Backstage at the Lincoln Assassination:
The Untold Story of the Actors and Stagehands at Ford's Theater

Thomas A. Bogar
Regnery Publishing, 2013, 375 pp., $27.95
Review by Gordon Berg
     Charles Francis Byrne, John Mathews, and Helen Muzzy are among forty six all but forgotten individuals who had unintended parts in the greatest tragedy ever played out in an American theater.  History has plentifully recorded what happened in Ford's Theater on the evening of April 14, 1865.  But what about backstage?  The assassination of Abraham Lincoln by John Wilkes Booth forever changed the lives of the men and women working in the theater that night.  Thomas Bogar resurrects these unintended actors in an entertaining, delightfully written narrative, that offers an innovative perspective on an oft told tale.

       Historians have generally followed the evening's two main protagonists; one across 10th Street to the Peterson boarding house and martyrdom, the other across the Navy Yard bridge to Richard Garrett's tobacco barn and infamy.  Bogar sets himself a more formidable task.  "I have consciously given preference to the perceptions and words of those who experienced that night," Bogar relates, "and its subsequent harrowing days, from backstage, rather than to accounts by audience members, as has largely been the case to date."  He found a few performers, like lead actress Laura Keene, who were already public figures and left a paper trail to follow.  Some backstage hands took advantage of their chance notoriety and later spoke freely and publicly of events of that night as they knew them.  But most of that night's unfortunate bit players and backstage staff sought to distance themselves from events and willingly faded into obscurity.  Bringing them to life is an accomplishment of the first order. 

        Bogar, a theater historian by trade, offers more than capsule biographies of unfamiliar individuals.  He interweaves the state of the theater in wartime America with the way thespians of the time lived and worked.  Booth was one of the highest paid actors of his era and a favorite of Lincoln's.  After one performance, the president asked to meet the actor; the request was curtly refused.  Lincoln loved attending the theater in Washington, and he especially liked going to see light comedy at the recently refurbished building owned and managed by the three Ford brothers. 

        In a brief, fast paced, chapter, Bogar vividly describes the confusion, pandemonium, and anguish that occurred immediately after Booth's fateful shot.  Even before Mrs. Lincoln's ear-piercing scream alerted cast and audience that something was amiss, Booth was already backstage, shoving past novice actress Jeannie Gourlay and orchestra conductor Billy Withers.  He hit "basket boy" Peanut John, who was holding his getaway horse in an alley behind the theater, with the butt of a Bowie knife and galloped away.  Many recognized the fleeing Booth even before they realized Lincoln had been shot.  Actor Tom Gourlay quickly brought a prop table that allowed Dr. Charles Taft to climb from the stage into the presidential box where he was soon joined by Dr. Charles Leale and Ms. Keene.  Manager Harry Ford ordered ticket taker "Buck" Buckingham to find Washington mayor Richard Wallach who was in the audience.  Wallach ordered the theater cleared and stage manager John B. Wright dropped the plush green curtain.  It would not rise again for more than a century.  An evening that began with farce ended in tragedy. 

        Bogar skillfully interweaves a summary of the plot of "Our American Cousin" with the thumb nail biographies of the players and how they came to be together at Ford's.  Some were experienced performers, others members of Ford's stock company, still making their way through the ranks.  Veteran Helen Muzzy had had personal contact with Lincoln the previous year.  Her brother, a Confederate blockade runner, was sentenced to be hung in Norfolk, VA.  Muzzy and her mother made their way to Washington to plead personally with Lincoln for clemency.  Lincoln spared her brother's life and Muzzy remained in Washington to work.  From the stage, she would notice Booth just outside the presidential box that night. 

        Young Ned Emerson bore a striking resemblance to Booth and knew him well.  Rehearsing some lines with actress May Hart the day before in the alley behind Ford's, he was observed gesturing and pointing by two local women who reported what they had seen.  But he was never questioned by authorities or called to testify.  Another friend of Booth's, John Mathews, sometimes entertained the assassin in his rented room at the Peterson house; the very room in which Lincoln would later die.  General and Mrs. Grant, who declined an invitation to accompany the Lincoln's to the theater, passed a mounted Booth on Pennsylvania Avenue on their way to catch a train to New Jersey.  The night of the assassination, theater owner John T. Ford was attending to business 120 miles away in Richmond.  Bogar's book abounds with "stranger than fiction" anecdotes such as these. 

        With close attention to detail, Bogar takes readers through the play's dress rehearsal and performance preparations earlier in the day.  That night, as the fateful moment in Act III, Scene 2 approached, his narrative strategy of short, staccato sentences, builds an atmosphere of anxiety and dread.  From the moment the fatal shot was fired, Bogar maintains, the world of all the personages in the theater "turned upside down."  Authorities relentlessly questioned the theater people, looking for links to the assassination conspiracy.  Only Ned Spangler, a stagehand, would be convicted of any complicity although others had been associated with earlier plans to kidnap Lincoln.

        What happened to the theater people after the investigation and trials were all over?  Ten of them would be dead within a decade.  Laura Keene kept to a rigorous performance schedule but died at age forty-seven in 1873.  John T. Ford became one of the most successful theater managers in America until his death in 1894.  Harry Hawk, the actor on stage when Booth leaped into history, continued to work until he stopped acting and started raising chickens and dogs in Bryn Mar, New Jersey.  He moved to the Channel Islands in 1911 and died there in 1916.  Helen Truman, whose secessionist brother was spared by Lincoln formed a small touring company, retired to Los Angeles, and died at her home in 1924.  The last to die was program boy Joseph Hazelton who was only eleven in 1865.  He moved to California, performed in silent films, became a radio personality, and insisted to his death in 1936 that John Wilkes Booth did not die in Richard Garrett's tobacco barn.  Hazelton insisted that Booth escaped to South America and later returned to the United States where he committed suicide in a hotel in Enid, OK in 1903.  Lincoln was the first of four presidents to die by an assassin's bullet and his death spawned conspiracy theories over the years that rival the finest theater ever performed on the American stage.

Gordon Berg is a past President and member of the Civil War Round Table of the District of Columbia (  His reviews and articles appear in the Civil War Times and America's Civil War, among other publications.

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