Posted By Norman Gasbarro on April 11, 2012
In the post yesterday, the story of the silent film, The Battle Cry of Peace” (1915) was given and how that film related to the issue of preparedness for the United States possible participation in the world war that was already taking place in Europe. In that post, it was noted that William J. Ferguson, an actor in the film, played the roll of Abraham Lincoln. Because the film has not survived, it is nearly impossible to determine how he portrayed Lincoln. What it is possible to do, however, is to read the story of Ferguson’s eyewitness to the assassination. The first time he told the story which follows here, was in 1915, in the context of the release and showing of the portrayal of Lincoln in two different silent films. The last time he told the story was in 1930, the year of his death. In the post today, the 1915 story will be discussed. In the post tomorrow, the 1930 version, which was much more extensive and is the one most often quoted by writers about the assassination, will be analyzed.
Only Living Man Who Saw Lincoln Assassinated Plays Abraham Lincoln in “The Battle Cry of Peace”
The article that appeared in the Iowa City Citizen (IA), on 23 February 1916, was typical of what was reported in other newspapers through the country and therefore reprinted below.
William J. Ferguson, the only man living who was on the stage at Ford’s Theater in Washington on the evening of the assassination of Abraham Lincoln, is appearing as the Great Emancipator in J. Stuart Blackton‘s The Battle Cry of Peace, the patriotic spectacle advocating preparedness against war, now playing at the Vitagraph Theater.
At the time of Mr. Lincoln’s assassination, Mr. Ferguson was callboy at Ford’s. At the moment of the assassination he was standing in the wings with Laura Keene exactly opposite the presidential box, which was constructed that its occupants could be seen only from the stage.
The stage was made up “in one” and Mr. Ferguson was just about to go on in a short comedy scene with Miss Keene, for which he had been cast in addition to his activities as callboy, when he saw John Wilkes Booth appear suddenly in the rear of the box, point a derringer at the base of the president’s skull and pull the trigger. He then leaped from the box to the stage, a drop of twelve feet, catching his spur in the single American flag which was draped simply over the edge of the box as he did so.
When he reached the stage he had suffered a compound fracture of the ankle, but with a knife in one hand he rushed off the stage between Mr. Ferguson and Miss Keene so quickly that his hurt was scarcely noticeable.
It is a peculiar fact that Mr. Ferguson, who with Miss Keene was the only member of the company then playing at the theater who actually witnessed the shooting, was the only member of the company who was not called upon to give testimony in court.
The nearest thing he came to it was a rather amusing experience he had with a very pompous army officer the day after the assassination. It seemed that the evening before the assassination John McCullough and John Wilkes Booth, on leaving the theater, invited the property man and the callboy (Mr. Ferguson) out to a neighboring tavern to have a glass of beer. The four went to the tavern, drank their beer, and the property man and the callboy returned to the theater while the two actors went home.
The officer had heard that four people had been in the tavern the night before the shooting, so, calling the callboy before him, he threw out his chest, thrust his hand into his brass buttoned coat and demanded:
“Who were the four people, who, I hear, drank a silent toast at the — tavern the night before Mr. Lincoln was assassinated?”
“I didn’t hear of any such thing,” said the callboy, quaking in his shoes, but putting up a splendid front, and that was the end of what was threatened to be a dangerous situation for McCullough, the property man and the callboy, as popular feeling was in a condition of hysteria, and almost any unsubstantiated charge was apt to result in a prison sentence at the very least.
The house where Mr. Lincoln was brought after the shooting, and where he died the following morning at 7 o’clock, was an actor’s boarding house, to which Mr. Ferguson had been accustomed to bring actors living there their “sides” or “parts.”
A peculiar coincidence connected with the house was the fact that the last time Mr. Ferguson went on his accustomed errand prior to the shooting he found the actors all sitting about on the edge of the bed in which Lincoln died, talking, and John Wilkes Booth lying in it smoking a pipe.
Another peculiar coincidence connected with the whole affair is the fact that in the very hour that Edwin Booth, John Wilkes Booth‘s brother, died the front of Ford’s Theater collapsed.
Edwin had never recovered from the horror and pain which his brother’s act had given him and never played in Washington after President Lincoln’s death. Mr. Ferguson, who was a close friend of the Booths, having been born in Baltimore, their home town, never mentioned Lincoln’s assassination either publicly or privately during the remainder of Edwin Booth‘s lifetime. As to the story that John Wilkes Booth was burned to death or shot by the soldiers who surrounded the barn to which he fled across the Chain bridge, Mr. Ferguson claims that both stories are absolutely untrue. Booth committed suicide, and, it being the final and most gruesome coincidence of all the coincidences connected with the most tragic shooting, shot himself through the base of the skull, in exactly the same place where he had shot Lincoln.
Mr. Ferguson had been on the stage all his life, up to about a year and a half ago, at which time he “went into the movies” and has incidentally made a reputation for himself by proving that “the actor of the old school” is well qualified to work before the camera.
Only a portion of the news article is pictured but the text is transcribed in its entirety for this post. The full article is available through the newspaper resources of Ancestry.com.
An earlier published interview of Ferguson was conducted by the New York Times and appeared in their 18 April 1915 edition. It was actually in response to the portrayal of Lincoln in D. W. Griffith‘s film, The Birth of a Nation, in which a scene depicting the Lincoln assassination was shown. That scene is posted on YouTube. The portrayal of Lincoln was by actor Joseph Henabery. Ferguson pointed out that there was no bodyguard, that the stage was not full of actors when the assassination took place, and there was no direct route to the State Box from underneath – all historical inaccuracies in the Griffith film. He also stated that Booth did not cry out “sic semper tyrannis” as the film indicates. According to Ferguson, Lincoln did not bow profusely to the audience, that he sat back in the box so that he could only be seen from the stage, and that Booth’s spur caught in the flag draped over the box. Booth’s exit from the stage was quick – only a few seconds – and he was out the back door. Then the pandemonium occurred. Ferguson claimed to be the last person to actually make eye contact with Lincoln before he was shot. This complete article is available through New York Times on-line resources.
To what extent Ferguson’s New York Times interview influenced Blackton to cast him in the role of Lincoln in The Battle Cry of Peace is not known at this time. It certainly was a good publicity move on the part of Blackton to have Ferguson play Lincoln – adding to both the realism and the credibility of the portrayal – and even if he was cast prior to the filming of The Birth of a Nation, Blackton used the linkage of Ferguson to the assassination to sell tickets to The Battle Cry of Peace.
The 1915 New York Times article and the general articles that appeared to publicize The Battle Cry of Peace, will be compared to the 1930 version Ferguson told of his eyewitness account of the assassination, the subject of the post here tomorrow.