The bill at Ford’s Theatre on April 14 featured light comedy and high celebrity. The newspapers had served notice that the president and Mrs. Lincoln and General and Mrs. Grant would be attending that evening’s performance of Laura Keene in My American Cousin. The Grants didn’t make it. They’d left for Burlington, New Jersey, that afternoon to visit their children. Their place in the presidential box was taken by a young military couple, Army Major Henry Rathbone and his fiance;e, Clara Harris. Flags were draped on either side of the balcony. The partition that normally divided it into two boxes was gone and more comfortable furniture had been hauled in for the Lincoln party, including a rocking chair for the long-legged, theater-loving president. Richmond had been captured, the end was at hand. A festive spirit prevailed.
All that ended at ten fifteen with the muffled crack of Booth’s derringer, although at first no one knew for certain what had happened. Booth, after all, was a well-known actor around the capital. Only four weeks earlier, he’d performed at Ford’s Theatre. The dramatic leap to the stage, his raised dagger (the one he had just used to slash Henry Rathbone after shooting the president), the shouted oath “Sic Semper Tyrannis” (Thus Always to Tyrants, the state motto of Virginia) were so theatrical they might have been part of the show, a skit added to amuse or startle Lincoln. Even the paid actors that night were initially uncertain about what John Wilkes Booth was doing among them.
That seems to explain why no one bothered to stop him. Ford’s Theatre on the evening of April 14 bristled with men carrying sidearms, men who had used them recently in battle and were certainly ready to use them again. It is a mark of the sheer audacity of Booth’s act—its unthinkability—that he wasn’t cut down before he could clear the stage and get to the horse he had waiting in the alley behind the theater. Booth came, he fired, and left, with an ease breathtaking in comparison to our own time, when presidents are hermetically sealed away during public appearances.
It wasn’t long before the shock wore off and reality set in. Henry Rathbone shouted, “Stop that man!” Mrs. Lincoln cried out miserably, “They have shot the president!” There was no mistaking the message this time. Booth had used a wooden bar to block anyone from entering behind him into the presidential box. Bleeding freely from a deep gash that ran nearly from shoulder to elbow, Major Rathbone finally knocked the bar loose, and with that, the balcony swelled with doctors, officers, government officials, well-wishers, the morbidly curious, gawkers. Even Laura Keene, the star of the show, came up for a look. The place was as unprotected after Booth struck as it had been before he had arrived, and everyone wanted to lend a hand. In the days afterward, hundreds of those attending the performance—and some who had never come near the theater that evening—would claim to have helped lift Lincoln from the rocker he had been sitting in, or to have carried him down the stairs and out into the street, or to have aided in settling him in the Peterson house across the way, at 453 Tenth Street, where nine hours later he would finally die.
Those who couldn’t get a hand on the president rushed to police headquarters farther down Tenth Street, to add their recollections of the moment to what quickly became a tidal wave of often conflicting testimony. A deeply human man, Lincoln was on his way to immortality from the moment Booth pulled the trigger. It was only natural to want to put your oar in at the moment of transformation.
Almost alone among the crowd at Fords Theatre that evening, Leonard James Farwell seems to have worried less about the dying president than the man who would be replacing him. Farwell and Andrew Johnson had suites down the hall from each other at Kirkwood House on the northeast corner of Pennsylvania Avenue and Twelfth Street, four blocks from the White House and a short walk from Ford’s Theatre. They were both ex-governors, Farwell of Wisconsin and Johnson of Tennessee. Although the vice president had been living at the hotel for only a month, the two men had come to know each other, and as Lincoln was being carried down the stairs and across the street, Farwell rushed back to the hotel to be by Johnson’s side. The Dictionary of Wisconsin History concludes its brief entry on Farwell with the observation that he “saved Vice President Andrew Johnson’s life on the night Lincoln was assassinated by warning him of an attack.” That’s not the case. The vice president’s would-be assailant lost his nerve—or drank it away—before Farwell ever arrived. The exaggeration is understandable, though. It was a night of excess all the way around.
Leonard Farwell, Johnson’s would-be savior, was born in Watertown, in upstate New York, in 1819. Around 1840 he showed up in Milwaukee, where he launched a successful career as a hardware merchant and real-estate entrepreneur. In 1847, two years before Wisconsin became a state, he began amassing large tracts of land east of the future capital at Madison. Farwell would be the state’s second governor, serving from 1852 through 1854. A progressive, he helped establish the state’s first institute for the deaf and mute. Wisconsin abolished capital punishment under his watch. Mostly Farwell was a one-man chamber of commerce for Madison itself. He built a mill to lure farmers into the city, drained marshes, graded and widened the streets, planted 6,000 maple and cottonwood trees, and sat on the boards of both the Dane County Bank and the Madison Gas Light & Coke Company. For good measure, he also set about giving the bodies of water that surround Madison more easily pronounced names. The largest of the Yahara chain, which the Winnebago had called Wonk-sheck-ho-mik-la, or “where the Indians live,” became Lake Mendota, Chippewa for “large” or “great.” For himself, Farwell built the grandest house Madison had ever seen in its brief history, a three-story octagonal mansion on what was known as the Third Lake Ridge.
Inevitably, since railroads were America’s newest engine of great wealth, Farwell got deeply involved in one: a forty-two mile stretch of track known as the Watertown and Madison Railroad Company. The railroad is what wiped him out. On August 24, 1857, the New York City branch of the Ohio Life Insurance and Trust Company collapsed under the weight of massive embezzlement, and the Panic of 1857 was on. Foreign investors pulled their capital out of American banks, grain prices collapsed, inventory piled up in the factories. Already overbuilt, the smaller railroads went under one by one, and as they did, so vanished the value of all the speculative real estate the railroads were to open up.Somewhere along the way late in that bottomless year of 1857, Leonard Farwell, who only three years earlier had been Wisconsin’s celebrated governor and its capital’s most ardent booster, lost his bid for election to the Madison Board of Alderman by nine votes. Bankrupt and in disgrace, he sold his mansion to three men from Milwaukee. The Civil War that began four years later gave Farwell a second chance, and Washington was the place to seize it.
The nation’s capital was still in its raw youth at the outbreak of the war. Thomas Jefferson had been the first president to be inaugurated in Washington, on March 4, 1801, less than a year after the seat of power had been officially moved from New York City. Sixty years later, the capital had a grand plan—Pierre Charles L’Enfant’s masterwork—but little to show for it. Funds were in chronically short supply. So was interest in a nation that still cared more for its state capitals, places like Farwell’s Madison, than its national one. As the late historian Shelby Foote pointed out, it wasn’t until after the Civil War that the United States was generally regarded as grammatically singular. Before the war, sentences would commonly begin: “The United States of America are . . .”
The U.S. Census of 1860 recorded 61,122 people living in the District of Columbia—1,245 fewer residents than Albany, New York; about half the residents of Chicago; 100,000 fewer than Cincinnati; a little better than one-twentieth the population of New York City and Brooklyn (then a separate municipality) combined. Washington city maps of the time show a populated area that stretched from the Potomac River to Boundary Street, now Florida Avenue. North of Rhode Island Avenue, though, travelers were already in the sticks.
The U.S. Capitol had two new wings by the time the 1860s began, but not yet its current dome. A plan to erect a privately financed grand equestrian monument to George Washington had petered out in 1855 for lack of contributions. Thus far, there was only a stub to honor the first president. A block west of it, the National Mall extended like a thumb out into the river. The Mall itself was split lengthwise by a grimy canal. Everything south of what is now Constitution Avenue and west of Seventeenth Street was swamp. The Potomac sat mostly stagnant over the current sites of the Lincoln Memorial, the FDR Memorial, and the memorials to the Vietnam and Korean wars, at an average depth of about one foot—a breeding ground for mosquitoes and the malaria they carried. One building survives today on the Mall from that era—the red brick, castlelike Smithsonian, designed by James Renwick and built with funds bequeathed to the new nation by Scotsman James Smithson.