I had seen Our American Cousin twice before, but it was always a treat. I glanced at my husband Charles and saw that he, too, was enjoying himself.
It was Good Friday evening in 1865, and although I felt our time would be better spent attending services to mourn the death of Christ, I also knew that this was the only night to view Our American Cousin. It was a silly play, one that called for an audience in good humor. The premise of the popular comedy was that an uncouth Yankee, Asa Trenchard, aspired to the title and fortune of his noble English relatives. The leading role of Florence Trenchard was being played by the famous and talented actress Laura Keene, and I was quite excited at seeing her perform.
Im so glad were here, I whispered to Charles. This is the most wonderful birthday gift. I simply cant imagine how you managed to—
Someone shushed me from behind and I politely apologized and turned my attention back to the play. The scene began to bore me, so I discretely began looking around the theatre to admire the splendid decor.
We were sitting in two of the best seats in all of Fords Theatre, right in the center and quite near the stage. I turned my head to the right and caught sight of the Presidents box. It was a grand seat, shrouded in satiny curtains and decorated tonight with American flags and a gilt-framed engraving of George Washington in honor of Abraham Lincolns presence at the theatre. When the President arrived earlier that evening, we had all stood and clapped politely while the orchestra played Hail To The Chief. I couldnt see him now, but I knew Mr. Lincoln sat up there in the corner of the box in a beautiful walnut rocking chair, one with red upholstery that I heard had been brought in just for the occasion.
I suddenly wondered what time it was, and nudged my husband. He smiled knowingly and pulled out his pocket watch. It said eleven minutes after ten oclock. I frowned, and Charles reassuringly squeezed my hand. It was unusual for me to be out this late, and I was feeling a little uneasy. After all, it was one of the first nights I had ever been separated from my dear little girl, Cora, and the young governess I had hired at the last-minute had not done a great deal to heighten my confidence in her ability.
I tried to forget about Cora and concentrate on the play, although a mother can never actually erase all thoughts of her children. The second scene of Act III was just ending, and I remembered it to be the most comical part in the entire play.
I am aware, Mr. Trenchard, the character Mrs. Mountchessington was saying haughtily to the American cousin, that you are not used to the manners of polite society, and that alone will pardon the impertinence of which you will be guilty. With that she swept grandly off stage.
Asa hooked his thumbs in his suspenders and, chuckling, called after her, Dont know the manners of good society, eh? Well, I guess I know enough to turn you inside out, old gal—you sockdologizing old mantrap!
I joined in the merriment and laughed delightedly along with the audience. As the theatre roared with laughter, I noticed a woman seated near me had tears streaming down her face. I was about to speak to Charles when what sounded like a gunshot pierced the noisy glee.
A split-second after the shot rang out, a wild-eyed man brandishing a knife flew from the Presidents box, caught the spur of his right boot on one of the flags, and landed awkwardly on the stage. Sic semper tyrranis! he screamed as he limped hastily into the wings.
Thus to all tyrants, I heard Charles murmur.
At the same time I exclaimed, Booth!
Charles was too intent on the scene unfolding on stage to question me. I knew that the man with the knife was none other than John Wilkes Booth, a brilliant actor I had seen perform on several occasions. I would have known that handsome face anywhere.
At first no one knew what to make of the startling act. It appeared to many to be a part of the play, but none of us knew for sure. By now, actors and actresses had rushed out on stage, and just as I realized that they were as puzzled as the audience, a piercing scream sounded from above, and a male voice cried, Stop that man!
Several women shrieked in fright. My heart stopped, along with, Im certain, the thousand other men and women in the theatre. Our heads snapped toward the Presidents box, and all around me people buzzed in anxiety and confusion.
Bits of gossip swirled around me from numerous conversations, making me feel faint. Eventually, from what I could piece together, I learned the President had been shot by the man who had dropped from the balcony and fled. Mrs. Lincoln had been the one who initially screamed, and one of the guests in the Presidents box had been stabbed while struggling with the assassin.
I couldnt believe Mr. Lincoln had been shot. It seemed impossible, and the same disbelief shown on all the faces of the bewildered people around me.
Mayhem soon broke out as people recovered from initial shock and ran for the exits, trying to elude the guards surrounding the doors. I grabbed my husbands hand and together we tripped through the unruly crowd, somehow making it onto the street outside the theatre. There we plunged once again into a mass of frightened people. Charles and I arrived just in time to join the other onlookers as the unconscious President was carefully transported from the theatre to somewhere across the street.
We must have looked silly standing outside in our fancy gowns and suits, clamoring and acting like a bunch of frightened children. But in truth, frightened and helpless was exactly how we felt.
As any sensational story will, the news that the President had been mortally wounded spread quickly across the city, striking fear and sorrow into its citizens hearts. Within an hour, a good-sized crowd had gathered outside the Petersons home, which had been deemed suitable enough as a resting place for the President. Prominent doctors, politicians, and relatives streamed in and out of the three-story brick house all, grief etched on their pale faces. The rest of us waited anxiously outside for any scrap of news thrown to us by the privileged few allowed inside in the presence of Mr. Lincoln.
Frantic whispers rushed through the damp night air as news came to our group from around the city—
. . .The suspect got away!. . .
. . .The police have arrested the suspect!. . .
. . .Secretary of State William Seward has been murdered!. . .
—I didnt know what to believe.
The temporary assembly of mourners eventually grew into an all-night vigil. It became evident that it would be a while until a report on the Presidents condition would be given, and so we receded from the Peterson doorway and broke into little groups. Dozens of people had candles, which created little circles of light throughout the gathering. It was as if the tiny flames were whispering, Dont give up. There is still hope on this sorrowful, dark night.
I dont know how long we actually loitered outside the Peterson house, but it must have been at least six hours. As the night grew well into the next morning, many people drifted away, reluctant but exhausted. At my insistence, Charles and I stayed, waiting for something. I didnt know quite what, but I couldnt leave when our beloved leader lay inside that house, gradually fading away from all of us but drifting closer to heaven.
At about seven-thirty, on the Saturday morning of April 15, several men came outside from Mr. Lincolns temporary sickroom to inform the small, pathetic group remaining that our President had passed on.
A woman to my left raised a handkerchief to her eyes and dabbed gently. All around me, sniffling and sobs arose. Two warm tears slid from my own eyes, dribbling down my cool cheeks and onto my wrap. Charles squeezed my hand and struggled to hold back any sign of emotion.
At least hes not in pain anymore, someone said positively, trying to lift our spirits.
But he wouldnt have been in pain if it werent for that murderer! another person shouted.
Why has God done this? one man yelped desperately.
That was a very good question. Why?
For weeks after Mr. Lincolns tragic assassination, the country wallowed in the dark, deep pool of grief and pity. My heart had been broken, along with thousands of other loyal Americans. We didnt know what to do to make up for the sudden loss of our adored hero. How would our country continue? We had finally found our way through the horrifying war which had torn our people apart and clawed at our poor souls, and now this. The irony of our unfortunate situation cast a shadow over everyone, and we were forced to scrape up what sanity and human goodness was left and use it to restore our spirits.
Why did it happen? I asked my husband suddenly one day. How can one hateful man destroy our lives in one shot?
Charles face grew a shade darker. For the first time in his life, he seemed speechless. Finally he replied, I cant understand it either. All I know is that this country has a severe, painful wound and no doctor to tend to it. When it finally heals, there will forever be an ugly scar to show what might have been and what was.
But this is America, I replied fiercely, scar and all. And we will go on.