For too many people, history was the class they most wanted to avoid in school. And yet, events like the ongoing Maryland Renaissance Festival packs in the crowds. While many people may find history classes in school to be dry and boring, they seem to like history itself when presented well.
For a history lesson that is anything but dull or didactic, try the “History on Foot” walking tours at Ford’s Theater. That theater is forever associated with Civil War history, specifically the Lincoln assassination. There a two walking tours, each covering a variety of area landmarks with different story lines. The one I recently attended is especially relevant as we approach all those 150 year anniversaries for the Civil War.
“Investigation: Detective McDevitt” is almost Ford’s Theater: CSI. The actor leading the tour portrays Detective James McDevitt, the real life Washington Metropolitan Police officer who was on duty on April 14, 1865 when the news came that President Lincoln had been shot at Ford’s Theater. We follow the detective as he begins his investigation, gathering leads and trying to sort fact from rumors, as a picture of what happened that fateful night and who were involved slowly starts to crystalize.
It is a fascinating subject and whole books have been written about this topic. If you think conspiracy theories began with the Kennedy assassination, think again. The Lincoln assassination is still being hotly debated and poured over by professional and amateur historians alike. The tour script by Richard Hellesen briefly mentions in passing a few hotly debated rumors but is far more concerned with the facts as we now know them.
The actor portraying McDevitt (there are several on a rotating basis) does a good job briefly setting the scene – the heady days just after the War ended and the chaos that erupted immediately after news of the assassination got out. There were real fears at the time about an overthrow of the Government and a possible Confederate uprising. We hear firsthand accounts of witnesses, which the tour guide nicely impersonates. Slowly the worst case fears are put to rest, but as the investigation continues, an ominous conspiracy involving a few disgruntled people led by John Wilkes Booth materializes.
Oddly, the tour does not go into Ford’s Theater itself, which is the scene of the crime after all, and while we walk across the street to the Peterson boarding house, where Lincoln was carried after being shot, we do not go in there either. There are probably logistical reasons for the tour not doing this, as each place has their own tours, but it still feels like a missed opportunity.
But we do go into the alley behind the theater, where I have never been, to discuss how Booth made his escape. We walk to areas still standing after all this time – the National Theater, the Willard Hotel, and the Treasury Building – and the script provides a good impression of what the city must have been like 150 years ago.
We learn interesting tidbits along the way concerning such far flung topics as Walt Whitman, Clara Barton, and an interesting section of DC between the Capitol Building and the White House that is now heavily developed but was then, um, let’s just say it was a place soldiers frequented when off duty.
In one bit of comical business, almost halfway through the tour McDevitt remembers something – Vice President Andrew Johnson. It seems Johnson was someone that everybody easily forgot. But on a more serious note, you will learn many things about Booth and his accomplices, and that the assassination of the President was just one element of a more elaborate plan.
Note that the McDevitt tour lasts about two hours and covers about a mile and a half walking distance. As the Ford’s Theater web site states “wear comfortable shoes.” While filming is not allowed, photography is encouraged. The actor performs in period costume but in one concession to the modern era, wears an electronic box to amplify his voice so all can hear.
Along with the McDevitt investigation is a second walking tour “A Free Black Woman” concerning Elizabeth Keckley, a former slave who rose to become the personal dressmaker to Mary Todd Lincoln and write a book about the subject. That tour also covers about a mile and a half walking distance and lasts about 90 minutes.
The schedules for both tours have been announced through the end of October. For more information, call 202-347-4833 or go online to http://www.fordstheatre.org/.
By David Cannon
Mocovox Entertainment Critic