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Ford Family: Anniversary of the Lincoln Assassination

Updated: Apr 14, 2023

Submitted by Rod Leith, Rutherford Historian

This April 14th will mark the 158th anniversary of one of this nation’s most tragic events --- the assassination of Abraham Lincoln. Lincoln’s murder at Ford’s Theatre in Washington would haunt the theatre’s owner, John T. Ford, and his family, some of whom settled in Rutherford in the early 1900’s.

This classic heirloom of the Ford family was kept in the house at 126 Woodland Avenue for a short time in 1929 before it was sold to a NY gallery for $2400..and then to the Ford Museum (no relation) Lincoln was sitting in this chair when he was shot April 14, 1865..

Harry Clay Ford, the theatre owner’s younger brother (in his brother’s absence}, was managing the theatre that dreadful night. He is said to have taken extra care of the President’s comfort, arranging to have his family’s black walnut rocking chair placed in the Presidential booth. The chair, perfect for Lincoln’s height, was brought to the theater from Harry Ford’s apartment across the street. He also had the playbill especially designed for the showing of “Our American Cousin,” which happened to be one of Lincoln’s favorites.

Just after the assassination, Harry Ford was jailed for about ninety days while the War Department investigators questioned him and others about Lincoln’s murder. Ford had some explaining to do about a knife, with his name engraved, which was found on the floor of the president’s suite. It was later found that it was not the knife John Booth purportedly used to bore a hole in the door of the Presidential theatre box so he could spy on Lincoln.

Blanche Chapman Ford

It was also revealed that Harry Ford was the last person to speak with Booth before the assassination. When Booth arrived, he greeted Harry Ford at the door, according to the account of Blanche Chapman Ford, Harry's wife. Booth remarked, “you don’t want a ticket from me, do you?” Ford smiled, “Of course not, John. Go right in and make yourself at home. You know your way around.” Ford lost track of Booth’s movements as he made his way to the President’s suite and positioned himself to closely watch Lincoln and await his opportunity to enter and fire his pistol at close range, striking Lincoln in the head.

This tragedy was deeply felt throughout America. A profound example of its impact was expressed by the journalist Thomas L. James in an address to Rutherford Lincoln League in 1894. “A generation has passed since the country was bereaved by his untimely and bloody death; and yet there is fascination to-day in the story of his career, the study of his character, and the analysis of his qualities; and those anecdotes which are told, illustrating the man, have the charm of delightful romance, and are read with greater interest than the most brilliant tales of the writers of fiction.”

In Rutherford the adoration for President Lincoln is abundantly demonstrated by the borough establishing a park in its main thoroughfare, a school by Lincoln’s name, and the naming of one of its central streets --- all accomplished with the overwhelming approval of its citizenry. Whether its Lincoln Park, Lincoln School or Lincoln Avenue, which connects Park Avenue with Rutherford Avenue, one cannot go far here without a reminder of our 16th President.

The Ford Theatre where Harry Clay Ford was managing the Good Friday evening of Lincoln's assassination.

Recently, further research has revealed the little-known intimate relationship between Lincoln’s assassin --- John Wilkes Booth --- and the family who owned Ford’s theatre. Details of this horrible day would later create a dark cloud of stigma over the lives of the family of Henry Clay Ford who came to live in Rutherford in 1912. Records show that his wife, Blanche Chapman Ford, purported to be Booth’s cousin, purchased the Nelson Cottage at 149 Feronia Way (extant) on September 3, 1912..The Fords moved in that same month.

149 Feronia Way purchased by Blanche Chapman Ford in 1912
Harry Clay Ford

Not surprisingly, the Ford family would try to distance themselves from John Booth, at least publicly. It is reasonable to conclude that Harry C. Ford, who was managing the theater the night of the assassination, would want to leave the Washington area after the tragic event. John Ford, its owner, had leased the theatre building on Washington’s 10th Street to the War Department during a lengthy Lincoln assassination investigation. After John Ford’s death in 1894, Harry and Blanche moved to Brooklyn, NY, and later to New Jersey.

A revealing book, which is dedicated to Ada Blanche Chapman Ford, his mother’s full name, was written in 1955 by George Denham Ford, one of the sons of Blanche and Harry. Among other facts, it disclosed that the families of John Wilkes Booth and Henry Clay Ford had deep ties dating back over a century. These ties mainly revolved around their life-long involvement in the theater. The book, “These Were Actors,” was researched and written while George was living in the Ford family home on Woodland Avenue in Rutherford.

126 Woodland Ave, where the Ford family resided 1920's to 1940's.

In the book, George Ford recounts that he had “talked with six individuals who were employed at the theatre the night of the Lincoln assassination.” But he says, “the most interesting stories were told to me by my mother, Blanche Chapman Ford, with whom I sat each night for the last two years of her life, hearing her tell of mighty theatrical figures she had known and the stirring times of which she was part.” His mother died June 8, 1941 at their 126 Woodland Avenue home. She was 91 years of age.

Among those details Blanche Ford imparted to her son revealed that moments before Booth’s unspeakable deed was committed, the last person to speak with the assassin was her husband, Harry Clay Ford. He welcomed Booth to the theatre that evening, even though he was uncomfortable with Booth’s known drunkenness. Earlier that day he had “matter-of-factly” mentioned to Booth that the President would be attending the theatre’s Good Friday presentation. Of course, as his testimony later revealed, Ford could not have predicted Booth’s dastardly actions.

When the Ford family came to live in Rutherford in 1912, they moved into the so-called Nelson bungalow, purchased from Emma and Peter Nelson, who was a carpenter. It was built on the Feronia Way site in 1910 for Emily Ely, of another famous Rutherford family. Harry and Blanche arrived with their four adult children, three sons and a daughter. Harry Clay Ford died three years later and was buried at Hillside Cemetery following a ceremony conducted July 24, 1915 by Rev. Henry M. Ladd of Grace Episcopal Church. The family’s Episcopalian tie is known to include the Fords’ daughter, Ella, had become a communicant Grace Church in February 1913, according to church records.

After Harry Ford’s death, the family moved to a more spacious setting at 126 Woodland Avenue. Although the sons maintained their parents’ interest in the theater, their daughter, Julia Ella Ford became an artist. Unmarried, Ella died at Grosse Pointe Farm, Michigan, in 1936. Her funeral service was conducted by Rev. Charles W. Popham of Grace Episcopal Church, and she was buried at East Ridgelawn Cemetery in the Delawanna section of Clifton. She was survived by brother George, who was a play producer and Frank Ford who was employed as an actor and drama teacher.

Perhaps the member of the Ford family who can take the greatest credit for reviving the reputation locally is the oldest son, Harry Chapman Ford, who produced directed numerous plays, including several performances staged in Rutherford. He was also a playwright whose work was produced at Broadway theaters. One of his most successful plays, “The Test Kiss,” was produced in a March 22, 1930 production at the Rutherford High School auditorium. Cast members were recruited from Rutherford’s Little Theater, including Dorothy Sinsabaugh, Emil Waring, and Roland Brown, all from Rutherford.

At the time of his death, May 21, 1938, Harry Chapman Ford had been living at 126 Woodland Avenue with his brothers and his mother. As a reminder of the family’s association with the death of a president, Harry’s obituary in The New York Times mentioned his being a playwright “who was the son of the man (Harry Clay Ford) who was managing the Ford Theatre the night Lincoln was killed.”

Eltinge Theater, 1912

Not only did Harry Ford extend his play production and directing talents to the Rutherford community, but he was active at the venerated Eltinge Theatre on 42nd Street Manhattan, built by Albert Herman Woods. With Al Woods Ltd, Harry Ford participated in the production of several plays, including “Why Worry”, Under Orders”, Road to Destiny” and “Where Poppies Bloom”. Al Woods, 1930 classic, “A Farewell to Arms,” an Ernest Hemingway classic, was later made into a film.

Harry Chapman Ford’s last stage show was in Denver, CO. He was credited with taking the extravaganza, “Garden of Allah” on a transcontinental tour. His funeral service was held at the Alice Collins Funeral Home on Ames Street, Rutherford, where the Rev. Dr. Popham of Grace Episcopal Church conducted the service.

Their mother Blanche Chapman Ford had an acting career that stretched over a more than an 80-year period. Her reputation stemmed from her early career with her sister Ella, as the Chapman Sisters. Blanche became the first “Gilbert and Sullivan” Prima Donna and appeared on stage from Boston to San Francisco. She married Henry (Harry) Clay Ford in 1873, eight years after the Lincoln assassination. She was the daughter of Harry and Julia Drake Chapman, whose theatrical pedigree is traced back to 1733, a dozen years before the Barrymore family began acting. Her final theatrical appearance was at Hamann Beecher Hall in Albany, NY.

For whatever efforts the Fords made to shy away from John Wilkes Booth, the most surprising episode occurred when they helped in the reinterment of Booth’s body following his initial burial in Washington, D.C. John and Harry Ford honored the request of Booth’s brother, Edwin, who was a fellow actor, when they agreed to petition to have the body disinterred. According to the George Ford’s book, his father and Uncle John Ford “made the request several times and it was finally granted with the admonition that, for obvious reasons, there would be not a whisper of publicity.”

Extraordinarily as it may seem, Ford family members, including Blanche and her sister, Julia Ella Chapman, were called upon to verify the identity of Booth’s remains. He had been shot to death by a former Union Army soldier named Thomas H. Corbett. His body was transferred to the Booth burial grounds at Green Mount Cemetery in Baltimore.

When they appeared to identify Booth’s remains, Harry is reported to have remarked to Blanche; “I knew Wilkes Booth better than I know you, and there is no need for a doctor or a dentist (to verify the remains as Booth’s). One look told me that was all that was left of my friend.” According to George Ford, his father “considered Lincoln to be a great, good man and Wilkes Booth to be one of his dear friends.”

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