April 14, 1865 fell on Good Friday. It had been five days since General Lee’s surrender to General Grant at Appomattox Courthouse, and a good, Good Friday for President Lincoln. In high spirits, the President escorted his wife, Mary Todd Lincoln to Ford’s Theater for the final curtain of the comedy, “Our American Cousin,” starring Laura Keene. From his seat in the presidential viewing box, Lincoln was murdered at point blank range by an assassin sneaking from behind.
This famous scenario provides quite the ironic twist considering the high opinion Lincoln held for actors and plays. In a cruel irony, President Lincoln sought refuge from his storm of troubles in Washington theaters, a setting where he could lay down his burdens.
From his earliest days in the White House, Lincoln avidly sought out the Capitol’s many stages. An enthusiast, he fell into the dangerous habit of sneaking out of the mansion, without his wife, without any protection detail, determined to take in any new production advertised in Washington papers. Members in various audiences, who spied the President playing hooky, reported that Lincoln watched these plays transfixed, as absorbed as if he was alone rather than seated in a crowd. Apparently his determination in attending Washington City theaters seemed to eclipse even concern for his own safety and in a city ripe with rebel sympathizers looking to inflict harm on the President.
What could impel a Chief Executive to take such risks in wartime, when many wished him ill? Why would Lincoln place himself in such peril?
Neither a drinking man, nor much interested in other vices, the President instead relished stories, either written or dramatized, where he found the distraction and solace he so desperately needed. A prolific story-teller himself, Lincoln appreciated a well turned tale, either in the books he voraciously consumed, or the yarns regaled on a late night near a warm wood stove. This president hungered for diversions to ease his troubled mind weighted by his intractable problems.
And Lincoln’s burdens, both personal and those of the presidency reached far beyond terrible. A protracted and bloody Civil War, the pain-in-the-neck generals who consistently failed in their duty, his difficult wife, Mary, the tragic loss of two young sons, and an unending flow of reverses from irascible members of Congress. That a well-crafted drama or comedy seemed to salve Mr. Lincoln’s soul must have made the temptation of escaping the White House irresistible, and a nightmare for those Pennsylvania troopers assigned to protect him.
Wilkes Booth knew Lincoln would attend the closing night at Ford’s Theater. The owner of Ford’s Theater had advertised that fact earlier in the day. Booth had, in fact, visited the site to prepare for his ‘greatest’ performance. The narrative in the actor’s deranged thoughts, screamed vengeance and duty to the lost cause of the Confederacy.
But I would like to offer another perspective on those same last moments in President Lincoln’s life.
The narrative Lincoln likely played touched more upon hope and delight. Slavery that April night, existed no more in America, and the battlefields had grown quiet. Much work lay ahead for the nation, but Lincoln knew he would attend to those matters as they emerged. For that one night the President did what he loved most—attended a theatrical production, and even better for his rising spirits, a comedy.
At the moment Booth pulled that derringer’s trigger, Lincoln was laughing. The whole audience, in fact, had erupted in guffaws, at an expertly delivered punch line. Perhaps that is how we ought to frame the horrific murder of our greatest commander in chief. While the murderer fumed in hate and revenge, Lincoln over flowed with concentrated joy, reveling in all that was good.
Gail Chumbley is the author of River of January, also available on Kindle