Where Was Lincoln’s Bodyguard at Ford’s Theatre?

Daniel Ganninger
June 8, 2024
fords theatre
Ford’s Theatre, 1865 Library of Congress

When Abraham Lincoln attended a play at Ford’s Theatre on April 14, 1865, his protection detail wasn’t what it is today for a president. President Lincoln’s protection that night was incredibly lean, as he had only one bodyguard assigned to protect him, and that guard went missing when Lincoln needed him most.

The Secret Service had been created in 1865, ironically on the same day Lincoln was assassinated, but its job was to stamp out counterfeit currency. The Secret Service didn’t start protecting the president full-time until 1902. The situation involving Lincoln’s protection wasn’t unusual for the time. He often rode a horse unescorted and did other activities without guards. Lincoln wasn’t fazed by the threats posed to his safety. 

On the day of the play at Ford’s Theatre, Lincoln was guarded by a four-man security detail around the clock. But only one man, a Washington D.C. Metropolitan Police officer named John Frederick Parker, was assigned to guard Lincoln during the play. 

Parker was a strange choice to have as Lincoln’s primary bodyguard. His record was littered with reports of drinking on duty, unreliability, and frequenting a brothel. He had been brought before the police board numerous times but had only received reprimands for his conduct. But somehow in November 1864, he was selected as one of four officers to be the first permanent detail to protect the president. 

Parker’s assignment to the president on the evening of the play even started poorly. He was three hours late to relieve the previous bodyguard, taking up his post two hours before Lincoln and his party arrived at the theater around 9 P.M. When the president finally entered the box over the right side of the stage, the orchestra began playing “Hail to the Chief,” and the actors paused the play. 

Parker sat outside the president’s box in the hallway next to the door of the box. Once Lincoln was seated and watching the play, Parker moved to the first gallery to watch because he couldn’t see it from the hallway. But that wasn’t the worst part. When the play’s intermission came, Parker left the theater and went to the Star Saloon next door with the footman and coachman of Lincoln’s carriage. 

At around 10 P.M., only an hour after Lincoln arrived at the play, John Wilkes Booth (who had just come from the Star Saloon) entered the box through the door in the hallway, past Parker’s empty chair. Booth put a piece of wood against the door so it couldn’t be opened, and with a one-shot derringer in one hand and a dagger in the other, he moved behind Lincoln and shot him in the back of the head at 10:14 P.M.

lincoln assassination
Print by Currier and Ives, 1865

Major Henry Rathbone and his fiancée Clara Harris were in the president’s party that night, as was Lincoln’s wife, Mary Todd Lincoln. Rathbone tried to grab Booth but got slashed through his arm by Booth’s dagger. Booth then jumped on the front railing and held up the dagger, shouting, “Sic semper tyrannis,” meaning “thus always to tyrants.”

Booth jumped from the stage but caught his spur on a flag, causing him to land awkwardly and injure his right leg. He then shouted, “The South is revenged,” and escaped through the stage door. It wasn’t until Mary Todd Lincoln screamed and shouted, “He has killed the President,” that everyone knew what had happened. Lincoln was carried to the Petersen House across the street from the theater, where he died the next morning.

While all this was going on, Parker was nowhere to be found, and it stayed that way until 6 A.M. the next morning when he arrived at the police station, trying to book a prostitute. One of Parker’s fellow presidential bodyguards, William H. Crook, blamed Parker for Lincoln’s death, writing in his memoir that he believed if Parker had been at his post, Lincoln wouldn’t have been murdered by Booth. 

A month after the assassination of Lincoln, Parker was charged with neglect of duty for failing to protect the president. But amazingly, the charges were dismissed only another month later.

Newspapers didn’t report on Parker or hold him accountable for his disappearance, and he wasn’t even mentioned in the official report about Lincoln’s death. It is unclear why he was let off or why it wasn’t something that wasn’t in the news. Parker even remained on the security detail assigned to guard the president. 

At one point later, Parker was assigned to guard Mrs. Lincoln before she moved back to Illinois. Mrs. Lincoln’s dressmaker, a former slave named Elizabeth Keckly, recalled that Mary Todd Lincoln confronted Parker, saying, “So you are on guard tonight…on guard in the White House after helping to murder the president.”

Parker responded, according to Keckly, with, “I could never stoop to murder, much less to the murder of so good and great a man as the president.” He also told Mrs. Lincoln that he returned to his seat in the audience and that “I did not see the assassin enter the box…I did not believe anyone would try to kill so good a man in such a public place, and the belief made me careless.”

It is unknown whether Parker returned from the Star Saloon to sit in the theater, and it is also unknown if Parker would have stopped Booth even if he had been at his post. Booth was a well-known actor who came from a famous theatrical family. He may have been let in because Lincoln knew who Booth was after seeing him in a play at Ford’s Theatre in 1863. 

Parker remained with the Metropolitan Police Department for three more years before being fired in 1868. The reason was for sleeping on duty. He went into carpentry and died of pneumonia in D.C. in 1890. He was buried in Glenwood Cemetery in D.C. in an unmarked grave. His wife and three children were also buried there beside him, also in unmarked graves. No pictures exist or have been found of Parker, leaving him relatively unknown for his role in one of history’s greatest tragedies.

Sources: Smithsonian Magazine, The Washington Post, Mr. Lincoln’s White House, Constitution Center