The McDevitt Files: Exploring the Conspiracy with William Diggle

This summer we are interviewing each of the three guides who play Detective James McDevitt on our History on Foot walking tour. The tour Investigation: Detective McDevitt takes up to 40 visitors on an interactive journey through the facts and faces of the crime that changed American history and investigates whether Lincoln’s murder was part of a larger conspiracy.

James McDevitt is the name of a true-life 1860s detective who worked at the Metropolitan Police Department during the time of the Lincoln assassination and trial. We recently spoke with one of our guides, William Diggle, for a few behind-the-scenes insights about playing McDevitt on the streets of D.C.

William Diggle portrays true-life detective James McDevitt on the Ford's Theatre walking tour. Photo by Gary Erskine.

In Spring of 2012, William Diggle was performing the role of Thomas Jefferson at Ford’s in 1776 with another of our detective McDevitts, Matthew A. Anderson. Matthew would often lead a morning History on Foot tour and then immediately perform in 1776. “He and I would chat about the tours when he returned and they sounded like something I’d enjoy doing,” Diggle explained. “I told him to let the powers that be know that I would be interested if a spot came open.” In September 2012 a spot became available, and Diggle was invited to join the team.

Investigation: Detective McDevitt goes into extensive detail about the entire conspiracy surrounding the events of April 14, 1865. The tour explores not just what happened at Ford’s Theatre, but everything that happened throughout the city on the fateful night of Lincoln’s assassination. Not many people know the full story, and for Diggle, that is what makes being McDevitt so rewarding. “Seeing the looks on people’s faces when they realize the true extent of Booth’s plan to cripple the federal government makes me feel I’m sharing an important part of history with them. Occasionally, I get a young person who hangs on my every word and then asks insightful questions at the end of tour. Those are some of the most rewarding moments.”

Actors use photos and other evidence along the tour.

During the tour, McDevitt leads the group through various sites, starting at the historic Ford’s Theatre and following (on foot) the assassination conspiracy all the way to the White House. Diggle marvels at how much D.C. has changed since the 1800s. “[Before being McDevitt] I didn’t know that cows would graze on the national mall during the 1860s. It was such a different time.”

History on Foot is one of many walking tours in the district, however Diggle believes that it offers something that none of the others can. “This tour doesn’t just recite facts or tell anecdotes like many of the others. The scripted nature of the piece gives the narrative a solid beginning, middle and end, sharing tons of facts while telling an interesting story using historical photos and letters.”

Diggle also leads the Distance Learning version of Investigation: Detective McDevitt with the Ford’s Theatre Education Department. Distance Learning is a program that allows students to attend a virtual McDevitt tour without ever leaving their classrooms in states throughout the country. Diggle explains Distance Learning’s benefits saying, “Distance learning really distills the story down to its essence and shares a number of pictures from the time period. The slide show behind me is probably the coolest part.” You can find out more about Distance Learning on The Ford’s Theatre website.

History on Foot tours involve some audience participation. Those on the tours are recruited as deputies and share clues with McDevitt to uncover information about the conspiracy. The people who enjoy the tour the most are the ones that engage the most. The people Diggle likes to have on his tours best are “people who have a thirst for historical knowledge… and who walk quickly.”

The interactive/live aspect of the History on Foot tour makes each tour a little bit different. “At one point we had to wait 15 minutes at the corner of 14th and E Streets as a presidential motorcade went past. It slowed us down, but the people on the tour were really excited to get a glimpse of the limos.” You never know what can happen on the streets of downtown Washington, D.C.!

Diggle leads tours a couple times a week for both large and small groups. However, he does have a life outside of McDevitt. In his free time he likes to jog around the National Mall and along the river. But first and foremost, Diggle is a D.C. stage actor. He has worked at Ford’s many times over the years, and he keeps coming back for more. “Ford’s has a staff of great people and brings in awesome artists from outside D.C. I’m just happy to have the opportunity to do diverse work in a friendly and artistically open environment.”

Read more about Diggle's tour.

Alex Johnson is a former Ford’s Theatre Marketing and Communications Intern and a graduate of American University with a double major in Public Communication and Theatre Performance. Originally from Northern Virginia, Alex is an aspiring actress.