Posts Tagged With: Oldroyd

The Memorials on Tenth St.

Today, Ford’s Theatre and the Petersen House across the street constitute the “Ford’s Theatre National Historic Site”.  Operated by the National Park Service in partnership with the Ford’s Theatre Society, both buildings exist for the purpose of educating the public about Lincoln’s last hours.  Standing as they are today, it is sometimes difficult to imagine that, historically, they have not always been dedicated to serving Lincoln’s memory.  In fact, it was not until several years after Lincoln’s death that an effort was made to commemorate these buildings in anyway.  The modern museums of Ford’s Theatre and the Petersen House started off quite humbly as mere memorial plaques.

While the site of Lincoln’s assassination and the house in which he died were well known and hardly forgotten sites of Washington history, there was no move to commemorate either one of the buildings until nearly 14 years after the Great Emancipator’s death.  The first building to receive some sort of physical recognition was the Petersen House.  In 1879, it was the home of lawyer and newspaper publisher, Louis Schade.  You can read more about Mr. Schade and his connections to the assassination story HERE.  Schade had bought the Petersen House from the Petersen heirs in 1878.  In August of 1879, a couple of newspaper articles announced the installation of a marble tablet on the exterior wall of the Petersen House commemorating the historic nature of the house:

1879 marble tablet at Petersen House 2

1879 Marble tablet at Petersen House

As reported, the tablet was created and put up by a private citizen, Charles Rousseau.  Mr. Rousseau was a Belgian native who learned the art of sculpture at the Royal Academy of Fine Arts in Brussels.  He made his living carving tombstones and was quite talented at it.  One of Charles Rousseau’s creations is this tombstone for Benjamin Grenup, believed to be the first Washington, D.C. fireman to have been killed in the line of duty when he was run over by the fire wagon:

Charles Rousseau Benjamin Grenup

Whether Mr. Rousseau took it upon himself to make a tablet for the Petersen House, or whether Schade commissioned it, is not known.  Regardless, the tablet with its gold lettering was installed high on the exterior wall, far out of reach.  Here is a picture of the Petersen House as it appeared when Schade lived there as published in John E. Buckingham’s 1894 book, Reminiscences and Souvenirs of the Assassination of Abraham Lincoln:

Petersen House Buckingham 1894

In the image, Buckingham retouched the tablet to make lettering readable:

Buckingham Marble Petersen tablet 1894

This marble tablet remained the only marker on the site for many years.  After the house was sold by Schade to the federal government in 1896, Osborn Oldroyd became its curator and started displaying his Lincoln collection inside.

Petersen House w Oldroyd Marble Tablet

As time went by, the small marble tablet began competing with Oldroyd’s large signs hawking admission to the house to see his collection.

Petersen House Oldroyd Tablet

Almost 30 years passed and the small marble tablet remained fixed high on the exterior.

Petersen Original Marble Tablet Transcription

However, by 1909 the marble tablet was no longer on display.  Photographs during this time only show the three holes and the discoloration of the bricks from where the tablet had hung for so many years.

Petersen House No tablet

Whether Rousseau’s tablet fell or was purposefully removed is unknown. One text states that the tablet was removed because of complaints from visitors who stated it was placed too high up on the wall to read easily. If this is correct, perhaps Oldroyd felt his large museum signs provided the necessary information. Regardless, for a time in the early 1900’s, the only memorials on the Petersen House were the advertising for the Oldroyd collection of Lincolniana.

Meanwhile, across the street, the edifice that witnessed the horrible crime of April 14th, 1865, remained bare of any memorials. No private citizen had adorned the exterior wall of “Old Ford’s Theatre” like Charles Rousseau had done for the Petersen House. Instead, the building had been transformed into an office building, suffered a tragic collapse of the interior in 1893, and talks of demolishing it reappeared every few years or so in the press. Through it all, however, the scene of the crime remained.

It was not until 58 years after the death of Abraham Lincoln that a group of citizens decided it was time to commemorate the site of Lincoln’s assassination. The group, established by the Commissioners of the District of Columbia, was called the Citizens Committee of Historic Sites. With the help of the commissioners, the committee appealed for funds from Congress for the, “erection of suitable tablets to mark historical places in the District of Columbia”. For several years the committee was appropriated $500 and placed bronze plaques at various sites in D.C. On February 28, 1923, their appropriations were renewed and the committee started the design of two new plaques. One plaque was going to take the place of Rousseau’s marble tablet on the Petersen House while the other was to be placed on the long neglected Ford’s Theatre.

The formal unveiling of the new plaques occurred on April 29th, 1924.  I quote from the 1925 book, Abraham Lincoln in the National Capital by Allen C. Clark:

The exercises began at 3 o’clock in the afternoon. The invocation was by the Rt. Rev. Mongr. Cornelius F. Thomas. A History of the Ford Theatre Site was presented by Allen C. Clark. Eloquent addresses were made by the Hon. Henry R. Rathbone and by Frederick L. Fishback, Esq., of the Washington Bar. Mr. Rathbone vividly described and minutely, the scene of assassination. Mr. Fishback touchingly told of the last hours and of the funeral journey to Springfield. The tablet on the Ford Theatre site was revealed by Miss Maud Burr Morris; and Mrs. Osborne H. Oldroyd drew the cord which held the drapery to the tablet on the house where Lincoln died. It was the American flag which draped the tablets. The band from the Military School under the direction of Prof. W. J. Stannard interspersed selections. Frederick D. Owen was in charge of arrangements. Allen C. Clark presided.

As mentioned in the above quote, one of the speakers at the ceremony for the plaques was Representative Henry Riggs Rathbone.  Rep. Rathbone’s father was Henry Reed Rathbone, the army Major who was present in the box when Lincoln was assassinated.  Though the exact details of what he stated do not appear to have been recorded, the ceremony was attended by over 200 people.

Ford's and PetersenTablets - Washington Post 4-30-1924

In addition to this newspaper article from the Washington Post, there is also the following photograph of Rep. Rathbone speaking at the ceremony.  This fascinating photograph of a Rathbone speaking in front of Ford’s Theatre was the genesis for this post:


Rep. Henry Riggs Rathbone speaking at the unveiling of the memorial plaques on Ford’s Theatre and the Petersen House on April 29, 1924. Click to greatly enlarge. LOC

The plaque that the Committee of Historic Sites placed on the Petersen House still stands on the house today.  It is located at a much more readable level than its predecessor, now hanging between the basement and first floor.

Petersen House with plaque

Petersen House Plaque

The plaque on Ford’s Theatre hung on the exterior of the building for many years, marking the location of the great crime of ’65.


In the early 1960’s public support swelled to restore Ford’s Theatre to its former glory as a working theatre and a Lincoln museum.  During the periods of restoration and construction the plaque was taken down for obvious reasons.

Ford's during reconstruction no plaque NPS

When the newly restored Ford’s Theatre was unveiled in 1968, the plaque hung by the Committee of Historic Sites in 1924 was not restored to its place.  While the exact location of the Ford’s Theatre plaque is not known to this author at this time, it is likely that it entered the collection of the National Park Service and is being safely stored away.

The historic nature of a location is rarely appreciated in its time.  In most instances, plaques are markers to note where something historic once was but is no longer.  For many years it was a strong possibility that Ford’s Theatre or the Petersen House could be sold and torn down.  If events had played out differently, the magnificence that is Ford’s Theatre or the emotional impact that is the Petersen House would have been reduced to raised lettering on a piece of bronze.  We are fortunate that the generations that came before us had the forethought to preserve and protect these sites so that they may be enjoyed today.  Still, we also must remember that, like Rome, the structures we respect were not built in a day. The glorious museums on Tenth St. were founded on the actions of private citizens like ourselves and some memorial words on a tablet.

Abraham Lincoln in the National Capital by Allen C. Clark
Restoration of Ford’s Theatre by George Olszewski
William A. Petersen House: House Where Lincoln Died – Historic Structure Report by the National Park Service
Washington Post
Library of Congress
Meserve Collection
Reminiscences and Souvenirs of the Assassination of Abraham Lincoln by J. E. Buckingham, Sr. (1894)
National Park Service

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Osborn Oldroyd and his Lincoln Museums

The Abraham Lincoln Home in Springfield, IL and the Petersen House in Washington, D.C. have shared similar histories.

Lincoln Petersen Home

  • Both homes witnessed the death of a Lincoln:

On February 1st, 1850, Eddie Lincoln, the second son of Abraham and Mary Todd, died at the age of 3 at the Lincoln Home in Springfield.

On April 15th, 1865 at 7:22 am, President Abraham Lincoln died at the age of 56 at the Petersen House in Washington, D.C.

  • Both homes had few owners:

The Lincoln Home was built in 1839 for the Reverend Charles Dresser.  The Lincolns bought it from him in 1844.  Robert Todd Lincoln inherited the property from his parents and he subsequently gave it to the government in 1887.  This gives the Lincoln home two owners, Rev. Dresser and the Lincoln family, before it was purchased by the government.

The Petersen House was commissioned by William and Anna Petersen in 1849 and built that same year.  When they died in 1871, the house was inherited by their children.  They sold the house to Louis Schade in 1878.  By 1896, Louis Schade sold the house to the government for $30,000.  This gives the Petersen House two owners, the Petersens and Louis Schade, before it was purchased by the government.

  • Both homes had considerable remodeling done when their namesakes lived there:

The Lincoln Home had about 5 renovations while the Lincolns lived there.  Most drastically was the alteration of the home from a 1 ½ story structure to a full 2 story home, as it still is today.

The room that would later be known as the room where Lincoln died, was not even part of the Petersen House when it was originally built.  That addition was put on in 1858.  Fire gutted it in 1863 and William Petersen rebuilt it that same year.

  • Both homes had renters:

When Abraham Lincoln was elected President and moved into the White House, he rented out his Springfield home.  When Robert Todd gained ownership of the place, he continued the practice of renting the house out until he gave it to the government.

The Petersens ran their home as a boarding house for many years.  From Congressmen to soldiers, to actors, they rented out rooms to  many needy Washingtonians.

  • Lastly, both homes shared a long-term occupant, Osborn Hamilton Ingham Oldroyd:

Osborn Oldroyd

Osborn Oldroyd was a Civil War veteran and a devoted collector of Lincoln memorabilia.  In 1883, 41 year-old Oldroyd succeeded in fulfilling the dream of any man who idols another.  Robert Todd Lincoln made Oldroyd the fifth renter of the Lincoln Home in Springfield since his father left the city to claim the Presidency.  Into this historic house, Oldroyd brought his vast collection of nearly 2,000 Lincoln items.  As had been commonplace since the death of Lincoln, many visitors came to call on the Lincoln Home, seeking to visit the home of the great martyr.  Oldroyd let them in like all of his predecessors had, but was the first to charge them admission.  He turned his collection and rented space in a Lincoln Museum.  Robert Todd accepted this exploitation as long as Oldroyd paid his rent, however, by 1885, Oldroyd was starting to fall behind his payments.  Despite not paying him, Robert Todd did not want to bring a lawsuit against Oldroyd as he feared it, “may easily cause me more personal annoyance than the loss of ten times the money.”  Rumors spread that Oldroyd was also cutting off parts of the curtains, wallpaper, and flooring, selling them as souvenirs.  Robert Todd was getting angry with his tenant whom he referred to as a “dead beat” and “rascal”, when an Illinois legislative committee approached him in 1887 to purchase the Lincoln Home.  A similar offer had been given to him in 1883, but at that time he had declined.  Even though, Robert Todd was fairly certain Oldroyd had been the catalyst for this offer, he decided to donate the property to the state of Illinois.  His donation contained two caveats, however.  “…Said homestead shall be, forever, kept in good repair and free of access to the public.”  This latter requirement was probably meant as a final jab towards his “rascal” of a tenant and his entrepreneurial exploits.  Regardless, Osborn Oldroyd was hired by the state of Illinois to be the first custodian of the house and gave him a salary of $1,000 per year.  Oldroyd undoubtedly used this salary to increase his collection at every turn.

Oldroyd’s tenure at the Lincoln Home came to an end in 1893 when he was fired by recently elected Gov. John Peter Altgeld.  Altgeld replaced him with a political friend named Herman Hofferkamp.  Out of a cushy job and a free place to live, Oldroyd was in trouble.  Meanwhile, in Washington, D.C., the Schade family had moved out of the Petersen House apparently fed up with the number of visitors constantly asking to see the death room of the President.  They leased the building to the Memorial Association of the District of Columbia, a group formed by Congress the year before.   When and how Oldroyd managed to convinced this group to make him custodian of the Petersen House is unknown.  According to a biography about Oldroyd written when he was alive, in 1893 Oldroyd moved his collection to the Petersen House, “at the request” of the association.  The earliest account the NPS has managed to find of Oldroyd residing at the Petersen House is June of 1898.  This was after the government purchased the house outright from the Schades in 1896.  So, whether Oldroyd went straight from the Lincoln Home to the Petersen House, or whether he had five years in between, he ultimately found a new location to show off his collection.

While he lived rent free at the Petersen House, Oldroyd did not receive a salary there.  Instead, he got back to his roots and was allowed to charge admission to his museum.  He made the whole first floor of the house his exhibit floor and he and his family lived upstairs.  The first floor of the Petersen House contained considerably less real estate than what he had previously used to showcase his collection at the Lincoln Home.  He covered practically every surface of the Peterson House with material to make up for it.  Oldroyd also had a lot of changes made to the building while he lived there.  Most noticeably, he had the back wall of the room where Lincoln died, removed.

The following are some pictures of the interior of the Petersen House when it housed Osborn Oldroyd’s Lincoln Museum:

Petersen Museum 1922

This picture was taken from within the front parlor of the Petersen House facing towards the rear parlor.  The door to the right leads into the hallway with the room where Lincoln died at one end and the entrance to the Petersen House at the other.

Oldroyd Museum 1

This photo was taken from within the rear parlor of the Petersen House in the direction of the front parlor.  This photo shows only the front parlor.

Oldroyd Museum 2

This photo was taken from the entrance of the room where Lincoln died. The bed Lincoln died in would have been located in the bottom right hand corner of this photo.

The white X marks the spot where the bed Lincoln died in was.

This photo was taken from the rear of the room where Lincoln died in the direction of hallway and Petersen House entrance. The X marks the location of Lincoln’s deathbed.

Oldroyd in his museum

During his tenure at the Petersen House, Oldroyd continued to collect and correspond with many individuals associated with Lincoln’s life and death.  In 1901, after walking the escape route of Lincoln’s assassin on foot with a camera, he published his book, “The Assassination of Abraham Lincoln”.  This volume contains many of the earliest photographs we have of different parts of the escape route.

Oldroyd walking the route

By 1926, after about 30 years curating his collection at Petersen House, Oldroyd sought the help of Congressman Henry Rathbone of Illinois, to insure its preservation.  The son of Henry Rathbone and Clara Harris, the ill fated pair who joined Mr. and Mrs. Lincoln at Ford’s Theatre that night, managed to pass a bill in Congress authorizing the purchasing of Oldroyd’s collection.  Experts at the Smithsonian noted that the collection “was of little practical value”.  Despite this, Oldroyd was paid $50,000.  Oldroyd later stated that he had been offered far greater amounts for the collection by private individuals but that he wanted the collection to be in the hands of the government so that it would be preserved and enjoyed by the public for years to come.  When offered continued curatorship over the collection Oldroyd replied, “the responsibility would be too much for me to assume at my age of eighty-four years.”  Oldroyd was then given the key to the Petersen House and told that he was free to come and go as he pleased and that his accustom chair would always be there for him.

Osborn Hamilton Ingham Oldroyd died four years later in 1930.  He  is buried next to his wife of over 54 years, Lida, at Rock Creek Cemetery in Washington, D.C.

Oldroyd's grave

He may have been a “rascal” as Robert Todd Lincoln called him, but Osborn Oldroyd was also the epitome of a collector.  He devoted his whole life to acquiring everything relating to Abraham Lincoln.  For nearly half of his life, Osborn Oldroyd made his home in houses relating to the 16th President.  To the collection and study of Lincoln, Osborn Oldroyd’s name is unavoidable, particularly in the study of his assassination.  I find it entirely appropriate then, that in this picture of Rep. Henry Rathbone in front of the Petersen House Lincoln Museum, the presence of Osborn Oldroyd in his favored setting is enshrined forever:

Rathbone in front of Oldroyd's Petersen

Oldroyd in the window

House Where Lincoln Died Historic Structures Report by the National Parks Service
Life of Osborn H. Oldroyd by William Burton Benham
Giant in the Shadows: The Life of Robert Todd Lincoln by Jason Emerson
Lincoln Home National Historic Site
The Lincoln Assassination: Where Are They Now? by Jim Garrett and Rich Smyth

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Going the Extra Mile…and Then Some

One practically required aspect of studying the Lincoln assassination is to at one point retrace John Wilkes Booth’s route as he escaped south. Nowadays, this is generally done either by yourself in a car, or with a group in a bus and narrator.  The fact is tracing the escape route is really a necessity for all of those interested in the Lincoln assassination. The miraculous invention of the automobile allows us to complete an only slightly abridged version of Booth’s twelve day escape in a mere 12 hours.  However, retracing Booth’s footsteps is not a modern occurrence.  A mere 10 days after his death at the Garrett’s barn, the first official retracing of the route occurred when Lieut. Luther Baker traveled down Booth’s route looking for suspects and items. From that day on, countless people have retraced the escape route by a variety of means. So much of our knowledge, in fact, is based on the early accounts of individuals who retraced Booth’s escape route by foot. One such individual, from whom we get a lot of our knowledge about the escape route, was Osborn Oldroyd.  A noted Lincoln collector who lived in both Lincoln’s home in Springfield, IL and the Petersen House where Lincoln died, Oldroyd retraced Booth’s steps on foot through Maryland and Virginia. Oldroyd brought along a camera, photographing his many stops and, in 1901, published his book containing his travels and a history of the assassination called, The Assassination of Abraham Lincoln: Flight, Pursuit, Capture, and Punishment of the Conspirators.  Oldroyd’s book and walk is very useful and is still cited and read today.

Though such a pedestrian journey commencing at Ford’s Theatre and ending at the Garrett’s farm near Port Royal, VA, seems momentous, this trip was just a drop in the bucket for Mr. Oldroyd. As it turns out, Mr. Oldroyd was an enthusiastic walker as this article from 1913 shows:

Oldroyd takes a walk Evening Star Nov 5 1913

Oldroyd in Newark

For those of you who are interested, I’ve figured out a way to “one up” Osborn Oldroyd.  All you have to do is walk the distance between two of Osborn Oldroyd’s former homes, the Lincoln home in Springfield to the Petersen house in D.C.  According to Google, the walking distance is 756 miles and would only take 249 hours to complete.  Dig out those Nikes folks!

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