Hi, and welcome to the Lincoln assassination tour. I’m Rick Snider, a Washington tour guide and journalist. Yes, I said “War-shington.” That’s how multi-generational locals say it.
I’m a distant cousin of assassin John Wilkes Booth on my mom’s side and co-conspirator Mary Surratt on my dad’s side. Wait, I’m also related to five U.S. presidents. I’m not all bad, you know.
Why are we standing here in front of a man on a horse? Well, all good stories start somewhere and you’re in the middle of three locations where Lincoln’s assassination played out. The man on the horse is president Andrew Jackson, and the statue predates Lincoln’s presidency, but this is a great meeting place for tours.
Before we set off, let me explain how this works. VoiceMap uses your location to play commentary automatically. You can put your phone in your pocket, and focus on your surroundings. You’ll hear my voice again when you reach the next destination, and I'll give you directions to keep you on track.
Let’s walk to Col. Henry Rathbone’s house now, while I give the assassination’s basics. Facing the White House, turn right and follow the sidewalk to the next street.
Why did Booth kill Lincoln? The simple answer is that Booth resented Lincoln – not only for freeing the slaves, but also because he announced that slaves would receive equal voting rights just three days before he was assassinated.
“That’s the last speech he’ll ever give,” Booth told his co-conspirators, while listening to Lincoln outside the White House. And, it was.
Booth was a famous actor, some say the Brad Pitt of his day. Born into a family of Shakespearian actors near Baltimore, Booth promised his mother he wouldn’t join the Southern army. Instead, he became a spy, and after a failed attempt to kidnap the president two weeks earlier, Booth decided to kill him.
Booth felt states, not the federal government, should have deciding power over slavery and that Lincoln was acting like an emperor rather than someone elected by the public. For that reason, Booth decided Lincoln should die.
OK, you’re at 712 Jackson Place, or Rathbone House. Look for the numbers above the door.
Col. Henry Rathbone was an accidental figure in the Lincoln assassination.
Lincoln invited General Grant to Ford’s Theater on the fateful night, but he declined. The president asked another five other people at his Cabinet meeting to attend, but with the end of the Civil War, they were all busy. It fell to the Union officer to attend, with his stepsister and fiancee Clara. I mean, he lived across the street from the White House. He couldn’t make excuses.
Speaking of the White House, you can make your way over to it now. Walk straight ahead, to its right side.
When Booth shot Lincoln, Rathbone was sitting on the far side of the theater box. He jumped from his chair and lunged at Booth, only to have the assassin stab his forearm with a knife. Booth then escaped from the box.
Rathbone eventually married Clara, the woman sitting next to him that night. They had three children together.
Eighteen years later, while Rathbone was the U.S. envoy to Hanover in Germany, he had a nervous breakdown. He believed that Clara was having an affair, and stabbed her to death. Then he tried to kill the children and himself. Rathbone was placed in a German asylum, where he died in 1911.
Clara and Henry were buried together, in Germany. Years later, when the cementary was overcrowded, officials dug them up, cremated the remains and scattered them into a nearby river.
The White House
You’re walking past the front door of the White House, at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. The smaller white building to the right is the West Wing. It housed Lincoln’s office. There wasn’t a fence back then, so people would walk right over and knock on Lincoln’s door, seeking jobs.
At 55,500 square feet, the White House was the biggest home in America during the Civil War. Lincoln’s bedroom was on the middle of the second floor, but on the other side of the building for privacy.
Lincoln’s made his final speech at night, from a second story window on the right-hand side of the building. With Lee’s surrender at Appomattox – and the end of a war that had dragged on for four years – candles burned across the city, in every window of every building.
Residents flocked to the White House, where Lincoln addressed a growing crowd, including Booth and two of his co-conspirators. It was here that Lincoln declared the equality of former slaves, and here that Booth first decided on his course of action.
The White House is much the same as it was in Lincoln’s time – only it was still called the President’s Palace back then. Teddy Roosevelt made the public’s name for it official in 1901 – a name it had acquired because of the regular paint jobs the building had to undergo to stay white.
This is the north side, patterned after the parliament building in Dublin by Irish architect James Hoban. He built the original White House in 1800, then returned to rebuilt it in 1814, after it was burned by the British in the War of 1812. The white tents you see are for the media, who use them when reporting from the White House live.
Approaching Seward's House
Turn left here, at the statue of Lafayette on the corner, and you’ll be on Madison Place. We’re heading to the home of Secretary of State William Seward.
Lincoln loved visiting Seward. His letters describe packing his horse for the ride… Uh, it’s only 100 yards or so away. The woods were a little denser then, I suppose, but it’s not like the three miles Lincoln rode to his summer cottage to escape the stench of the canal that used to flow on the other side of the White House.
Lafayette Park, sometimes called Lafayette Square, was once a cemetery and a race track. Look out for ghosts and galloping horses, including First Lady Dolly Madison, who is said to haunt the porch of the home at the far end of the street.
Secretary of State William Seward’s house is just to your right, but it’s now a courthouse with gates and steps. On the fateful night of Lincoln’s assassination, it was much like the homes you see to your left.
In Lincoln’s time, the secretary of state was second in the line of succession to the presidency, after the vice president. Today, the secretary is fifth.
Booth wanted to simultaneously kill the three highest ranking men in the country – Lincoln, vice president Andrew Johnson and Seward – to create complete chaos and give the south once last chance to win the war.
Co-conspirator Lewis Powell was tasked with killing Seward. He pushed past Seward’s doorman, but broke his gun fighting off Seward’s son in a hallway. Left with only a knife, he was then forced to stab Seward in the neck. The bedroom’s dimly-lit oil lamps concealed Seward’s neck brace from a recent carriage accident, and he suffered only minor wounds.
Eventually, Powell was forced out by family members. While the doorman screamed of, “Murder! Murder!” to passersby, Powell headed straight to the trees in the park behind you, where co-conspirator David Herold was supposed to wait. Only Herold chickened out and left. Powell was forced to flee on foot, up the sidewalk to your left. He was captured soon afterwards, and was one of four people hanged for the conspiracy. Seward lived another seven years and led the U.S. purchase of Alaska. It’s still known as Seward’s Folly.
Turn back now, and return to Lafayette’s statue. When you get there, turn left onto Pennsylvania Ave. Don’t worry about traffic – only police cars drive on the road.
You might recognize the building on your right from the back of $10 bills. It’s the U.S. Treasury, where all revenues are collected. The biggest revenue source is annual income tax where Americans pay a percentage of their overall income to the government to cover its costs.
The Treasury blocks the White House’s view of the Capitol. The plan was for the president and legislators to keep each other in sight. Politicians didn’t trust each other then. Not like nowadays, huh?
PNC Bank, on your left, was on the old $10 bills, and has been the bank of the presidents since James Madison. Today, they use the ATM on the left. Kidding. On weekends, watch out for street hockey games.
We’re going to make our way to the Willard Hotel now. Cross 15th Street here and turn right – but look both ways! It was the site of the first pedestrian crossing death in Washington history in 1906. A young newspaper boy didn’t notice an oncoming power company truck. Washington drivers can be pushy, especially in rush hour, so be careful.
Sun Trust Bank
I love the red triangular building on far left corner. It was built during Lincoln’s time, so he would have seen it. The red stone came from nearby Maryland during the 1860s, down a canal.
You’ll see the same stone scattered across town in other government buildings, churches and a castle on the National Mall. You’re walking on the same streets as many of our forefathers, including Lincoln, though the streets were paved in 1871 after his time.
Old Ebbitt Grill
The Star Spangled Banner was written just to your left, at the Old Ebbitt Grill. Yes, the one with the blue canopies. Washingtonian Francis Scott Key based the national anthem on the tune of an old British drinking song.
Old Ebbitt is one of the top places to eat in town and still reasonably priced. If you want to feel like a local, order the crab cakes and a local beer. You can also take a look at old photographs of Washington on the walls and wander through the old bar, where Key wrote the anthem. He was on his way home from Baltimore, and he saw the British bomb the city. It wasn’t long after they burned Washington, during the War of 1812.
Don’t worry about the crowds. Old Ebbitt is a very large restaurant and there’s usually room for a few more. It’s most crowded after work so a reservation isn’t a bad idea.
The Washington hotel is coming up on your left. Singer Chris Brown was arrested for fighting with a fan under its canopy.
See the U.S. Capitol down the street? You’re looking at Pennsylvania Ave. which connects the White House and Capitol and serves as the town’s main street. All president inaugural parades come down this route. All 50 states have streets named after them in Washington, but Pennsylvania is the most prominent.
Turn left here, and you’ll see the Willard Hotel just ahead.
The Willard is known as the president’s hotel because so many of them have stayed here. Calvin Coolidge was a guest for several months, and is just one of the hotel’s list of rich and famous clients – others are P.T. Barnum, the Duke of Windsor and Mark Twain, plus people like me, who got a deal on Groupon.
Lincoln spent his first nights in town at the Willard, after being quietly smuggled into Washington before his first inauguration. His second inaugural banquet was at the Willard.
On the day of the assassination, Booth was seen eating lunch at the Willard. Dining nearby was General Grant’s wife. She was unnerved by his presence, and later said that Booth stared at her throughout the meal.
Now, Booth thought the Grants would be sitting next to the Lincolns at the Ford’s Theatre, and killing the general would have certainly been a bonus. But Mrs. Grant wouldn’t have been a target, and maybe the encounter was pure chance.
Look over to your left at the flags flying over the entrance to the Willard. The one with two red bars and three red stars is the city’s emblem. It’s patterned after George Washington’s coat of arms.
Washington’s ancestor was a British soldier in 798. He defended King Eardwulf from an invading king in a battle in Northumberland, England. As a reward, Eardwulf dipped two fingers in the blood of the dead king and wiped them across Washington’s shield to make him a noble, which are also denoted by the red stars.
The Willard has other links to the Civil War. It hosted the Peace Conference shortly beforehand. Nobody expected peace – it was just a way for north and south to attract border states to their side. Julia Howe also wrote The Battle Hymn of the Republic at the Willard, and it became a marching song for Union troops.
Keep going on Pennsylvania Avenue.
Booth arrived at the National Theatre, to your left, at 2 p.m, after lunch at the Willard Hotel. He was meeting John McDaniel, an old friend. Booth handed McDaniel a sealed letter and asked McDaniel to deliver it to local paper The National Intelligencer if he didn’t hear from him the next day.
The next morning, McDaniel awoke to the news of Lincoln’s death. He read the letter immediately and tore it up, because he was afraid of being implicated. McDaniel was smart: anyone associated with Booth was arrested. It’s bad for us unfortunately, because we’ll never really know what Booth’s intentions were.
Keep an eye out for the ghost of murdered actor John McCullough here. He died below the theater and sometimes appears to declare, “I will protect the theater!” before vanishing.
You can cross over Freedom Plaza here. Follow it to the far right corner to remain on Pennsylvania Avenue.
The crew of co-conspirators Booth rounded up were part of the failed attempt to kidnap Lincoln. All the organization that had gone into that allowed him the actor to move so quickly, and have a plan in place within hours. But many of the co-conspirators weren’t happy with the assassination. Things had changed, the war was over, and murder was a whole lot different than kidnapping Lincoln, especially at a time that might still have saved the south.
Booth coerced them by telling the group they were all named in the letter he gave John McDaniel, with instructions to forward it on to a newspaper. It was blackmail, because they would suffer the consequences of an assassination anyway. Indeed, two were imprisoned and one executed even though they refused to be part of the assassination.
On the fateful night of the assassination, the building just over the road – at 1111 Pennsylvania Avenue – was a bustling hotel called the Kirkwood, and vice president Andrew Johnson was a guest .
Today, it’s an office building, but it’s still the site of Johnson’s swearing-in ceremony. Along with Lyndon Johnson’s ceremony on Air Force One, they’re the only non-government sites for presidential oaths.
Booth stopped by the Kirkwood during the afternoon, to check on Johnson’s location. Apparently the vice president was napping. Johnson was essentially in exile at the time, because he had appeared at his swearing-in drunk the previous month, , because he really didn’t have much to do. Lincoln’s death suddenly made him the president.
George Axerodt was supposed to kill Johnson at the same time as Lincoln and Seward. Axerodt arrived at the hotel one hour early, but after drinking heavily in the bar decided to abandon the plan and left. He was later hanged for his part in the conspiracy. Johnson finished Lincoln’s term, but didn’t seek re-election.
There’s a sign on the left side of the corner showing historical photos of this location. Go over and take a look.
On one side, you’ll see President Woodrow Wilson walking in his inaugural parade. See how different the street looked then? There are also women marching for voting rights. They were the suffragettes.
On the other side of the sign is a photo of Lincoln’s funeral passing this spot. Notice how different the buildings were. Most of the old row houses you can see were razed in the 1900s, to make way for new federal government buildings, but you’ll pass a few of them on the way to Ford’s Theatre.
There’s also a photo of Mrs. Lincoln. She wasn’t well liked by Washington’s society ladies and became a recluse. But then, she was still troubled by the deaths of two sons. After her husband’s death, Mrs. Lincoln spent time in a sanitarium.
Finally, there’s a photo of Pennsylvania Avenue, facing the Capitol from this location.
Once you’ve finished looking at the sign, head up 10th Street. We’re almost at Ford’s Theatre, where the assassination took place.
Look over to the right and you’ll see the FBI building. Yes, some 7,000 G-men work in that building. The square windows are typical of an architectural style called brutalism. You’ve got to love the FBI working in a brutal building.
The flags along the front include every flag the U.S. has used since 1776. The number of stars has changed more than anything else, and the original 13 red and white stripes, representing the founding colonies, never changes. The street itself is much larger than normal. After the 1995 car bombing of the FBI building in Oklahoma City, the sidewalks were widened and bordered by large cement planters, to protect the agency.
Ford’s Theatre and Petersen House
Up ahead, on the right, you’ll see a sign for Ford’s Theatre. The best Lincoln souvenirs are sold in the building on the left corner. Petersen House, on the left midway up the street, with a line of people waiting outside, is where Lincoln died.
We’re approaching the end of the story, but it’s actually a story that never ends. More than 16,000 books have been written about Abraham Lincoln and what happened here on April 14, 1865.
The street is a little different than 1865. It was dirt then, for a start. Several buildings nearby are being renovated, but there’s enough of the character of 10th St. to still get a feel for how it looked 150 years ago.
Pause here for a moment, and I’ll continue the story of that fateful day. You can sit on the steps outside the theater.
Let’s start with Ford’s Theater. Booth first heard that Lincoln was coming to the play right here, at 10 a.m. that morning. He sat on these very same gray stone steps, hatching his plan.
Booth returned at 9 p.m. He left his horse at the back of the building and came up the alleyway to the right of Ford’s. It looks like a door now, just to the left of the sign for the Star Saloon.
Booth entered the Star Saloon on the right of the door. He drank whiskey for an hour because, if you’re going to kill a president, you might need a little liquid courage. Just before 10 p.m., when the play was due to start, Booth argued with the bartender, who said Booth would never be the actor his father was.
“When I leave the stage for the last time,” Booth said, “no one will ever forget me.”
Booth entered the theater doors in front of you and climbed the stairs, where he was greeted by Lincoln’s secretary. Booth showed his card, and was invited inside the president’s box, where he jammed the door closed behind him.
Booth then shot Lincoln once in the back of the head. Colonel Rathbone leapt to the president’s defense, but Booth disabled him by putting his knife through Rathbone’s forearm.
Booth then jumped over the edge of the box to the stage, 10 feet below. The startled audience wasn’t sure why he was suddenly in the play. Ever the Shakespearian actor, Booth lifted his knife and said, “Sic Semper Tyranus,” before escaping through the back of the theatre. Sic Semper Tyranus is what Brutus said when he killed Caesar. It means, “Thus be to tyrants.”
Doctors at the theater knew that Lincoln was dying. He wasn’t going to make it back to the White House, but they didn’t want him to die in a theater. Six Union soldiers carried him out, into this street – without any sort of plan – only to find more than 2,000 people already here, hysterical over the president being shot. The soldiers didn’t know what to do next, and they just stopped, still carrying Lincoln’s body, close to where you are right now.
Across the street, to the right of the Lincoln Center for Education and Leadership, there’s a private home. It used to be a boarding house, and on April 14, the owner, John Petersen, was standing at the top of those steps. He waved the soldiers in, and the president died there the following morning, in the back room.
“And now he belongs to the ages,” said Secretary of War Edwin Stanton when he passed.
You can enter Ford’s, Petersen House and the adjacent Center for Education and Leadership during the day for free. Just ask for tickets at Ford’s box office.
OK, when you’re ready, start walking again, up to F Street. Turn right at the corner.
Turn right midway down the street, down the alley. Ford’s was once a Baptist church, and this area is called Baptist Alley. After reaching the alley’s end, look to the building at the end. That’s Ford’s Theater. You’ll know by all the one-time windows and doors that are now bricked up. The door on the bottom right is still used, though. It was the same one Booth used – he rode through an alleyway of tents where those unable to find housing in the overflowing city were camped.
The wall you at the end of the alley, to your right, is the back of Ford’s. You’re standing exactly where Booth fled to after shooting Lincoln. After escaping out the back of the theater, he grabbed his horse and fled. He was caught about 70 miles away in Port Royal, Virginia, where he was shot to death by Union troops.
What happened to everyone else? Booth’s death was just the start. Co-conspirators Louis Powell, Mary Surratt, George Azelrodt and David Herold were all hanged three months later. Dr. Samuel Mudd, Edman Spangler, Michael O’Laughlin and Samuel Arnold, who were also party to the conspiracy, were sentenced to life in prison. O’Laughlin died in prison two years later. The others were pardoned after four years.
So, you’ve now retraced the final day of Lincoln’s life. His assassination was just a spontaneous decision by a bitter man wanting revenge.
Americans rate Lincoln highly, and many consider him our greatest president, because he saved the country from splitting into two. I personally think George Washington’s achievement was greater – after all, he created the presidency and the government. Still, Lincoln’s simple approach to government and life made him much loved. It ended too soon.
Where would the U.S. be without Lincoln? Probably two, three or maybe four countries. The northern states would have remained the United States while the South would have become the Confederate States. Some of the later incoming states would have joined either the northern or southern countries, but the far western states and even Texas might have formed their own nations. And Hawaii and Alaska probably never would have joined the U.S.
So Lincoln not only preserved the nation, he also kept it from being several nations. That’s why Americans owe so much to him.