Bringing Mary Lincoln to Life at Ford’s Theatre
Ford’s Theatre visitors sometimes encounter people who look like they belong in another century. From time to time, National Park Service rangers and volunteers arrive in period dress and portray individuals who lived through the assassination of President Abraham Lincoln in 1865.
I spoke with Liz Hogan, a National Park Service volunteer, who has become a favorite of our visitors for her portrayal of First Lady Mary Lincoln, and her occasional portrayal of Elizabeth Dixon, a confidante of the First Lady who kept Mary company during the long night at the Petersen House, following President Lincoln’s assassination at Ford’s Theatre.
How long have you worked at Ford’s Theatre?
Liz Hogan: I have been volunteering in costume at Ford’s Theatre for 17 years.
I mostly portray Mary Lincoln. I have also portrayed her at grammar schools, girl scout meetings, in a presentation for the Historical Society of South Beach, North Carolina, and at the rededication of the Lincoln Memorial in 2009.
Why did you choose those two people?
LH: I began portraying Mary Lincoln because I feel that she has been misunderstood and often disrespected by historians.
What misunderstandings are you hoping to correct?
LH: The first notion is that Mary Lincoln was psychotic; and the notion that the Lincolns’ marriage was unhappy. [In my portrayal] I also defend Tad Lincoln, who has been portrayed as having a mental health condition.
How did you research Mary Lincoln and Elizabeth Dixon? How did you develop your characters?
LH: I have been reading about President and Mrs. Lincoln since adolescence. In order to reinforce what I know about Mary Lincoln, I have read Jean Harvey Baker’s biography of her three times.
For the Elizabeth Dixon portrayal, I read sections of several books on the assassination.
What books did you find the most helpful?
LH: For research on Dixon, I consulted Baker’s Mary Todd Lincoln, Daniel Mark Epstein’s The Lincolns: Portrait of a Marriage, and a few others.
Has your portrayal changed over time? How?
LH: My portrayal of Mary Lincoln has not changed, but I’ve added new information as I continue my reading.
What are some new things that you’ve learned?
LH: In the past couple of years, I’ve talked about some of Mary Lincoln’s shady money-making schemes as First Lady and her failure to consider her son, Tad, in the days following the assassination. I was surprised to find that Mary attended Lincoln’s last debate with Senator Stephen Douglas and realized how charismatic her husband was.
Are you always in character as Mary Lincoln, or do you talk about her in third person?
LH: I prefer third person because it facilitates communication. If visitors approach and ask, “who are you?” I will be Mary Lincoln, Kentucky accent and all.
How do visitors react to your character? What are some of the most interesting questions you’ve received?
LH: The most frequently asked question about her is, “Wasn’t she crazy?” –sometimes accompanied by the stale joke, “Aside from that, Mrs. Lincoln, how did you enjoy the show?”
I believe that being in costume makes it easy for visitors, especially children, to approach me. Photo ops are fun, but they often lead to discussion about Mary Lincoln.
Is there a particular moment, a particular interaction, that stands out for you?
LH: I have never had a bad day volunteering at the Ford’s Theatre National Historic Site because of interaction with visitors, so it’s hard to pick a favorite, but it’s always a thrill to meet a child who insisted that the family visit Ford’s –Lincoln fans like me. These children often get a shiny log cabin penny from my pilgrimage to Abraham Lincoln’s birthplace in Hodgenville, Kentucky, on his 200th birthday.
David McKenzie is Associate Director for Interpretive Resources at Ford’s Theatre. He also is currently a History Ph.D. candidate at George Mason University, studying 19th-century U.S. and Latin American history, as well as digital history. He previously worked at the Jewish Historical Society of Greater Washington, The Design Minds, Inc., and at the Alamo, and served as a Peace Corps volunteer in El Salvador. Follow him on Twitter @dpmckenzie.