Recently I played “history detective” during the move into the new History Colorado Center. As we began the process of putting collections onto shelves in our new storage area, we found a number of uncataloged books, serial publications, ephemera, and other materials. One object we found in a box really knocked me for a loop. It was a playbill that purported to be from Ford’s Theatre in Washington, D.C., for the performance that Abraham Lincoln attended on April 14, 1865—the night he was assassinated.
Knowing nothing about the playbill, I excitedly showed it off to a number of museum staff, all of whom were suitably impressed. After showing the playbill to Elisa Phelps, Director of the Collections and Library Division, she and I began to research the playbill. We discovered a number of sources that dealt with just about every aspect of the history of this object—and boy, does it have a history!
It turns out Ford’s Theatre printed two playbills for that fateful performance: one on the morning of April 14th, and a second during the afternoon, after theatre management learned Lincoln would be in attendance that evening. One key point we learned during our research was that neither of these printings gave any indication that Lincoln would be in attendance. That makes sense, given the security risk of making such information public.
We also learned that both playbills for April 14th are rare, but that a number of reproductions were printed after Lincoln’s assassination. Any playbill claiming Lincoln would be in attendance was a facsimile, and unfortunately our copy said that Lincoln would be in the audience. After further research, I discovered that the Daniels & Fisher Company here in Denver had printed copies of the playbill, and the renowned Huntington Library in California had one. I contacted staff at the Huntington to find out how they knew that their copy came from Daniels & Fisher—was it actually printed on the copy, penciled in somewhere, or was it simply provenance information taken down when the library first acquired the object?
The Huntington kindly sent me several images of its version, which was printed with the words “Compliments of Daniels & Fisher.” Our copy had no such printing, but its dimensions exactly matched that of the Huntington’s version. So, while our playbill isn’t an original, it may well be a reproduction from Daniels & Fisher.
Patrick J. Fraker, Special Collections Librarian & Cataloger
Stephen H. Hart Library & Research Center
Contact the Library
Stephen H. Hart Library and Research Center
History Colorado Center
Denver, CO 80203