An actor stands dressed as an 1860s detective, holding a notepad. Behind him on a brick wall.
Eric Messner as Detective James McDevitt in the Ford’s Theatre History on Foot walking tour Investigation: Detective McDevitt. Photo by Gary Erskine.

The McDevitt Files: Exploring the Lincoln Conspiracy with Eric M. Messner

3 min read

The Ford’s Theatre walking tour Investigation: Detective McDevitt, by Richard Hellesen, takes up to 40 visitors on an interactive journey through the facts and faces of the crime that changed American history. Keeping with tradition, we recently interviewed our newest guide who portrays Detective McDevitt on the tour. In this edition of The McDevitt Files, we asked him what it’s like to portray a true-life 1860s detective who worked at the Metropolitan Police Department during the time of the Lincoln assassination and trial.

Eric M. Messner began his Ford’s Theatre journey by working as an understudy on The Laramie Project in 2013. “It was an amazing experience as the performances were coupled with the government shutdown that year, and the show moved to two different venues.” In December of 2014, he was invited back to Ford’s to work as a guide on the History on Foot tour. Messner has been enjoying his first month, but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t come with its challenges.

“The dialogue is one challenge, but the thing that really got me was the day you do your dress rehearsal with folks from Ford’s Theatre,” he said about becoming McDevitt. “A few of the employees take the tour with you and you get to test everything out on them. A great learning experience!”

While on a Detective McDevitt tour, participants learn not just what happened at Ford’s Theatre, but also what happened throughout the city on the night of April 14, 1865. When asked what the most rewarding part of his job as McDevitt is, Messner explains that the people make the experience. “One night, I had this 15-year-old boy come up to me at the end of a tour, and we chatted a bit. He’d gotten the last ticket [for the tour] and told me that the tour was the one thing he wanted to do in Washington. The days like that are great.”

Messner explains that working with Ford’s Theatre this year—during the 150th anniversary of President Lincoln’s assassination and the 36-hour event hosted at Ford’s to commemorate the anniversary—has been especially exciting. “[Ford’s 150] was an amazing event,” he said. “I led two tours during the events, and people were so inquisitive and interested. It was so lovely to see the street full of people on those days, and of course, seeing fellow 1865 characters also participating.”

During the tour, Detective McDevitt leads the group (on foot) through various sites, starting at the historic Ford’s Theatre and following the assassination conspiracy all the way to the White House. What makes this 1.6 mile long tour so unique? According to Messner, “It’s one of the few in-character tours in town.” And it is not just the characters that make the tour so interesting; it’s what you learn along the way that makes it special.

“[Before leading the tours], I honestly didn’t know a lot about the buildings along the route or their connections to the assassination,” Messner adds. He’s also intrigued by what happened to the people on the periphery that night. “Major Rathbone’s story is really fascinating … even horrifying.”

Join Detective McDevitt for a History on Foot walking tour this summer. Buy your tickets today!

Read what other McDevitt guides have to say about the tour.

Claire Gallo is a Ford’s Theatre Marketing and Communication Intern and a student at American University with a double major in Public Relations/Strategic Communications and Sociology.

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Claire Gallo was a Ford’s Theatre Marketing and Communication Intern

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