Every so often, an actor on the stage at Ford's Theatre suddenly feels a presence behind him. Or looks up at the Presidential Box and sees curtains twitch or a shadowy outline of someone who should not be there.
The legendary ghosts of Abraham Lincoln and especially John Wilkes Booth may well be if not appeased at least pleased by the Ford's Theatre Museum that reopened last week after two years of remodeling and exhibit and curatorial work.
For the first time, the museum tries to answer the question, "Why did John Wilkes Booth shoot Lincoln?" "The new museum tells the story of the assassination, the events which led up to it, and the events which came after," said James M. Ridenour, National Park Service director, at the reopening. "After all, the assassination did take place here, and Lincoln's sudden death did have a dramatic and profound effect on the future of this country."
The museum's 1968 installation, respecting the sensibilities arising from the Kennedy assassinations, focused more on Lincoln's life than on his death. "Nowhere in the museum was the story of Lincoln's last hours told," Ridenour said. But visitors -- 800,000 a year to the theater performances and tours -- wanted to know more specifically about the events in the theater 125 years ago on April 14, a great pivot point in the history of the United States.
Ghosts are not amenable to being encased and presented in the newly remodeled Ford's Theatre Museum nor can the precise times of their performances be reliably booked. But the shades of the past are otherwise well evoked by more than 400 original artifacts in the new glass exhibit cases built at the National Park Service Design Center at Harpers Ferry. Some of the 6,700 objects in storage will appear in later exhibits.
John Wilkes Booth (no relation to the Chronicler) is here portrayed as a handsome, swashbuckling actor. The memorabilia includes a poster for the play "Apostate" -- his last performance, by coincidence, was on March 18, 1865, at Ford's Theatre; and photographs of five young women, including his fiancee, found in his pocket at his death. The exhibit also shows him as a man with a passion to live the heroic role and as a fervent Southern patriot who blamed Lincoln for initiating the war. He was not alone. "The Temper of the Times," a slide show, describes the way some blamed Lincoln for the burning and sacking of the villages and cities of the Confederate states, fatherless children on both sides and destruction of life and livelihoods.
Political cartoons of the era help to explain the the nation's ambiguous feelings about Lincoln during his first election campaign in 1860. In one Lincoln, who was 6 feet 4 inches tall, is shown with elongated legs leaping over his opponents at a run. Another pokes fun at him for sneaking into town before his first inauguration in 1861 -- threats had been made even then to assassinate him, and he switched trains.
The exhibit relates the abortive conspiracy to kidnap Lincoln and hold him hostage until Confederate prisoners were freed. After Gen. Robert E. Lee surrendered on April 9, 1865, Booth decided that only Lincoln's death would avenge the deaths and destruction. In his diary, shown in the exhibit, he wrote, "Our country owed all her troubles to him, and God simply made me the instrument of His punishment."
In one of the many coincidences attending the tragedy, Booth was at the theater that April afternoon when the first report came that Lincoln would attend the performance of "Our American Cousin" that night.
Whatever Booth's motives, however deluded and confused he might have been, most agree that he strode into the Presidential Box, shot Lincoln and daringly jumped to the stage shouting, "Sic Semper Tyrannis" ("thus shall it ever be for tyrants"), the state motto of Virginia.
Booth escaped on horseback. He was reportedly shot 12 days later by the 16th New York Cavalry, which also set fire to the tobacco barn near Port Royal, Va., where he was hiding. Reports proliferated that Booth escaped and theories arose saying Lincoln Cabinet members were part of the conspiracy.
Lincoln was taken across 10th Street to the Petersen boarding house on the orders of doctors who were in the theater at the time. He died nine hours later.
The deed becomes real when the visitor sees the exhibits of small, humble objects stained with his life's blood: a pillow, his coat sleeve and bits of towel removed by souvenir hunters, and even the shirt cuff of Charles A. Leale, the first doctor to reach the Presidential Box. There's the piece of lace said to have been torn from Mrs. Lincoln's dress as she hurried into the Petersen House.
Even the smoking gun is here -- the .44-caliber, single-shot derringer pocket pistol, manufactured by Henry Deringer, found in the Presidential Box some hours after Lincoln had been shot. The door to the theater box has a peephole, said to have been gouged by Booth to observe the president. Here's the wood bar he used to jam the outer door. The dagger displayed with its sheath was identified as the one Booth used to stab Maj. Henry Reed Rathbone, also in the box. Hoods that for their first days in jail were pulled over the heads of the accused co-conspirators (all except Mary Surratt and Dr. Samuel Mudd) stand in cases with photographs of the six. Frank Hebblethwaite, museum technician, says the hoods, from the Smithsonian, are so fragile they will be on display only for six months before they are replaced with copies.
Lincoln's fanciful matted beaver wool greatcoat, custom made as a gift from Brooks Brothers, is spread open in the case to show the elaborate lining with its quilted and hand-stitched silk design of shields with stars and stripes, scallops and a spread-winged American eagle holding a ribbon inscribed "One Country, One Destiny." His frock coat, black silk tie, waistcoat and trousers and size 14 boots measure the man in the visitor's mind. At his death, he was put in a coffin naked and wrapped in an American flag.
"Passion and repression swept the country as murder made a martyr" of the first president to be assassinated, the exhibit says. The grieving is represented by the black crepe muffling the snare drum that beat on the streets to proclaim the death of the president, memento mori -- mourning badges, prints and eulogies -- from the 20-day funeral procession that extended along the train route from Washington to Springfield, Ill, where his body was buried. And thus begins the last section, the "Legacy of Lincoln," which traces his apotheosis to savior of the Union and emancipator of the slaves.
The history of Ford's Theatre is explained in one exhibit -- including, eerily, the collapse of the building June 9, 1893, on the day of the funeral of actor Edwin Booth, John Wilkes Booth's brother.
The National Park Service, National Capital Region, administers Ford's Theatre, at 511 10th St. NW, its museum and the Petersen house where Lincoln died. The museum is open from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., daily except Christmas. There is no admission charge.