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W. J. Ferguson – Silent Film Star & Assassination Witness

Posted By 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.

For previous blog articles on the Lincoln Assassination, click hereD. W. Griffith‘s Civil War films were previously mentioned in the post entitled Douglas Fairbanks and Nellie Ulman.


6 Responses to “W. J. Ferguson – Silent Film Star & Assassination Witness”

  1. Richard Sloan says:

    Thanx for all the research and analysis re: Laura Keene getting into Lincoln’s box. Many years ago I concluded that she was led there through the door leading to the south corridor and out to the rear of the theatre and thence up the staircase to the Fords’ office and then through the back of the Dress Circle to the box. I attempted it myself with Arthur Loux, author of “John Wilkes Booth — Day By Day,” limited to 12 hardbound copies. I found that the exterior staircase along the proposed route is now an interior staircase. Otherwise, it’s been reconstructed accurately.
    You argue that there seems to have been a bldg. back ghere which would have made it difficult to get to that staircase. If it was so difficult, and that bldg. (labeled as Booth’s stable by Steers), what was the opint of even having a staircase back there and a door at the top of th stairs? That sounds silly to me. I argue that there was certainly much more room between the two bldgs. than you state. However, in the course of reading your blog, I suddenly realized something that was as plain as day. It would have been a heck of a lot easier for Keene and Gourlay to have simply gone through the very door from which Booth escaped to get to that exterior staircase! The pitcher of water may have come from the Green Room, from someone else or from Tom Gourlay. That Green Room was right off that same side of the backstage area as the door through which Booth fled, compelling me to think that this was the route and that it was a logical way to have gotten the waterwhile on the way out of the theatre.
    As for your argument that Miss Keene never was in the box, there are 3 pieces of evidence to that effect.
    1. I think it was Seaton Munroe who said he saw Miss Keene immediately afterwards, with blood streaked upon her face, and that she had a look of horror. Dr. leale said she was in tghe box. I believe him. ( I am stumped about Clara Harris’ assertion that she wasn’t there. Yes, it bothers me.)
    2. Dr. leale sid he ws in the box. I believe him. He seemed petty sharp in his albeit 1909 statements.
    3. Laura’s dress was stained with blood. There’s no doubt about that. Would you like to offer another way she could have gotten it stained?
    As for whether or not Tom Gourlay would have left his two daughjters and future son-in-law to escort Laura to the box — why not? They were grown ups. Laura wanted to take water up to the box. Someone had to get water up there, not knowing the extent of the injuries. It was imperitive. Laura didn’t know the route. Tom simply said, “COme on; I’ll show you the way; let’s go!” I can’t get to my files right now, but I think I have a statement confirming Tom’s trip to the box with Laura, written by his son Robert, who was also there. It’s an early 20th century statement, in the form of a letter to his sister Jeannie, I recall. I’ll try to dig it up in a few days. I think both Laura and Tom G. were up there. Laura got her dress stained, and Tom helped carry Lincoln to the Petersen House. There is nothing relaibe to suggest that ONLY soldiers performed that task. (At leastt one or two of the doctors did.)
    By the way , you did raise an interesting question — since there was a door to Taltavul’s saloon inside the theatre, it would have, in my opinion, been Booth’s first choice of entrance. Thanx for observing that!
    I look forward to your next post on Wm. J. Ferguson.

  2. Richard Sloan says:

    P.S. Forgive the typos and redundancy.. The screen was tiny, and I couldn’t proof my comments properly. RS

  3. Richard Sloan says:

    The floor plan for the restoration indicates this outside staircase. However, when they actually got down to the business of construction, they altered the plan and made it an interior staircase in a hallway. Apparently, you haven’t been to the theatre to see this. It seems that a lot of your case rests on this incorrect assumption. You are entitled to make mistakes, just as Ed Steers is entitled to. As you said, his book’s drawing of the box and the corridor to the south has some mistakes. It’s the drawing that’s in error, but you characterize his correct text as an obvious distortion of the route! .
    Steers is consistent about Laura’s route.
    1. In his book: — “Gourlay led Keene through a rear passage that exited through a backstage door into the alleyway [meaning the rear of the theatre, of course] that separated the Star Saloon from the theatre.. Here the two climbed a staircase that led up to the lounge area on the second floor….”
    2. In his enclyclopedia: — “….Keene made her way up a back stairs to the Dress Circle and into the Presidential box.” “[He led her] out of the stage door and up a back staircase to the offices of the Ford brothers. From there…into the recpetion room adjacent to the Dress Circle and the Presidential box.”
    I find nothing inconsistent about these statements. They are merely worded a little differently, but say the same thing. I think you are coming down too hard on Steers’ writings. I can only agree with you about his drawing.
    You do choose to use an error in his picture to make your case that there wasn’t room for anyone to get to such an outside staircase. (I told you in a previous post that there certainly was room for people to get to the outside staircase, and rhetorically asked why there would be such a staircase and door at the top if there wasn’t room for anyone to use it. I add here that if the structure with the stable was built after the theatre was built, it would have been stupid to have built it so close to the theatre to prevent the use of the staircase. Ford would have seen to it that this wouldn’t be the case.
    Did you notice John T. Ford’s finished drawing of Ford’s Theatre on page 36 of Olzweski’s book? Ford shows plenty of room behind the theatre at that point, even though he doesn’t draw the rear of the south building.
    All of this is a moot point, though. The architectural plans you include in your blog show that the rear of the south building (which housed Taltavul’s) doesn’t extend back more than half- way back alongside the theatre, and that it in no way encroaches upon the stable!.
    Also,m Mr Ford indicates that the stable used by Booth really wasn’t at the corner of the building. He draws it further to the east.
    In my next post I’ll try to find the text of Jeannie Gourlay’s brother’s letter about her dad taking Laura to the box.
    SPeaking of Miss Gourlay — I am eager to read what you have to say about her “emotional ” state at the time.

    • Norman Gasbarro Norman Gasbarro says:

      None of my case rests on the assumption that the stable abutted the back of the theatre. Perhaps you should read what I’ve said before firing off a criticism. It was the obviously doctored drawing presented by Steers that was being criticized – a drawing that has more errors than you care to admit. Your elimination of Steers’ comment that “Gourlay only had a clear a short pathway to the the outer door” by ellipsis is an intentional deception on your part. You, like Steers, are changing the facts to fit your conclusion. I’ve presented Steers’ quotes without the ellipsis and the reader can judge whether Steers’ description is consistent with the architecture of the theatre (See: Architecture of Ford’s Theatre).

      I don’t believe I’ve ever used the word “emotional” to describe Jeannie Gourlay . Do you have something to share about her “emotional state?”

      Perhaps you would like to explain why, as an authority on Lincoln in film, you completely missed the opportunity to point out that W. J. Ferguson was the only known eyewitness to the assassination to have played Abraham Lincoln on the screen? (See: Credibility of W. J. Ferguson).

  4. Randal Berry says:

    Funny you even give credence to Tim Good’s “ill-gotten gains” “Pirated material” defines that book.

  5. Richard Sloan says:

    I didn’t delete any of Steers’ words with elipses deliberately for the purpose of bolstering my dewfense of him. I was merely trying to shorten my email to you. I, agree with you that the path from the Ford Bros’ office to the door to the box wasn’t a short route, but it certainlywasn’t a very long one. When you get to Ford’s for yourself you’ll possibly agree that it isn’t really THAT long a walk down that rear aisle.
    I thought I already responded to your statement that if I’m such an expert on movies about Lincoln, how come I didnt mention Ferguson’s unique role in my essay in Bak’s book. I replied that it was because it wa not an all-encompassing essay, and I was limited. I certainly knew of Fergsuon’s role as Lincoln in that movie. I told Mark Reinhart that in the first ed. of his terrific book, “Abraham Lincoln on Screen” he omitted it. He corrected it in the second edition.
    I thought you had written something about Jeannie Gourlay being in an emotonal state. I don’t know where I saw that, No, I have nothing to add about such a thing and know nothing about it. That’s why I was waiting to see what you had t say. I’ve been interested in her for years.
    I told Ed Steers about the errors you cited in his drawing of Ford’s Theatre , but he hasn’t replied, except to say he was interested in looking into it and contacting his artist who drew it for him.. Of course, he has to assume ultimate responsibility for it.
    Others have read your blog and told me that you come off as very arrogant, with a chip on your shoulder. You do great research and good work on this blog, so I suggest you cool it and humble yourself a little. We’re all after the true stories. DOn’t be so quick to use your forum to chastize people.

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