Abraham Lincoln's Assassination
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WHAT IF THE LINCOLNS HAD ATTENDED THE PLAY AT GROVER'S THEATRE?

Source of image: The National Theater, Washington, D.C.
On Thursday, April 13, 1865, Charles Dwight Hess (often referred to as C.D. Hess), manager at Grover's National Theatre, sent the Lincolns an invitation for the performance of Aladdin or The Wonderful Lamp. Over the previous four years the Lincolns had attended many shows at Grover's (located about three blocks from the White House). The Lincolns had also frequently attended plays at Ford's Theatre. Ford's was showing Tom Taylor's Our American Cousin starring Laura Keene. Which performance would the Lincolns attend on the evening of Friday, April 14, 1865?
EXAMPLES OF GROVER'S THEATRE INVITATIONS: On the left is an invitation C. D. Hess sent to Abraham Lincoln, Monday, September 26, 1864. On the right is an invitation Leonard Grover sent to Abraham Lincoln, Saturday, February 20, 1864 (Invitation to attend performance by Edwin Booth)
Tad Lincoln had made a friend of Leonard Grover's young son, Bobby. Although Bobby was about five years younger than Tad the boys played together frequently. In the afternoons Tad often attended rehearsals at Grover's Theatre, and the two boys got along well with the stage workmen. Tad aided the theater's carpenters in arranging the settings for the stage. At least twice Tad appeared in plays at Grover's as an extra.

Additionally, Leonard Grover and Abraham Lincoln were well acquainted. Grover wrote, "At times he (the president) invited me to sit in the box with him, when such conversation as took place was always about the theater." Grover treasured a note he once received from the president which read, "Dear Mr. Grover, Tad and I will occupy the box to-night." On March 18, 1865, the Lincolns went to a performance of Faust, and on March 21 they attended François-Adrien Boieldieu's opera La Dame Blanche. Both shows were at Grover’s Theatre.

Helen Palmes Moss, C.D. Hess's sister-in-law, wrote, "The two principal theaters, the 'National' (sometimes called Grover's) and 'Ford's' were vying with each other to secure the largest patronage, for they had always been great rivals. A private box had been specially decorated in each theater, with the hope of having the President and his family occupy it."

Many authors feel John Wilkes Booth made the final decision to assassinate President Lincoln on April 11, 1865. On that date the president gave his last speech from the White House. Booth, David Herold, and Lewis Powell were in the audience. Among other things, Lincoln discussed possible new rights for certain blacks. He suggested conferring voting rights "on the very intelligent, and on those who serve our cause as soldiers." Booth was enraged! He said, "Now, by God! I'll put him through. That is the last speech he will ever make."

On April 13 Booth dropped by Grover's Theatre. He asked C.D. Hess if the president was going to be invited to attend Aladdin or The Wonderful Lamp. Hess assured Booth that Lincoln would be invited. Booth then went upstairs to Deery's Billiard Saloon located above the lobby of Grover's Theatre. He asked the saloon's owner, John Deery, to secure tickets for the box that adjoined where the Lincolns would be sitting. Booth and Deery had been friends for years. Booth told Deery that he didn't want the management of Grover's to give him complimentary tickets. He desired to pay for them himself and gave the money to his friend. Booth had now prepared himself if the Lincolns accepted the invitation from Grover's. Booth indicated to Deery that he would pick up the tickets later.

About 10:30 A.M. on the morning of April 14, 1865, a White House messenger arrived at Ford's Theatre. He indicated that the Lincolns wanted to reserve the State Box for the evening performance. The Lincolns had chosen to go to Ford's. In the next hour Booth stopped by Ford's to pick up his mail. While there he learned from Harry Clay Ford that the Lincolns and Grants (who did not go) would be attending the evening performance of Our American Cousin.

Helen Palmes Moss was visiting her brother-in-law at Grover's Theatre on that fateful Friday. She was there when a messenger from the White House arrived with the decision. She wrote, "The messenger boy returned with a note written by Mrs. Lincoln, who usually responded to the President's personal notes. In effect it said: He sends his regrets that the invitation was not sent earlier, as he much preferred the Shakespearean play Wallack and Davenport were giving to the comedy of Our American Cousin which was being played by Laura Keene at Ford's."

Tad Lincoln represented the Lincoln family by attending the show at Grover's Theatre. Young Tad was watching the play there at the very time his father was shot several blocks away at Ford's Theatre. Tad was taken back to the White House and comforted by a member of the White House staff, Tom Pendel. Pendel put Tad to bed around midnight. The next morning when Mary returned from the Petersen House and news of Abraham's death spread, Tad put his arms around his mother's neck and said, "Don't cry so, Mamma! Don't cry, or you will make me cry, too! You will break my heart!"

After hearing the news of the tragedy at Ford's Theatre C.D. Hess sent a telegram to Leonard Grover. Grover was in New York preparing for his Easter season of opera at the Academy of Music. Hess's telegram read: “The President was shot at Ford’s tonight—not at our theatre.”

In Blood on the Moon: The Assassination of Abraham Lincoln Dr. Edward Steers writes, "Booth was well acquainted with both of the theaters' layouts and their owners. Either theater would serve his purpose."

Therefore, if the Lincolns had accepted the invitation to attend the performance at Grover's Theatre, the outcome may well have been the same as it was at Ford's Theatre.
LEFT: Charles Dwight Hess (National Theater, Washington) RIGHT: John T. Ford (National Park Service)
SOURCES:

Leonard Grover, "Lincoln's Interest in the Theater," Century Magazine 77, (April 1909).

M. Helen Palmes Moss, "Lincoln and Wilkes Booth as Seen on the Day of the Assassination," Century Magazine 77, (April 1909).

Blood on the Moon: The Assassination of Abraham Lincoln by Dr. Edward Steers (Lexington, University Press of Kentucky, 2001).

The Day Lincoln Was Shot by Jim Bishop (New York, Harper, 1955).

Lincoln's Sons by Ruth Painter Randall (Boston, Little, Brown and Company, 1955).

The images of the Grover's Theatre invitations came from the American Memory Historical Collections of the Library of Congress.

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