One hundred and fifty years ago this week, an embittered Maryland-born actor, frustrated over Robert E. Lee's recent surrender to Ulysses S. Grant at Appomattox Court House, Va., and determined to avenge the Confederate cause, shot a bullet into the head of President Abraham Lincoln.
April 14, 1865 — Good Friday — was one of the darkest days in American history. The events of that evening at Washington's Ford's Theatre, as joy over the Union's victory was overwhelmed by grief over Lincoln's shooting and uncertainty over the country's fate, continue to grip the American imagination. And nowhere is that more clear than in our continuing fascination with our 16th president.
"Abraham Lincoln will always remain our most compelling president," says documentary filmmaker Ken Burns, whose nine-part PBS series, "The Civil War," helped generate renewed interest in the war and its participants. "I think that Lincoln and his [invoking] the 'better angels of our nature' draws us to our better selves. We're drawn to Lincoln because he does remind us of the best in us."
The Baltimore-Washington area played a central role in the events of April 1865. Lincoln, besides governing for more than four years out of Washington, traveled through Baltimore on his way to his first inauguration (and was the target of a foiled assassination plot at the time, many historians believe). His eventual assassin, John Wilkes Booth, was born in Bel Air. After he shot Lincoln, Booth escaped on a route that took him through Southern Maryland. And when the president's body made its long journey back to his home in Illinois, Baltimore was the first city to hold a public funeral service.
Over the next week, commemorations marking the sesquicentennial of Lincoln's assassination will be held throughout the area. Here are some highlights:
B&O Railroad Museum
In April 1865, when the funeral train carrying the bodies of Lincoln and his son, Willie (who had died in 1862) undertook its slow, meandering journey from Washington to Springfield, Ill., it made its first public stop in Baltimore. There, some 10,000 people filed past the president's open coffin during the 90 minutes it was on display inside the Merchants Exchange building.
Next weekend, the grandeur and solemnity of that occasion will be replicated at the B&O Railroad Museum. Scores of civilian and military re-enactors will be on hand to re-create the funeral cortege, complete with an 1863 locomotive decorated just as the funeral train was and a reproduction coffin on view in the museum's roundhouse.
"The audience will be invited to view the 'remains' of the martyred president — they'll become part of the re-enactment, which I think is kind of neat," says local Civil War historian Daniel C. Toomey, guest curator for the commemoration.
In 1865, Toomey noted, the train from Washington pulled into the B&O Railroad's Camden Station, which is now home to the Sports Legends Museum at Camden Yards. And the Royal Farms Arena now stands roughly where the Merchants Exchange once stood.
"We can't be at Camden Station, and the Merchants Exchange no longer exists. So yeah, we're taking a bit of poetic license," Toomey concedes. Still, he stresses, the re-created cortege will be remarkably similar to what mourners saw when the train stopped in Baltimore on April 21, 1865.
An honor guard of re-enactors, dressed in the same light blue coats and pants as their 19th-century forebears, will accompany the train. The Federal City Brass Band will play the same music heard that day, using period instruments. An exact replica of Lincoln's coffin will be on display, with a mannequin of the president lying inside.
"We're trying to give people the actual experience," Toomey says. "We're only about two days and 10 blocks off of actual history."
In addition, actor Fritz Klein, who has made a career portraying Abraham Lincoln, will be at the museum April 21. He will deliver a free hourlong presentation, divided into thirds — the first, delivering a speech as Lincoln; the second, answering questions as Lincoln; and the third, answering questions as himself.
"President Abraham Lincoln — The Final Journey" is set for 1 p.m. April 21 at the museum.
The Lincoln Train Commemorations are set for 11:30 a.m. Saturday and next Sunday at the B&O Railroad Museum, 901 W. Pratt St. Tickets are $12-$18. Information: 410-752-2490 or borail.org.
At Ford's Theatre in Washington, where Lincoln was shot by Booth, visitors will have an unprecedented opportunity to inhabit that fateful evening of April 14, 1865.
The theater itself, which went dark shortly after the assassination and did not reopen as a theater for more than a century, will be open for tours throughout the evening and into April 15, as will the Petersen House across the street, where Lincoln was carried after being shot and where he died at 7:22 a.m. the following morning.
People in period outfits will be milling about on 10th Street; living historians will be available to answer questions. Just as happened 150 years ago, the street outside Ford's will be a hub of activity well into the early morning.
"One hundred fifty years ago, everybody in Washington rushed to 10th Street," says Paul Tetreault, director of Ford's Theatre. "Obviously, we're not going to a do a re-enactment [of the assassination], but we're going to take people right up to that moment. …Most people don't get to go through the theater and the Petersen House and a time when it became infamous."
In addition, a collection of artifacts, including Booth's deringer pistol, Lincoln's coat and the contents of his pockets, a playbill from the evening's performance and a bloodied sleeve cuff from the costume worn by lead actress Laura Keane, have been brought together at Ford's for the first time since the assassination. "Silent Witnesses: Artifacts of the Lincoln Assassination" will remain on display at Ford's through May 25.
Tickets are required for the April 14-15 tours of Ford's and the Petersen House, and are available through the Ford's Theatre website.
"Now He Belongs to the Ages," a tribute featuring period music and excerpts from some of Lincoln's favorite plays and operas, as well as readings of the president's own words, is set for 9 p.m. Tuesday at Ford's. The tribute, which takes its name from Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton's lament upon Lincoln's passing, has long been sold out, but will be broadcast live to the nearby courtyard of the National Portrait Gallery, at 8th and F streets NW. The courtyard broadcast will be preceded, beginning at 6 p.m., with a screening of director Steven Spielberg's 2012 film, "Lincoln," starring Daniel Day-Lewis.
Ford's Theatre is located at 511 10th St. NW. Information: 202-347-4833 or fords.org.
'Our American Cousin'
One of the most famous plays practically no one's seen in scores of decades is coming to Fells Point this month, with the New Old Theater's staging of "Our American Cousin."
Yes, that play, the one that Lincoln chose to go see on April 14, 1865.
"It's something that many history buffs are curious about," says Steven Lampredi, actor/manager of New Old, which has been putting on modern stagings of old plays since 2004 in various places largely along the East Coast. "It is rarely performed; I sort of jokingly refer to it as America's lost play."
The comedic tale of an American rube let loose upon British society, "Our American Cousin" was quite a success in its time but has faded into obscurity — not only because of its connection to the assassination but because, some have contended, it's not all that good.
In a detailed synopsis of the play published on salon.com, writer Timothy Noah calls it "pretty terrible" and notes that even the original male lead, actor Joseph Jefferson, said it had "little literary merit." Lampredi, however, says such critics are being overly harsh.
"No one thinks of it as something like Shakespeare," he concedes, "but it's just really amusing. It examines the clash of two cultures, and it's funny."
Curious (or history-minded) Baltimoreans can find out for themselves when "Our American Cousin" is presented in the courtyard of the Robert Long House, 812 S. Ann St. Performances are set for 7:30 p.m. Wednesday and Thursday, 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday and 2 p.m. Saturday and next Sunday. Ticket prices vary from pay-what-you-can to $20. Information: newoldtheater.org.
One of the darkest chapters in American history can trace some of its roots back to Bel Air, where John Wilkes Booth, the son of famed actor Junius Brutus Booth, was born and spent some of his teen years in the family home, Tudor Hall.
Now a national historic site owned by Harford County, the 19th-century home, completed in 1852, will be one of the hosts for "Tudor Hall, the Booths of Maryland, and the Civil War," a symposium set for May 9. An impressive roster of authors and speakers has been assembled to address all aspects of the home and its legacy.
"I came up with a list of what I considered to be the ideal speakers, and I was hoping to get two or three of them," says Tom Fink, president of the Junius B. Booth Society, which operates Tudor Hall and is sponsoring the symposium. "But they all agreed to come. I was thrilled."
The list includes authors Terry Alford ("Fortune's Fool: The Biography of John Wilkes Booth"), Daniel J. Watermeier ("American Tragedian: The Life of Edwin Booth"), Jim Garrett ("The Lincoln Assassination: Where are They Now?"), Thomas A. Bogar ("Backstage at the Lincoln Assassination: The Untold Story of the Actors and Stagehands at Ford's Theatre") and David C. Keehn ("Knights of the Golden Circle: Secret Empire, Southern Secession, Civil War").
"We're bringing together some of the top scholars," Fink says, in order to paint a "complete picture" of Tudor Hall and the Booths — not one that focuses just on the family's most infamous member.
The symposium is set for 8 a.m. to 4:45 p.m. at the Bel Air Armory, 37 N. Main St. Following the symposium, Tudor Hall's first floor will be open to attendees until 7 p.m. Symposium tickets are $65-$75.
For the rest of the year, Tudor Hall will be open for tours at 1 p.m. and 2 p.m. today and April 26, May 17 and 31, June 14 and 28, July 12 and 26, Aug. 9 and 23, Sept. 13 and 27, Oct. 11 and 25 and Nov. 8. Tickets are $5. Some of the 2 p.m. tours will include talks by authors and historians. Information: 443-619-0008 or spiritsoftudorhall.blogspot.com.
Dr. Mudd House Museum
At the Southern Maryland home of Samuel Mudd, where John Wilkes Booth had his broken leg tended to after the assassination (an act that would cost Mudd nearly four years in a federal prison off the Florida coast), officials will be commemorating the assassination sesquicentennial with a series of events next weekend.
"Lincoln 150: On the Trail of the Assassin" will include performances of the play "The Assassin's Doctor," an encampment of Civil War re-enactors, speakers, book signings, walking tours of Zekiah Swamp (where Booth hid out after being treated by Mudd), and even an evening ghost tour.
Events are scheduled for 10 a.m.-7 p.m. Saturday and 11 a.m.-7 p.m. Sunday at the museum, 3725 Dr. Mudd Road in Waldorf, Charles County. Admission is $5 per car; house tours, if desired, are an additional $2-$8 (free for children under 6). Information: 1-800-766-3386 or drmudd.org.
Surratt House Museum
Even 150 years later, Mary Surratt's role in the Lincoln assassination plot remains controversial. Was she a largely innocent pawn — guilty, perhaps, of nothing more than trying to protect her son, John, and allowing Booth to hold meetings in her Washington boardinghouse? Or was she guilty of conspiracy, along with the others who were hanged alongside her for their part in Lincoln's murder and the conspiracy to kill other top Union officials?
At the Surratt House Museum in Clinton, Prince George's County, where she and her family lived from 1852 to 1864 — and where Booth retrieved weapons and supplies as he fled Washington after the assassination — officials vouch for the truth of neither side. "We take a middle-of-the-road approach," says director Laurie Verge.
Thus, perhaps, it is appropriate that the Surratt House is not as much a center of assassination commemorations as other venues such as Ford's Theatre and even Tudor Hall. The Surratt House has already hosted its big event for 2015, March's 16th annual Lincoln Assassination Conference, and its officials are content to let others grab what remains of the commemoration spotlight.
"We knew we couldn't compete with what they were doing, and we didn't want to compete with them," Verge says. "We decided we wanted to have little things tucked in around it."
To that end, the museum is continuing its popular "John Wilkes Booth Escape Route Tours," 12-hour bus rides that cover sites in Washington, Maryland and Virginia (7:15 a.m. Saturday and April 25 and May 2, $85). Officials have also scheduled a pair of free lectures: "The Civil War: Why the North Won and the South Lost" (4 p.m. June 6) and "The United States Colored Troops to the Rescue" (4 p.m. Aug. 8).
Not that the museum isn't benefiting from the renewed interest in Lincoln and all those associated with his assassination. Since the weather warmed up, visitors have been showing up "in droves," Verge says. While she hasn't totaled the number, she notes that sales in the gift shop are double what they were last year.
The Surratt House Museum is at 9118 Brandywine Road in Clinton. It is open for tours from 11 a.m. -3 p.m. Wednesday-Friday, noon-4 p.m. Saturday and Sunday. Admission is $1-$3 (free for children under 5). Information: 301-868-1121 or surrattmuseum.org.