Va. Family Donates Relic to Ford's Theatre

The chair matches two shown in a newspaper illustration from the period.
The chair matches two shown in a newspaper illustration from the period. (Frank Leslie's Illustrated Newspaper)
By Petula Dvorak
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, December 12, 2005

Inside the box at Ford's Theatre where President Abraham Lincoln was assassinated, most of the furnishings are carefully chosen replicas: the heavy gold drapes and tassels, the red, gold and white floral carpet, the presidential rocker.

But last week, the National Park Service got hold of the real thing. A carved-back, cane-seat parlor chair that was in the presidential box the night Lincoln was shot by actor John Wilkes Booth -- perhaps the one Mary Todd Lincoln was sitting in -- was donated to the government by a Virginia family that had kept the artifact for 140 years.

"This is a fabulous thing we've been given. We're very excited about it," said Gloria Swift, the Park Service's curator for Ford's Theatre.

After the assassination darkened the theater in 1865, the government bought the structure on 10th Street NW and turned it into a three-story office building. One of the workers dismantling the theater claimed that his boss had told him to take anything he wanted out of the presidential box. He removed the parlor chair and gave it to the Virginia family, where it was handed down for generations, Swift said.

The family, which Swift said has asked to remain anonymous, tried to sell the chair to the Park Service in the 1950s, when the theater box was being reconditioned as a historic site. But the agency didn't have the cash to buy it and made a replica instead, Swift said.

The current matriarch of the family told the Park Service recently that ownership of the chair was weighing on her.

"All her friends told her she is crazy, that she should sell it on eBay," Swift said. "But she said that giving it to us felt like the right thing to do."

Historians checked the chair for authenticity; the age, markings, style, material and documentation all checked out. And it perfectly matches the chair that Mary Lincoln is sitting on, as well as one empty chair, in a sketch of the assassination in Frank Leslie's Illustrated Newspaper, the period's paper of record.

The chair was put back in the box last week and can be viewed from behind plexiglass on tours of the theater or during performances. It was reunited with two other authentic pieces from that night -- a tufted settee and a portrait of George Washington.

The crown jewel of that tableau, however, remains out of reach for Swift.

"We'd love to have the rocker that President Lincoln was sitting in," she said, sighing. That chair, seized as evidence by the U.S. War Department for the conspirators' trials, was returned in 1921 to the family who owned the theater, then sold in an auction to Henry Ford (who is no relation to the theater Fords).

It remains in the Henry Ford Museum in Dearborn, Mich.

"Our replica is pretty good, though," Swift said.

© 2005 The Washington Post Company