Today, when I tell someone that I work at Ford’s Theatre, the person instantly knows where I mean: the venue made famous (or infamous) in 1865, when John Wilkes Booth murdered President Abraham Lincoln there. But before the assassination, if I’d told you that I worked at Ford’s Theatre, you might have asked, “Which one?”
By 1865, John T. Ford’s venue on Tenth Street in Washington was but one of five holdings in his theatrical empire.
Ford, a native of Baltimore, had stumbled into the theatre business in the early 1850s, while running a small newspaper stand in Richmond, Virginia. In 1855, he partnered with two others—George Kunkel and Thomas Moxley—to operate theatres in Richmond, Baltimore and Washington. They also operated the National Theatre (which still operates in a newer building) for one year, from February 1856 to 1857.
Baltimore had brought the trio the greatest success. Before the Civil War, Washington was a relatively sleepy town, whereas Baltimore was the metropolitan hub of the Chesapeake region. Charles Dickens famously referred to the capital city as a “City of Magnificent Intentions”—intentions far from fulfilled during the 1850s, with 40,001 residents counted in the 1850 census. By contrast, Baltimore was then the country’s second-largest city, with a population of 169,054.
In Baltimore, Ford was primarily responsible for the Holliday Street Theatre. After the three men went their own ways in 1860, Ford would remain the manager and operator, eventually becoming full owner of that venue until 1878. The Holliday Street venue was established as Baltimore’s oldest theatre, and among the oldest in the United States, when Ford took over management. Holliday Street was constructed in 1794, then, after a fire (a tragically common occurrence in those days), rebuilt in 1813. The theatre was primarily notable as the location of the first public reading of a poem that would be set to music and become Francis Scott Key’s The Star Spangled Banner.
During the Civil War, Washington’s population boomed, and Ford decided to try opening a theatre in the city again. Although the former Baptist church he converted to a theatre burned in 1862, he reopened and made the theatre a presence in Washington’s cultural life until April 14, 1865.
Ford’s successes during that conflict were not limited to Washington, though. U.S. Army troops were a constant presence in Baltimore and needed entertainment. According to Thomas Bogar’s Backstage at the Lincoln Assassination, the Holliday Street Theatre set a new record for that city by hosting productions for 300 nights during 1861-62.
His success in Baltimore and Washington allowed Ford to open theatres in the U.S. Army-occupied city of Alexandria, Virginia, and in Cumberland, Maryland, then a center of industry and transportation in the western part of the state. For a time, he even rented and operated the Academy of Music in Philadelphia.
Both Abraham Lincoln’s murder on April 14, 1865, and the end of the Civil War helped end Ford’s ventures outside of his home base. Although Ford had largely left management of his Washington theatre to his brothers and was visiting Richmond at the time of the president’s murder, both he and his brothers spent a month in jail before finally being cleared of any involvement. He added Ford’s Grand Opera House to his portfolio six years after the assassination, in 1871, but except for forming a burlesque company to tour in the South, he confined his business to Baltimore. The Holliday Street Theatre burned in 1873, but Ford rebuilt, as he had done with his venture in Washington a decade before.
John T. Ford’s later success, though, never erased the association of Ford with his brief Washington venture in the public mind. In 1893, when the third floor of the former theatre collapsed, Ford made sure that everyone knew he was not responsible for the calamity.
Although Ford died the next year, his family continued to run Ford’s Grand Opera House through 1921. Recently, his descendants came to visit Washington’s Ford’s Theatre, with which most of us associate John T. Ford’s name today.
For further reading, Thomas Bogar’s Backstage at the Lincoln Assassination provides an overview of the characters involved. John Ford Sollers’s 1962 Stanford University doctoral dissertation provides further depth on the life of John T. Ford. Sollers was the grandson of John T. Ford.
David McKenzie is Digital Projects Manager in the Education Department at Ford’s Theatre. He also is currently a part-time History Ph.D. student at George Mason University, studying 19th-century U.S. and Latin American history, as well as digital history. Before coming to Ford’s in October 2013, he worked at the Jewish Historical Society of Greater Washington, The Design Minds, Inc. and the Alamo.