The Homicide That Darkened American History

The Homicide That Darkened American History

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.

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