WASHINGTON - It may be one of the eeriest displays you'll find in the country. Surely, it's among the ghoulish travel attractions - creepy and moving at the same time. Yet people pass by and don't even notice.
A few weeks ago, I stood there transfixed as several hundred people kept moving on, unaware that they were a foot or two away from the dress coat President Abraham Lincoln wore the night he was assassinated.
There are a few reasons for this. First, Ford's Theatre, where the 16th president was assassinated - making it, still, the most well-known theater name in the United States - doesn't publicize the coat as something to come and see. Second, it's easy to overlook once you enter the theater's lobby; what you see is a large glass cylinder with Lincoln's picture, which is the rear of the display and something you'd expect to see in the lobby of the place where one of the most shocking events in American history occurred.
And when you walk around the cylinder, rather than pass on by, you still may not see what was called at the time a greatcoat, made for the president by Brooks Brothers with a lining with stitching showing a spread eagle and the words that sum up Lincoln's presidency: "One Country, One Destiny."
The coat doesn't stand out because it's black, and the lights of the lobby reflect off the protective, environmentally conditioned cylinder, making it look from a foot or two away as though nothing's inside.
But there is. Lincoln's coat will be at Ford's Theatre through July, when it will be replaced by a clearly labeled replica, as is the case at least every six months - an agreement between the National Park Service, which is responsible for the coat, and the Ford's Theatre Society. The limited showing of Lincoln's coat is the way the two groups balance public access with conservation.
Even with the preservation efforts, the coat is tattered. Over the decades when such relics were relatively unprotected, souvenir seekers stripped pieces from the left shoulder, directly under the place where a bullet from the derringer in John Wilkes Booth's hand lodged in the president's brain. Eventually, the left sleeve came apart from the rest of the coat, and what remains also sits in the case.
It's especially meaningful - and especially odd - to stand in front of Lincoln's coat at the 150th anniversary of the beginning of the Civil War, which was already brewing when he took office; seven Southern states had seceded just before Lincoln recited a single word of his inaugural oath.
You feel, as you peer through the glass, that the man himself could be standing there inside that coat.
And then, when you continue to focus on the material around the neck and the tight, handsome weave down the side, you see it and it is unmistakable. You are looking at a discoloration, plain as day. Spots here, driplike patterns there. You are looking at blood. President Lincoln's blood.
Ford's Theatre is one of the capital's most popular places, with about a million visitors a year. At night, it presents a mix of works about the Lincoln era and contemporary theater pieces (the Tony-Award winning musical Parade opens the season in September). During the day, the place is abuzz with tourists and other visitors.
They come to the national historic site, where admission is free but everyone must have a timed ticket (there's a handling charge for advance reservations), to see the theater and the small museum beneath it. The museum traces Lincoln's presidency and is loaded with cool displays and fun facts ("He does look pretty sharp at me, doesn't he?" Lincoln said after a performance in which Booth snarled at him two years before the murder).
Genuine items from that fateful night, in addition to Lincoln's coat and the derringer Booth used, include the theater's facade, a few pieces of furniture, and fascinating artifacts in the museum. Everything else is a replica in an interior that has been rebuilt, largely from pictures taken by employees of Mathew Brady's historic photography studio, who fortunately swept in the day after the assassination, while everyone was still in shock, to document the scene.
The night before - April 14, 1865 - the Lincolns chose to go to the theater, which was the way the president, a frequent theatergoer and lover of Shakespeare, relaxed and escaped his onerous office for a few hours.
The performance of Tom Taylor's popular comedy Our American Cousin - about a rough-around-the-edges American who comes to foppish Britain to claim his estate - had reached the second scene in Act 3, the last big laugh line in the play. As the audience of 1,700 roared and, according to Park Service rangers, stomped their feet, Booth burst into the president's box on the right side of the audience and shot him. Booth then jumped onto the stage, yelled, "Thus always to tyrants!" in Latin, and fled.
Visitors generally start at the museum, then head to the theater. But because it's a working theater with rehearsals and matinees, tours occasionally have to stick to the museum. When they don't, park rangers give frequent talks about the fateful performance and its aftermath. Sometimes, a two-actor, half-hour show called One Destiny, covering the same material, is staged.
Across 10th Street is the Petersen House, where a handful of Union soldiers carried the wounded president and where he died at 7:22 the next morning. It's a worthwhile crossing for visitors, who can use their Ford's Theatre tickets to see three rooms, including the one where Lincoln took his last breath. But a restoration project to bolster the floors is in its last stages, and the building has been closed this year. It will reopen this summer, the Park Service says, but there is no firm date.
I stayed around Ford's Theatre to take one of the $15 neighborhood walking tours called "History on Foot" that the theater offers on certain evenings. The tours are led by an actor in costume portraying a character from the Civil War era - in my tour, Detective James McDevitt, who walks to many sites to discover the conspiracy behind Lincoln's assassination.
About 20 of us were on the two-hour tour, in which actor Michael Feldsher portrays the detective, a very modern amplification device attached around his waist and linked to the microphone strapped to a headpiece. The amiable Feldsher started off, outside the theater, by telling us we would have to decide who was involved in this conspiracy - if there was one. (There was, but to what degree and who was really involved, as opposed to convicted, is a discussion that continues today.)
It was a brisk tour with many references to passing vehicles' being carriages and - as such historic tours sometimes go - an ending in which Feldsher had to jump out of his character to deliver the actual historic denouement.
We visited the sites of old hotels and boardinghouses, an alley where Booth jumped on a horse to escape, and the spot where Secretary of State William Seward was brutally stabbed that same night.
We got a sense of what Washington was like that night: a city jubilant that war was ending after four years, but a city with little security, where Confederate sympathizers could easily plan revenge. As night fell, we ended up across from the White House, which was bathed in light. This is where President and Mrs. Lincoln set out for their night at Ford's Theatre. She would return, though not for long. He would never come back.
Ford's Theatre, at 511 10th St. NW in Washington, is open for visits beginning at 9 a.m. daily (except Thanksgiving Day and Christmas Day). Final entry into the museum is at
4 p.m.; final entry into the theater is at 4:30. Because Ford's Theatre is a working professional theater, it and the museum will be closed to visitors during rehearsals, set load-ins, and matinee performances.
Tickets. Daytime admission to the theater and museum is free, but advance individual tickets cost $2.50. A limited number of free same-day tickets are available at the Ford's Theatre Box Office beginning at 8:30 a.m., on a first-come, first-served basis.
Walking tours. The theater is presenting a "History on Foot" walking tour this summer. "Investigation: Detective McDevitt" will be offered June through August on Wednesdays, Fridays, and Saturdays at 6:45 p.m., plus July 2 at 10:15 a.m. and 6:45 p.m., and July 3 at 6:45 p.m. Tickets for the 1.4-mile, 90-minute tour cost $15 and are available through Ticketmaster at 1-800-551-7328 or by visiting www.fords.org.
Information. For information about touring the theater and museum, seeing a performance, or joining an evening walking tour, call 202-347-4833 or go to www.fords.org.
- Howard ShapiroEndText