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Friday, October 28, 2016

WASHINGTON — Tuesday evening at Ford’s Theatre, a gala of haunting grandeur was guarded by a blinking police barricade. “It looks like a crime scene,” one city police officer observed. He had a point.

Across an arc of 150 years, memories of the homicide that darkened American history still run like a river to Tenth Street in northwest Washington, D.C. We know what took place in the crowded theater on April 14, 1865.

During a play, the president was shot in the head by John Wilkes Booth, a vengeful actor who leapt to the stage to make the most infamous exit ever. Beloved, victorious Abraham Lincoln never regained consciousness. His long, strong body kept breathing until he died the next morning in a little house across the street. He was 56.

The dates rhymed in time. On April 14, 2015, I attended a Lincoln-lovers-unite tribute echoing the spring night President and Mrs. Lincoln rode over to see a London comedy. Outside on April 14, 1865, city streets buzzed with news of the Civil War’s end with General Robert E. Lee’s surrender. Giddiness and fireworks mixed with festering Confederate fury, such as Booth’s. Lincoln was the war’s final casualty.

Before the present-day show, Ford’s lobby was brimming with a bit of everybody. Lincoln would have loved it. I asked a bright-eyed lad how old he was. Hudson, 11, told me he lives in New York, and that his father was the program director. He was about Tad Lincoln’s age on the day his doting father died. Tad, the youngest son, turned 12 on April 4, 1865. While we chatted, I waved to my favorite Lincoln author, Harold Holzer of New York.

Seated in the full house, I looked at the draped presidential box and braced for the pistol shot in the dark at roughly 10:15 p.m. Near me in the plush red seats was a Republican congressman, Chris Stewart of Utah; the civil rights icon Julian Bond; Eugene Robinson, a Pulitzer prize-winning columnist for The Washington Post; and best-selling Lincoln author, James Swanson, who goes by Jamie. He captured the thrilling terror of the federal manhunt for Booth, who was captured — but not alive. Four co-conspirators were hanged.

The man of the moment was Paul Tetreault, director of Ford’s, who wore his signature bow tie and shook a thousand hands, as Lincoln did. He made everyone feel at home, with a sense of togetherness.

First came Colin Powell onstage, a living embodiment of Lincoln’s decision to let there be Union “colored” troops for the first time. The general’s welcome gave way to readings and musical selections, including the heartbreakingly beautiful soprano solo from Faust, sung by Alyson Cambridge.

In performance, pieces of Lincoln’s wry, self-deprecating humor flashed by like his blue-gray eyes – his best feature in a face he often mocked as ugly. Humor was more than an endearing trait. It was what he needed to survive the war, he said.

Who knew Judy Collins, shimmering in her 70s, was coming? Blowing a kiss to the Lincolns’ empty box, she sang “Amazing Grace,” the meaning not lost on anyone. The words were written by a truly wretched slave ship captain trying to save his soul — like the nation not so long ago. Her other old American song, “Beautiful Dreamer,” seemed to conjure the Civil War president, but the truth is, Lincoln was also a shrewd pragmatist.

A handful of black schoolgirls recited the Gettysburg Address. Songs from a new musical, Freedom’s Song, were sung by the Ford’s cast. “Father, How Long?” seemed to say it all. Freedom’s journey is a long time coming.

Leave it to Walt Whitman’s elegiac poem, “When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d” and “The Battle Hymn of the Republic,” its rousing lyrics by Julia Ward Howe, to bring down the house.

No sound from the box. A moment of silence — and tears — half broken-hearted, half uplifted — fell over the time and place. Out on Tenth Street, a vigil began. Yulanda Burgess, who made her period dress, came from Detroit. A senior citizen, Andres Torres-Diaz, traveled from Ohio.

Wednesday, proclaimed a day of remembrance by President Obama, was the April day that Lincoln died — at 7:22 a.m. Bells tolled across the city.

To find out more about Jamie Stiehm and read features by other Creators writers and cartoonists, visit 

Lithograph of the Assassination of Abraham Lincoln. From left to right: Henry Rathbone, Clara Harris, Mary Todd Lincoln, Abraham Lincoln, and John Wilkes Booth. Via Wikicommons.

  • Dominick Vila

    Abe was, by far, one of the best Presidents this country ever had. Rest in peace.

    • The lucky one

      Well Dominick there is something we totally agree on, most likely the BEST president we ever had.

    • latebloomingrandma

      I don’t think anyone will ever knock Washington and Lincoln off their perch as the 2 greatest. presidents. Washington, because he started from scratch and displayed immense common sense, and Lincoln for saving the union from itself.

  • johninPCFL

    “States rights enthusiasts” and other teabaggers will no doubt be taking the day off today to celebrate.

    • Dave

      No, The Tea Party would like to have another President just like Lincoln. Why did obama wait so long to give the order to put the flags at half staff on Tuesday?Tuesday was the 150th anniversary of the assassination of Lincoln, for a president who used the Lincoln Bible when he was sworen in and built his campaign off of Lincoln, you would think that he would have been on top of that. He didn’t give the order until 10:00 in the morning to put the flags at half staff.One would think that he would have been all over that, since he is the first half black president who was able to benefit from what President Lincoln did for the black people.

  • TZToronto

    One overwhelmingly sad thing is that we’ll never know how things would have turned out had Booth not done what he did. This assumes , of course, that the assassination would not have happened without Booth. The rumours that have lasted for 150 years about conspiracy among some of Lincoln’s cabinet suggest that Lincoln’s demise was just amatter of time, but perhaps not. Would Reconstruction have been different? Would the wounds have healed to the point where North and South could have lived without finger pointing? We’ll never know. What we do know is that the divide that existed before and during the Civil War has not disappeared.

  • latebloomingrandma

    Our relatively young country has had an interesting history. After the revolution, there are only a few major events wherein the country changed forever. The assassination of Lincoln; stock market crash of 1929; bombing of Pearl Harbor; assassination of JFK; Sept 11, 2001. (Although–if the “election” of 2000, by the SCOTUS, if decided a different way, maybe we wouldn’t have had a 9/11). And perhaps the election of Obama is in there also. It seemed to pit so many Americans against one another when I thought it would bring us together. .

    • Dave

      What about the bombing in the parking garage of the world trade center in 1993? Just think about it, if the Clinton administration would have taken care of business then, we just might not have had the plans flown into the two buildings on 9-11-01. I would have liked to see the country come together after the first election of obama, but he went way to far to the left and separated the country instead of uniting the people