Following the assassination of President Abraham Lincoln on April 14, 1865, powerful public reactions caused the War Department to seize Ford’s Theatre from John T. Ford (eventually offering him compensation) and gut the building. The department transformed the former theatre into a three-story office building. The first floor housed clerks who processed veterans’ pension records, the second housed the Surgeon General’s office and library, and the third became an Army medical museum.
The Army Medical Museum at Ford’s Theatre opened on April 13, 1867, almost exactly two years after the assassination. Highlighting the morbidity of the war’s medical practices, the museum’s collections of human body parts, and particularly human skulls, was a far cry from the once jovial theatre, but it entranced tourists all the same. The collection also included a part of John Wilkes Booth’s spine.
Booth’s body was interred after his death, but a section of his vertebrae remained above ground and quickly made its way to this museum. The item was not listed by name, but rather by date and description of death.
The dark irony of Ford’s Theatre sheltering a section of Booth’s body was not lost on the museum’s visitors. Mary Clemmer, a woman living in Washington at the time, detailed her trip to the museum, and called it a “[s]trange freak of fate that these remains of Booth should find a resting place under the same roof and but a few feet from the spot where the fatal shot was fired.”
Yet, not many people know of the museum’s existence at the site of Lincoln’s assassination or of the presence of Booth’s remains there. The museum attracted so many people that by 1887 it outgrew the space and relocated. After numerous moves, the museum, renamed the National Museum of Health and Medicine, ended up in Silver Spring, Maryland, where it resides today. It still possesses Booth’s spine, though that specimen is not currently on display.
One has to wonder how Booth would feel about this turn of events. He hoped to ensure his own legacy through his actions at Ford’s Theatre. He did, but not necessarily in the way he envisioned. With one bullet, Booth immortalized his enemy and eventually caused the building to become a shrine to Lincoln. By contrast, upon Booth’s own death, a part of his spine became something visitors could gawk at and condemn—likely as far from his desire to be heralded as a hero as one could get.
For more information, read Dave Taylor’s detailed post about the Army Medical Museum’s time at Ford’s Theatre
Anna Snyder is the Digital Public History Intern at Ford’s Theatre. She is a first-year graduate student in American University’s Public History program.