WASHINGTON, D.C.–There was probably a time when the lines that formed outside Ford’s Theater were filled with eager show-goers waiting to catch the latest stage fashions. The line that we stood in just before 10 am on Sunday morning was filled with eager tourists, looking to sample one of the cities more infamous attractions. It was a surprisingly long line, considering that it was Mother’s Day. Kelly had purchased our tickets months earlier, and by the time we made our way into the theater both the 10am and 10:30am blocks had been sold out.
We didn’t go into the theater, not right away. We followed the line the edge of the theater, and its prophetically blood-red carpet, and then turned left down a winding flight of stairs that took us into a museum–a shrine, really–to President Lincoln’s life. The kids wanted to watch the videos that played in various parts of the museum: over here were former presidents reading portions of the Gettysburg Address; over there, a video on Lincoln and Frederick Douglass. But the museum wasn’t why people came. They came to see a show.
Half an hour after entering the museum, we were invited into the theater proper. A nice docent told Kelly we should take the elevator to the balcony level; it would provide the kids with a better view. Up to the balcony we went. We moved across the theater to seats right beside the Presidential box, with the bunting and the picture of George Washington. Kelly posed with the Little Man and Little Miss and I snapped photos. Then we walked back across the balcony and took seats in the front row, and listened to Lincoln’s story, and the story of the night of April 14, 1865, Sic semper tyrannis.
There wasn’t much at Ford’s Theater that I didn’t already know from reading David Herbert Donald, and–more recently–Carl Sandberg. But as I sat in the balcony, watching visitors below stand and take photos of the box seats that the Lincoln party sat in on that fateful night, a strange feeling crept over me.There are solemn places in the world. I’ve been to a few of them: the Nave in Westminster Abbey, the crumbling remains of an ancient theater in Miletus, Turkey, the long rows of gravestones at Gettysburg. Ford’s Theater was not among them. Sitting there, I couldn’t help but wonder what the theater-goers of 1865 might think of us if they knew we were snapping selfies in front of the place where Abraham Lincoln was murdered.
So I squirmed in my seat as I listened to Booth’s plotting, and of Lincoln’s late arrival at the play, and of the last words he probably ever heard. And when the audience was finally released and rushed across 10th Street to line up outside the Petersen house and see the place where Lincoln breathed his last breath, I hung back. I’d seen the stovepipe hat Lincoln had been wearing that night at the Museum of American History years before. That was as close as I needed to be to Lincoln’s death. I didn’t need to see the room in which he perished.
It was the first time I can recall reacting in such a way to a museum. I’ve been to Mount Vernon, where Washington died, and to Monticello, where Jefferson died. But that was different. Washington and Jefferson were not murdered in cold blood. It felt odd to me that the scene of a violent crime was such a draw.