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John Wilkes Booth’s Other Victim
When William Withers, Jr., stepped up to the conductor’s podium at Ford’s Theatre that April evening, he believed the greatest triumph of his career was just a few minutes away
February/March 1991 | Volume 42, Issue 1
April 14, 1865, was an important day for William Withers, Jr. He was the orchestra leader at Ford’s Theatre in Washington, D.C., and that evening he was going to perform his song “Honor to Our Soldiers” for Abraham Lincoln. The President had accepted an invitation by the management of the theater to see the actress Laura Keene in Our American Cousin; Keene herself was to lead the audience and cast in singing Withers’s tribute to Lincoln.
“I was to achieve one of the greatest successes of my life,” Withers remembered. “Hours before theatre time, people began to gather around the main entrance, and I stood for a while outside the stage door watching the crowds.” Then, before going to the music room, he stepped next door to Taltaval’s saloon, an actor’s bar.
The first person he met as he entered was John Wilkes Booth. “He was standing at the bar in his shirt-sleeves, his coat thrown over one arm and his hat in his hand. There were several men with him, and they were laughing and joking … somebody laughed and said, ‘Oh, Booth will never be as great an actor as his father.’ I happened to be looking directly into Booth’s face when this remark was passed, and I remember seeing an inscrutable smile flit across it. He looked back … saying, ‘When I leave the stage for good, I will be the most famous man in America.’ This meant nothing to me at the time, but I remembered it afterward. I left the party and hurried to the music room; it was almost time for the overture to begin.”
Before long the President appeared. Withers gave the sign for the orchestra to play “Hail to the Chief.” “At the end of the first act, when my song was to be sung, I was called to the speaking tube by our stage manager, J. B. Wright. He asked me to play my entr’acte music because Miss Keene was not ready to assist in my song, but probably would be at the end of the second act.” But the second act ended with Laura Keene still not prepared to sing the song. ”... I was vexed by this,” said Withers, “and went behind the scenes to find out why my extra feature had been slighted. To reach the stage, I had to take an underground passage to a narrow stairway in the rear of the building.”
The stage manager told Withers that Laura Keene was nervous about performing Withers’s big number. The best he could do was to have the song presented at the conclusion of the play, when, Withers well knew, there would be no one left to hear it. “Then I got disgusted with the whole affair and started back for the rear stairway.” Withers had just started down when he heard a pistol shot. “I knew no firearms were used in the play and I thought some accident had happened.
“I heard the sound of something falling out on the stage, followed by jumps crossing the floor.” It was Booth running down the narrow passage-way toward Withers, carrying a knife.
”‘Let me pass!’ Booth kept repeating. I was willing to let him do so, but he kept pushing and shoving me backward in such a hysterical manner that I couldn’t set out of his way.
“He made a rush at me. As he jumped forward we collided and his waving dagger cut a gash through the left side of my coat.” Withers, dumbfounded, made no move to defend himself. “Booth’s arms were waving, and again the dagger cut into my clothes, this time on my shoulder, inflicting a slight flesh wound in my neck. The man was growing frantic at the delay. Every minute was precious to him.
“To this day, I can feel Booth’s hot breath in my face, and can see the pale countenance of the martyred president in the box.”
”‘Damn you!’ he cried, and gave me a tremendous shove, knocking me sprawling to the floor.” Booth rushed for the stage door. “As I lay there on the floor, I wondered in a vague sort of way what I had done to Booth that he should want to murder me.” Upon examining himself later, Withers discovered “to my amazement a six-inch wound, the scar of which I carry with me to this day.”
When telling the story in later years, Withers would show his audience the old black dress coat he had worn that night. Pointing to the rip in the garment where Booth had slashed him, he would say, “To this day, I can feel the blade cutting through to my shoulder. I call it the ‘Booth barometer,’ because every time the weather begins to fix itself for a northeast storm, that old wound starts to ache …. I can feel Booth’s hot breath in my face, and can see the pale countenance of the martyred president in the box.”
Secretary of War Edwin Stanton ordered Ford’s Theatre closed immediately after Lincoln’s assassination. The members of Ford’s company found themselves out of work with more than two months remaining in the theater season. Withers came to their rescue.
He formed a partnership with Henry B. Phillips, a veteran character actor who had once been Ford’s business manager and stage manager and who, it should be noted, had written the words to “Honor to Our Soldiers” before Withers set it to music. The partners seized the moment, renting the vacant and recently over-hauled Washington Theater and hiring most of Ford’s staff. The box office opened on May 1, a little more than two weeks after the assassination. Not surprisingly, every night Withers led the audience and cast in singing “Honor to Our Soldiers” with a featured soloist, his fourteen-year-old sister, Charlotte.