The Petersen House

The Petersen House

Just a short bike ride from the National Mall in downtown D.C. sits a 19th-century Federal style row house, located at 516 10th Street (MAP), which is known as the Petersen House.  It was named after William A. Petersen, a German tailor, and his wife Ana.  The couple constructed the red brick three-story and basement house in 1849, where they lived and operated a boarding house.  The house, however, is more famous for who died there instead of who lived there.

The house is located across the street from Ford’s Theater, where on the night of April 14, 1865, President Abraham Lincoln and his wife Mary Todd were attending a performance.  During the performance, John Wilkes Booth entered the viewing box and shot the President in the back of the head.  At the direction of doctors who were tending to him, the wounded President was carried out of the theater to the street, where a boarder named Henry Safford, standing in the open doorway of the Petersen House, gestured for them to bring Lincoln inside.

The Petersen family aided as best they could, but could do little to assist the doctors, politicians, and others in the throng that accompanied the dying President.  So the Petersen family and some of the boarders spent that night in the basement.  Over 90 people would come and go through the house during the night, while soldiers stood guard at the front door and were posted on the roof to keep the growing crowds at bay.  At 7:22 am, April 15, 1865, Abraham Lincoln died in the back bedroom of this humble house.

In 1896, the Federal government bought the house, and since 1933, the National Park Service has maintained it as a historical museum.  None of the furniture is original to the house, but period pieces have been used to furnish three of the rooms and recreate the scene at the time of Lincoln’s death.  The first room is the front parlor, where an anguished Mary Todd Lincoln spent that fateful night with her son, Robert.  The back parlor, where Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton held a cabinet meeting and questioned witnesses, can also be visited.  The remaining room is the bedroom where Lincoln died.  Lincoln died, lying diagonally because he was so tall, on a bed the same size as the one on display in the room.  The bed that Lincoln occupied and other furniture from the bedroom are now owned by and on display at the Chicago History Museum.  However, the bloodstained pillow and pillowcases in the bedroom at the Petersen House are the ones which were actually used by Lincoln.  It was from this bedroom, after the President’s passing, that Stanton announced, “Now he belongs to the ages.”

Today, the Petersen House is administered by the National Park Service as part of the Ford’s Theatre National Historic Site. Admission is free, but requires a ticket.  The dark, narrow town house looks much as it did on that April night in 1865, and takes only about 5 minutes to tour, so it is well worth taking the time to visit.

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