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Ford’s Theater: The Site of Multiple Tragedies

By Stephen A. Hansen*

On April 14, 1865, 150 years ago this month, John Wilkes Booth fatally shot President Abraham Lincoln at Ford’s Theater. Only three years before, the theater had been gutted by fire, and 28 years after the assassination of Lincoln, another fatal tragedy would befall the notorious building. This disaster was the cause of one of the greatest losses of human life in Washington in the 19th century.

The building that was to become Ford’s Theater was originally the second home of the First Baptist Church of Washington and was constructed in 1833. The building was vacated in 1859 when the congregation merged with the Fourth Baptist Church. Church auditoriums make great theater spaces and in 1862, Baltimore-based theatrical and opera impresario John Thompson Ford bought the former church. Under the direction of Baltimore architect James Gifford—who had designed Junius Brutus Booth’s summer retreat Tudor Hall in Harford County, Maryland—Ford converted the church into a theater, naming it Ford’s Athenaeum.

John Thompson Ford in 1865.  photo--National Park Service.

John Thompson Ford in 1865. photo–National Park Service.

The theater experienced its first tragedy when it caught fire during its first year in operation and the entire interior was gutted. Ford and Gifford then set to work to build a more elaborate building than the former converted church and it opened in August 1863 as “Ford’s New Theater.”

On that fateful night of April 14, 1865, Abraham Lincoln attended a performance of My American Cousin at Ford’s new theater. That evening marked the second tragedy for the theater. The United States Government immediately seized the theater and only actors, stagehands, and musicians were allowed back in to retrieve their instruments and belongings.

Ford's Theater as seen looking south on 10th Street on the day of (or possibly shortly before) the assassinationon in April 1865; note the advertising for the upcoming play Octorooom that was to open on April 15th.  photo--National Park Service.

Ford’s Theater as seen looking south on 10th Street on the day of (or possibly shortly before) the assassinationon in April 1865; note the advertising for the upcoming play Octorooom that was to open on April 15th. photo–National Park Service.

After the execution of the Lincoln conspirators on July 7th, 1865, Ford attempted to reopen his theater. The play The Octoroon: Life in Louisiana, originally to be performed the day after Lincoln’s assassination, was rescheduled to be performed on July 10th. Ford sold over 200 tickets for the performance, but there was such a large uproar over the theater reopening and fears that it would be burned down that the Judge Advocate ordered a troop of soldiers to the theater that night to prevent anyone from attending the play. Ford refunded the tickets and did not attempt to use the building as a theater ever again.

The government began leasing the former theater from Ford, and almost immediately began converting it for office space, filling in an open lobby area at the front of the building to create additional floor space for desks. The government ultimately bought the building from Ford in 1866 for $88,000.

Between 1866 and 1887, the theater served as a facility for the Office of Records and Pensions of the War Department with its records kept on the first floor, with the Library of the Surgeon General’s Office on the second floor, and the Army Medical Museum on the third. Interestingly, the museum housed pieces of John Wilkes Booth’s vertebrae that had been removed during the autopsy.

View of the Army Medical Museum housed on the third floor of the Ford's Theatre site. photo--National Museum of Health and Medicine.

View of the Army Medical Museum housed on the third floor of the Ford’s Theatre site. photo–National Museum of Health and Medicine.

In 1887, the museum moved out and the Office of Records and Pensions took over the entire building. By this time, there were questions about the building’s safety and rumors that east wall of the building was unstable. The office’s new chief, Colonel Fred C. Ainsworth, assured that the building was sound, went ahead and installed new steam heating and plumbing systems, and in 1893 contracted to install an electric generator for the building. This involved excavating under the front of the building a depth of about 12 feet. No safety inspections were ever conducted during the work, though Ainsworth visited the basement daily to observe progress. Employees grew even more concerned about the structural integrity of the building when plaster started to fall and the contractor came up from the basement and roped off a large area on the first floor.

At 9:40 am on June 9, 1893, the inside front part of the building collapsed in on itself, killing 22 and injuring over 100 other government employees. The only warning of what was to come was a quick whirling sound that was followed by an earth-trembling crash. The entire front half of the third floor and a thirty-foot section of the second floor caved in. Government clerks, packed at their desks like bees in a hive, had no chance of escape. The building had only one narrow stairway in the back and survivors were taken out the back of the building by ladder. Bodies of those not so fortunate were lined up under a tree in a yard opening in the back alley. Famed Civil War photographer Matthew Brady was allowed into the building the next day to photograph the destruction.

Matthew Brady photo of the collapsed floors.  photo--National Park Service.

Matthew Brady photo of the collapsed floors. photo–National Park Service.

The collapse of Ford’s Theater was in many ways as great a news story as the Lincoln assassination in the same building. Congress and the government were blamed for allowing workers to be housed in knowingly dangerous or condemned buildings. Realizing that this may not be the last of such catastrophes, many called for inspections of all federal buildings in Washington to prevent a tragedy on this scale from happening again and many buildings suddenly came under closer scrutiny.

.  Workers cleaning out the back of the building. photo--National Park Service.

. Workers cleaning out the back of the building. photo–National Park Service.

An investigation determined that the excavation under the front of the building for the generator undermined the integrity of the building. The floor space created by filling in the lobby courtyard was supported by columns that rested one on top of the other and on brick piers in the basement. During the excavation, an incompetent contractor dug around one of brick supporting piers and did not attempt to sure it, which caused the column above to fall. The column knocked into the others, causing them to fall as well. With that, the floors above collapsed and fell into a pit.

John Ford, who still had a sense of pride in his theater and in an attempt to distance himself from the third great tragedy there, wrote to the Washington Evening Star shortly after the collapse, refuting claims that it was a death trap as he had built it. He assumed all responsibility for the part of the building that he constructed, which he pointed out, was still standing. Ford died in 1894 in Baltimore, only a year after the disaster.

In 1894, Col. Ainsworth, the contractor and two other men were indicted for manslaughter by a grand jury, but the Court of Appeals quashed the indictments. Ainsworth was arraigned in Criminal Court and pleaded not guilty to the charge. The judge upheld the ruling of the Appeals Court and the case was closed.

Fred C. Ainsworth. photo--U.S. Army.

Fred C. Ainsworth. photo–U.S. Army.

Even after this third great tragedy at Ford’s Theater, the government still did not give up on the building. In 1894, it was repaired and used for document storage for the office of then Adjutant General, Fred C. Ainsworth. In 1931, the building was turned over to the Department of the Interior and the following year, the Lincoln Museum opened on the first floor with the upper floors again used for office space.

In 1964, Congress approved funds for the restoration of Ford’s Theater, which was completed in 1968. It reopened that year as a national historic site and working theatre, hosting its first plays since 1865. The theatre was again renovated during the 2000s. The re-opening gala was on February 12, 2009 with a ceremony commemorating Lincoln’s 200th birthday.

*Stephen A. Hansen is an historic preservation specialist, Washington DC historian, author of several books and of the Virtual Architectural Archaeology blog.

© 2015 InTowner Publishing Corp. & Stephen A. Hansen. All rights reserved. Reproduction in whole or in part, including for commercial purposes, without permission is prohibited.