Backstage at the Lincoln Assassination, a new book by Dr. Thomas Bogar, has done the impossible by examining the first American presidential assassination in a way that is fresh, shocking, and entirely new. The author's engrossing writing style is evident from the beginning of the first sentence of the preface: "Imagine for a moment that the president of the United States has just been murdered in your workplace by one of your most admired and charismatic colleagues..."
I sat down for a Q&A with Dr. Bogar, who shared some of the enduring myths and mysteries he discovered in eight years of extensive research focusing on the actors and stagehands at Ford's Theatre. The transcript is provided in part below.
Q: Why did you decide to write about Lincoln’s assassination?
A: I kept coming across that playbill from Our American Cousin that you see sometimes with Laura Keene’s acting company and I saw all those names that were on the cast list and I kept thinking: who are these people? My background being theatre, I always come at everything from the theatre angle. And what people forget about the Lincoln assassination is the context of it: it happened in a theatre, with actors and people all around. And all the other accounts that you read, they follow Booth out the back door to the manhunt and the death in the burning barn or they follow Lincoln out the front door to his death in the Peterson House and nobody has ever looked at who these 46 people were who were trapped inside.
Q: Why do you think that part of the story is ignored: because the information was hard to find or because not many approach it from the theatre angle?
Q: Do you think historians tend to emphasize Booth outside the context of Ford’s Theatre?
A: I agree, and people forget that he was magnetic, charismatic…one woman said, “We were like sunflowers, and when he came in the room we just turned to follow the sun,” and he would go into a hotel room and maids would keep coming into his room to check the pillows just to be around him. And people flocked to him. Especially the backstage workers – even today, imagine a huge star like Brad Pitt coming into the theatre and then going out for a drink with the stagehands. And that’s what Booth did.
Q: What questions remain unanswered?
A: Who was involved, and to what extent did they know? Nobody has ever answered the question: how much of the testimony against these people was perjured? I think some of them were threatened into giving perjured testimony so they could have a quick conviction, and get this thing done with.
Q: Was this incompetent or intentional?
A: I think they wanted a quick conviction so there would be a catharsis to heal the nation and move on. Imagine today: a crime like this occurring in April, with a trial in May, and execution the first week of July.
Q: What popular misconceptions does your book challenge?
A: You keep hearing in various books that these were Laura Keene’s acting company, and they weren’t. Laura Keene travelled herself as a star from city to city, and she only took two people with her. The rest were all Ford’s Theatre company, and they weren’t really a cohesive company. They were kind of a ragtag group that had come together. There’s also a misconception because it was Ford’s Theatre that John Ford ran everything, and it was his 21-year-old brother Harry running the whole theatre.
Q: Was the setting of the theatre itself was a large part of Booth’s assassination and escape?
A: It was like a second home to him. He had been around Ford’s Theatre so much: he knew everybody, everybody knew him. There was also an incredible amount of drinking that day. He must have had, by my calculation, 8 or 10 drinks by the time he actually did the deed.
Q: You certainly explore unique parts of the narrative.
A: In most versions, you the reader are looking up on the stage. But what I’ve done is flip that around so you are backstage and the audience is out there. And remember this was before electric lights, so it’s all dark backstage – they’re hearing things, the gas lights are on – it’s a completely different atmosphere.
Q: Ford’s Theatre and Our American Cousin are now completely associated with the Lincoln assassination. Was that true for the actors on that night, as well?
A: Well, it marked them for the rest of their lives, headlined their obituaries. One guy never set foot on the stage again. It was pretty traumatic.
Q: Was it completely inconceivable at that time that an assassination could occur?
A: It pretty much was – Lincoln travelled freely through the city. He carried a big club and carried one or two soldiers with him and had an attitude of, “If they’re going to get me, they’re going to get me, and I can’t hide from the people.”
My interview with Dr. Bogar was just a sneak peek into Backstage at the Lincoln Assassination, which launches today, Monday, November 4. It can be purchased here. It should prove to be a delightful and informative read for any American.
Note: For those in the Washington, DC area, Dr. Bogar will be discussing his book in person at the National Archives on November 20 at noon.