Tuesday, May 10, 2011

A Blood-Stained Rocking Chair in Dearborn

More than a decade ago when I visited Ford’s Theater, where John Wilkes Booth shot President Lincoln on April 14, 1865, five days after Lee surrendered to Grant, I left with one disappointment. I could view only a replica of the rocking chair in which Lincoln sat when America’s sixteenth president was assassinated.  The real chair resides in a museum in Dearborn, Michigan.  Last week, I finally saw it.  

The chair in which President
Abraham Lincoln sat when
John Wilkes Booth shot him.
The carved wood chair with faded, red textured upholstery, clearly stained by blood from Lincoln’s head wound, sits innocuously in a showcase situated among thousands of artifacts from American history in the Henry Ford Museum at Greenfield Village, just southwest of Detroit. (For more information, go to Greenfield Village.)

I visited “America’s Greatest History Attraction,” comprising an 80-acre village of outdoor exhibits; a cavernous, nine-acre museum of trains, planes, buses and cars; and an I-Max Theater with my youngest daughter. We had just attended her grad school graduation in Ann Arbor.  While nearly everything in the museum's walk through U.S. history fascinated us, it was the authentic Lincoln chair, eerily housed near the limo in which President Kennedy was assassinated in 1963, as well as the long, black car President Reagan was entering when John Hinckley shot him in 1981, that held our attention the longest.

For me, this was probably because I’ve been studying and blogging about the American Civil War during its 150th  anniversary, and the assassination of the man who led the nation through its most tragic saga often occupies my thoughts. I also had seen myriad Lincoln sites from coast to coast as I have researched my history/travel books through the years. (See Feb. 22 blog Abraham Lincoln: Man In The Middle.)  

Presidential Box at
Ford's Theater in
Washington, D.C.
Now my vision of the fateful night when Booth, a handsome, 26-year-old Shakespearean actor, shot Lincoln behind the left ear is complete. I can envision the President in the rocking chair, enjoying a production of Our American Cousin with his wife Mary Todd Lincoln and two guests.  I see the balcony box that theater staffers had decorated in the little three-story, brick theater tucked away on 10th Street NW in Washington, D.C., with red-white-and blue bunting and a framed picture of George Washington.

During the popular play, Booth sneaked into the theater and waited behind a door to the presidential box, framed with gold curtains.  As the audience laughed at an actor’s lines, Booth sprang toward Lincoln’s rocking chair and shot the president. The assassin then jumped from the box to the stage, catching his foot on the decorative bunting. He landed off-balance on the stage, breaking a small bone in his left leg. Still, he managed a clean escape by hobbling through a back stage door to a waiting horse and riding off. (See Currier and Ives representation of the assassination on PHOTOS page.)

Authorities surrounded Booth twelve days later as he hid in a barn in Virginia. Historians still debate whether Booth killed himself or one of his pursuers did so.  

Lincoln died at 7:22 a.m. the next day in a back bedroom at the Petersen House, a nearby boarding house where doctors had administered to him throughout the night.  In the basement museum at Ford's Theater, you can see the blood-stained pillow on which the dying Lincoln rested his head at the Petersen House, as well as his blood-stained top coat. 

To view the bullet that killed Lincoln and fragments of his skull, go to the  National Museum of Health and Medicine on the campus of Walter Reed Medical Center at 6900 Georgia Avenue in Washington.  Also in the museum: a section of Booth's spinal column revealing the path of the bullet that killed him. For information, go to  NMHM.
Mark your calendar:  Greenfield Village will host a Discovering the Civil War exhibit from May 21 through September 5, 2011. You can tour the building where Lincoln practiced law in Springfield, Ill., moved piece by piece to Dearborn, as were other large artifacts in the village.

Opening in February 2012, the new Center for Education and
 Leadership at Ford’s Theater will explore the lasting effect Abraham Lincoln’s
presidency has had on our country. For more information, go to Ford's Theater National Historic Site.