A CLOSE CALL AT THE THEATER
A Short Story by
John Parker looked at his pocket watch and yawned. It was nearly nine o’clock, and the President was late – again. Mrs. Lincoln, already seated in the coach, glanced at the door of the White House and sighed. After so many years, Parker figured she ought to be used to never seeing the first act of a play, but he could tell she was upset. Not angry – her legendary fits of temper were unmistakable – but disappointed no less. Finally, at nearly nine, the front door of the Executive Mansion opened, and the lanky form of Abraham Lincoln, wearing his trademark stovepipe hat, stepped out and strode across the White House lawn towards the carriage.
“The play started thirty minutes ago,” Mary Todd Lincoln said.
“Good thing we’ve seen this one before then, eh?” the President replied. He was used to her moods and knew when to take a light tone and when to be sympathetic.
“As I recall, we missed the First Act then, too,” she replied. “But that’s all right, Father, I just want to relax tonight. It’s been such a long time since we both had a good laugh!”
“Indeed, little Mother,” he said, patting her hand. “Makes you wish we were going to a better comedy, doesn’t it?” Lincoln had been disappointed with ‘Our American Cousin’ the first time he saw it – it was more vulgar and slapstick than he generally liked his plays to be.
“They say that the script has been re-written, and that Laura Keene and Harry Hawke are both hilarious in this production,” she replied.
“Well, we shall soon see then, won’t we?” Lincoln said as the driver whipped the carriage towards Ford’s Theater.
Parker stood on the running board of the carriage, his Colt in his pocket, scanning the crowds. As a Washington policeman detailed to protect the President, big crowds always made him nervous. Lincoln was unpopular in many circles, and not a few people wanted him dead. No American President had ever been assassinated, but a madman had tried to kill Andrew Jackson thirty years before, and anything could happen. He would be glad when the President was tucked away safe in his box at the Theater. The mood of the capitol was generally jubilant since Lee’s surrender a few days before, but many Confederate sympathizers lurked in the city still. Besides, he thought, he’d been late for duty and had no time for supper; perhaps he could grab a bite – or better yet, a drink – once the President was seated.
It was a short ride from the White House to the theater, and once they arrived, Parker escorted the Lincolns and their guests, Major Rathbone and his fiancée, Clara Harris, to the Presidential Box. As they filed into their seats, Harry Hawke, playing the role of Asa Trenchard, a penniless American adventurer, caught site of them. He quickly modified his line – a protestation of his worth to his potential mother-in-law – to fit the occasion.
“Well I’ll have you know,” he declaimed, “I am just as fine a gentleman as the PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES!” He gestured at Lincoln with a flourish as he spoke, and the tall man from Illinois tipped his hat to the crowd, who gave him a vigorous round of applause. Lincoln accepted it gracefully, and then gestured to the actors to continue. As they did, he turned to his bodyguard.
“We are fine for the timebeing, Mr. Parker,” he said. “Feel free to sit among the audience and enjoy the play.”
“Thank you, Mister President,” said Parker. There was a chair in the narrow corridor right outside the Presidential box, but it had no view of the stage at all. He went down the stairs and took a seat, and soon he was chuckling along with the rest of the audience at the onstage antics of Harry Hawke and Laura Keene.
It was already late in the first act, and Parker had not been seated for very long when the intermission was called. As the gas lights were turned up, he recognized Lincoln’s coachman, Robert Stark, sitting a couple of seats over.
“Come on to the Lone Star with me and get a drink,” the garrulous Scotsman said.
“I really shouldn’t,” said Parker. “I’m supposed to be watching out for the President.”
“Aw, come on, my good man!” Stark said. “Lincoln never leaves once he’s in his box. It’s safe as can be.”
Parker shrugged. He was not a particularly conscientious man, as his spotty record with the Washington police showed, and he was powerfully thirsty. Lincoln would be fine for a half hour, he reckoned.
The Lone Star was crowded, and as they entered, Parker saw the popular actor, Wilkes Booth, getting up and leaving a corner table. He nodded at the young thespian as he brushed by, but Booth ignored him. Theater people! Stuck up brats, the lot of them, was Parker’s opinion.
He grabbed a tankard of beer and was about to join Stark when he saw a beautiful woman seated at the bar. Parker was married, but was no more particular about his marital vows than he was about his police duties. He plopped down next to her and greeted the young lady with a grin and a wink.
“John Parker, Washington Police,” he said. “How are you this fine evening, my lady?”
“I am quite well,” she said with a radiant smile. “Louise Fletcher, at your service, officer.”
His spirits lifted. That smile – it was obvious she liked policemen!
“Are you from Washington, Miss Fletcher?” he asked.
“Mrs. Fletcher,” she said. “My husband was a Captain in the Union Army, but he died at Gettysburg. I volunteered for the Sanitary Commission after that, hoping to help other men like him.”
“Very noble,” said Parker. A lonely widow! His prospects were looking up. “I am a personal security guard for President Lincoln,” he continued.
“How exciting!” she said. “Are you off duty?”
“Not exactly,” he said. “The President is next door watching a play.”
“Then why are you not with him?” she asked sharply, disapproval written on her futures.
“Well, I just came over to have a nip -” he started, but she would have none of it.
“You are tasked with protecting the most important man in America, and you leave your post to take a drink?” she snapped. “That is terribly unprofessional. If something were to happen to Mister Lincoln, the whole nation would curse you!”
“Well,” he lied, “I have been on duty since noon, and I just needed to wet my whistle before I return to the job. In fact, I ought to get back, I suppose. It was a pleasure to meet you.”
She snorted and turned her back, and Parker muttered a few choice words under his breath as he carried the tankard back across the street. It wasn’t like anyone would try anything in the middle of a crowded theater!
The second act was already underway, and Parker’s seat was occupied by someone else when he got to it. Grumbling, he headed up the stairs to the Presidential box. At least no one up there would bump his arm and make him spill his drink. He glanced up to where his chair sat in the hallway, and blinked at what he saw.
The unmistakable form of John Wilkes Booth was opening the door of the Presidential box very slowly with his left hand, and in his right he grasped a small Derringer pistol. So intent was he on slipping in unnoticed that he did not see the policeman on the stairs below. Parker set his drink down quietly, drew his own weapon, and took the stairs two at a time.
The play was nearing a climax – the American Asa had been unmasked for the penniless fortune seeker he was, and Laura Keene’s mother was laying into him with a vengeance.
“Mister Trenchard!” she sniffed in an upper class British accent, “You are a foul-mouthed, ill-tempered barbarian, utterly unfit for the manners of polite society!”
“Well, I may not be fit for polite society,” Hawke drawled, “But I know enough to turn you inside out, old gal – you sock-dologizing old man-trap!”
The audience roared with laughter, and Booth raised his pistol even as Parker came up behind him.
“Hey there!” he shouted, desperate to distract the assassin. “Stop this villainy!”
Booth pulled the trigger, and the pistol roared loudly in the confined space. There were shrieks in the audience below, but Parker’s shout had accomplished one thing: Lincoln had turned his head at the sound of his voice, and the bullet aimed at the back of his head had only grazed the edge of his ear. The President lunged out of his chair and his long, wiry arm shot out, grabbing Booth by the wrist. The actor snarled in rage, and with his other hand drew a long, lethal-looking Bowie knife from his belt. Lincoln grabbed that wrist with his other hand, and the two men were caught in a deadly grapple. Parker had his pistol out, but could not get a clear shot as the two men swayed and struggled back and forth. Mrs. Lincoln was screaming, and Clara Harris fainted dead away in Major Rathbone’s arms, temporarily preventing him from aiding Lincoln.
Abraham Lincoln was enormously strong, and always had been. Years of splitting rails had made his arms as tough as steel cables, and even in his fifties he could hold an axe by the very end of the handle, parallel with the ground, for a full minute at a time. Once, in a brawl as a young man, he had picked up his opponent and flung him headfirst into the ground so hard that the man was unconscious for two hours. Booth was a superb acrobat and swordsman, but he was no match in stature or strength for the enraged prairie giant he was now wrestling.
Parker decided to simply help the President subdue Booth instead of shooting into the midst of them, so he tried to grab one of the actor’s legs. As he did so, a powerful kick from Booth’s opposite foot caught him in the forehead, knocking him out cold. He crumbled to the floor unconscious.
But Booth had thrown himself off balance by lashing out with his foot, and a veteran “rassler” like Lincoln knew how to take advantage of that. Booth’s pistol had already fallen out of his hand as they fought, and now Lincoln shifted his grip with that hand to the actor’s collar. Lifting and twisting, he raised the shorter form of Booth clear of the ground and flung him out and away from the Presidential box – into the air above the screaming crowd. Lincoln just had time to register the hate in Booth’s eyes turning to shock and then to fear as his body tumbled into the empty air. The actor threw out one hand, trying to catch the edge of the box. Instead, his fingers wrapped around the red, white, and blue bunting adorning the box, and he pulled it after him like a streamer as he plunged downward to the stage. He struck headfirst, and his neck snapped with a sickening crunch. His arms and legs were still twitching as the bunting slowly settled over his dying form.
The audience’s screams were slowly displaced by a buzz of wonder and excitement. Someone had tried to shoot the President, and Lincoln had killed the man with his bare hands! One by one, eyes glanced back and forth from the crumpled form on the stage to the tall man standing in the Presidential box. Lincoln raised his hand to his ear and it came away bloody, so he reached into his pocket and pulled out a handkerchief, holding it to the side of his head. He waved one hand at the audience to show that he was all right, and all of Ford’s theater erupted in applause. Mary Todd Lincoln, who had been standing virtually paralyzed with fear and shock, suddenly came to herself and embraced her husband, heedless of the hundreds who were watching. The applause redoubled until the rafters of the theater vibrated.
The next morning Lincoln came to work in the Executive Office as he would have any other day, only the white bandage covering his ear betraying the night’s adventure. Reports were still coming in – Booth had been part of a larger conspiracy, and although two of his men had missed their targets, Secretary Seward had been stabbed to death in his bed by a deranged veteran named Lewis Payne (or Powell, depending on who you asked). Several of Seward’s family members and an attending nurse had also been slashed or stabbed before the man was subdued. Another assassin had been told to kill Vice President Johnson, but Johnson was at a party surrounded by people, and the man had given up. There were rumors of another assassin stalking General Grant, but he had not yet been apprehended. Officer Parker, whose warning had saved the President, had been knocked senseless by the blow to the head and was still in bed, although he had regained consciousness that morning. The press was hailing him as a hero.
The Vice President was ushered into Lincoln’s office, and as he surveyed the man, Lincoln heaved a sigh of relief that Booth had failed in his mission. Andy Johnson was a decent fellow, and would make an excellent goodwill ambassador to the South once the last of the fighting ended, but – President Andrew Johnson? Lincoln shuddered at the thought.
The former Tennessee Democrat smiled at his chief.
“I heard you had a close call at the theater,” he said laconically.
“Indeed,” Lincoln said. “If not for Officer Parker, I would have gone the way of all flesh!”
“Well, I’m glad that wasn’t the case,” Johnson said with a long sigh. “Can you imagine me trying to put this fractured Union together again? I would have no clue how to proceed!”