Two Ford’s Theatre Tickets for Night of Lincoln Murder to Be Auctioned

Nikki Brickett/RR Auction
Two tickets for second-level front-row seats 41 and 42 in section D of the Dress Circle at Ford’s Theatre on the night President Abraham Lincoln was assassinated. The tickets are going up for auction Saturday at RR Auction in Boston.

It was the last night of actress Laura Keene’s 11-show stand at Ford’s Theatre in Washington, this time in the comedy “Our American Cousin.” It was also Good Friday, April 14, 1865. And word had come that President Abraham Lincoln would be there.

Among the crowd were two people who had tickets for prime front-row seats on the second-level – Nos. 41 and 42 D in the Dress Circle. The tickets were green. They were stamped with the date, and the corners had been clipped off, probably by the doorkeeper.

The patrons probably walked down carpeted steps and sat in wooden chairs with cane seats. To the right they could see the private box where at about 8:30 p.m. Lincoln, his wife, Mary, and two friends entered. The play stopped. Everyone stood up. The band played “Hail to the Chief.”

Those tickets, whose owners are believed to have been present for the assassination of Lincoln moments later, are going up for auction Saturday at a Boston auction house that says it is certain they are authentic.

Being sold with the tickets is the envelope in which they once were enclosed. On the envelope is an old notation in ink: “Front Seats, Dress Circle, Reserved, Complimentary, Fords Theatre, April 14, 1865. (Night of assassination of President Lincoln.)”

It’s not known who wrote the note.

Nikki Brickett/RR Auction
A message written on the envelope describes the historic tickets to Ford’s Theatre the night Abraham Lincoln was assassinated.

The tickets have not been for sale in over 20 years. The current owner is a manuscript collector from Southern California who has asked not to be identified, said Bobby Livingston, executive vice president of RR Auction, which is hosting the auction.

The manuscript collector purchased them in 2002 at an auction of items from the collection of the late magazine publisher Malcolm Forbes. The price was $83,650. The current value is estimated to be about $100,000, RR says on its website.

Forbes had bought the tickets in 1992 from an anonymous owner. It is not known who owned them before that, Livingston said.

And the names of the two patrons?

“Unfortunately, that’s kind of lost to history,” Livingston said.

Their tickets were “reserved,” “complimentary” and were for seats that were among the best in the house.

Washington was swarming with happy people that week. The main Confederate army under Gen. Robert E. Lee had just surrendered six days earlier, essentially ending four years of civil war, and the city was filled with soldiers.

“On Tenth Street that evening, Ford’s Theatre presented an atmosphere of theatrical gaiety coupled with the religious mystery of Good Friday,” National Park Service historian George J. Olszewski wrote in his 1963 report on the theater’s restoration.

“The glimmer … of the huge gas lamp standing in front of the theater … was enhanced by the sickly, yellowish flame of black smoking tar torches stuck in barrels running down the street to Pennsylvania Avenue,” he wrote.

“At each barrel stood a barker yelling, ‘This way to Ford’s,'” Olszewski wrote.

The patrons probably saw this scene as they entered the lobby and went to their seats. There, they had a great view of the stage below, and a clear view of the presidential box.

“Whoever they were, they never would have seen the actual assassination,” Livingston said in a telephone interview Tuesday.

The murder happened in the shadows of the presidential box where the assassin, John Wilkes Booth, crept up behind Lincoln and fired his gun, he said.

“But they certainly would have seen Booth jump out of the box” and down onto the stage, he said. “They would have a perfect line of sight to that, I believe.”

After firing a single bullet from a small pistol into the back of Lincoln’s head, Booth, with a knife, slashed the arm of Army Maj. Henry Rathbone, who was sitting with the Lincolns, and jumped down onto the stage.

“Sic semper tyrannis!” Booth yelled. Thus always to tyrants.

Rathbone cried out, “Stop that man!”

His fiancée, Clara H. Harris, who was with him, screamed: “The president is shot!”

“People began pushing one another aside and knocked one another down to squeeze through the exits,” historian James Swanson wrote in his 2010 book about the assassination, “Bloody Crimes.”

“Many screamed,” Swanson wrote. “Others wept. Soon more than one thousand panicked playgoers were crowded in the front of the theater.”

Many watched as a few minutes later the president was carried out of the theater, across Tenth Street and into Petersen’s boardinghouse, where he died the next morning.

No one knows how the people in seats D41 and D42 – who had front-row seats to the tragedy – reacted. What did they hear and see?

Their second-tier seats might have made it hard to make their way down to the exits and escape the building. Because the tickets stayed together all these years, the patrons may have been a couple. All that is known for sure is that the tickets were saved.

Livingston said he is certain they are authentic. “There are several indications of such,” he said. “One is they’re both stamped with that date on it. It’s faded but you can still see it: April 14, 1865. Good for this night only.”

“Also, the seat assignments are on there,” he said, penciled in – Section D, and seats 41 and 42.

They have “also been clipped,” probably by the doorkeeper, he said. He said the auction house is positive they are tickets that were used at Ford’s Theatre on April 14, 1865.

“It’s [an] extremely big deal for collectors of Lincoln, and ticket collectors,” Livingston said. “You just don’t see these. This is the first time these have been back on the market in 20 years.”

“What a tragic night,” he said. “And something to witness.”

Washington Post photo by Jonathan Newton
Ford’s Theatre, where John Wilkes Booth shot President Abraham Lincoln in April 1865.