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The Ford's Theater Myth

by Patricia A. Lynch, West Side Soldiers Aid Society, Inc.

The rumor persists! Though it may have started in the early 20th century, by 1959 and throughout the 1960s it was commonly held that: “The oldest theater in Wisconsin still being used, [the Ward Theater] was modeled after the Ford Theater, where Lincoln was assassinated. The box seats are still there, the steep balcony, the tight orchestra pit, and the general layout of a theatre of fifty years ago.” This passage appeared in June 1959 article by Will Talsey in Milwaukee County Historical Society Historical Messenger.

The next year several articles reinforced the myth. Bill Dwyer, an MA candidate from Marquette University, was quoted: “The old theater is one of the 108 buildings at Wood. It is a duplicate in every detail of Ford’s Theater at Washington where Lincoln was assassinated. You’ll find it fascinating.”

Elizabeth Corbett, prolific author who wrote about her childhood at the Milwaukee Soldiers' Home, was once questioned about the Ward Theater by VA Librarian Florence Markus. On September 3, 1960, Miss Corbett wrote:

…your mention of Ward Memorial Theater brought back many happy memories. Most people can recall their first experience as part of a theater audience, I believe. I cannot. I must have been carried in there as an infant in arms. In your quest for information I can help you, though not as much as I wish I could. The story that your theater is a reproduction of Ford’s Theater in Washington, D.C., is a myth, pure and simple. Furthermore, it is a myth which has originated since 1915. It all my twenty-five years at the Soldiers’ Home I never heard it.…
[T]here was a myth current about that building in my day. The equestrian statue of General Grant (I hope it’s still there) was missing one panel: the face, no less. The story ran that it was left like that on purpose so that when the sunlight caught it the General’s face would take on the color of human flesh. It didn’t, of course. But then—!

Horatio Ward left his money with the specification that it [Ward Memorial Hall] was to be used for the veterans’ enjoyment in ways which the Government appropriations did not cover. One thing which I well remember about it is that it was insured against fire by a policy paid out of the “Post Fund.” On the regular Home buildings the Government carried no commercial insurance. About Horatio Ward himself I know as little as you do; and the American History Room at the New York City Library (which had helped me out on a matter of Civil War history not a week before your letter came) could cast no light for me. We lack what might be called a leading clue. If we ever knew which state he came from, we might make a beginning.

I wish our forbears had kept fuller records!

A letter from the National Trust for Historic Preservation, dated November 24, 1969,  stated flatly, “There is no relationship between that building and Ford’s Theatre here in Washington, DC.”

If only that pronouncement would have put an end to it!
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