas Bennett, Roger L. Meersman, and Donn B. Murphy. Stage for a Nation: The National Theatre, 150 Years. Lanham, MD: University Press of America, 1985.
O’Brien, William P. “Ford’s Theatre and the White House.” White House History no. 30 (2011): 22-33.