Staff Favorites: “President Lincoln’s head rested on this wall paper . . . April 14, 1865”

Wallpaper fragment, Ford's Theatre, Washington, DC. This fragment of wallpaper is from Abraham Lincoln's box at Ford's Theatre from the night of April 14, 1865, MS 2125, Mary Ann Booth Papers, MdHS.

Wallpaper fragment, Ford’s Theatre, Washington, DC.
This fragment of wallpaper is from Abraham Lincoln’s box at Ford’s Theatre from the night of April 14, 1865.
MS 2125, Mary Ann Booth Papers, MdHS.

So wrote Henry Furgeson, beneath the scrap of burgundy and rose pattern wallpaper found in the Mary Ann Booth collection (MS 2125) during the research for the MdHS Civil War exhibit in 2011. This decorative paper lined the walls of Lincoln’s box at Ford’s Theatre the night John Wilkes Booth assassinated the sixteenth president of the United States, one who millions of Americans revered for saving the Union and others, such as Booth, reviled for destroying the Confederacy. This powerful fragment is a chilling memento of that horrific night — imagining the gunshot, the screams, Booth’s dramatic escape across the stage, the disorienting shock and mayhem that followed:

“[The streets] were suddenly crowded with people; men, women, children, wandering aimlessly towards Ford’s Theatre . . . They tore wallpaper and gilt moldings from Lincoln’s theatre box, begged locks of hair from the departing surgeons, and vied for fragments of the stained deathbed linens. . . . [and] A child was found at the Petersen’s Tenth Street house staining bits of soft paper with half-dried blood on the steps.”(1)

Edwin Booth's Theatrical Makeup Box. Museum Collection,1970.86.2, MdHS.

Edwin Booth’s Theatrical Makeup Box.
Museum Collection,1970.86.2, MdHS.

The fact that the wallpaper is in a Booth family collection adds a macabre dimension. Why would the assassin’s family choose to keep this souvenir? Would we find clues in the Mary Ann Booth collection? MS 2125 is processed and cataloged as five pieces, donated by “Dr. M. H. Merriman, Dept. of History, Lancaster, Bailrigg, England” in 1970. The collection includes a property deed; a letter from Mary Ann Booth to her son John Wilkes, written two weeks before the assassination and addressed to him at Ford’s Theatre, Washington City; a letter from her daughter Edwina Booth Grossman, and the wallpaper from Henry Furgeson. For more on Dr. Merriman we checked the accession ledger and found that the gift included thirty-seven items for the library, including photographs, playbills, newspaper clippings, sheet music, an engraving, and a lithograph. Apparently the donation was separated into the documents found in MS 2125, the photographs moved to the general photograph collection, the theatre playbills into the ephemera collection, etc. There were no clues in the library files, but the museum records document a Booth family portrait (unnamed male sitter) and a “theatrical makeup box used by Edwin Booth” donated with the library material.

Mary Ann Holmes Booth (1802-1885) From the Library of Congress Collection.

Mary Ann Holmes Booth (1802-1885)
From the collection of the Library of Congress.

Playbill, Ford's Grand Opera House, 1874, Theatre Ephemera Collection, Box W6, MdHS.

Playbill, Ford’s Grand Opera House, 1874,
Theatre Ephemera Collection, Box W6, MdHS.

Although we have not established a family connection, we have learned more about the donor. Marcus Homer Merriman (1940–2006), born in Baltimore, was the son of Paul and Ruth Merriman and an esteemed scholar of sixteenth-century British history. He graduated from Bowdoin College, continued his studies in London before receiving an appointment to Lancaster University, and later served as president of the university and vice principal of Pendle College.

Was Dr. Merriman a family member or a collector? The object component to the gift and the lineal flow of the documents (Mary Ann Booth, sons John Wilkes and Edwin, granddaughter Edwina) suggest a family connection. A collector, however, may have gathered these pieces over time from different sources. Perhaps the wallpaper never belonged to Mary Ann Booth? The search goes on for the provenance of these intriguing pieces of American history. What next? There is mention in his obituary of a visiting professorship at Queen’s College, New York City, in 1969–1970, the same year he donated the collection to the Maryland Historical Society.(2) Coincidentally, Mary Ann Booth lived the latter years if her life in New York. Hmm . . .(Patricia Dockman Anderson)

Dr. Patricia Dockman Anderson specializes in U.S and Maryland History, Nineteenth Century; Social and Cultural History; Catholic History; and Civil War Civilians. She has served as a member of the History Advisory Council for the Women’s Industrial Exchange, the Baltimore History Writers Group, and the Maryland War of 1812 Bicentennial Commission. Dr. Anderson is the Director of Publications and Library Services for the Maryland Historical Society, editor of the Maryland Historical Magazine, and a professor at Towson University.

Sources and further reading:

(1) The Chicago Historical Society features a fragment of the same wallpaper, plus keys and molding, in their online story of the assassination.

(2) The Guardian, April 9, 2006.


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