The Famous Rocker.

On April 14th, 1865, President Abraham Lincoln formally authorized the establishment of the Secret Service before retiring for the evening.  You know, those “suits” that you see standing around scanning the crowd, fully armed, talking into wrist radios, guarding the President and any other high-level government official.  But the original purpose of the Secret Service was to prevent counterfeiting, and it still is part of their role today.  It wasn’t until 1894, that the Secret Service began part-time protection of then President Cleveland.  Doing the math, the Secret Service was in existence for 29 years before it’s role of protecting the heads of the US Government became their priority.  So there was no one protecting President Lincoln as he sat watching “Our American Cousin” on the evening of April 14th, 1865 at Ford’s Theatre.

Ford's Theatre, Washington DC

Lincoln was sitting next to his wife, Mary, in a private box.  Ulysses Grant and his wife were also planning to attend but they changed plans at the last-minute.  One of the owner’s of the theatre, Harry Ford (No relation to the more famous Henry) ordered a cushioned rocker brought from his bedroom to be placed in the President’s box earlier that day.  It was seen being carried into the theatre, and it is the chair that the President sat in during the performance.

I saw the actual chair, before it was restored, at the Henry Ford Museum in Detroit.  The chair appeared to still have the blood stains from the shooting on the fabric.  (Not likely though.)  I remember it made a real impression on me anyway, looking through the glass at the chair,  the shawl they had drapped over the arm, the top hat on the floor, and an old playbill for “Our American Cousin on the floor.  I was truly amazed that I was looking at the very chair that Lincoln was sitting in when he was shot, but I noticed it was a high back chair.  All the pictures I had ever seen of the Lincoln assassination showed John Wilkes Booth standing several feet behind the President and shooting him in the back of the head.  Looking at the chair, even knowing that Lincoln was a tall man for his time, I knew it couldn’t have happened that way.

According to “The Lincoln Assassination Encyclopedia” by Edward Steers, during the autopsy “all agreed that the bullet entered ‘the skull to the left of the middle line, and below the line with the ear.'”  So he had to have turned to the left and looked down into the orchestra area, when Booth walked up and around the chair to shoot him at point-blank range.  Actually within a few inches of his skull based on the powder burns at the head.  Or maybe the President turned to the left when he heard John Wilkes Booth coming up from behind him, or even saw movement out of the corner of his eye.  The bullet traveled diagonally through his brain and lodged behind his right eye.

He was pronounced dead 9 hours later at 7:22 AM the following day by Dr. Joseph K. Barnes, but he was, by all accounts, dead when the first doctor arrived at the scene.  He had no pulse, and wasn’t breathing.  According to Dr. Blaine Houmes, a Lincoln expert, even with today’s medical advances, the wound that Lincoln suffered would have been 100% fatal.

In a brown leather wallet in the President’s pocket was a five-dollar Confederate note and some newspaper clippings.  I wonder if it had anything to do with the counterfeiting issue? Why would Lincoln have only Confederate currency in his wallet? 

Arrival of the chair in 1930. Photo courtesy The Henry Ford, Flickr

So how did Henry Ford get the famous rocker?  He bought it in 1929 from Harry Ford’s widow who put it up for auction in New York.  Henry, an avid collector, paid only $2,400.  In today’s dollars that would be $30,905.26.  An incredible bargain for such a piece of history.  It had been left at the Smithsonian Institution by The War Department after the completion of the conspirators’ trial.  Since it was originally the personal property of Harry Ford, his widow eventually petitioned the government for its return so she could sell it.



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