WASHINGTON, D.C. -- Abraham Lincoln was mortally wounded by an assassin's bullet more than 144 years ago. Yet standing in front of the long black double-breasted frockcoat he wore to Ford's Theatre that night in April 1865, its plain gray buttons almost within touching distance behind a thick sheet of glass, our 16th president looms larger than life.
At 6 feet 4 inches, Lincoln was quite tall for his times. But it doesn't strike you just how far above his peers he towered until you're nose-to-nose with the life-size mannequin displaying the bloodstained clothes taken off his body as he lay dying in the Peterson House, across the street from the theater. The square-toed goatskin boots that climbed under his trousers to his shins are equally spellbinding, if surprisingly shabby for a president. The size 14 shoes are worn down at the heels.
Lincoln's oversized garments, of course, could be seen as an allegory for his place in history: The man was huge, in more ways than one. It's those in-your-face details, though, along with the variety of historical artifacts, videos and environmental re-creations displayed in the newly restored Ford's Theatre Museum on 10th Street NW in the nation's capital that bring Lincoln, his presidency and his assassination -- the first of an American president -- by John Wilkes Booth so vividly to life.
It took nearly two years and $3.5 million to turn the subterranean museum, which originally opened in 1932 on the first floor and moved to the basement in 1968, into a 6,868-square-foot, state-of-the-art exhibition space. It reopened to the public July 15, on the heels of a $25 million, 18-month renovation of the working theater that sits atop it. (The new Ford's Theatre made its debut in February.) You don't need a well-thumbed copy of Ronald White's "A. Lincoln: A Biography" on your bedside table to understand the wait was worth it.
The new museum, free to the public, boasts the same fantastic collection of original artifacts belonging to the National Park Service that drew upward of 1 million visitors a year to the old site. Many are related to the assassination and the co-conspirators' failed escape: Along with the thigh-high boot Dr. Samuel Mudd cut off Booth's broken left leg after he fled the theater and the medical kit from which the doomed physician drew his supplies, visitors get to see the large bowie knife George Atzerodt would have used to murder vice president Andrew Johnson had he not chickened out; a reward poster misspelling David Herold's name (it offered a $25,000 reward for "Harold's" capture); and the diary Booth scribbled in a leather appointment book during his 12 days on the run.
The palm-sized .44-caliber Philadelphia derringer pistol Booth used to shoot the president also is on display, seemingly suspended in air in its own case, along with a reproduction of the one-ounce lead bullet fired into the back of Lincoln's head. Visitors are encouraged to touch the latter.
Many other exhibits are brand new. Missing from the old museum was a historical context, an explanation of how the artifacts fit into the larger story of Lincoln's life and why his death was so traumatic to the nation's psyche. The new space helps stitch that story together by focusing not just on Lincoln's murder and its immediate aftermath but by exploring his growth as a politician and orator, and his four years in the White House.
The first thing visitors encounter after walking from the theater lobby through a recreated period rail car is a life-sized figure of You-Know-Who in a military cloak and cap. The eyes then are drawn to a knife, artillery goggles and pair of brass knuckles. In the days leading to Lincoln's first inauguration on Feb. 23, 1861, a sign explains, aides caught wind of a plot to assassinate him as he changed trains in Baltimore on his way from Illinois to Washington. Reluctantly, the president-elect agreed to a change in schedule that took him secretly through Baltimore in the dark, wee hours.
In reporting the event, a New York Times correspondent noted that Lincoln "wore a Scotch plaid cap and a very long military cloak, so that he was entirely unrecognizable." It wasn't true, of course, but the myth -- which prompted the press to report he'd snuck into Washington "like a thief in the night"-- is a good one. So the museum decided to include it anyway as a subtle reminder of the danger he faced in assuming office. (For the record, Lincoln's bodyguard really did give him the brass knuckles, although they were never used.)
Moving into the museum, visitors learn that "Washington City" was a "raw, unsanitary place" in the 1860s, with geese and pigs clogging its partially paved streets. It was also full of opportunists: a gaggle of cartoonish statuaries represents the army of office-seekers and influence-peddlers that filled the White House's corridors and offices from morning to night. Bios of Lincoln's "compromise" cabinet are displayed in files inside a (wink, wink) file cabinet.
Other displays explore the clashes between Lincoln and Chief Justice Roger B. Taney over slavery and secession, the skirmish at Fort Sumter, Lincoln's revolving door of Union generals and, on a lighter note, everyday life in the White House.
It's a chronological history, often told with the help of 21st-century technology. The Great Emancipator's Gettysburg Address, for instance, is narrated on film by the four living former presidents; a display that examines Lincoln's evolving views on slavery includes a video about his remarkable relationship with black abolitionist Frederick Douglass. (He was the first black person to have an audience with a president.)
It's all good, important stuff that will not only engage people intellectually, but also emotionally. Yet it's probably inevitable that most visitors will linger in front of the exhibits that recount the tragedy of April 15, 1865, and the greatest manhunt in American history that followed.
There's something horribly mesmerizing about looking at the pine board that Booth used to wedge the door shut to the president's box. Or the Treasury Guard flag that caught Booth's right spur as he leapt to the stage after stabbing Maj. Henry Rathbone.
Or the bloodstained pillow that cradled Lincoln's head as he laid diagonally on a bed at the Peterson House. And the hour-by-hour timeline of how Booth and Lincoln spent that fateful Good Friday -- the former gathers supplies while the latter attends a three-hour cabinet meeting and then goes for a carriage ride -- is riveting.
So, really, who can blame us?
Gretchen McKay can be reached at email@example.com or 412-263-1419.