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Kathryn Evans and The Lincoln Assassination: A Chat with Dave Taylor

In Episode One: Kathryn Evans, there’s an excerpt of my phone interview with Dave Taylor of Dave is the person who introduced me to Kathryn’s grave in the first place; he and Kate Ramirez, his wife (who helped with research on my HH Holmes book) came to Chicago and I took them around to some Holmes sites, then he went to Rosehill to track down a couple of Booth-related graves.  Here’s my full transcript of our phone chat:


So Dave, what was the atmosphere like in theatres that night?

In 1865, the theatre world was very different than what we have today. You were either one of two things – you were either a star, like Laura Keene that night, and you went wherever you want, played  a lead role, got paid, and moved on to a new city. Or, you were like everyone ele and you were just a stock actor, so you stayed at one theatre, performed different roles every night, and got paid very little.

And that was Kathryn’s role?

She was 20 years old, she was still pretty young, even though she had been working in the theatre world since she was 10, since her father was a cellist, I think, in New York. But she was just one of the stock company actors for Ford’s theatre, mainly because her husband had been hired to be a stock actor just a few years prior, and she came with him.

I’m always impressed with the sheer amount of knowledge you have about this night and the people involved…have you ever actually seen this play? 

No, I have not.

Does anyone still do it?

You know, during the 150th anniversary, there were several places that decided to put the show on. It’s not a LOST play, you can get your hands on the script easily, but it’s not performed much. It was incredibly popular when it made its debut. The playbills for the one at Ford’s Theatre talked about how Laura Keene had played the role upwards of a thousand times. That’s why Lincoln came out; it was a well-known comedy. He was looking for some laughs.

Even in the 1910s, Kathryn said she didn’t think modern audiences would think it was very funny. Do you agree?

Well…. yeah. Modern audiences will not get it, but I think it’d be somewhat enjoyed at least, because  the jokes for it are really based on the differences between the English and Americans. The American Cousin shows up because it’s believed that he’s the sole inheritor of a vast estate.  And so the British cousins are trying to swindle him out of his inheritance. But, yeah, I don’t think modern audiences would get a kick out of it the way they did in the 1860s.

I can’t think of a single victorian play that’d go over that well. 

Yeah, absolutely. Shakespeare was still popular then, but well, he’s got some longevity.

Kathryn mentions in her 1914 interview that Laura Keene pushed her way into the president’s box. Did that really happen? I’ve seen some articles saying it didn’t. 

There are conflicting accounts. You have some historians who don’t believe Laura Keene did that, and  one of the statements Kathryn gives is all the way in the nineteen teens, as you were saying. So, memories change over time. But I’m more of the believe that Laura Keene DID make her way into the box. The most tell-talle artifact is she did have a blood-stained dress that was supposed to have been stained with Lincoln’s blood, though more likely it was the blood of the man who was there with him, Major Rathbone, who was stabbed by John Wilkes Booth after Lincoln was shot. And he bled pretty profusely, unlike Lincoln, (with whom) the wound didn’t bleed very much.  And she would wear that dress, and later on she would cut off pieces of that dress and give them to people, so there are pieces of Laura Keen’s blood-stained dress in museums. I think that’s pretty good evidence that she was close enough to get something on her; so i think she did make her way into the box.

What are some of the other things about which we have conflicting accounts? 

So much about… even about just the few minutes after the assassination. About what Booth said after he shot Lincoln, the circumstances of him falling out of the box, and so, you know, eyewitness accounts aren’t always as reliable as you think, even with something as traumatic as the death of Lincoln. But no one really knew what to expect, because it came suddenly in a comededic play – suddenly there was a loud noise, it sounded like a gunshot… very few people were looking at Lincoln’s box at the time, because they were watching the play. And so, everything that happened then became a blur, and everyone was confused by what they saw, (so) a lot of people, they started changed the story, as time went on. They started assuming things that weren’t true. Like, even people like Harry Hawke, who was the only actor onstage, when Booth shoots the president… he will go on to say that he was in the MIDDLE of saying the funniest line of the play, which is “Don’t know the manners of good society eh? Well, I guess I know enough to turn you inside out. old gal.

Both: You sockdolagizing old man trap.

Exactly.  And that is the line that we all know, that right after that everyone starts laughing, and that is when Booth shoots the president (with the laughter) to cover up the sound. But Harry Hawke, who recited it, always claimed that he didn’t finish it! ANd that he was not done with the line when Booth fired at Lincoln. So even the person we should trust the most, saying that he was not done with the line, is acting in contrast to all these other witnesses who say it was during the laugh line, when everyone was laughing. So even small details like that, we’re not that sure because you have conflicting accounts.

So what are we to make of history, just overall? So many events, we have so many fewer accounts. Is anything reliable?

Well, it’s definitely human memory that’s to blame, not history itself, because for so many things we have written accounts and things that we can trust a little bit more.  But in traumatic situations, especially eyewitness accounts to traumatic events, there are going to be a wide variety of comments on what people see and what they truly believe. So there is some, as time goes on, exaggeration, that inevitably occurs. There’s one account from a ladies in the 1920s who said that when Booth jumped to the stage, not only did his leg break, but that the bone stuck out of the flesh and blood flew out towards the audience, and someone with a shepherd’s crook pulled him backstage. Which of course is not correct!

You’d think someone (else) would have noticed that!

Exactly. But it when it comes to eyewitnesses of traumatic events… everyone, of course, said Booth jumped out of the box and ran out the back door. But the specifics, what they could hear, what they see… it’s changed over time. Whenever we think we know something for sure in history, the truth is, we don’t know for sure. Because we weren’t there ourselves, and unless we have some ironclad proof, we have to know that there’s a little wiggle room about what actually happened.

Did any of the actors ever get out from under the shadow of what happened that night?

Oh, they tried! But for so many of them, because most of them were the stock actors like Kathryn Evans, it really became this thing that they were always connected to. Laura Keene, the star, was already well-known, (but) it did kind of follow her. So, ultimately I’d say no, they never got out of it, because here we are today, talking about this one lady who had a wonderful career, she died in her 80s, and she was an actress for many of those years, and we’re still connecting her to that one night. For so many of them, that was how it went; it was their claim to fame, almost, even though it was a sad event, that they were there when Lincoln was shot.


Note: for more on the differing stories on the night of the assassination, you can’t do much better than a collection of eyewitness accounts called We Saw Lincoln Shot.