WASHINGTON – Beyond his famous words, the tangible artifacts President Abraham Lincoln left behind after his assassination were scattered for decades, kept in family collections and by the government and museums from Washington to Chicago.
Now for the first time since April 1865, curators have brought together most of the artifacts from the night the 16th president was shot at Ford’s Theatre just blocks from the White House. A new exhibition, “Silent Witnesses: Artifacts of the Lincoln Assassination,” running from next Monday to May 25 at the theater’s campus will give an unprecedented look at Lincoln’s death 150 years later.
The tiny Deringer pistol that delivered the fatal wound, a blood-stained flag and garments used to cradle Lincoln’s head and his coat and top hat offer an intimate look at a moment that changed history, said Ford’s Theatre curator Tracey Avant.
“There were real people behind these artifacts,” she said. “We'll never know what would have happened if he hadn’t been assassinated, but we know the impact he has left even with his live being cut short.”
Curators present the history in four acts to show how Lincoln’s final night transpired.
Act 1: A Night Out
Starting five blocks away from the theater at the National Museum of American History, visitors can see the black carriage that brought the president and Mary Todd Lincoln to Ford’s Theatre along with a young couple as their guests, Major Henry Rathbone and his fiancée Clara Harris. In those days, presidents provided their own transportation, and this was one of the Lincolns’ three carriages.
A playbill would have greeted the Lincoln party when they arrived, announcing the final night of the comedy “Our American Cousin.” Orchestra seats were $1, while private box seats sold for $6 and $10.
Act 2: The President’s Arrival
The Lincolns arrived late to Ford’s Theatre, and the performance had already begun. Actress and theater manager Laura Keene saw the first family and stopped the show, and the orchestra played “Hail to the Chief,” drawing cheers and applause.
A rarely seen violin and drum sticks from the theater’s musicians now recall that moment. Theater goers later said that Lincoln looked happier than he had looked in years.
Lincoln and his guests took their box seats, and the show resumed.
Act 3: The President is Shot
Not long after the start of Act 3, a well-known actor named John Wilkes Booth slipped into the presidential box. He carried a small Deringer pistol and fired at Lincoln’s head from just inches away.
When Rathbone tried to stop him, Booth slashed at the young Union officer with a large knife and jumped down to the stage before escaping.
A young doctor rushed to Lincoln’s aid, and Keene, the lead actress, brought water. Keene kept blood-stained fragments from her dress from when she cradled the president’s head in her lap. An American flag decorating the presidential box also was folded and used as a pillow for Lincoln’s head.
An Associated Press correspondent at the time, Lawrence Gobright, recovered the pistol in the theater box and turned it over to police.
Act 4: The Vigil
The wounded president was taken across the street to Petersen House as doctors tried to save his life. Outside, the public gathered for an all-night vigil until Lincoln’s death at 7:22 a.m. on April 15, 1865.
For the first time since that night, Lincoln’s blood-stained Brooks Brothers Great Coat is being reunited with Mary Todd Lincoln’s black velvet cloak that she wore by his side. Also on display are Lincoln’s top hat and the contents of his pockets: two pairs of glasses, cufflinks, pocket knife, leather wallet and a $5 Confederate note, perhaps from his recent trip to Richmond, Virginia.