Exploring the History of Ford’s Theatre, Part 1

Although Ford’s Theatre is famously known as a site of American tragedy, the original building on Lot 11 of Tenth Street Northwest was intended to serve a different purpose. In fact, the First Baptist Church of Washington was built here in 1833, under the leadership of Reverend Obadiah B. Brown, and the congregation remained on the site until 1859.

Ford's Theatre circa 1871.

John T. Ford, a successful theatre proprietor based in Baltimore, first attempted to bring high-quality theatre to Washington in 1856. However, Washington was still an emerging city in the 1850s, and John Ford found that a permanent theatre would not be economically sustainable.

In the 1860s, the Civil War changed the nation in a variety of ways, and the growth of Washington City was one of the lasting transformations. Soldiers, nurses and government clerks flocked to the city, and theatrical entrepreneurs like John Ford saw opportunities to provide entertainment to this new, young audience. Though some members of the First Baptist Church warned of a “dire fate for anyone who turned the former house of worship into a theatre,” Ford leased the space in December 1861.

Ford's Theatre was initially a baptist church.

There were indications that a dire fate might befall the theatre. In December 1862, stage lamps caused an inferno that completely gutted the building, destroying all of the renovations that Ford had incorporated to transform the church into the theatre. Undeterred, Ford rebuilt, and Ford’s New Theatre operated from August 1863 until April 14, 1865, the night of the Lincoln assassination.

After the assassination, the government overtook the Theatre. Guards were posted at the front doors to prevent looting or other forms of destruction, and the Ford brothers were sent to jail for more than thirty days, amidst fears that they were somehow connected to John Wilkes Booth’s murderous plot. The government returned the theatre to Ford following the trial and execution of Booth’s conspirators in July 1865. Immediately, Ford planned for a production of The Octoroon—the show originally scheduled for April 15— to open two days later.

John T. Ford was a great theatrical impresario of the 1800s, however, he completely missed the mark on what the assassination of the president had meant for so many, and failed to recognize the public’s need for commemoration in the place where it occurred.

Spontaneous personal memorials that include cards, photographs, and artwork left at sites of tragedy are a modern phenomenon. Although people of the 1860’s didn’t leave flowers in front of the theatre, they, too, saw the theatre as a sacred space.

The 1860s set of "Our American Cousin" at Ford's Theatre. Matthew Brady image. Courtesy National Park Service.

Much like the debate over how best to commemorate the September 11 attacks, or whether students should return to Newton’s Sandy Hook Elementary school, leading thinkers of 1865 offered input about what use of the theatre might best commemorate the assassination. Secretary of State William Seward suggested that the theatre become a religious hall; the Young Men’s Christian Association offered to purchase the theatre to create a memorial library about Lincoln.

Despite these suggestions, John T. Ford was determined to reopen the theatre as a working playhouse, but he cancelled the reopening performance on July 10 after receiving threats to burn down the theatre if the show continued. In an angry letter to the New York Herald, Ford wrote that the government “might as well confiscate New York Harbor because many meet death there by drowning.” The War Deparment’s takeover of Ford’s Theatre seems inevitable now, but there was no precedent in 1865.

Ford's Theatre and surrounding businesses draped in black following Lincoln's assassination. Signs advertising for The Octoroon can be seen nearby. National Park Service photo.

Though the generation that lived through the trauma of the Civil War and the Lincoln assassination has long passed away, we still struggle with what to do when everyday spaces become sites of tragedy. The history of places like Ford’s Theatre remind us that memory of tragedy endures, and we will always debate how best to commemorate places of great tragedy.

What happened to Ford’s following its government take-over in 1865? Keep an eye out for our Arcadia book on Ford’s Theatre.

Allison Hartley studied History and English at the University of Maryland, where she was editor of “The Winding Banister Review,” the Honors College Journal of Ideas and Creativity. She previously spent a year and a half volunteering with the National Park Service onsite at Ford’s Theatre.