On April 14 1865, John Wilkes Booth Goes to the Star Saloon for a drink


The events of April 14 1865 are some of the most infamous in American history. Abraham Lincoln went to a play at Ford’s Theatre, he sat in a box and watched the comedy Our American Cousin. In the third act, actor and confederate sympathizer John Wilkes Booth snuck into his box. When actor Harry Hawk delivered “you sockdologizing old mantrap!” the crowd roared with laughter, just as Booth knew they would. He took the opportunity to pull the trigger of the Deringer he held up against Lincoln’s head. Mary Todd Lincoln and Clara Harris screamed as Major Henry Rathbone jumped up and struggled with Booth. Booth stabbed Rathbone, screamed “Sic semper tyrannis” which is Latin for “See you in your grade school history book!” and broke his leg while jumping onto the stage and into the annals of monumentally bad fucking decisions.

In America we learned this story in grade school, along with the words “assassination,” “coma,” and “dagger,” but not “sockdologizing mantrap.” We learned the power of context, and would never again hear “Ford’s Theatre” without attaching it to bad omens. We learned context to relativize the magnitude of the event. When Mr. Hancock explained that John Wilkes Booth killing Abraham Lincoln was like Harrison Ford killing President Reagan, we were aghast.   

What we don’t learn is how the events of April 14 were linked to alcohol. Before Ford’s Theatre, Booth stopped at the Star Saloon next door for a few whiskeys to steel his nerves. He might have looked down the bar to see the president’s coachman Francis Burke, his valet Charles Forbes, and John Frederick Parker having a drink. When Booth would arrive at the president’s box a few minutes later, he would get inside with ease because the police officer in charge of guarding his box, John Frederick Parker, was at the Star Saloon. Across town, George Atzerodt was set to shoot Vice President Andrew Johnson at the Kirkwood House Hotel. Atzerodt went to the hotel’s bar, spent the evening getting shitfaced, and eventually lost his nerve and ran off into the night. Perhaps Lincoln might have been spared had the barman at the Star Saloon poured drinks like the barman at the Kirkwood. One of the best accounts of Lincoln’s assassination is that of another barman, James P. Ferguson, who was in attendance in Ford’s Theatre. He ran the Greenback Saloon, which flanked the theatre’s other side. Because his wife was ill, his guest that night was Mary Ella Cecil, a girl with whom he would fall in love and gift a canary named Jimmy.

And so, surrounding one of the most infamous murders in history is the full spectrum of human beings in pubs. On the one hand, Booth drinks at the Star Saloon to prepare for a difficult task. Nearby, you have ordinary working men enjoying a drink while their boss is at an event. As a result of his boozy appetites, Parker shirks his duty, which results in tragedy. George Atzerodt gets too drunk to do what he’s supposed to do but ruins his life anyway. One can only imagine the horror he felt in the morning along with his hangover. For as long as pubs have peddled booze, people have fucked their lives up in them.

To say that Abraham Lincoln’s death was influenced by alcohol is like saying a soldier’s death in combat was influenced by gun violence. Alcohol was ubiquitous in 19th century America. People made it in mass quantities, other people drank it in mass quantities, and a growing number of people wanted to get rid of it in mass quantities. Abraham Lincoln was a non-drinker; nevertheless, his attitudes towards alcohol were increasingly scrutinized by a public that was finding alcohol a worsening social problem. The growing temperance movement had only gathered steam during the Civil War, when soldiers matched alcohol with its troublesome soulmates – trauma, depression, and guns. A war, by the way, that was partially financed by a tax on alcohol introduced by one Abraham Lincoln. About five score and two years before Lincoln won the Republican party’s nomination in 1860, George Washington bought rum to court voters. Washington also had a whiskey distillery. But by the time Lincoln came around, politicians were expected to address America’s troublesome relationship with booze. Perhaps, given the change in attitudes towards alcohol, it’s only fitting that his murder would be so linked to it.

For some of the characters of April 14 1865, alcohol would continue to have an influence in one way or another. Henry Rathbone would never get over his inability to prevent the assassination. He became delusional and paranoid later in life, thinking people were living in his walls and that his paintings were talking to him. With that in mind, it’s probably not surprising that he turned to heavy drinking (no word on whether the paintings ever offered to buy drinks). Sadly, he would kill his wife Clara Harris and stab himself five times in the chest. He died in an asylum. George Atzerodt’s hangover would never go away and he was executed with the rest of the conspirators on July 7 1865. Barman James Ferguson would have an affair with Mary Ella Cecil and when his wife Martha got wind of it, she would get drunk and rip off Jimmy the canary’s head.

Two weeks after the assassination, Booth was being passed along a network of confederate sympathizers trying to get him to safety. He got drunk on a tobacco farm and was sleeping it off in a barn when Union troops cornered him. He was probably hungover when Boston Corbett shot him in the head, no doubt adding some discomfort to his list of agonizing complaints. He died both paralyzed and in extreme pain, an unwanted ironic duo. Shortly after the assassination, soldiers considered bringing Lincoln to the Star Saloon, but owner Peter Taltavull rejected the idea by saying “it shouldn’t be said that the U.S. President died in a saloon.” And while I have to agree with him on that, it would have brought this story remarkably full circle.  

Our chosen drink will celebrate a happier moment in Abe’s life. On the evening of February 27 1860, Lincoln gave his famous Union Cooper Address in New York City, which was a rousing success and put him on the national stage. He (well not really he, but his associates) celebrated at McSorley’s Ale House, which is the oldest Irish saloon in New York City. He (well not really he, but his associates) drank a speciality of the house –  the Black and Tan.

Ingredients

  • Pale ale
  • A stout (e.g. Guinness)
  • A spoon

The construction of this drink is relatively easy, which means you can have lots of them with little loss to the integrity of your concoction. Pour a glass halfway with pale ale and then pour stout over the back of a spoon to float it on the pale ale. Drink to the extinction of bad ideas born in pubs; drink to the memory of old Honest Abe, to poor Clara Harris, to the sanity of Henry Rathbone, and to the lost head of Jimmy the canary.

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