The collapse of Ford’s Theatre in 1893 was a major news story. Even before the official investigation began, letters to the editors of various D.C. newspapers laid the blame of the collapse on the feet of a plethora of people. In the early days, the greatest scapegoat was Congress and the government for allowing workers to remain housed in knowingly dangerous or condemned buildings. Many called for inspections of all federal buildings in Washington to prevent the tragedy from happening elsewhere. Perhaps it was a latent sense of pride in his building, or a desire to distance his reputation from yet another tragedy, that led 64 year-old John T. Ford to pen this letter to the Evening Star:
John Ford would end of being very much correct in his claims. It was not any flaw in the building that led to its collapse, but rather the incompetence of the workers excavating the basement who did not adequately support the foundation during their dig. As Tudor Hall stands today, architect James Gifford had built a sturdy building with Ford’s Theatre that could have lasted for much longer, had it not been for human error and negligence.
Evening Star – June 12, 1893
I think quite a few people were killed.
Olzsewski’s Historic Structure Report on the theatre’s restoration says that the south wall of the theatre was discovered to be in pretty bad shape during some 1930 work related to the construction of a building on the south side, and that its construction was deplorable.”[In] Some places the foundation does not extend twenty feet below the surface and any old thing was put in to fill it up.” (P.30). The culprit seems to have been carpenter Gifford. Olzsewski also reports that the 1893 collapse of a 40-foot section of the front of the building was due to overloading and improper excavation under the pillars in the cellar.
Wonderful photo of a young John Ford!
Virtually the same thing happened in Richmond, VA in 1870 when a much lauded verdict was held in the court of appeals. The upper gallery was packed and was referred to as a “man trap” and to quote Harpers Weekly, “….the large girder under the partition between the clerk’s office and the court-room snapped in twain, and the floor, yielding to the pressure, began to bend downward, loosening the supports of the crowded gallery, which was wrenched away from the wall and precipitated into the centre of the court-room. The floor was crushed through as if it had been glass, and, with its mass of human beings, fell into the Hall of Delegates, a cloud of dust rising like smoke from the ruin….”
As a consequence of this disaster in which several were killed and maimed, the old City Hall across the square was torn down for fear of the very same thing happening. It was only after they had begun demolition that they found that the structure of the old building was like cast iron and would probably have not borne the same problem….
Very tragic event. I have a Harper’s Weekly photo taken as the bodies were being removed from the theater at the top of my web page at
Dave: I love the picture of JTF.
How can we get permission to publish this picture and how can we get the image in high resolution?
Tony Rivenbark is writing a book on historic Thalian Hall, in Wilmington,NC, that Ford also owned and wanted to use an image of him in the book.
Thank you for your help.