Lincoln's history revived at restored Ford's Theatre Museum

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WASHINGTON, D.C. -- Abraham Lincoln was mortally wounded by an assassin's bullet more than 144 years ago. Yet standing in front of the long black double-breasted frockcoat he wore to Ford's Theatre that night in April 1865, its plain gray buttons almost within touching distance behind a thick sheet of glass, our 16th president looms larger than life.

At 6 feet 4 inches, Lincoln was quite tall for his times. But it doesn't strike you just how far above his peers he towered until you're nose-to-nose with the life-size mannequin displaying the bloodstained clothes taken off his body as he lay dying in the Peterson House, across the street from the theater. The square-toed goatskin boots that climbed under his trousers to his shins are equally spellbinding, if surprisingly shabby for a president. The size 14 shoes are worn down at the heels.

Lincoln's oversized garments, of course, could be seen as an allegory for his place in history: The man was huge, in more ways than one. It's those in-your-face details, though, along with the variety of historical artifacts, videos and environmental re-creations displayed in the newly restored Ford's Theatre Museum on 10th Street NW in the nation's capital that bring Lincoln, his presidency and his assassination -- the first of an American president -- by John Wilkes Booth so vividly to life.

It took nearly two years and $3.5 million to turn the subterranean museum, which originally opened in 1932 on the first floor and moved to the basement in 1968, into a 6,868-square-foot, state-of-the-art exhibition space. It reopened to the public July 15, on the heels of a $25 million, 18-month renovation of the working theater that sits atop it. (The new Ford's Theatre made its debut in February.) You don't need a well-thumbed copy of Ronald White's "A. Lincoln: A Biography" on your bedside table to understand the wait was worth it.

The new museum, free to the public, boasts the same fantastic collection of original artifacts belonging to the National Park Service that drew upward of 1 million visitors a year to the old site. Many are related to the assassination and the co-conspirators' failed escape: Along with the thigh-high boot Dr. Samuel Mudd cut off Booth's broken left leg after he fled the theater and the medical kit from which the doomed physician drew his supplies, visitors get to see the large bowie knife George Atzerodt would have used to murder vice president Andrew Johnson had he not chickened out; a reward poster misspelling David Herold's name (it offered a $25,000 reward for "Harold's" capture); and the diary Booth scribbled in a leather appointment book during his 12 days on the run.

The palm-sized .44-caliber Philadelphia derringer pistol Booth used to shoot the president also is on display, seemingly suspended in air in its own case, along with a reproduction of the one-ounce lead bullet fired into the back of Lincoln's head. Visitors are encouraged to touch the latter...

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