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Investigate A Historic Murder Case

Friday, August 15, 2008

The date is April 14, 1865, and Washington is in a state of panic. President Abraham Lincoln has just been assassinated while attending a play, and the murderer, John Wilkes Booth, is on the loose.

What if you could play detective on that horrible, historic night? That's the aim of a new walking tour that starts at the scene of the crime: Ford's Theatre. Washington actor Kip Pierson plays police detective James McDevitt, who was on duty the night of the assassination. With him, a group of about 40 people walks the streets and alleyways around the theater looking for clues, just as the investigators would have done as they tried to find Booth and figure out if the murder was part of a larger conspiracy.

Pierson leads the group around the back of the theater building to what is now an alley. The tour-takers are told that a boy who sold peanuts was ordered to stand there and hold a horse for Booth. When the killer came running out of the theater, he grabbed the horse and went galloping into the night.

Kids on a recent tour were given "clues," envelopes that contain historically accurate statements made by 16 people the police interviewed in the 24 hours after the assassination. At certain points in the tour, Pierson reads the clues aloud.

From there the group continues to walk in the direction that the horse most likely headed, stopping at hotels that Booth was known to frequent. Washington is a city with history on every corner, but it is still eerie to walk by Ninth and F streets NW and realize that on that night it would have been crawling with frantic police officers panicked that the attack was part of a larger effort to restart the Civil War. Nearby, the telegraph office would be buzzing with messages about the possible whereabouts of Booth.

Another stop is where the Kirkwood House once stood. The hotel had an important guest that night, Vice President Andrew Johnson, who was staying there while looking for a home in Washington. Police, worried that Johnson's life might be in danger, rushed to the hotel only to find that the soon-to-be 17th president had slept through the evening undisturbed.

However, that appears not to have been the plan. A friend of Booth's was checked into the room directly above Johnson's. The man had a gun and a hunting knife ready, but according to facts and theories pieced together by historians, he lost his nerve and was unable to assassinate Johnson.

The walk ends outside the White House, where Pierson rounds out the details of the crime, recounting who was found guilty, including Mary Surratt, the first woman to be executed by the federal government.

It wasn't just about killing the president, Pierson says. "It was to bring down the government in the very hour of its triumph."

"It was, for all modern-day purposes, the first 9/11."

-- Amy Orndorff

WHAT ELSE DO I NEED TO KNOW? The walk takes about an hour and a half and is entirely outdoors; good walking shoes and a bottle of water are essential. Also, the tours fill up quickly, so register ahead of time. The remaining tours for this season are Wednesday and Aug. 27 at 7 p.m. Sept. 13 through Oct. 25 tours will be held each Saturday morning at 10.

HOW MUCH DOES IT COST?$12 per person.

WHERE CAN I GET MORE INFORMATION? Visit http://www.fords.org, or call 202-638-2367 (tickets cannot be ordered online).

IF YOU HAVE MORE TIME: Normally we'd say visit Ford's Theatre, but it's closed for renovations until February. Instead, visit honest Abe at the Lincoln Memorial by walking west along Pennsylvania Avenue and then south along 17th Street until you reach the Mall, about a mile away. You can also read one of the books that the tour is based on, "American Brutus: John Wilkes Booth and the Lincoln Conspiracies" by Michael W. Kauffman.

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