02 May 2022

History:

Lost Capitol Hill: Outside the Presidential Box

George B. Todd

Last week we looked at Charles Forbes, President Lincoln’s “personal attendant,” and what little we know about him before April 14, 1865. Today, we will look at what happened that fateful night.

One thing that everyone agrees on is that Charles Forbes accompanied the Lincolns from the White House to Senator Ira Harris’s house, where they picked up Major Rathbone and Clara Harris, and then on to Ford’s Theatre.

Most sources state that Forbes remained sitting outside the box that the presidential party occupied, even as Lincoln’s bodyguard, a Metropolitan Police officer named John Parker, went to the Star Saloon next door for a drink. In fact, Forbes apparently joined Parker there for at least some of the evening.

What he did right before the assassination is still subject to a lot of discussion. One account was written down by Dr. George B. Todd of the Monitor USS Montauk (that’s him, above) in a letter written four days after the assassination.

About 10:25 pm, a man came in and walked slowly along the side on which the ‘Pres’ box was and I heard a man say, “There’s Booth” and I turned my head to look at him. He was still walking very slow and was near the box door when he stopped, took a card from his pocket, wrote something on it, and gave it to the usher who took it to the box. In a minute the door was opened and he walked in.

The “usher” mentioned might well be Forbes, and this is the connection most often made. In fact, another statement, made during the trial of the conspirators by Captain Theodore McGowan, makes it much more explicit:

I was sitting in the aisle leading by the wall toward the door of the President’s box, when a man came and disturbed me in my seat, causing me to push my chair forward to permit him to pass; he stopped about three feet from where I was sitting, and leisurely took a survey of the house. I looked at him because he happened to be in my line of sight. He took a small pack of visiting-cards from his pocket, selecting one and replacing the others, stood a second, perhaps, with it in his hand, and then showed it to the President’s messenger, who was sitting just below him. Whether the messenger took the card into the box, or, after looking at it, allowed him to go in, I do not know; but, in a moment or two more, I saw him go through the door of the lobby leading to the box and close the door.

Forbes could certainly be called a ‘messenger.’

Artist’s conception of the aftermath of the assassination, with Booth standing on the stage of Ford’s Theatre. Forbes would have been on the very right edge in the middle of the picture. Published in Frank Leslie’s Weekly (Archive.org)

However, yet another account, by saloon owner James P. Ferguson, published just two days after Lincoln’s death, contradicts the previous two. Ferguson had secured his seat with the express reason that he could see into the President’s box, and thus had a clear view of the whole situation:

Booth stopped two steps from the door, took off his hat, and holding it in his left hand leaned against the wall behind him. In this attitude he remained for half a minute; then, adds Mr. Ferguson, he stepped down one step, put his hand on the door of the little corridor leading to the box, bent his knee against it, the door opened and Booth entered[.]

In short, accounts differ. How much Forbes interacted with Booth will probably never truly be determined. More on what happened to Forbes after the assassination next week.


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