Nothing thrills a writer more than a new story, and theater scholar Thomas Bogar discovered one in the process of re searching his book Backstage at the Lincoln Assassination: The Untold Story of the Actors and Stagehands at Ford’s Theatre. While writing a previous book on American presidents and the theater, Bogar had become curious about the suspects and other Ford’s staff who were swept into the investigation of the president’s murder by John Wilkes Booth during a performance of Our American Cousin on April 14, 1865. The project would occupy him for the next eight years.
Why did you choose to tell the story of the staff at Ford’s Theatre?
I kept thinking: Who are these people? Every book either followed Booth out the back door to that burning tobacco barn or Lincoln out the front door to the Petersen House; nobody looked at the terrified actors, stagehands, managers. I wanted to tell what it was like to be on the stage, with them looking out at the audience, and the terror backstage. So much was in the dark because they didn’t have electric light. The audience was swarming up over the orchestra pit and footlights, and the gas man frantically turned down the lights so they didn’t ignite the dresses of the audience. Soldiers were swarming in. The mob in the street was chanting “Burn the damn place down.” I want the reader to feel what it was like to be trapped in that theater and not allowed to leave.
How many of the theater’s employees were taken in, and how long were they held?
Forty-six. Surprisingly some of them, even half I guess, were never even interrogated. The other half, many of them were interrogated. Of the 46, about a third were arrested and held in the Old Capitol Prison.
How long did the investigation take?
The assassination happens in mid-April, the investigation goes for about a month into May and June, then you have the trial, and the conspirators who are executed, hanged, the first week of July. The whole thing is such a rushed affair. The government, I think, needed a sense of closure so they could put this behind them. Because the plot was so widespread: It was essentially a plan to decapitate a lot of the government. Ulysses Grant was originally a target, too.
Who got the worst treatment?
John Ford, the manager who had been in Richmond when this occurred, was arrested on returning to Baltimore and held for 39 days in the Old Capitol Prison. Stanton refused to allow him to reopen the theater. The most extreme example is stagehand Ned Spangler, a drudge who would do anything for his friend Booth. Spangler ended up being sentenced to six years of hard labor at Fort Jefferson, in the Dry Tortugas. Though he was eventually pardoned by President Andrew Johnson, Spangler was dead within a few years.
Why were stagehands targeted more than actors?
Secretary of War Edwin Stanton was so intransigent about going after stagehands and the Ford brothers, vowing the theater would never reopen, that I’m convinced he was aware something was wrong backstage. There were also several Union veterans present who resented the secessionist expressions they heard backstage. They had to have known what was going on because of the attitude they had and the way they grilled those stagehands.
Tell me about the atmosphere in the theater and in Washington.
Leonard Grover, manager of the National Theater, claimed that his was the Union house and Ford’s was the secessionist house. Ford would bring in people like John E. Owens, Maggie Mitchell and John Forrest, who were sympathetic to the South. Mitchell used to stomp on a Union fag when she performed in the South. Imagine you’ve got Union and Confederate veterans working side by side [at Ford’s] all through the war. There were also free blacks, who would have rankled at hearing secessionist thinking. There had to be a great deal of tension.
Was Lincoln a fan of the theater?
Lincoln really loved the theater. He loved attending lowbrow minstrel shows early in his life, and he kept his love of folksy humor. Our American Cousin is a really hokey script. Yet Lincoln also loved opera; he loved the most sublime passages of Shakespeare. His favorite play was Macbeth.
Did he know Booth?
Lincoln had first seen Booth act in 1863 and admired his acting. The president had invited Booth to meet him, but the actor snarled and cursed and refused to do so.
Why was Lincoln so vulnerable that night?
I found myself wondering how much he was aware of the atmosphere at Ford’s. Yet he took chances, going out with few guards or none, carrying a big stick that Mary insisted on. He had almost a fatalistic attitude when he did attend a play. He had a guard named Parker, kind of a lush, who deserted his post outside the box to drink in the saloon next door. Another man was sitting outside the door when Booth waltzed up, presented his card and got into the president’s box.
Tell us about the evidence in the door to Lincoln’s box.
A peephole had been bored in the door. No one proved it was made by Booth, but he could have done it that afternoon. Harry Ford (John’s brother) insisted that peephole had always been there. Someone, probably Booth, had sawed off a piece of a pine music stand so the stick could wedge the door shut. Once he came through the door to the box, he wedged that stick tightly to keep it shut. Major Henry Rathbone, whom Booth slashed with his knife, pulled that bar off the door and allowed the doctors in. By that time, other doctors had climbed up to the box.
Do you think Booth acted alone?
The conspirators who were hanged were certainly complicit, and there were others who, if not complicit in the plan, were certainly aware. But they thought this was going to be an abduction. Booth repeatedly tried to enlist actor John Mathews in the plot, whether it was to be an abduction or an assassination. They were going to take Lincoln to Baltimore and then down through southern Maryland to Richmond and hold him to exchange for Confederate prisoners. The weirdest detail I came across is that Mathews had rented the same room in the Petersen House where Lincoln would later die.
Do any modern actors remind you of Booth?
Maybe Johnny Depp, in terms of the dashing, heroic figure that he cuts. One actor said that when Booth walked into the room, “We were like sunflowers following the sun.” And Booth was so athletic. When he entered the stage playing Macbeth, he would leap from a rock 8 feet above the stage. So the 11 feet 6 inches that he had to leap out of the presidential box wasn’t that big a deal for him.
Was Booth mentally unstable?
I have a timeline for Booth’s entire day on April 14; there were so many trips to the saloon next door that I calculate he would have had seven or eight drinks that afternoon, which would certainly have contributed to his courage. And he was so intense about so many things, which leads me to think there was some instability there. His father, Junius Brutus Booth Sr., was a famous and brilliant actor, but he was unbelievably inconsistent and unstable and an alcoholic all his life.
Originally published in the April 2014 issue of Civil War Times. To subscribe, click here.