Exploring DC: The FBI Experience and Ford’s Theatre

If only there had been an FBI before Lincoln was assassinated.

Recently Dear Husband and I took a trip that we are calling “Autumn Back East 2021”. Our goal was to visit friends and family, and I wanted to show DH what autumn leaves really look like in a region that isn’t primarily covered in evergreen trees, and introduce him to our nation’s capital.

We flew to Atlanta, picked up a rental car, then drove to Alabama, North Florida, Georgia, Eastern Tennessee, Western North Carolina, and then drove to Washington DC by way of Virginia. Then we flew back home.

It was an amazing trip which lasted 15 days, and since I’m now only blogging every other day, if I gave you a day to day account like I have on trips past, it would take a month, and you’d be heartily sick of the subject before we even left peach country. So I’ve decided to focus on highlights, which I’ll do my best to keep in order. You can find the first post in the series here, and a link to the next post in the series, when it becomes available, below.

If you’re looking for a one-of-a-kind Washington DC tour, you’ll have to plan at least a month in advance. Back in the day, people would line up around the block to see the FBI Experience. It’s been going on in one form or another since 1937. Then 9/11 happened. Then COVID happened. Now, you can only enter this fascinating place if you have a family member who works for the Federal Bureau of Investigation, or if you contact your congressional representative.

Once you’ve gotten someone to reach out for you to secure a tour date, you must provide your name, birth date and Social Security number. The FBI will then do a security check. After all, you will be entering FBI Headquarters in our nation’s capital. They need to protect their personnel, building, information systems, and of course, all visitors.

I can’t speak for Dear Husband, but just walking up to the FBI building gave me the shivers. I was excited about our visit, but I also feel that it’s an intimidating building, and I suspect that that’s intentional. And while I had no doubt that they take security extremely seriously therein, I know that this democracy has enemies, and this place might be one possible target for their wrath. And yet I was heading right toward it. Little ol’ me.

Upon entering, you naturally have to pass through security, and it’s very similar to what one does to get on an airplane these days. The difference is that there is not a long line of people in a desperate hurry behind you, and these security guys were much more professional and courteous. We weren’t treated like cattle as one usually is by harried TSA agents.

You must present a photo ID. You are told not to take pictures until you enter the museum itself. There’s a long list of prohibited items, such as beverages, video recorders, weapons and fireworks, so travel as light as you can for this tour.

You are then ushered into a waiting room, where you will meet your guide. If you arrive early there is a nice gift shop and an interesting overview video to watch. There are also a few wall-mounted displays, including one with a very old letter from a young boy complaining that his toy gun, which he had purchased in the gift shop with his hard-earned allowance, got confiscated before the tour and wasn’t returned to him. The director’s letter back apologizes for the inconvenience and reimburses him the $1.25. I can barely remember that level of customer service.

Our guide met us in the waiting room. He was a very nice young man in a very serious suit who was clearly quite proud to be a part of the FBI, and was extremely knowledgeable when we asked questions. (I only wish he could have remembered to keep his nose under his face mask.)

Our tour would only include us and three other people, so the guide was able to give us lots of attention. We felt like VIPs. He walked us up a flight of stairs that included interesting information about the bureau’s diversity. (Rather than repeat it, I urge you to zoom in on the picture.

There were many displays about the jobs available in the FBI. We also got to see J. Edgar Hoover’s actual desk. I was dying to ask the guide if Hoover’s sexuality was widely known in the department at the time, as it apparently was in the Mafia. According to the stairway we had just climbed, LGBT were not allowed security clearances until 1985. But I didn’t know the political leanings of our guide or of anyone else in our group, and for once I wasn’t in the mood to ruffle conservative feathers. Out of respect for the person who was kind enough to get us in here for this tour, I was determined to maintain a level of decorum and avoid controversy.

There was an interactive exhibit that allowed you to collect evidence to solve a crime. There was a display showing the insane number of bullet rounds a special agent goes through when doing firearms training at the FBI Academy at Quantico. Another showed all the specialized equipment someone on the bomb squad might use, and a third described the Victim Services Division that was established after 9/11. They even have crisis response canines. If I were young enough to be hired, I think that’s the department I would want to be in. Well, that or the forensics lab.

An exhibit that I found particularly fascinating was a replica of a hotel room that was set up for surveillance of some high-profile criminal whose name escapes me. It just looks like a normal hotel room. Nothing looks amiss. But the guide pointed out that the painting on the wall included the artist’s signature, which contained a period, and that period was actually a hidden camera. I was intrigued but at the same time I was creeped out.

Our guide talked to us at length about some really famous cases and how the FBI solved them. In particular, we discussed the tragic Boston Marathon Bombing which you can read about in more detail here. For our purposes, suffice it to say that the scumbags were two brothers, and one ran over and killed the other with a stolen car while escaping from a shootout with the police. Oops. Later, the surviving brother was discovered to be hiding in a boat in the back yard of one very startled citizen. The police shot and wounded him (the bomber, not the startled citizen), and they pretty much trashed the boat in the process, in order to take him into custody. The actual boat in question, bullet holes and all, is the last thing you see at the FBI Experience. By then our guide had already departed, or I would have asked him if the poor boat owner got reimbursed for the vessel. I hope so.

That’s a lot of bullet holes.

I really enjoyed my visit to the FBI Experience. If you have the opportunity to see it, it’s well worth all the hoops you have to jump through to do so. Many thanks to the person who helped us get in. You know who you are.

After that, we headed to Ford’s Theatre, which is only a two-minute walk due north from the FBI building, on 10th Street. This is where President Lincoln was assassinated. Lincoln would have greatly benefited from having an FBI, but unfortunately that agency wasn’t created until 1908.

Ironically, the Secret Service was established about three months after Lincoln’s death in 1865, but it’s mission at the time was mostly to investigate counterfeiting. It is estimated that one third of the currency circulating back then was fake. Lincoln had established the commission that would recommend a secret service. That agency wouldn’t be tasked to provide protection to presidents until 1901, after President McKinley, too, had been assassinated.

Walking up to Ford’s Theatre, past Honest Abe’s Souvenir Store and Lincoln’s Waffle Shop, I couldn’t help but wonder what the man himself would think about how we have turned his assassination into a morbid spectacle and a profit generating machine. Yes, it’s an important part of our nation’s history, but the exploitation of it is a bit macabre when you think about it.

Having said that, the museum and the theatre are pretty darned amazing. The tour used to also include a visit to the Petersen House across the street where Lincoln was carried and where he died hours later, and an exhibit that explores the aftermath of this tragedy, including the hunt for John Wilkes Booth, and the path of the president’s funeral train. Unfortunately, COVID has taken its toll on history, too. Those two parts of the tour are closed because they are rather close quarters, and social distancing would be all but impossible to maintain.

The museum was quite informative. It was self-guiding, and you could also get an audio guide for reasonable additional fee. We found the guides to be quite worth it.

The displays described Lincoln’s administration and his family life and his love of the theater. It discussed the conspirator’s plot and the actual deed itself. I had forgotten that there had been a Baltimore assassination attempt as well. Lincoln’s private bodyguard offered to give Lincoln a variety of weapons after that, but Detective Allan Pinkerton, who was in charge of what little protection Lincoln had, didn’t approve of the idea. (One wonders how Pinkerton’s agency has remained viable in one form or another to this very day, given his epic fail on Lincoln’s behalf. Don’t even get me started on its reputation for strike breaking.)

After looking at the display of the weapons that had been offered to him, I doubt they’d have done Lincoln any good. He was shot from behind. The bullet entered his head before he knew what was happening. He probably never knew on any real level. He had been laughing at the play when he was shot. He never regained consciousness, and died 9 hours later.

The actual gun that killed him is on display, and is shockingly tiny. It only has room for one little lead ball, and was only accurate at very close range. Also on display is a white plastic replica of the gun that visitors used to be able to touch in the pre-COVID era, but now that, too, is encased in plexiglass.

After the museum we were able to enter the theatre itself. It’s a beautiful place, and I was surprised to discover that they still put on the occasional play. In fact, there were books piled up on the stage, and when I asked about them, an enthusiastic docent told me that they had been props for a play that had been staged here just a few days previously. They also put on A Christmas Carol every year. I bet that’s fun. The docent confirmed for me that nobody gets to sit in the president’s box during these events.

Another surprise was that a back door right behind the stage leads directly to the alley. It was wide open when we visited. You can see it in the photo below. No wonder John Wilkes Booth was able to beat such a hasty retreat. Apparently he had a horse waiting for him right there. He couldn’t have designed the place better if he had built it himself. (Although he would probably have preferred a shorter jump to the stage, since it caused him to break his leg.)

The president’s box was smaller than I expected, too, and the chair he was sitting in was horrifyingly close to the door. In order to get to it, one must walk up a steep flight of stairs, then walk behind every single one of the patrons sitting on that level, until you get to the opposite side of the balcony that provides the door to the box. The president caused a stir when he walked in, but Booth didn’t, because he was a known quantity. He had acted on that very stage.

The docent was quick to point out that carrying Lincoln’s limp and extremely tall body own those stairs, across the street in the rain, and up the stairs to the Petersen house must have been a horror. Surprisingly, there was very little blood. In fact, there was confusion at first as to the location of his wound, or even whether he had been stabbed or shot.

We walked that same path his body had traveled, even though we couldn’t enter the house. I could imagine the street full of people, standing vigil. I imagined myself standing amongst them, waiting for news. I could all but see the doctor coming out every hour to give an update, until that final update which must have been so devastating to hear.

It’s always a little strange when you stand in the very spot where the world completely changed. Check out the Ford Theatre’s very detailed website to get more information on this incident and how the world reacted in its aftermath. But understand that actually being there, in that very place, adds a whole new level to your understanding. I highly recommend that you visit.

To make this day even more sobering, we then took an Uber to the Holocaust Museum. It deserves a post all to itself. That one should appear on my blog in 4 days, so watch this space!

Claim your copy of A Bridgetender’s View: Notes on Gratitude today and you’ll be supporting StoryCorps too! http://amzn.to/2mlPVh5


Author: The View from a Drawbridge

I have been a bridgetender since 2001, and gives me plenty of time to think and observe the world.

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