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Original Rocker Before Restoration
© Abraham Lincoln Online
Lincoln Assassination Rocking ChairWhen President Abraham Lincoln relaxed in this silk upholstered rocking chair on April 14, 1865, his Washington theatre box seemed like a safe and comfortable place. To his right sat his wife Mary, leaning close and laughing at the actor onstage below. Just beyond her were their guests, Major Henry Rathbone and Clara Harris. At or before 10:30 p.m., the pleasant Good Friday evening turned into a nightmare when an assassin crept into the box and shot Lincoln in the head at close range.
The assassin, John Wilkes Booth, was a Confederate activist with a thorough knowledge of Ford's Theatre because of his acting career. Even when he wasn't performing he was in and out of the theatre, picking up mail and chatting with the Ford brothers and other actors. It was surprisingly easy for him to slip into the unguarded presidential box and commit his shocking crime.
The Rocker Arrives in the Theatre Box
On April 14, James Ford was notified that the Lincolns would attend the performance of the comedy Our American Cousin that evening. The president attended the theatre frequently, and the Fords were accustomed to offering him a special box above the stage.
Because General and Mrs. Ulysses S. Grant were expected to be in Lincoln's theatre party, the Ford Theatre staff quickly combined two boxes into a larger one and added special decorative touches. The Grants later declined the invitation, but not before five flags and a framed portrait of George Washington were installed and special furniture was carried inside.
After the assassination, Henry (Harry) Ford, treasurer of the theatre, testified that he included an upholstered sofa and matching rocker in the furnishings. Theatre employee Joe Simms concurred with this, saying, "I saw Mr. Harry Ford and another gentleman fixing up the box. Mr. Ford told me to go to his bed-room and get a rocking chair, and bring it down and put it in the President's box. I did so. The chair had not been there before this season. It was a chair with a high back to it and cushioned."
James L. Maddox, another theatre worker, remembered Simms carrying the rocker into the building on his head. "I had not seen that chair in the box this season; the last time I saw it before that afternoon was in the winter of 1863, when it was used by the President on his first visit to the theater."
The Rocker's Tragic Fame
Once the Lincolns settled into their state box, many theatre patrons could not see the president in the rocker, due to their distance from him, the angle of their seats, or the flags which obscured their view. However, Roeliff Brinkerhoff was an assassination eyewitness who sat with friends in the dress circle opposite the presidential box. In his autobiography he wrote, "I saw Mr. Lincoln sitting in his chair with his head drooped upon his breast, but in all other respects he retained the position he had before he was shot."
After Lincoln had been carried from the theatre to the Petersen home across the street, another eyewitness summoned reporter Lawrence Gobright to investigate the scene. Gobright recalled, "When we reached the box, we saw the chair in which the President sat at the time of the assassination; and, although the gas had for the greater part been turned off, we discovered blood upon it."
The rocker's importance became obvious immediately after Lincoln's death. The War Department held it as evidence during the trial of the assassination conspirators and later left it with the Smithsonian Institution. Originally it had been the personal property of Harry Ford, and his widow eventually petitioned the government for its return. In 1929 she had it auctioned in New York, where Henry Ford, the legendary auto magnate and collector, purchased it for $2,400.
Today you may see this historic rocker at the Henry Ford Museum in Dearborn, Michigan. In 1999 the museum carefully restored it and installed it in a new environmentally controlled exhibit case. The photo above shows how it looked before the restoration took place. Although blood stains were found on the chair, the dark stains in the photo were from grease applied to the hair of various people who rested against the back.
© Abraham Lincoln Online
The Rocker Lives On
There is only one rocker used by President Lincoln in the theatre box, so others you see are period antiques or modern adaptations. The one shown at the left is a modern version. Here are some comments from reader Richard Sloan, who has purchased reproduction rockers:
"The "exact replica" of the upholstered Lincoln assassination rocker that is being advertised is not at all "exact." When first produced for the gen'l public around 1970 or '75, it truly was the exact same frame. (I have a feeling, tho, that it was/still is reduced in scale ever-so-slightly.) For the last 10 years or so, the company that makes it (Victorian Classics) (and the ONLY one that does, despite what other companies advertise; they get it from V.C.) has made a modification. The arms are not padded all the way back to the frame any longer. The padding is only about 5" long, and centered in the middle of the arms. The photos of the replica don't usually show this. Be careful what you are ordering! I bought 4 of them, together w/3 friends, so I asked them to modify it to the original appearance, and they agreed to do so. It's not just the padding that has to be extended -- the top of the arms' wood has to be notched/sliced all the way back to the frame so that the upholstered pieces sits on them at the right level. (Too complicated to go into any further detail here!) You can ask them to do this for you, but I don't know if they will. The material is not an exact reproduction, either. That is only available if you order 4 - 5 times more fabric that is needed for one chair -- and not from the chair manufacturer. You have to go to Scalamandre for it, and it is extremely expensive. Then you have to send it to V.C. if you want it tufted. I did it for all 4 chairs, and it was a nightmare to coordinate. Not only that, 2 of the chairs arrived with cracked frames and had to go back. Some of the expensive fabric had to be scrapped due to the damage. If you'll be happy with the chair with the smaller upholstered armrests and a difft. fabric, you're being very wise!"
A Doctor's View of the Assassination*
Assassination Rocking Chair Photo (Library of Congress)
Contents of Lincoln's Pockets on April 14, 1865 (Library of Congress)
Henry Ford Museum
Lincoln Assassination Book List*
*Indicates pages created by Abraham Lincoln Online
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