Today, we associate the name John Wilkes Booth with Ford’s Theatre because he assassinated President Abraham Lincoln there on April 14, 1865. But playbills with Booth’s name on them are reminders that he was already associated with the theatre.
Visitors to the Ford’s Theatre Museum can see a reproduction of the playbill for The Apostate in the exhibit on the assassination and can read about Booth’s appearance in The Marble Heart in another portion of the galleries.
At age 26, John Wilkes Booth already was well-known when he assassinated Lincoln. He hailed from a prominent acting family. So April 14, 1865, was not his first appearance at Ford’s Theatre—nor even the first time he and Lincoln met there.
As the theatre’s proprietor, John T. Ford wanted it to be one of Washington, D.C.,’s best theatres. After a disastrous fire, Ford renovated the building in February and reopened on August 27, 1863, immediately seeking out the nation’s most popular actors. Just over two months later, John Wilkes Booth took the stage.
Ford arranged for Booth to star in The Marble Heart from November 2 through November 15, 1863. Lincoln attended the November 9 performance. A lover of the theatre, Lincoln visited Ford’s repeatedly throughout his presidency, including attending the following performances:
- May 28, 1862—Musical Concert
- October 30, 1863—Fanchon, the Cricket
- November 9, 1863—The Marble Heart
- December 14, 1863—Henry IV
- December 15, 1863—Henry IV
- December 17, 1863—Shakespeare's The Merry Wives of Windsor
- April 8, 1864—Shakespeare's King Lear
- June 19, 1864—Treasury Ball and Concert
- April 14, 1865—Our American Cousin
A famous story stems from their encounter at the theatre (and can be found in the museum). According to an account by Lincoln’s sister-in-law, Mrs. Ben Hardin Helm, Booth seemed particularly antagonistic towards Lincoln as he performed. So heated were his glares that when his lines included threats, Mrs. Helm told the president, “Mr. Lincoln, he looks as if he meant that for you.” Lincoln replied, “He does look pretty sharp at me, doesn’t he?”
As Mrs. Helm’s niece wrote these words based on her aunt’s reminiscences—often not perfectly remembered—some skepticism must factor into the authenticity of this tale. But its dramatic foreshadowing of future events encourages us to accept it for its theatricality, if not for its veracity.
Booth and Lincoln did not meet again until the night of Lincoln’s assassination. Booth continued his acting career over the next year and a half, returning to Ford’s to appear in The Apostate—that performance, on March 28, 1865, was his last at Ford’s.
In the time between Booth’s two performances at Ford’s, his hatred of Lincoln intensified, exploding in a promise of murder after he had attended a speech Lincoln gave from the White House balcony on April 11, 1865. Disgusted by the president’s call for limited African-American suffrage, Booth declared, “That is the last speech he will ever make.” And just days later, he followed through on that threat.
While John Wilkes Booth was a known entity prior to the murder of Abraham Lincoln, Booth’s persona as the actor quickly gave way to that of the assassin. A performer to the end, even as he made his escape, Booth saw himself in the role of the Confederacy’s avenger. Booth’s actions at Ford’s Theatre on April 14, 1865, propelled him further into the national spotlight and into the history books.
Anna Snyder is former Digital Public History Intern at Ford’s Theatre. She is a graduate of American University’s Public History program.