Most of us parents — and many of our kids, for that matter — know the basic story of Abraham Lincoln’s assassination at Ford’s Theatre. On April 14, 1865, the 16th President of the United States was shot by John Wilkes Booth as he was watching a play at what would become a National Historic Site as a result of the tragedy that took place there that evening.
It’s all of the fascinating details of that fateful night, the circumstances leading up to it, and the course of events to follow, that aren’t as well known by the masses. Unless, perhaps, you have a keen interest in presidential assassinations, have seen the film Lincoln, watched the (hilarious) Drunk History episode about it, or have read Sarah Vowel’s Assassination Vacation. I can claim the latter two, most recently having finally read the book, which was what inspired an outing with the kids and friends a few weeks ago to Ford’s Theatre.
I had actually been there several times before to see shows, but had never taken a proper tour or visited the museum portion. That probably worked out well, since Owen (11) and Sasha (8) are now at good ages to take it all in. Younger children certainly could go, but I think older kids would understand and get more out of the experience.
We visited this past Columbus Day when both kids were off from school. Timed entry tickets are free at the Box Office, or you can reserve them in advance online for $3. This gets you admission to: the museum, the theatre for a walk-through and presentation, Petersen House across the street where Lincoln died, and exhibits about the aftermath of the assassination.
I checked online in the morning and saw that tickets were still available throughout the day, so we opted to get them at the Box Office, figuring we’d get the next available time slot and hang out around the area if there was a wait. It turned out our entry time was just 15 minutes after picking up tickets, so we lined up with other guests, then began our self-guided tour almost right away.
This is where the visit begins. The Museum essentially is one large room divided into many sections. It’s filled with a variety of displays, videos, and interactive installations that provide background on Abraham Lincoln’s political career and presidency, describe the social and political climate during that time, offer a profile of John Wilkes Booth, and illustrate the story of the assassination.
It was pretty crowded and a bit chaotic when we were there — I’m guessing the holiday brought more people than usual on a Monday — so it was difficult to spend a lot of time reading everything. The kids enjoyed viewing the larger installations, such as a sculpture of political figures, one about Lincoln’s cabinet (which was an actual cabinet), and real items associated with the assassination on view in glass cases. The most intriguing was the Deringer pistol Booth used to shoot Lincoln. Oddly, it’s practically hidden in the museum, located in small corner area, where we had to wait to get a good look; I would have thought it would be more prominently displayed. Nearby, there is a replica of the gun that you can touch to get a feel for what it would be like to hold. And more of Booth’s possessions, like his journal and medical kit, are also on view.
Walk-throughs of the theatre and a presentation by a reenactor playing a man who was there on the night of President Lincoln’s death are often part of the self-guided tour. (Be sure to check that it is happening if you want to see it, which I do recommend, as the theatre portion is occasionally unavailable.) You can see the Presidential Box where Lincoln sat with his wife, Mary, as they watched An American Cousin, and Park Rangers are on hand to answer questions. The performance is great, as the reenactor talks about the fateful evening from his point of view, describing events of that day, the Lincolns’ late arrival to the theatre, the production on stage, and John Wilkes Booth’s movements as he executed his assassination plan. All of us, kids and adults, found this part of the tour very interesting and entertaining.
Also a National Historic Site, the House Where Lincoln Died is located right across the street from Ford’s Theatre, and is included in the tour (hold on to your ticket!). After he was shot, Lincoln was carried across the street to what was then a boarding house, and he passed away the next morning. Now visitors can walk through and see the house recreated to look just as it did in 1865 and even view the bedroom where Lincoln spent his final hours. The bed is a replica — the real one is on display at the Chicago History Museum — but the pillow and pillow cases stained with blood are the real deal.
Just beyond the site of Lincoln’s death is an elevator that takes you to another exhibit area, designed to look like an old street in Washington, DC, that illustrates the course of events after the assassination. You can learn about Lincoln’s multi-stop funeral journey back to Springfield, IL; find out what happened to John Wilkes Booth after he fled as a fugitive; and discover the outcomes of the trials of the co-conspirators. There is a lot of reading here, but also some photos and items on display to keep it visually interesting for younger kids. It all culminates with a three-story tower of books, every single one of them about Abraham Lincoln. It’s seriously impressive, kind of like a second memorial to Abe.
Our entire visit to Ford’s Theatre and Petersen House lasted almost two hours. It easily could be longer if your kids (and/or you) wanted to spend more time reading all of the displays and watching all of the videos. There are also guided tours on select Sundays at 5pm — go here for upcoming dates.
Keep in mind, too, that the actual theatre is still in operation with several productions a year, including One Destiny, a 35-minute play about Lincoln’s assassination that is performed in spring and summer. Next up is the annual holiday show, A Christmas Carol, that will run November 16 – December 31, 2017.
Ford’s Theatre is open for self-guided tours of the historic site daily from 9am – 4:30pm. As mentioned, tickets can be reserved online in advance for $3, or they are available for free at the Box Office, which is open 8:30am – 5pm (8pm for performances). It’s located at 511 10th Street NW.