Tribune Print Share Text

The untold story of the Lincoln assassination

Created date

March 28th, 2014
Book: Backstage at the Lincoln assassination
Book: Backstage at the Lincoln assassination

Everyone thinks they’ve heard the whole story. On the evening of April 14, 1865, President Abraham Lincoln and his wife Mary visited Ford’s Theatre in Washington, D.C., to see the comedy Our American Cousin.

As the play entered Act III, John Wilkes Booth, a renowned actor and avowed Confederate sympathizer, slipped into the president’s box, barricaded the door behind him, and removed a .44 Deringer pistol from his pocket. Booth patiently waited for Harry Hawk, who portrayed the character of Asa Trenchard, to say the line that he knew would elicit enough laughter from the crowd to help mask the gunshot. 

The time was 10:13 p.m. Hawk was the only actor on stage when he delivered his response to Mrs. Mountchessington, played by actress Helen Muzzy.

Don’t know the manners of good society, eh? Wal, I guess I know enough to turn you inside out old gal, you sockdologizing old mantrap!

The audience exploded with laughter, and Booth fired.

Backstage view

This sequence of events has appeared time after time in articles, books, and documentaries. Yet historians always seem to leave a principal set of eyewitnesses in the shadows—the 46 actors and stagehands working at Ford’s Theatre that night.

In his new book Backstage at the Lincoln Assassination (Regnery, 2014), author Thomas Bogar breaks this cycle of neglect, telling the untold story of the performers, crewmembers, and theater managers whose lives were upended by the murder of a president.

“One of the things I find most interesting about this particular angle is that people tend to forget that this terrible incident occurred in a theater with actors and stagehands who were just doing their jobs,” says Bogar, who has taught theater history and production for 40 years, most recently at Hood College in Frederick, Md. “It was supposed to be a normal workday.”

Lasting impact

Instead, it marked the beginning of a steady, downward spiral for several of them, especially the play’s star Laura Keene.

“Keene had been at the top of her game since the late 1850s,” explains Bogar. “She was one of the most powerful actresses and theater managers in the country. Her life forever changed when Booth fired that shot.”

According to Bogar, the events of April 14, followed her wherever she went and foiled her in whatever she did. Northern audiences associated Keene with Lincoln’s death and wanted none of her performances, while Southerners turned their backs on the woman who they considered another Yankee.

“It never ceases to amaze me that the voices of unwitting participants in an earthshaking event like this remained silent for almost a century and a half,” he confesses.  

Finding the lost voices

Bogar spent eight years assembling this story, probing archives and databases around the country to piece together the vague, fragmentary details of persons long forgotten. Using letters, census records, newspapers, and diaries, he was able to weave a patchwork of evidence into a remarkably vivid account of America’s first presidential assassination.

An episode so often told from the perspective of the president’s box or down below in the audience now exists from Harry Hawk’s viewpoint on stage, and from behind the scenes with the dozens of actors and crew who heard the gunshot and witnessed Booth make his escape out the back door. 

Collectively, these men and women were a microcosm of Civil War America. Some were raging Confederates and others ardent Unionists; some were either veterans themselves or had friends and family fighting on the frontlines. 

But they were working together that night at Ford’s Theatre, and they were all victims of Booth’s fanaticism. Federal authorities struck at anyone who gave off the slightest hint of involvement in the conspiracy.

Stagehand Edman Spangler, a long-time friend of Booth’s, spent three years imprisoned at Fort Jefferson in the Dry Tortugas along with conspirators Samuel Arnold and Michael O’Laughlen. Secretary of War Edwin Stanton likewise had the theater’s owner, John Ford, arrested and held in Washington’s Old Capitol Prison for 39 days, never formally charging him with any crime.

“Keene, Ford, and the 44 other theater workers were casualties of the Civil War,” states Bogar. “As I wrote the book, I periodically visited their graves to let them know that someone was finally telling their story. I feel like I know them, and I hope that readers will feel that way, too.”