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“ages” Vs. “angels”

March 2023
2min read

Lincoln buffs are naturally meticulous about facts, and the excerpt from Twenty Days , the new book about Lincoln’s assassination by Dorothy Meserve Kunhardt and Philip B. Kunhardt, in our April issue, stirred up some controversy. We heard from several readers on two questions in particular: whether John Wilkes Booth really did bore the peephole in the door to Lincoln’s box at Ford’s Theatre; and whether Stanton really did say (as the Kunhardts reported it) “He belongs to the angels now,” rather than “Now he belongs to the ages,” at the moment of Lincoln’s death.

On the first of these intriguing queries, it has been brought to our attention that Mr. Frank Ford, the son of Harry Clay Ford, treasurer of Ford’s Theatre, is still very much alive, and that he vehemently disputes the statement by the Kunhardts that Booth, on the day of the assassination, “bored a peephole in the door to the box itself. …” In 1962 Mr. Ford wrote a letter to Dr. George J. Olszewski, official historian of Ford’s Theatre, including these remarks:

”… I say again and unequivocally that John Wilkes Booth did not bore the hole in the door leading to the box President Lincoln occupied the night of his assassination. … The hole was bored by my father, Harry Clay Ford, or rather on his orders, and was bored for the very simple reason it would allow the guard, one Parker, easy opportunity whenever he so desired to look into the box rather than to open the inner door to check on the presidential party. … My father would always ‘blow his top,’ to use today’s slang, whenever he read or heard of this historical absurdity … and would often finish his vehemence by saying, ‘John Booth had too much to do that day other than to go around boring holes in theatre doors.’ ”

Mrs. Kunhardt points out that this is in contradiction to what Harry Clay Ford said, under oath, at the trial of the conspirators in May, 1865. From the trial transcript she quotes these words of Ford’s: “I know nothing of the mortise in the wall [supposedly made by Booth to facilitate barring the door leading to the box] … nor did I see the hole bored through the door of the President’s box, though I have since heard there was one.” To this Mr. Frank Ford replied, in a conversation with an A MERICAN H ERITAGE editor, “I can only tell you that my father was understandably frightened when he gave that testimony.” He explained that his father was anxious to be cleared of any suspicion of having collaborated with Booth and, in the oppressive atmosphere of the conspiracy trials, felt the best way out was to say he knew nothing of the peephole.

“Now he belongs to the ages” is the version of Stanton’s words given by most biographers and perpetuated in stone at the Lincoln Tomb in Springfield, Illinois. However, since Stanton was sobbing when he said whatever he did say, it seems quite possible that the key word may have been “angels” instead of “ages”; that, at any rate, is the way Corporal James Tanner (whom the Kunhardts quote in their book) heard it. It is tantalizing to speculate that Stanton may in fact have said “angels,” then heard himself quoted as saying “ages,” decided that that had a more noble ring to it, and let it stand.

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