Civil War Blog

A project of PA Historian

W. J. Ferguson – “I Saw Booth Shoot Lincoln”

Posted By on April 12, 2012

In 1930, William J. Ferguson, actor and Abraham Lincoln assassination witness, published a book entitled, I Saw Booth Shoot LincolnFerguson, who died that year was the oldest surviving member of the cast of Our American Cousin, the Tom Taylor comedy that was being performed at Ford’s Theatre on the night of 14 April 1865, when Lincoln was killed by John Wilkes Booth.  The book was printed in an edition of 1000 copies and released by Houghton Mifflin Company of Boston and New York.  Ferguson’s purpose in writing the book was stated in the dedication which was to “the school children of the United States to acquaint them with the true story told by an eye-witness of the assassination of President Lincoln.”  The book is not yet available in digital form, but copies of the original are available for review at major libraries and occasionally are for sale on-line by used book sellers.

In telling the story of the Lincoln assassination, Ferguson relates how it was that he came to be employed at Ford’s Theatre.  William Jason Ferguson was born in Baltimore in 1845.  His father died when he was four years old so he had to go work early in life, which he did as a”printer’s devil,” re-distributing type in cases for the old Baltimore Clipper, a daily newspaper.  One of the editors of that paper was working on a play for John T. Ford and this fascinated the young Ferguson.  Later, Ferguson went to work as a train boy on the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad, working the route between Baltimore and Washington.  He claimed to be present in Baltimore in April 1861 when the arrival of the 6th Massachusetts Infantry was accompanied by a street riot which resulted in the death of a schoolmate, Philip Miles.  Afterward, in September, he was assigned to the route to Harper’s Ferry and again encountered Union soldiers and a “shower of bullets” but escaped unhurt.  When the Confederates occupied the place, he met several generals including A. P. Hood and Stonewall Jackson, with whom he had a conversation.  Then there was the Battle of Antietam, all within the range of the “train-boy” job that he continued to hold up through November 1863, when passenger John T. Ford asked him to deliver a package to his brother in Washington.  As a direct result of that chance meeting with Ford, he was able to land the job of call-boy at Ford’s Theatre – which took him out of the war zone and placed him in the capital at the theatre where his acting career would be launched.

Ferguson then described what were the “lowly” duties of the call-boy.  The main job was to work at the direction of the prompter and “call” actors from the “green room” to the place of their stage entrance.  His salary was five dollars per week, which he supplemented by copying actor’s parts in longhand, for which the actor paid him “eight cents the length of forty lines.” Ferguson used the occasion in describing the duties of call-boy to assure his readers that he personally knew “every nook and cranny” of Ford’s Theatre.  A lengthy discussion of the architecture of the theatre followed.  When he had previously told the story of the theatre’s architecture (1915), it was in reference to the inaccurate portrayal of the access of John Wilkes Booth to the State Box that was in the film, The Birth of a Nation (see previous post).  But it was clear from the description he was now giving that he was referencing something someone else had said about a path from the stage to the State Box, something not depicted in the D. W. Griffith film.  This time, although not mentioned by name or circumstance, he appeared to be referencing the story of Jeannie Gourlay, another member of the cast, that her father, Thomas Gourlay, had led Laura Keene up to the box by a way known only to regular members of the cast.

“There were no stairways to let one up from the lower box to those overhead…. The flooring between was solid.” (p. 10)

“There was no stairway from the level of the main floor, directly under the flooring of the balcony boxes…. There was no opening through the proscenium wall to permit passage to and fro between the stage and the box spaces, upper or lower.” (p. 23)

Then, describing the path that Lincoln took to get to the box, Ferguson noted:

“Any visitor or intruder, because of structural conditions, had to do the same.  There was no other way to reach the box, except by the obviously improbable course of climbing from the apron of the stage to the railing at the auditorium side.” (p. 24)

Ferguson stated clearly that no one from the audience could have possibly seen into the State Box:

“The solid wall between the balcony and the box, at its auditorium side, the the curtains of closely woven lace hanging at the front of the box were further obstructions to the vision of the audience…. In this position [Lincoln] was visible only to the members of his own party, to people on the stage, and to people offstage on the prompt, or left, side of the stage as viewed from the audience…. It was as if he were seated around a corner of a building, in advance of a crowd behind him, and screened from observation of any of the crowd…. He was not visible even to the musicians in the orchestra pit, which was back of him.” (p. 25-26).

The architectural descriptions go into much more detail in Ferguson’s accounting than are now reported here on this blog.  Some of the substance is given here to show the amount of attention that Ferguson gives to two key architectural features of the theatre – that because of the way that the box was situated, only the actors on stage or in the left wings could have possibly seen Lincoln in the box – and that there was no other way to access the box except by the way that Lincoln got there.  For a full description of the path Lincoln took to get to the State Box, see the prior post, The Architecture of Ford’s Theatre.

Ferguson does repeat several items that he previously reported, such as no guard at the State Box and Booth’s leap to the stage. But new elements are also introduced, the most significant of which is that it was he, Ferguson, who escorted Laura Keene to the State Box.  To do so, he had to help her over the footlights to the stairs near the front entrance, up the stairs, and around the Dress Circle to the box.  There can only be conjecture as to why he waited until 1930 to describe that he took Laura Keene to the State Box.

First, the explanation why he was with Laura Keene at the moment of the assassination – that he was speaking with her about a substitute part he was playing and he had some lines with her in Act III.  They were about to go on stage when the shot was fired, and according to Ferguson, John Wilkes Booth escaped between them, pushing them both aside.  How did he recognize Booth?  Another mistaken story had to be corrected first, that this was Ferguson’s first acting job.  A Playbill is produced clearly showing that the young Ferguson had appeared as a member of the Ford’s stock company on 18 March 1865, in a performance of Apostate which had starred none other than John Wilkes Booth!  Ferguson also went to great pains to tell of a drinking incident he had with John Wilkes Booth on the day before the assassination.  He told of encountering John Wilkes Booth on the very bed at the Petersen House where Lincoln died, a story he had told before in 1915.  But this time there were more details and the background information that this related to the delivery of “parts” to the actors – “parts” which he made extra money copying.

All in all, it still had to be explained why Ferguson was not arrested or even questioned – making him and Laura Keene the only assassination witnesses not to have been arrested or questioned in the hours after the crime (Keene was arrested in Harrisburg a few days later).  In I Saw Booth Shoot Lincoln, Ferguson is clear that he took Keene by the long route (or the only route) to the State Box, but when they got to the box, the story is quite different than that told by supporters of the Keene legend:

“Miss Keene stood near by, silently watching, as I was.  Mr. Lincoln remained in the rocking-chair, and was lifted in it and carried past me by the doctors.  I saw what they had been examining so gravely – a little dark spot no larger that the head of a lead pencil, just under the left ear.  I saw no blood coming from the wound.  Through the theatre, out onto the street, and across to a house with which I was familiar, this was occupied by Mr. William Petersen, I followed the doctors carrying Mr. Lincoln.  They entered the front door and went up the front stairs.  I joined Mr. Petersen’s son – a lad with whom I chummed, but whose first name I do not now remember — and went with him through the basement of the house to other stairs in the rear.  Climbing them, we came to the floor of the room where Mr. Lincoln had been taken.  It was a room formerly rented by a Mr. Matthews, still a member of our company.  I had delivered parts during the season to him and others in the room.  In singular coincidence, the second I had to note, on the occasion of one of these visits I saw John Wilkes Booth lying and smoking a pipe on the same bed in which Mr. Lincoln died.  Looking into the room at Mr. Lincoln, I still saw no signs of blood on his body.  Later, about daybreak the next day, I understood blood did seep from the wound.  Previous to that time the hemorrhage was internal…. ” (p. 53-54)

This statement of Ferguson is a clear refutation of the story of the bloody dress.  But it doesn’t explain if Ferguson was an actual eyewitness to the assassination, and he was able to identify Booth as the assassin, why he was not questioned or arrested.  How was he able to get from the stage to the State Box while escorting a highly upset and very unwell actress?  How was he able to move freely from the State Box to across the street to the Petersen House and up back stairs to the bedroom where Lincoln died?  How was he able to hide from the authorities the fact that he knew Booth personally, had drinks with him the night before, and had acted with him less than one month prior to the assassination?

This exposition by Ferguson in 1930 was the first time that that he detailed aspects of his trip to the State Box… and that he took Laura Keene there.  The story of the bloody dress had evolved over the years from Laura going there alone to Laura being assisted in the journey there.  The story told by Jeannie Gourlay helped fill a missing piece.  Keene had to have been escorted to the State Box.  So, Jeannie “created” the route to the box – a route that didn’t exist so it couldn’t have been traveled by her father and Laura.  Ferguson detailed that what Jeannie described was impossible.

But there may have been more to Ferguson’s “covering” for Keene.  Ferguson claimed to be the only one with Keene at the moment of the assassination.  Perhaps the reason neither Keene nor Ferguson was arrested was that both had left the theatre and were in a “safe” place while the mobs were threatening to burn down the theatre and while Secretary of War Stanton and the military were rounding up and questioning suspects.  It is highly possible that Ferguson was paid by John Lutz, the manager of Keene,” to get Laura out of the theater and to a sanctuary – in St. Patrick’s Catholic Church which was located across the back alley from Ford’s Theatre.  Ferguson, who was relatively unknown, could have easily moved about hours after he was safely out of the theatre – unlike Keene, who was ill and shaken, and whose primary objective was to get out of town.  If Ferguson was paid by Lutz to assist Keene, then his own escape was facilitated by that duty.  Lutz had to get passes for Keene and her company to board the train to Baltimore and he may have used Ferguson as an alibi for Keene; in fact, they were alibis for each other.

Reader comments are welcome!

There are many details in Ferguson’s book, too many to discuss and analyze in this blog.  In the post tomorrow, more light will be shed on the long acting career of William J. Ferguson.  On Saturday, the credibility of William J. Ferguson will be discussed with some indication of how he has been treated by assassination authors.

For previous bloc articles on the Lincoln Assassination, click here.




Leave a Reply

Please note: Comment moderation is currently enabled so there will be a delay between when you post your comment and when it shows up. Patience is a virtue; there is no need to re-submit your comment.