Special Report

Lincoln's Missing Bodyguard

What happened to Officer John Parker, the man who chose the wrong night to leave his post at Ford's Theatre?

John Wilkes Booth leans forward to shoot President Abraham Lincoln as he watches a play at Ford's Theatre in 1865. ((c) Corbis)

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No one knows for sure if Parker ever returned to Ford’s Theatre that night. When Booth struck, the vanishing policeman may have been sitting in his new seat with a nice view of the stage, or perhaps he had stayed put in the Star Saloon. Even if he had been at his post, it’s not certain he would have stopped Booth. “Booth was a well-known actor, a member of a famous theatrical family,” says Ford’s Theatre historical interpreter Eric Martin. “They were like Hollywood stars today. Booth might have been allowed in to pay his respects. Lincoln knew of him. He’d seen him act in The Marble Heart, here in Ford’s Theatre in 1863.”

A fellow presidential bodyguard, William H. Crook, wouldn’t accept any excuses for Parker. He held him directly responsible for Lincoln’s death. “Had he done his duty, I believe President Lincoln would not have been murdered by Booth,” Crook wrote in his memoir. “Parker knew that he had failed in duty. He looked like a convicted criminal the next day.” Parker was charged with failing to protect the president, but the complaint was dismissed a month later. No local newspaper followed up on the issue of Parker’s culpability. Nor was Parker mentioned in the official report on Lincoln’s death. Why he was let off so easily is baffling. Perhaps, with the hot pursuit of Booth and his co-conspirators in the chaotic aftermath, he seemed like too small a fish. Or perhaps the public was unaware that a bodyguard had even been assigned to the president.

Incredibly, Parker remained on the White House security detail after the assassination. At least once he was assigned to protect the grieving Mrs. Lincoln before she moved out of the presidential mansion and returned to Illinois. Mrs. Lincoln’s dressmaker, former slave Elizabeth Keckley, recalled the following exchange between the president’s widow and Parker: “So you are on guard tonight,” Mrs. Lincoln yelled, “on guard in the White House after helping to murder the President.”

“I could never stoop to murder,” Parker stammered, “much less to the murder of so good and great a man as the President. I did wrong, I admit, and have bitterly repented. I did not believe any one would try to kill so good a man in such a public place, and the belief made me careless.”

Mrs. Lincoln snapped that she would always consider him guilty and ordered him from the room. Some weeks before the assassination, she had written a letter on Parker’s behalf to exempt him from the draft, and some historians think she may have been related to him on her mother’s side.

Parker remained on the Metropolitan Police Force for three more years, but his shiftlessness finally did him in. He was fired on August 13, 1868, for once again sleeping on duty. Parker drifted back into carpentry. He died in Washington in 1890, of pneumonia. Parker, his wife and their three children are buried together in the capital’s Glenwood Cemetery—on present-day Lincoln Road. Their graves are unmarked. No photographs have ever been found of John Parker. He remains a faceless character, his role in the great tragedy largely forgotten.


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