Thursday, June 8, 2017


Like many Americans, I am fascinated by Abraham Lincoln. Lanky, sometimes awkward, often unkempt, uneducated in the traditional sense, he appeals to the Everyman in all of us. I am drawn to artistic portrayals of him, books about him, museums featuring him, and places where he lived or visited.

Therefore, of course, I was excited to visit Ford's Theater, the place where Lincoln was assassinated and which I hadn't seen since I was a kid and could hardly remember. But first, we had to go to the Peterson House across the street from the theater, which is where Lincoln "breathed his last" (as one of the helpful signs inside told us).

I'm not sure how Lincoln would have felt about the kitschy shop next door. I think he would have been embarrassed by both the shop's contents and the the misuse of the apostrophe in "souvenir's":

I'm also not sure Lincoln would have approved of the spectacle that "The House Where Lincoln Died" has become:

The National Park Service has carefully recreated the way the rooms of what was a boarding house would have looked on the night Lincoln was brought here after having been shot at close range in the head while watching a play across the street.  Most of the original furnishings, including the bed where Lincoln lay, were purchased by a Chicago collector and are now on display in the Chicago History Museum. Still, they've tried to be attentive to detail, and I'm sure they've done a good job reproducing what was once here.

On the left is the parlor where Mary Lincoln would have waited with her son and friends when she wasn't at her husband's side. On the right is the bedroom where Secretary of War Stanton held meetings, interviewed witnesses, and ordered the pursuit of the assassins:

This is a replica of the bed where Lincoln lay for about nine hours before he was pronounced dead. It was too short for his towering frame, and he had to be laid on it diagonally:

Another view of the room:

The rest of the home has been turned into a museum that tells about what happened after Lincoln's death. Newspapers shouted the horrible news:

Poets expressed their grief:

Lincoln's body was first taken to the White House for an autopsy, then lay in state in the Capitol rotunda for three days before being placed on a train that traveled 1,700 miles to Springfield, Illinois. There Lincoln was buried next to his son WIllie, who had died three years before of typhoid fever:

When the conspirators were caught and imprisoned, they wore these hoods that covered everything but their mouths. Creepy.

Four of John Wilkes Booth's co-conspirators were executed by hanging, including a woman--the first woman executed in the United States:

My favorite thing in the Peterson House was this tower of biographies of Lincoln.

15,000 books about Lincoln currently in print!  Wow!

Off the top of my head, I have read these books about Lincoln:

Manhunt: The 12 Day Chase for Lincoln's Killer by James L. Swanson
Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln by Doris Kearns Goodwin
The Lincolns: Portrait of a Marriage by Daniel Mark Epstein
Abe Lincoln's Other Mother by Bernadine Bailey
A. Lincoln by Ronald C. White, Jr.  (see review below)

I have just started listening to Lincoln at the Bardo by George Saunders, a strange but compelling tale of Lincoln's grief after his son Willie died from typhoid.

Stealing Lincoln's Body by Thomas J. Craughwell, Lincoln: The Biography of a Writer by Fred Kaplan, and Lincoln at Gettysburg by Garry Wills are on my nightstand.

The 2013 movie Killing Lincoln and the 2012 movie Lincoln (starring Daniel Day-Lewis) are on my Amazon Prime Watchlist.

I am just a little obsessed with Lincoln right now.

However, this tower of books tells me that I have a lot more reading to do! 

I like this poem by Amos Russell Wells (1862-1933) that is part of the exhibit:

Had Lincoln lived,
How would his hand, so gentle yet so strong,
Have closed the gaping wounds of ancient    
How would his merry jests, the way he smiled,
Our sundered hearts to union have beguiled;
How would the South from his just rule have 
That enemies to neighbors may be turned,
And how the North, with his sagacious art,
Have learned the power of a trusting heart;
What follies had been spared us, and what 
What seeds of bitterness that still remain,
Had Lincoln lived!

There have to have been more sculptures and paintings of Lincoln than any other figure in U.S. history:

Every politician wants to claim Lincoln as a spiritual progenitor:

One of the displays is very original and interactive.  Using character traits for which Lincoln is known (integrity, courage, equality, creativity and innovation, and empathy and tolerance), writing prompts encourage responses, which are written on post-it notes and shared on a wall:

In the same room, challenging scenarios that we might face in our everyday lives are presented with the question, "What Would You Do?" The scenario is followed by a real-life example from history about a person who acted with courage and integrity in a similar situation:

This would be a great museum to take students or kids to, and it's also wonderful for world-weary adults.

The gift shop on the ground level made me laugh. Here are some of my favorite items for sale:

Directly across the street is Ford's Theatre. (In many ways, it's rather bizarre to make such a tragic event a tourist site, but Americans love the dramatic, don't they?) A much newer structure next door handles the business affairs of the theatre and the administration of the National Historic Site:

We were lucky enough to have tickets to the play being performed there, Ragtime:

We arrived with enough time to enjoy the museum in the theatre basement. It traces the main events of Lincoln's Presidency and the Civil War, as well as the conspiracy that led to the assassination:

President Lincoln and "Unconditional Surrender" Grant:

Lincoln was a self-taught scholar. I like this bronze statue showing him reading a book. I also like his very, very rumpled suit.

This "life mask" of Lincoln was cast in February 1865, just two months before his death:

Lincoln gave his last speech two days after Lee's surrender to Grant, and three days before he was shot at Ford's Theatre. 

When our path through the museum led us to information about John Wilkes Booth, our sense of dread began to build. We knew the end of this story.

This is the actual gun that Booth used to kill Lincoln. As the sign below states, "With a single shot, John Wilkes Booth changed the course of American history."

I think this is the suit Lincoln was wearing that fateful night, or at least a replica of it:


Time to head upstairs to our seats:

We were on the last row in the back, but it's a small theater and we had a great view of everything but the top section of the stage area:

There is also one balcony level:

The booth where Lincoln, his wife, and their guests sat is kept closed as a memorial to Lincoln:

Ragtime tells the story of three intersecting cultures in New York City at the turn of the century: upper-class elites, African-Americans, and Eastern European immigrants. Although we had had only a few hours of sleep the previous night and had spent the day walking all over Washington, D.C., we had no problem staying awake. We loved Ragtime. The performance was high quality--as good as anything we've seen in Los Angeles or New York City, and it seemed an especially appropriate play for a theatre that pays tribute to the Great Emancipator:

Visiting the Peterson House and Ford Theatre was a great way to end our first day in Washington, D.C., and Ragtime was the cherry on top.


Eight or nine years ago I went to a Los Angeles Times Book Festival and heard Ronald C. White speak about his book A. Lincoln, which had just come out. I bought a copy and had Mr. White sign it, but I think I gave that copy to my brother for Christmas. It stuck in my mind, however, and I finally picked it up on Audible and listened to it.

A. Lincoln (which is the way our 16th President usually signed his name) is considered by many to be the definitive Lincoln biography.  It is long--816 pages or almost 28 hours of listening time--but it is worth it. While presenting the details of Lincoln's life and the cataclysmic events leading up to and during the Civil War raging around him, White also traces the evolution of Lincoln's leadership ability, his growing spirituality, and his developing intellect and morality. It's impossible not to love the complex, dedicated man of integrity that emerges.

Impeccably researched, this is not the kind of book where the biographer sees into the minds of his characters. White is careful to back up any assumptions with plenty of support, just as Lincoln himself was known to do. White also eschews melodrama, and while the book ends with Lincoln's death, the assassination merits only a few pages. The focus is on Lincoln himself until the very end.

This is a definite must-read (or listen) for Lincoln aficionados.


This political docudrama, which details the events leading up to Lincoln's assassination, was first broadcast on the National Geographic channel in 2013. As narrator, Tom Hanks gives vital details along the way and adds a nice storytelling touch. The account of events continues past the murder to cover the manhunt for Lincoln's killer and the execution of Booth and his fellow conspirators.

The movie was based on Bill O'Reilly's book of the same name and includes both historical re-enactments and historical documents. At the time of this posting, this movie is the highest rated television show National Geographic has ever produced.

This is a great movie to watch in tandem with a visit to Ford's Theatre.


  1. I nice combination of events, the Peterson House, Ford's Theatre and the play. Of it all, i felt like the play was the best part, being in the theatre where Lincoln was when he was shot and doing what he was doing when it occurred. After that, I felt like the actual objects, such as the gun and the room in the boarding house where he died were most significant. We were going on a long day when we viewed this stuff and I just did not have the stamina to be reading all of the exhibit materials, but loved the experience of being there.

  2. What? You mean "Abe Lincoln: Vampire Killer" is not considered the definitive work on Lincoln? It was also notably absent on your list of books you have already read.

  3. Interesting stuff. I especially love that enormous tower of books. I feel like I need to live to be several thousand years old, just to read all the books on my list.