Tuesday, May 26, 2009

The Ford Theatre and Lincoln's Ghost

Not far from the Mall where the Smithsonian Museums are located is the Ford Theatre. We planned on touring the Ford Theatre after spending most of the day in the museums seeing all the historical exhibits and paintings. You walk through the main doors and are ushered into the theatre area where you are asked to be seated. After all the tourists are seated, a man came onto the stage and gave us a brief history of the theatre.

The building was built in 1833 and was originally a house of worship. In 1861, John T. Ford bought the place and had it renovated into a theater which was originally called Ford’s Athenaeum. Then in 1862 a fire destroyed the place, it was rebuilt, and then opened a year later, and was called Ford’s New Theatre. On April 14, 1865, just three days after General Lee surrendered at Appomattox Court House; President Lincoln was shot while enjoying a performance with his wife Mary Todd Lincoln.  President Lincoln died some hours later, across the street in an apartment.  John Wilkes Booth, a famous actor in the theatre, snuck up behind Lincoln and coldly put a bullet in the back of his head at point blank range. After stabbing Henry Rathbone, who was also in the box with the Lincolns along with his fiancee Clara Harris, he jumped onto the stage and shouted, “Sic semper tyrannis”, but some thought he said “The South is avenged”, and then escaped out the back door of the theatre. Lincoln’s body was taken to the Petersen House, a boarding house across the street, and put on a bed that wasn’t long enough for him. Clara Harris and Henry Rathbone escorted Mrs. Lincoln to the boarding house where Henry passed out from the blood loss of the stab wound. All through the night and early morning the physicians worked hard to save Lincoln but with no avail. At 7:22 am on April 15, 1865, Lincoln died at the age of 56 from external and internal hemorrhaging. Aft
er the assassination, the government took over the theater and it saw many owners since then. After a lengthy restoration period, the Ford Theatre today is an active theater presenting various types of plays and musicals, and offering tours with a bit of history thrown in.

After the history lesson, we are then ushered into the basement where the historical artifacts are exhibited. On display are many items relating to the assassination, including the Derringer pistol used to kill Lincoln, Booth’s diary, the original door to Lincoln’s theatre box, his coat (minus the bloodstain pieces), the blood stained pillow from his deathbed, statues of Lincoln, and several portraits of President Lincoln. This was truly a fascinating place to visit, and at times you feel like someone unseen might be watching you.
Is the Ford Theatre haunted? Many say it is haunted not only by Lincoln’s ghost, but Mary Todd Lincoln and John Wilkes Booth’s ghosts as well. Many of the witnesses have seen and heard the entire tragic event played out even to this day. The sounds of disembodied footsteps rushing the balcony box can be heard, and then followed by a loud gunshot and screams. Some have seen Mary Todd Lincoln’s ghost shortly afterwards leaning over the railing, pointing towards the stage and yelling “He killed the president”. Abraham Lincoln’s apparition has been seen by some in various places of the theater especially in the booth where he was killed. Others have reported seeing the ghost of Booth and feeling that he is haunting one particular part of the stage. Some of the actors that have stood on the left center of the stage have reported a cold spot, becoming nauseous, and having uncontrollable tremors causing them to shake and mess up their lines. Booth’s ghost has been seen running across the stage on numerous occasions, perhaps the exact area that he ran to make his escape.

The Petersen House has seen its fair share of paranormal activity too. Strange noises, voices, footsteps can be heard along with the ghost of Abraham Lincoln himself. His spirit has also been seen at his grave site in Springfield, Illinois and on many occasions, at the White House. Some say the Lincoln reported having a frightening vision of seeing his body, lying in state at the White House, ten days before he was assassinated at Ford’s Theatre. Maybe that is why Lincoln’s spirit has been witnessed by many hanging around the White House. It's too bad that we didn’t have the time to tour the Petersen House because it would have been a nice finish to the incredible tour.

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Mysteries of the Smithsonian

After leaving Virginia and spending a day at Monticello, our 2005 trip took us to Washington DC. We had three days there and decided to take one full day to visit most of the Smithsonian museums. You actually need two or more days to see everything these amazing museums hold. I found out that there are so many fascinating stories for each item and their significance, also the journey they took to find their final resting place at each of the museums. Here are just some of the stories behind the treasures.

The Smithsonian in Washington DC is the biggest museum complex in the world. It houses an astonishing 142 million items in 16 buildings around the US capitol. It is not surprising that there a numerous exhibits that hold intense stories and puzzling mysteries. Some of the biggest stories come from one of the smallest branches of the museum, the National Postal Museum. What this museum holds it not for the timid, the Hope Diamond, a priceless gem that is said to have a devastating effect on anyone that comes in contact with it. The diamond was given to the institution by Harry Winston, who was a jeweler in New York City. He decided to donate the gem to the institution in November of 1958 and mailed it to them, via registered mail. Winston had insured the diamond for a million dollars for its overnight trip from New York to Washington DC. It came by train to the mail station and James Todd was the mail carrier was assigned to deliver the Hope Diamond to the institution. He picked up the gem and delivered it to the National History Museum. Some people were surprised on how this precious gem was delivered, but Harry Winston said that is how he sends all his gems. This gem has had a legendary history, passing over 300 years from adventurers, to European Kings, and to wealthy collectors. The legend says that after the French adventurer who quickly removed it from the 17th century statue in India was mauled by a pack of wild dogs. Then when it was passed to King Louie the VXI of France, he lost his head. A 20th century American socialite wore it constantly and two of her children died while her husband went insane. As for James Todd, the mailman, within a year after delivering the Hope Diamond to the institution, his leg was crushed by a truck, his wife died of a heart attack, his dog died after being strangled on his leash, and James' house partially burned down. The curse devastated James life but it hasn't stopped the diamond from becoming the most popular attraction of the Smithsonian Museum. Also found in the National Postal Museum is a large group of the nations postal collection. In a safe is where a charred postcard is kept locked away and holds a strong and an interesting, sad tale. It was mailed from Germany in 1937 to an address in New York City and was written by Dein to his dearest friend, Hans. Dien sent the letter air mail on the Hindenburg which took off on May 6, 1937 from Germany. This pride of Nazi Germany was more than 800 feet long, and was four times the length of today Boeing 747. It crossed the Atlantic at 82 mph and contained 7 million cubic feet of explosive hydrogen gas. The arrival of the Hindenburg was delayed in Lakehurst New Jersey because of a thunder and lightening storm, but after it stopped, the Hindenburg caption decided to try and land. As it was coming in and someone noticed what appeared as a flash of light that appeared in seconds and realized that it was a fire. The Hindenburg went up in seconds with some of the passengers jumping out of it about 300 feet above ground. Of the 97 crew and passengers on board, 35 perished along with one person on the ground. What was amazing was that Hans postcard did survive the massive inferno. Hans upon receiving the postcard realized its significance and donated it to the museum. National Postal Museum holds many other treasures and stories equally as interesting.

The National Museum of Natural History attracts nearly 10 million each year. Everything about it is gigantic from the soaring rotunda to the elephant underneath which is the world's largest stuff mammal. The biggest monster mystery there is the giant squid. It is an elusive creature because no one has ever seen a living giant squid in its natural habitat. The one at the museum washed ashore near Boston in 1980, and when they stretched it out, they found that they had a small female, and the feeding tentacles were 28 feet long. There have been a couple of records of them being up to 60 feet in length and are deadly killing machines. When they shoot out those tentacles, pray is then brought to its mouth which contains a huge beak. It also has big massive eyes known to scare any sailor that came across its path. This museum holds the biggest collection of priced fish, about 8 million specimens, the largest in the world. Creatures have been collected from every ocean for over 100 years and can be found here having grown to unworldly shapes and sizes. Here you will find one of the strangest and oldest creatures on earth, a Coelacanth fish. This fish is showing the beginnings of arms and legs and some say is the missing link. This museum is also the home of the largest collection of dinosaurs. They used computer animation to recreate a five ton triceratops, bringing it back to life and its full sculptured of bones are on display.

In the Anthropology Department of this museum, there are thousands of human skulls in drawers and bones are stacked almost to the ceiling. This is the final resting place for some 30,000 human specimens from around the world and across the ages. On a slab lays the body of a well preserved mummy, all of 5 feet 5 inches, right down to his linen socks. He was an accidental mummy and was preserved by the electrolytes in the water near where he was buried, which slowed down his decaying.

The National Museum of American History houses the original star spangle banner flag that is being slowly restored by careful seamstress. During the War of 1812, the flag was flown at Fort McHenry, and was where Francis Scott Key saw it blowing at the top of the flagpole and inspired him to write “The Star Spangle Banner”. Over the next 100 years the flag was rarely displayed with pieces cut out of it, for various reasons. The first piece cut out was the 15th star and given to a defender of fort McHenry. His widow had requested a piece of the flag to bury with her husband. Today they are not trying to repair the flag but preserve it, even with the missing star, for future generations of Americans. Also in the National Museum of American History, the President’s room houses the uniform worn by George Washington, the desk used by Thomas Jefferson to write the Decoration of Independence, and a section on assassinations displaying Abraham Lincoln's hat. Many more items held, owned and used by our past presidents can be viewed in the President’s Room.

The National Air and Space Museum is where exceptional moments in aviation history come to life. The first manned flight, the first lunar landing, and the first plane to break the sound barrier, can all be found there. An interesting display of Amelia Earhart's collection can be seen, showing her leather flying suit, goggles and two way radio.

Perhaps the biggest mystery of the Smithsonian is why it came to be in the first place. The Smithsonian has many collections of bones but in the Smithsonian Institution Building, also known as The Castle, lays the special remains of human bones sealed in a crypt. They belong to James Smithson who made it all possible. James was a troubled British scientist and the last person you would expect to be responsible for such a huge American institution. In his hand written will, it stated that his humble fortune was to be donated to the American people. No one knew why because he did not know anyone in the United States and never once set foot in America. He died in 1829 in Italy far from home and even farther from America. His estate was turned into gold sovereign, put on a boat and travel across the Atlantic to Washington. His gold sovereign was melted down and turned into 2 dollar gold coins. It added up to be more than 250,000 of them, which was a very serious sum in those days. John Quincy Adams wanted an observatory while others wanted various types of museums and at the end it turned out to be all of those things. The mystery still remains to why Smithson left his fortune to a country he had never seen. He believed that by giving a gift that would increase knowledge would make life better for all humanity.

If you ever get to visit Washington DC, don’t forget to put the Smithsonian Museums on your ‘must see’ list. Give yourself enough time to see as much of the exhibits as you can and a whole day on just the paintings alone. There are so many more stories about the many unique and wondrous items that are in the rooms of each of the Smithsonian Museums, these were just a few. Paranormal activity has also been reported from those seeing apparitions, to unusual noises, unseen footsteps and eerie voices. Perhaps some of the past owners can’t give up their precious items.

(I have to mention the Travel Channel’s documentary on the Smithsonian for providing me with much of my information.)