Mr. Lincoln's Washington- page 2 | History | Smithsonian
(Cheryl Carlin)

Mr. Lincoln's Washington

The house where the conspirators hatched their heinous plot now serves sushi, and the yard where they were hanged is a tennis court.

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(Continued from page 1)

We're standing in Lafayette Square in front of a red brick building, 712 Jackson Place. The plaque notes that it's the President's Commission on White House Fellowships, the one-year government internship program. But in April 1865 it was the residence of a young Army major named Henry Rathbone, who was engaged to his stepsister Clara, daughter of a New York senator.

As Professor Donald recounts in his biography, April 14,1865, was Good Friday, not a big night to go out, traditionally. It's hard to imagine today, when an invitation from the president of the United States is tantamount to a subpoena, but the Lincolns had a hard time finding anyone to join them at the theater that night. His own secretary of war, Edwin Stanton, declined. (Mrs. Stanton couldn't stand Mrs. Lincoln.) General Grant also begged off. (Mrs. Grant couldn't stand Mrs. Lincoln.) Lincoln was subsequently turned down by a governor, another general, the Detroit postmaster(!), another governor (Idaho Territory) and the chief of the telegraph bureau at the War Department, an Army major named Thomas Eckert. Finally Abe turned to another Army major, Henry Rathbone, who said to the president, in so many words, OK, OK, whatever. The image of the president pleading with an Army major to sit in the president's box is the final tragicomic vignette we have of Lincoln. It's of a piece with his humanity and humility.

After Booth shot Lincoln, Rathbone lunged for Booth. Booth sank a viciously sharp seven-inch blade into his arm, opening a wound from elbow to shoulder. Rathbone survived, but the emotional wound went deeper. One day 18 years later, as U.S. Consul General in Hanover, Germany, he shot his wife dead. Rathbone himself died in 1911 in an asylum for the criminally insane. "He was one of the many people," Pitch said,"whose lives were broken that night."

I had last been to Ford's Theatre on my second date with the beautiful CIA officer who eventually, if unwisely, agreed to marry me. The play was a comedy, but even as I chuckled, I kept looking up at Lincoln's box. I don't know how any actor can manage to get through a play here. Talk about negative energy. And it didn't stop with the dreadful night of April 14,1865. Ford's later became a government office building, and one day in 1893, all three floors collapsed, killing 22 people.

You can walk up the narrow passageway to the box and see with your own eyes what Booth saw. It's an impressive leap he made after shooting Lincoln—almost 12 feet—but he caught the spur of his boot on the flags draped over the president's box and broke his leg when he hit the stage. Donald quotes a witness who described Booth's motion across the stage as "like the hopping of a bull frog."

In the basement of Ford's is a museum (due to reopen this spring after renovations) with artifacts such as Booth's .44 caliber single-shot Deringer pistol; a knife that curators believe is the one that Booth plunged into Rathbone's arm; the Brooks Brothers coat made for Lincoln's second inaugural, the left sleeve torn away by relic-hunters; the boots, size 14, Lincoln wore that night; and a small blood stained towel.

Members of a New York cavalry unit tracked down Booth 12 days later and shot him to death. Four of Booth's coconspirators,including Mary Surratt, proprietress of the boarding house where they plotted the assassination, were hanged on July 7. (The military tribunal that presided over their trial requested a lighter sentence for Surratt, but the request went unheeded.) Also displayed are the manacles the conspirators wore in prison awaiting their execution. Here, too, are replicas of the white canvas hoods they wore to prevent them from communicating with each other. Inevitably, one thinks of the Washington heat. Beneath a hood is a letter from Brevet Maj. Gen. John F. Hartranft, commandant of the military prison, dated June 6, 1865: "The prisoners are suffering very much from the padded hoods and I would respectfully request that they be removed from all the prisoners, except 195." That was Lewis Paine, who at about the same time Booth shot Lincoln attacked Secretary of State William Seward at his home on Lafayette Square, stabbing him in the throat and face. There's a photograph of Paine in manacles, staring coldly and remorselessly at the photographer. Perhaps it was this stare that persuaded Major General Hartranft that the hood was best left on.

We left Ford's Theatre and crossed the street to The House Where Lincoln Died, now run by the National Park Service. I had been here as a child, and remembered with a child's ghoulish but innocent fascination the blood-drenched pillow. It is gone now. I asked a ranger what happened to it. "It's been removed to a secure location," she said. Secure location? I thought of the final scene in the movie Raiders of the Lost Ark, as the ark is being wheeled away to be stored amid a zillion other boxes in a vast government warehouse. She added, "It was deteriorating." OK, I thought, but better not tell me where it is, I might steal it.

The air inside the house is close and musty. A little sign on a table says simply, "President Lincoln died in this room at 7:22 a.m. on April 15, 1865." Lincoln was 6-foot-4. They had to lay him down on the bed diagonally, with his knees slightly bent. He lived for nine hours.

I went back outside. Pitch was telling the story of Leale, the young Army surgeon. The first doctor to reach the Ford's theater box, Leale knew right away the wound was mortal. He removed the clot that had formed, to relieve pressure on the president's brain. Leale said the ride back to the White House would surely kill him, so Leale, two other physicians and several soldiers carried him across the street, to the house of William Petersen, a tailor. According to historian Shelby Foote, Mrs. Lincoln was escorted from the room after she shrieked when she saw Lincoln's face twitch and an injured eye bulge from its socket.


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