One of the many unsolved mysteries regarding Abraham Lincoln's assassination is the story of John F. Parker. Parker, a member of Washington's Metropolitan Police Force, was assigned as Mr. Lincoln's bodyguard the night of the shooting. However, Parker's chair outside the State Box at Ford's Theatre was vacant most of the evening. Nowadays, leaving the president unguarded is unconscionable, but in 1865 Parker was never punished for neglect of duty. In fact, for a time, he remained on as a White House guard. He kept his position as a Washington police officer until 1868 when he was fired for a totally unrelated reason. What is known of this man who abandoned his post on the night of April 14, 1865?
John Frederick Parker was born May 19, 1830, in Winchester, Virginia. His father was a butcher who later became a police officer. As time passed John moved to Washington, D.C. and became a carpenter. He married Mary America Maus on July 16, 1855, became the father of three children named Cora, Sallie, and Kate, and lived at 570 L Street N., Washington, D.C. When the Metropolitan Police Force was organized in 1861, he became one of its first 150 officers.
Parker's record as a police officer was spotty. Over the next few years he appeared before the Police Board for several transgressions. These charges included conduct unbecoming an officer, visiting a house of prostitution, firing a pistol through a window, being drunk on duty, being asleep on duty**, and using abusive and insulting language. At times he was reprimanded; at other times the charges were dismissed; at no time was he fired. Despite this record, Parker was one of four officers who became presidential guards on November 3, 1864.
On the night of April 14, 1865, Parker reported to the White House at 7:00 P.M. (three hours late). He was told to go to Ford's Theatre and wait for the president's party to arrive. After the Lincolns and their guests arrived and were seated, Parker took a seat in the small passageway just outside the State Box.
From this spot he could only hear the play; he soon left his post and found a better seat. At the intermission of Our American Cousin, Charles Forbes (Lincoln's footman) and Parker invited Francis P. Burke (Lincoln's coachman) to join them for a drink at the saloon next to Ford's Theatre. Whether Parker ever returned to the theater that night is unknown for certain. When John Wilkes Booth entered the State Box, Parker was either still in the saloon or back at his seat from which he could both see and hear the play.
The Small Passageway to the State Box Which Parker Abandoned
Source of Sketch: The National Park Service
The next known event regarding Officer Parker took place at 6:00 A.M. the next morning. He arrived at the police station with a woman named Lizzie Williams. She was immediately released although he wanted her charged with prostitution.
On May 1, 1865, Parker was charged with neglect of duty. The actual citation read in part:
"In this, that Said Parker was detailed to attend and protect the President Mr. Lincoln, that while the President was at Ford's Theatre on the night of the 14 of April last, Said Parker allowed a man to enter the President's private Box and Shoot the President."
Parker was tried on May 3rd, but no transcripts of the case exist. Washington newspapers did not cover the case. All that is known is that the complaint was dismissed on June 2nd.
One of Lincoln's other bodyguards, William H. Crook, said of Parker: "Had he done his duty, I believe President Lincoln would not have been murdered by Booth. Parker knew he had failed in duty. He looked like a convicted criminal the next day. He was never the same man afterward."
Parker remained on the police force until 1868. Finally, he was fired on August 13th of that year for sleeping on duty. He claimed he had been ill. In future years he found work as a carpenter and machinist. He died in Washington on June 28, 1890, of pneumonia, complicated by asthma and exhaustion. He was buried beside his children in Glenwood Cemetery in Washington. Parker's wife died on January 1, 1904, and was buried in the same lot. The graves are unmarked. There are Parker descendants living in the Washington area today, but they do not have the Parker name and have no pictures or family records of John F. Parker.
Obviously this is a mysterious case. On 12 previous visits to the theater, Lincoln had little or no security. Some professionals have suggested Parker was serving more as an escort than a guard. Also, some historians and authors have logically suggested that Abraham Lincoln, with his known lackadaisicalness for personal safety, told Parker to leave his post and find a seat where he could see the play.
If this were true, Mary Todd Lincoln was apparently unaware of it. Mrs. Lincoln was reported to have orally taken Parker (who possibly was a relative of hers) to task one evening at the White House. According to Elizabeth Keckley Mrs. Lincoln was overheard blaming him for her husband's murder. Soon after the assassination Parker was the guard assigned to protect Mrs. Lincoln one night. She yelled at him, "So you are on guard tonight - on guard in the White House after helping to murder the president." Parker replied, "Pardon me, but I did not help to murder the president... I could never stoop to murder - much less to the murder of so good and great a man as the president." Mrs. Lincoln indicated she didn't believe him. Parker then continued, "I did wrong, I admit, and have bitterly repented... I did not believe any one would try to kill so good a man in such a public place, and the belief made me careless. I was attracted by the play, and did not see the assassin enter the box." Mrs. Lincoln told him she would always believe he was guilty and with a wave of her hand, she motioned for him to leave the room.***
**Parker was charged with being asleep on a streetcar during the hours that he should have been out walking his beat. However, the charge was dismissed when Parker said that he and another officer (whose name was Williams) had heard ducks squawking and had entered the streetcar to see what all the fuss was about.
*** Source: pp. 110-111 of Mary Lincoln's Dressmaker: Elizabeth Keckley's Remarkable Rise from Slave to White House Confidante by Becky Rutberg.