From Flotsam to Cherished Artifact: 1864 Playbill Provides Glimpse into Daily Life of Ford’s Theatre

4 min read

The recent production of The Guard at Ford’s Theatre isn’t the first time guards have been featured on the stage at Tenth Street NW. In July 1864—nine months before Lincoln’s assassination halted productions at Ford’s for 100 years—John T. Ford brought a production called Three Guardsmen to his Washington theatre.

The historic playbill joined the collection of the Ford’s Theatre Society in August of 2015, 151 years and a month after it rolled off the printing press. To learn more about how Ford’s Theatre reframed the artifact, and to learn tips you can use to conserve your own artwork, take a look at part one of this series.

Today, the term playbill is used interchangeably with program, but in 1864, a playbill was simply an advertisement, distributed on the street before the performance, meant to drum up ticket sales.

Playbills were produced in high quantities at relatively low cost and were considered throwaway pieces of flotsam. The more playbills you had floating around the city, the more likely you were to reach someone with an interest in your show.

Photograph of mounted Ford's Theatre playbill of <em>Three Guardsman</em>, with printed on paper that has yellowed over time.
Photo by Gary Erskine.

This first celebration of guards featured a “Grand Battle Picture” depicting an assault upon Rochelle (which Ford happily boasted was “thrilling and remarkably effective”). It also teases a special July 4 show the following night, featuring a violin solo by none other than William Withers, the same man who would have his jacket slashed by John Wilkes Booth as the assassin fled the scene of the crime on April 14, 1865.

You may also recognize some of the characters: Athos, Porthos, Aramis and D’Artagnan. This was an adaptation (“admirably rendered,” Ford would like you to know) of Alexandre Dumas’s masterwork, alternately called either The Three Guardsmen or The Three Musketeers, which was first published serially in 1844 and translated into English in 1846.

Readers familiar with the history of Ford’s Theatre may also recognize a few of the acting players’ names. Like most theatres at the time, Ford’s Theatre employed a resident acting company that appeared in every production, so many of the people in Three Guardsmen were also in the theatre during Our American Cousin the following year.

James A. Herne spoke the first words on the Ford’s Theatre stage, at the inaugural production of The Naiad Queen on August 27, 1863. He was also a close friend of John Wilkes Booth, until Booth tried to kill Herne during a quarrel.

An 1871 black-and-white photograph of Ford's Theatre exterior and the dirt gravel street outside.
Photo (circ. 1871) courtesy Ford’s Theatre National Historic Site.

Henry B. Phillips was Ford’s acting manager, training younger actors and occasionally filling in minor roles. He had known all the Booth children, including John Wilkes, since childhood. He also wrote the advertising copy for Ford including, presumably, the Three Guardsmen playbill.

Louis Carland was the costumer at Ford’s Theatre, occasionally pressed into double-duty in minor parts. He, along with several other stagehands—including Edman Spangler, who was later tried as a conspirator—was vocal about his secessionist sympathies.

Charles Bishop was a comedic actor at Ford’s and a close friend of Edwin Booth, John Wilkes’s brother. Bishop later had the good fortune to be in New York during the run of Our American Cousin.

James “Jimmie” Maddox was officially the property manager, but like Carland occasionally played bit parts as well. Also like Carland, he was ardently secessionist, often spent time with Booth, and would be held for several weeks as a suspected conspirator after the assassination.

These thin pieces of paper were never meant to last longer than the night of the performance, but because so many were produced in a single printing, they are common commodities at auctions and other collector events. For the most part, historic playbills are relatively affordable collectibles, unless the production they advertise featured famous actors or commemorate a momentous event. A playbill for Our American Cousin from April 14, 1865, for example, is a priceless and highly sought-after artifact.

Ford’s Theatre Society is proud to be the steward of this little-known moment in the theatre’s history. This delicate piece of paper is a fascinating glimpse into the daily life of the theatre, when the paper had no other purpose than drawing in and entertaining crowds. Before the theatre became a crime scene, before it served as a pension office, before it became a national landmark and the place where Lincoln’s legacy lives, it was a business like any other, competing for attention in a bustling war-torn city.

Further Reading

To find out more about the individuals who worked at Ford’s Theatre, men and women whose careers and even lives were unintentionally affected by Booth’s actions, please refer to Thomas Bogar’s book, Backstage at the Lincoln Assassination

Heather Hoagland is former Exhibitions and Collections Manager for Ford’s Theatre Society. She holds an M.A. in Museum Studies from The George Washington University. Follow her on Twitter @HLHoagland.

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Heather Hoagland is former Exhibitions and Collections Manager for Ford’s Theatre Society.

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