Saturday, August 6, 2022

"We Knew the Crack of Revolver Was Not Part of Play," Says Charles L. Willis, Who Beheld John Wilkes Booth Leap From Box.

The curtain rose for the third and last act of the comedy, "Our American Cousin," at Ford's Theatre, on Tenth street, 64 years ago, "and hardly one word had been spoken," Charles L. Willis, of the Willard Court Apartments, "said yesterday, "when the sharp crack of a revolver was heard."
Charles L. Willis
Mr. Willis is one of the two or three persons alive today [1929] who was in the historic old Theatre on the memorable night of April 14, 1865. 

"We all knew it was not a part of the play," the octogenarian pointed out, speaking of the "crack "of a revolver," and ''for a few seconds, everything was still. A cry, 'The President, is shot,' and the audience stood and looked toward the point from whence the sound came."

At the time of the assassination of President Lincoln, Mr. Willis was a stripling of 18 summers, born in Baltimore but a resident of Washington for four years.

"I thought the world of that man," Mr. Willis said, reminiscing. "He had the kindest eye I1 ever saw in a man's head. I remember that I would try to see him whenever he appeared in public. And I am proud to say. that I once shook hands with him."

Mr. Willis' story is a first-hand graphic, eyewitness account of the scene at the Theatre the night Lincoln was shot. In his own words, let him tell it:

"On Good Friday, April 14, 1865, the Washington newspapers stated that President Lincoln and his party would attend the performance at Ford's Theatre that evening.

"Miss Laura Keene, a favorite actress, was to appear in the comedy, 'Our American Cousin.' I was then a young man, 18 years of age, and very fond of the Theatre. I suggested to my chum that we go to the theatre that night. He readily acceded, and we were a part of a large audience present on that occasion. The Theatre was well filled, and the audience was appreciative and happy. The first two acts passed off pleasantly, and when the curtain dropped at the close of the second act, I suggested to my friend that we go out during the intermission." 

As the two young men were on their way out of the Theatre, it might be well to interrupt the continuity to explain that the boyhood chum to whom Mr. Willis refers was John A. Downs, who has been dead for at least twenty years. His survivor estimated. Going on after the interruption. Mr. Willis said:

"While standing on the pavement in front of the Theatre, we saw John Wilkes Booth come out and enter a small restaurant adjoining the Theatre. Booth was a great favorite of all Theatregoers, most especially the young. He was a handsome man with very white skin, piercing eyes, and jet black, curly hair. Only a short time before, I had seen him perform in the same Theatre, with Miss Alice Grey, his last public performance.

"My friend and I reentered the Theatre and resumed our seats in the orchestra pit, our chairs not more than seven rows from the stage and nearly beneath the box occupied by the President and party. As we entered the Theatre, I saw Booth talking to John Buckingham, with whom I was personally acquainted."

Buckingham, Mr. Willis paused again to explain, puffing one of the three cigars he permits himself each day, was the doorman at the Theatre and "an employee of my father, Cornelius L. Willis." 

"The curtain rose io: the third and last act," the old man took up his narrative, "and hardly one word had been spoken when the sharp crack of a revolver was heard. We all knew it was not a part of the play, and everything was very still for a few seconds. A cry, 'The President, is shot,' and the audience stood and looked toward the point from whence the sound came. I saw a man climbing over the rail in front of the box he leaped to the stage a few feet to his right. As he landed on the stage, he staggered; raising his right arm, he muttered a few words and quickly disappeared into the scenery on the left of the stage. 

"A man sprang from the audience, climbed to the stage and made pursuit. The audience was now all standing and with little or no shouting or disorder. I suggested to my friend that we go out, and we did so.

"As it appeared that very few were coming out, we reentered the Theatre. In my excited condition, I went directly onto the stage where actors and part of the audience mingled, gazing up at the box where the wounded President lay. Amid all this excitement, to the best of my recollection, there was not much noise: all were shocked, talking in subdued tones.

"The audience began to leave the Theatre. On the outside, the crowd was great, and I made for a place to avoid the gathering. I took refuge on the porch in front of a house across the street, and in a few moments, four men carrying the wounded President went up into this same house with him [The Petersen Boarding House].

The President died the following morning, April 15, in this house, between 7 and 8 o'clock. 

The crowd by this time was great. Shouts of "Lynch him," "Hang him," "They've got him," were heard all around, and the crowd surged from side to side.

I started toward Pennsylvania Avenue to take a car for my home on Capitol Hill. A man said to me, "What's the matter?" My teeth chattered; I could not speak. I reached the car, and all were talking about the assassination. They said Seward was killed, Grant was killed. The excitement among all was intense; there was more loud talking in that car than in the Theatre. 

When I reached home near midnight, my mother, hearing some tumult, asked me what the matter was. I said, "Nothing." I feared if I told her what had been done, she and my father would sleep no more that night. The next morning I went to the Government department where I was employed and asked to be excused after telling my experience. I walked directly up P street northwest to the corner of Tenth Street and looked toward the house where the President lay, and what seems strange to me now, there were no crowds around the place. Later in the day, all the Government departments closed until after the funeral, which occurred on the following Thursday.

When the body of the President was lying in state in the rotunda of the Capitol, thousands passed through to review the remains, entering on the west front, passing in double file and leaving on the east side.

I forced myself through the crowd, and for the last time, I saw President Lincoln.

Mr. Willis has read more than once, he said, of the death of someone of whom the statement was made, "He was the last person who was present at the Theatre on the night of the assassination of President Lincoln." Mr. Willis characterizes such announcements as absurd: "I was a little more than 18 years of age, and among the audience of more than 1,000 there was, no doubt, many of my age or under. There may be some others living who were present." 

The 18-year-old boy present at Ford's Theatre to see the comedy, "Our American Cousin," one of the very last, at least, of "the audience of more than 1,000, was born in Baltimore on October 17, 1846. A bookbinder by trade, he worked in the Government Printing Office here for 46 years, retiring when the retirement law went into effect in August 1920. Since then, he has been taking things easy, living for his wife of more than 50 years, their sons and their daughters, thinking of the past and the present, and who will win the baseball game today.

                                                                                  —The Washington Post, March 14, 1929


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