“Recalling” Ford’s Theatre – a personal indulgence in Civil War “memory”

Posted on April 14, 2008 by


eaemerson-copyI didn’t learn about Edwin Arthur Emerson until about a year or so ago. I think the thing that most intrigued me was that, while I had been fascinated with the soldier family members who had served in the war, I did not realize that I had a family member present, on stage, on the night that Abraham Lincoln was assassinated. More on Edwin in a bit.

On the Emerson side of my family, my lineal ancestor, Henry K. Emerson – was a Confederate soldier, a private in Co. D, 7th Virginia Cavalry. He enlisted in 1861 and appears to have remained with the regiment through the end of the war. He had one brother in another company of the 7th and another brother in Co. E, 33rd Virginia Infantry. They were residents of Page County, in the Shenandoah Valley.

However, my branch of the Emerson family – Henry’s father, William – had left another branch behind in Alexandria, Virginia around the early 1820s. The branch that remained behind in Alexandria included William’s brothers – John Simpson Emmerson and Harrison A. Emmerson.

Harrison had one son who fought in the war – John C. Emmerson. He enlisted as a private in Co. G, 3rd Maryland Cavalry (USA) on 24 September 1863. I haven’t had the opportunity to research his service, but ancestry.com records show that he was mustered out at Vicksburg, Mississippi on 7 September 1865. I think this may be in error and think (because I can find no trace of him after the war) that he may have died in the war. (*Update – John C. Emmerson may have actually changed his last name to “Amerson.” He applied for and received a pension in 1883.)

John Simpson Emmerson had at least one son who served in the war, but on the side of the Confederacy. A tin and coppersmith by trade, Benjamin Franklin Emerson enlisted as a private in the Mt. Vernon Guards in 1859. When the war came, his company was mustered-in as Company E, 17th Virginia Infantry on 17 April 1861 at Alexandria. Wounded at Frayser’s Farm, he died in Richmond of wounds received, on 19 July 1862. His remains were not returned to Alexandria until after the war.

Benjamin also had a brother, Edwin Arthur Emerson. Edwin, however, did not fight. He was an actor. In fact, he was a leading man in the Ford Stock Company [Ford’s Theatre], and… he was well-acquainted with one famous actor of the time, John Wilkes Booth.

Actress Si Snider (later an actress in “Our American Cousin”) wrote that she “first met J. Wilkes Booth at a dinner given by Mr. Ford to our company on Christmas night, 1864. Booth was not a member of our company, but he was a great friend of Mr. E. A. Emerson, leading man of our stock company, and he came to the theater often to see Emerson. We all respected Booth because he was a good actor, was courteous and kindly, but none of us except Mr. Emerson felt very friendly toward him because he was cold, taciturn, aloof and at times seemed almost arrogant…”

“I knew John Wilkes Booth well,” wrote Edwin Emerson, “having played with him in dozens of cities, throughout the East and Middle West. He was a kind-hearted, genial Emerson in later years. Image courtesy of Barbara Sharpperson, and no cleverer gentleman ever lived. Everybody loved him on the stage, though he was a little excitable and eccentric.” However, early on April 14, 1865, Emerson recalled that while he was

standing in front of Ford’s Theatre… John [Wilkes Booth] walked up, and evidently in an agitated state of mind. He grabbed the cane from my hands and said, ‘Ned, did you hear what the old scoundrel did the other day?’ I asked him who he was talking about and he answered, ‘Why, that old scoundrel Lincoln. He went into Jeff Davis’ house in Richmond, sat down, and threw his long legs over the arm of a chair and squirted tobacco juice all over the place. Somebody ought to kill him.’ I said, ‘For God’s sake, John, stop where you are! I am going to quit you.’ With that he pulled my cane down over his shoulders with such a force that it broke in four places. [Emerson still had the cane in the early 1900s].

That night, Emerson was playing the role of Lord Dundreary in “Our American Cousin.” When the Lincolns arrived in their booth, one account recalled that “Florence Trenchard” (played by Laura Keene) was telling a joke to “Lord Dundreary.” Another account remembered, perhaps more accurately, that the Lincolns arrived when Emerson was delivering a line,

“Why does a dog waggle his tail?”

(“F. Trenchard” replies) “Upon my word, I never inquired.”

(to which Emerson replied) “Because the tail can’t waggle the dog! Ha! Ha!”

According to his account in the June 1913 issue of Theatre Magazine, Emerson noted that, later,

near the beginning of the third act… I was standing in the wings, just behind a piece of scenery, waiting for my cue to go on, when I heard a shot. I was not surprised, nor was anyone else behind the scenes. Such sounds are too common during the shifting of the various sets to surprise an actor. For a good many seconds after that sound nothing happened behind the footlights. Then, as I stood there in the dimness, a man rushed by me, making for the stage door. I did not recognize Booth at the time, nor did anyone else, I think, unless, someone out on the stage, when he stood a moment and shouted with theatrical gesture, ‘Sic Semper Tyrannis!’ (So perish all tyrants!) Even after he flashed by, there was quiet for a few moments among the actors and the stage hands. No one knew what had happened. Then the fearful cry, springing from nowhere it seemed, ran like widfire behind the scenes: ‘The President’s shot!’ Everyone began to swirl hither and thither in hysterical aimlessness. Still, the curtain had not been rung down, for noone seemed to have retained one scintilla of self-possession – and the actors on the stage were left standing there as though paralyzed. Then someone dropped the curtain and pandemonium commenced. The police came rushing in to add to the chaos and, for what seemed an hour, the confusion was indescribable. One incident stands out plainly in my memory from the confusion of men and sound that turned the stage into chaos. As I was running aimlessly to and fro behind the scenes – as everyone else was – a young lady, coming out from a dressing room, asked the cause of all the uproar. ‘President Lincoln has just been shot!’ I replied. ‘Oh!’ she exclaimed, and closing her eyes, was sinking limp to the floor in a faint when I caught her and carried her into her dressing room. She was Miss Jennie Gourlay, one of the then well-known family of actors, and that night, playing the part of Mary Trenchard. This little episode exhausts my recollection of anything coherent during the time immediately following the shooting. Those who first attempted to aid Mr. Lincoln tore his clothes from him in the most frantic manner in their efforts to locate the wound. I was told by several of the men connected with the theatre, among them young Mr. Ford, who had charge of the ticket office, that, when he was brought out, he had been practically denuded of all his outer garments. Later on, when the place was cleared, I went into the box where the assasination had occurred. Just by the side of Lincoln’s chair, was a program, half-crumpled. On it was a dark wet spot, which I do not say positively, was the life-blood of the President, but in my own mind, I am convinced it was. This program, that no doubt was held in the hand of Mr. Lincoln…

Actress Si Snider later recollected that “none of us, even Mr. Emerson, could ever understand Booth’s act.”

As I mentioned, I did not know about Emerson until about a year or so ago, yet, I am fascinated by the fact that I had a relative (1st cousin, four times removed) present, not only at that Ford’s Theater that evening, but in the very play that Lincoln watched in his final hours.