Here at Ford’s Theatre, visitors sometimes encounter people who look like they belong in another century. Several National Park Service rangers and volunteers from time to time take on the roles of individuals who lived through the assassination of President Abraham Lincoln in 1865.
I spoke with Michael Robinson, a National Park Service volunteer, who has become a favorite of our visitors for his portrayal of 1860s Washington City Metropolitan Police Chief A.C. Richards.
David McKenzie: How did you choose A.C. Richards?
Mike Robinson: He was a Wide Awake in the election of 1860 and a radical Republican after the war; a perfect character to interpret 19th-century Washington. Richards was also largely unknown, and so would be less controversial than other historic figures. Thus was born "The Chief".
McKenzie: How long have you been interpreting as “The Chief?”
Robinson: I have been at Ford's since 2005. Before that I was a costumed interpreter at Mount Vernon. I found that the costume gave the visitor a better context to interpret history, so I wanted to explore those opportunities at Ford's. Ranger Ricca Sarson, the Park Service volunteer coordinator at Ford’s at the time, was very encouraging.
McKenzie: How did you research and develop your character?
Robinson: The National Park Service has an incredible research library in which I found a short biography of Almarin C. Richards who was superintendent of Metropolitan Police from 1864 to 1878. He was present in Ford's at the time of the assassination. I found a wealth of information including Richards’ correspondence with Lewis Weichmann, a material witness during the trial of the conspirators, about The Chief's role in the investigation following the assassination.
McKenzie: Has your portrayal of The Chief changed over time?
Robinson: I have continued to do research and the character has become more nuanced. Recently, I started working with my grandson, Ray, who portrays "Peanuts John,” the boy who held John Wilkes Booth's horse [in the back alley] the night of Lincoln’s assassination. We also have extensively researched that character, giving Ray a close-up view of history.
McKenzie: When can visitors see The Chief on site?
Robinson: The Chief is usually at Ford's on Mondays from 10:30 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. Some visitors, including adults, leave with the impression that they have talked to an eye witness to the assassination, most play along with the story. My goal is to present our visitors with an accurate view of the story in the context of the greatest trial in our nation’s history.
McKenzie: How have visitors responded to your character? What are some of the most interesting questions you’ve received?
Robinson: On occasion I also have questions relating to the present. The most interesting question was from a 10-year-old boy. He had obviously been watching a lot of old historic films and asked if in The Chief's time everything was in black and white.
David McKenzie is Associate Director for Interpretive Resources at Ford’s Theatre and was the project manager for Remembering Lincoln. He also is a History Ph.D. candidate at George Mason University, studying 19th-century U.S. and Latin American history, as well as digital history. He previously worked at the Jewish Historical Society of Greater Washington, The Design Minds, Inc., and at the Alamo. Follow him on Twitter @dpmckenzie.