Most people associate Ford’s Theatre with the assassination of President Abraham Lincoln in 1865, but the book Images of America: Ford’s Theatre highlights the site’s lengthy history, including the many tragedies it has seen.
John T. Ford purchased the building, previously a church, and transformed it into a theatre. Not long after the transformation, a devastating fire in December 1862 nearly destroyed his hopes for success. He rebuilt the structure on an even grander scale and opened to rave reviews among Washington City’s elite.
Unfortunately, misfortune struck again on April 14, 1865. Actor John Wilkes Booth not only murdered the president, but he also rang the death knell of the theatre itself. Although Ford wished to continue his business, the public pressured him into closing. He eventually sold the building to the federal government. Live productions would not appear on the Ford’s Theatre stage for another 103 years.
Unsure about what to do with this now ill-famed building, the government gutted the structure and turned it into offices. The first two floors housed veterans’ pension records and the third became an Army medical museum. But the peace was only temporary, and before long, disaster occurred once more.
The clerks working in the pension offices often expressed concern regarding the building’s structural integrity. In 1887, the Pension Bureau hired a new chief, Colonel Fred C. Ainsworth. Having already gained his employees’ disfavor by demanding higher standards and longer hours, Ainsworth saw an opportunity to ease the workers’ dissatisfaction. During the next couple of years he updated some of the building’s utilities, such as the heating and plumbing. While these renovations improved working conditions, they did not make the building safer. Then in 1893, he began a construction project to install an electric light plant. To accomplish this, crews needed to excavate 12 feet in the basement. These plans raised further anxiety amidst the clerks working there, and for good reason. On Friday, June 9, 1893, at 9:30 a.m., an internal portion of the building collapsed.
A supporting pier in the basement gave way and brought a 40-foot section from all three floors plunging to the ground. Twenty two clerks died and 65 more were injured. Almost immediately, the public demanded answers and retribution.
A coroner’s inquest sought to determine who, if anyone, was criminally responsible. Infuriated by the loss of friends and family and their own brush with death, many of the surviving employees blamed Colonel Ainsworth. They claimed he ignored their safety concerns and deserved to be punished. The jurors found Ainsworth, the contractor and several others guilty of criminal negligence, but the district attorney chose not to prosecute the men. He believed that passion, rather than reason, drove the verdict. Instead, Congress voted to pay $5,000 to the families of the deceased workers and between $50 and $5,000 for the wounded.
After yet another catastrophe occurred in the building still known as “Ford’s Theatre,” John T. Ford returned to the spotlight. He argued that the original construction of his edifice was sturdy and attempted to absolve his name of any guilt.
In 1894, although the building had been repaired from the previous year’s destruction, a congressionally appointed board found the former theatre unsafe for human use. The government used it for records storage until the 1930s.
In the aftermath of this devastation, people started to wonder if Ford’s Theatre was cursed. How could one building bear such unceasing misfortune? No proof exists to suggest that anyone or anything haunts this space, but it is clear that Ford’s Theatre has endured many tragedies throughout its years. Perhaps it is fitting that the place that upholds Lincoln’s legacy should have experienced such an onslaught of hardships, reflecting the many struggles Lincoln himself overcame during his life and presidency. Both the building and the man prevailed despite overwhelming burdens and emerged strong enough to persevere for years to come.
For more information, read Dave Taylor’s blog about the collapse.
Anna Snyder is the Digital Public History Intern at Ford’s Theatre. She is a first-year graduate student in American University’s Public History program.