1865: A Night at the Theatre

Marisa Negron, guest writer

Looking back, I see now that all the events in my life leading up to the present were necessary. Of course I didn’t feel it then; I felt like the whole world was out to get me, and nobody cared enough to notice. But now, I realize everything happens for a reason.
* * *
October 4, 1860.
“Mama, Daddy!” I gasped, running down the stairs. “They accepted me! Mama, I . . . I’m in!”
“Alice Elizabeth Taylor, slow down. There will be no running in this house. Now what has gotten you so excited?” Mama asked, without putting down the socks she had been knitting.
“The theatre accepted me into their national tour! I’m going with them!” I screamed, waving the letter around.
“But you’re only 17. I didn’t even think you were that good,” remarked my father flatly.
“Well, I guess all that voice lesson money finally paid off,” responded Mama, who hadn’t looked up once from her knitting.
“Uhh, yah, I guess it finally did.”
Just like that, my excitement was gone. With my head down, I turned to climb back up the stairs. What will it take to actually impress my parents? They wouldn’t miss me much anyway, and I can’t wait to for independence.
* * *
June 16, 1861.
Eight months and twelve days had passed since I had received the letter. Now, I was going on tour! Ecstatic and nervous, I was ready to be independent. But I also felt guilty for not saying bye to my parents. It seemed like the right move at the time. Little did I know, it’d be the last time I’d ever see them again.
I slipped out the door very quietly with only Mama’s cat noticing my departure. Through the window, I could see my father hunched over a letter. He looked distraught. The Civil War had broken out just a few months ago; the missive must have been the conscription letter calling him to fight for the Union. I would never know for sure though.
The walk to the train station was only a couple blocks away, but this particular summer in New York was unusually warm, especially with all the clothing women wore. Running late, I picked up the pace. The heat made the two blocks feel like ten, and when I finally got to the station, everyone had already boarded.
“Excuse me . . . so sorry . . . pardon me,” I stammered as I squeezed through the aisle. I hated being late, and all I could think about was my huge dress being in everyone’s way. I finally found a seat in the very back and sat down, suitcase on my lap.
“Next stop, Washington, D.C.,” the conductor yelled.
* * *
February 21, 1865.
The acting life was not what I had dreamed it would be. Four years of grueling performance schedules, long stagecoach and riverboat travels, and makeshift lodgings didn’t add up to my expectations. Now, all my life consisted of was rehearsals throughout the day, performances at night, and somehow finding time to memorize parts to many different plays, in sometimes, a single night.
In those days, I found myself rather lonely. I thought the independence would be a dream come true, but now it had begun to feel like a nightmare. Life as an actress wasn’t easy either. Being away from home for so long, I now realized that not saying goodbye to my parents had been an impulsive act. I missed them!
* * *
February 28, 1865.
Waking up that morning, I felt a big hole in me — a loneliness so deep and no one to turn to. I proceeded with my morning routine — first the corset, then its cover, then the petticoats, and finally the dress (“Everyday Life”). I always found women’s style a little much, especially after Fanny Davenport, one of my friends on tour, stood up from a chair to exit the stage only to find that it was now connected to her. Her trailing skirts and long trains had gotten so wrapped around the legs of the chair that when she left, “the chair went right along with her” (“19th Century”).
* * *

March 3, 1865.
I was so caught up in my part during the rehearsal that I hadn’t realized I had tripped until I landed in someone else’s arms. I looked up to find familiar, dark eyes staring down at me. For a second, they looked soft and inviting. But in an instant, they turned cold.
“Thanks for interrupting me,” he remarked shortly.
I had seen this man before. I just couldn’t remember when.
“Oh, I’m so sorry, sir. Won’t happen again.”
John Wilkes Booth was his name. I hadn’t ever realized it, but he and I had been on the same tour for the last four years. It’s funny how you can see someone everyday but never know who they really are.
Even though he had been quite rude to me, I knew there was more to him. His determined yet “charismatic presence” intrigued me (“John Wilkes Booth”). I guess he thought the same about me because oddly enough, considering our first encounter, I noticed him noticing me and singling me out to talk to me. With few friends, I enjoyed the attention.
* * *
March 31,1865.
The loneliness and emptiness were slowly evaporating but would never fully go away. We had been courting for almost a month now and everything was going surprisingly well. But, of course, it wouldn’t last forever. John was gone a lot, missing rehearsals and sometimes even performances. Whenever I’d ask about his absence, he’d make up some excuse like “I had to run to town,” or “I met up with some friends.” At first I bought it, but when he started to be gone every single night around six, I knew something was up.
“Where were you last night?” I pressed.
“It’s none of your business, Alice.”
John had become unusually distracted and short with me recently, but I wasn’t going to take that response as an answer anymore. I asked again.
“John, please tell me where you went.”
I was starting to think he had found someone else in this small city of Washington, D.C. But I would soon come to understand that the problem was way bigger than that.
“Stop asking questions! It’s not your place!” he raged. And with that, he turned and stormed out of the room.
That was when I realized I needed out.
* * *
April 8, 1865.
As I tried connecting the dots, only one thought would come to mind. Today was the day that the 13th Amendment had been passed: slavery was abolished. While I was overjoyed about the amendment, I knew that John was enraged. I tried to reason with myself. Maybe he left to try and clear his head.
I found myself sinking back into that lonely state of mind. On the bright side, I had become successful in acting, but that didn’t really matter. John was the all I had now. But he was barely in my life, and when he was, he was terrible to me. I felt trapped, but I couldn’t build up the courage to end our relationship. I needed something or someone to fill the hole in my life.
My thoughts wandered back to when I was little, when everything was perfect. Before grandma died and the depression set in, my mother would read me stories about a God out of a big book every night before bed. She said to me once, “He’s always with you, Alice. He can help you in any circumstance.” Now, those words comforted me. I realized there was someone there for me even when I felt like no one else was.
* * *
April 14, 1865.
“Oh, I’m fairly out of breath. Good morning, Binny…” I must have gone over my lines a thousand times, but I still didn’t feel totally ready for the big night. I paced back and forth, trying to memorize my part to the play Our American Cousin when I was interrupted with a shout.
“President Lincoln is coming tonight! This must be our best performance yet!”
The news didn’t help my nerves at all.
Finally, the curtains closed, indicating that the show was about to begin. But something was wrong. John was missing. As always, there was someone there that he had prearranged to take his place in the play, but something felt abnormal tonight. Still, the play went on.
That’s when it happened. A loud crack, almost like a gun shot was heard throughout the whole theatre as an anxious audience broke into pandemonium. And then a man came crashing down from the president’s box to the stage. As I looked closer, I realized it was John. My confusion reached its peak. What just happened in that box? And why did my boyfriend just fall from the same box?
John hit the stage at an odd angle, and I heard a crack. He then took off, limping as he ran (Shi). That was the last I saw of him.
* * *
April 15, 1865.
I was in shock along with the rest of the nation. The whole country was in mourning. We had all been right about the sound we heard the night before. It had been a gunshot and now our beloved president was dead. Along with that, my boyfriend was gone, and everywhere I turned, I could see wanted posters for John Wilkes Booth with a reward of $30,000. Even I didn’t know where he had gone. I concluded that this had become the worst day of my life. Unfortunately, I was wrong.
This did, however, clear up my suspicions about where John had been sneaking off to every night. I later learned that he had been making plans to kidnap the president. But after those plans fell through, he and his sympathizers resorted to assassinating the president (John).
* * *
April 16, 1865.
After that shocking night at the theater, I withdrew from the tour and went back home to the only people I had left in my life: my parents.
By train, the trip wasn’t that long, but as we rolled along, my mind wondered back to my mother’s Bible stories again. For the first time in years I bowed my head and found myself thanking God for getting me out of my relationship. I hadn’t even realized it, but looking back, I can see that the whole situation was a blessing in disguise. Opening my eyes, I noticed that the hole in my life was no longer there. All that time, I was looking for someone to fill my life, but all I had to do was look to God.
I looked up from my lap and out the window, but all I could see was smoke.
“Excuse me ma’am, what is going on out there?”
“Looks as if New York has had a bad fire,” answered the woman beside me.
“Oh . . . what a shame.”
* * *
April 17, 1865.
I hadn’t thought anything of it. Not even the slightest possibility of such a horrible ending to such a horrible story. But the ways of life don’t move out of the way for anyone.
That was when, to my horror, I received a letter. As I read it, tears began to fall, releasing the ink from its paper bondage, smearing and streaking as they went. Without having had the chance to say goodbye — I’d lost them. Mother and father were killed in the fire. All that I had left was gone.
* * *
April 26, 1865.
The fire had temporarily taken my mind off the night at the theater, but after receiving the news that John had been found and assassinated, I became numb all over again. Time went on and waves of depression would hit; however, with each wave, came new understanding. I was starting to learn that I didn’t need to be dependent on earthly beings. What I needed was God.
Works Cited
“19th Century American Theater.” University of Washington Digital Collections, content.lib.washington.edu. Accessed 29 Jan. 2018.
“Everyday Life: Fashion.” American Eras, vol. 8: Development of the Industrial United States, 1878-1899, Gale, 1997, pp. 292-298. U.S. History in Context, http://link.galegroup.com/ apps/doc/CX2536601691/UHIC?u=oldt1017&xid=8f6ceea0. Accessed 29 Jan. 2018.
“John Wilkes Booth.” Biography, biography.com. Accessed 29 Jan. 2018.
Shi, David E., and George B. Tindall. America: The Essential Learning Edition. Edited by Jon Durbin, W. W. Norton, 2015. WWNorton, digital.wwnorton.com.

“1860 to 1869: Important News, Significant Events, Key Technology.” The People History. 2017, www.thepeoplehistory.com/1860to1869.html. Accessed 21 Jan. 2018.
J.D. Thomas. “An Extraordinary April-1865.” Accessible Archives,
www.accessible-archives.com. Accessed 29 Jan. 2018.
Sandburg, Carl. Abraham Lincoln: The War Years. Harcourt, Brace & World, 1939.