Backstage at the Lincoln Assassination: The Untold Story of the Actors and Stagehands at Ford’s Theatre
Thomas A. Bogar, Regnery History
On the night of Abraham Lincoln’s assassination, 46 actors, managers and stagehands worked at Ford’s Theatre. In the aftermath, those 46 were shocked, saddened, suspected and, in several cases, imprisoned. Thomas Bogar’s engrossing narrative chronicles the largely unfamiliar story of the theatrical community and the assassination.
Lincoln had attended performances at Ford’s many times prior to April 14, 1865. The theater’s reputation as prosecessionist did not seem to trouble the president (though it did some actors, including John Wilkes Booth’s brother Edwin, who avoided it in favor of pro-Union stages). Owner John T. Ford was in Richmond on that fateful night. His brother Harry, who managed the theater, was a good friend of Booth’s. Several others associated with the theater were avowed secessionists, and one actor had relatives in the CSA. There were also plenty of ardent Unionists and veterans among the theater’s employees, but on this night everyone was regarded as a potential conspirator.
Bogar recreates hour by hour the events of that night’s performance of Our American Cousin. Many of Ford’s employees were interrogated, but some were never even interviewed, as the investigation proceeded in haphazard fashion. Only Booth’s friend, stagehand Ned Spangler, was tried as a conspirator. Spangler, who had briefly held Booth’s horse in the alley before heading back inside, heard the shot and saw a man he said he couldn’t identify run out. A carpenter testified at Spangler’s trial that Ned slapped him and then threatened him, saying, “Don’t say which way he went.” No one else heard those words, but Spangler was sentenced to six years of hard labor.
The other actors and stagehands floated away on the stream of history, but Bogar caught up to nearly all of them. Actress Laura Keene, who cradled the president’s bloody head in her lap, fed Washington for Cincinnati. John Dyott, who had been on stage in Act Three, Scene Two when Booth fired, played Polonius to Edwin Booth’s Hamlet in New York in 1866. After accepting a government settlement for his theater, John Ford became a wealthy impresario elsewhere. Some, like doorman John E. Buckingham, published accounts of the evening; others preferred never to speak of it again.
The last survivor was program boy Joseph Hazelton, who was 11 years old in 1865. He died in 1936, a veteran of silent film shorts and radio shows.
Originally published in the April 2014 issue of Civil War Times. To subscribe, click here.