If Walls Could Talk
An autobiography-thriller from the POV of Ford's Theatre
"If destruction be our lot, we must ourselves be its author and finisher." -Abraham Lincoln
For a few weeks now I’ve been prepping a prompt-inspired piece:
The prompt? Write a fiction story from the perspective of a wall that can talk.
Naturally as a thriller author, I wanted my main character to come from a place that has seen a lot of dark activity. At some point, political assassination came to mind. Which led to me to the U.S.’s first and most significant: Abraham Lincoln’s.
When researching the widely-infamous Ford’s Theatre I discovered a lengthy history. A building where: over twenty people have died, several war-torn corpses have been stored, and a president was assassinated. The building has been gutted plenty of times leaving only an original ceiling panel (the ceiling is the wall in which my contest piece’s POV is told) and a few window panes behind.
Read the entire piece below.
If walls could talk, you'd never know my name. Looking back, I'd prefer it that way.
They say history is limited by its storyteller. And that may be true. My worldview only extends to the far side of 10th street. Here I was born, built, burnt, and ruined into the Ford you know me as today. By the curated fate of man, I am forced to exist indefinitely.
Death is an unnameable lust for one as old as I. One hundred and eighty-nine, a duration unfathomable to the human mind. Fifty years is the average lifespan of my kind. A respectable number to represent a life well served. Natural beginnings become of proper endings. I suppose I'll have neither.
"With this wood I will build a church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against you," The man vowed as the hatchet ripped painfully into my arms.
There are two births for us. The first is amongst a cathedral of sequoia and sweetgum. The next happens when we're axed from incubation to aid humanity: a mortal-made agreement that's long been ignored for centuries.
"This church will save our good American people." He swore while taking more and more of me. Tree after tree, until all of my grove was gone.
A noble purpose to call mine. One worth lying down for. As human men carried me by the bundles and into the city, I was reborn.
| 1834 |
The woods of my holt were sanded, drilled, and tattooed into something holy. Church pews, chancel rails, and framed windows. While unfamiliar with Baptists themselves, I favored the idea of governing mortals. They treated me with much respect - wearing Sunday's best to greet my build, kneeling at the foot of the an altar when engaging me in conversation, polishing my bones four times a week.
"The Church unifies us as a holy being. The body of our church is the body of Christ himself."
To them, I was everything.
For two decades, I enjoyed this. My skeleton was their pride. Their saving grace. I was the First Baptist. It was all I could dream of: power, pride, and prestige. Until I met a man called Daniel Abner.
Abner wasn't popular amongst church-goers. Carpenters, clergymen, and cobblers all tipped a hat to one another. Amongst these, the man of theatre was no man at all. Yet, Abner still made religious efforts every Sunday morning.
Abner played Sebastian in Twelfth Night by William Shakespeare. While I never got to see the play myself, I heard of it in whispers between my hallways. When Abner walked my floors the men would turn up their noses, having seen his Friday night performance.
"He's a bugger, alright."
"Loony show. I'd get that whooperup off stage."
What intrigued, however, me was the whispers of the women. They squealed as Abner walked by. Blush spread across their cheeks as they uncrossed skirted legs. There was even hearsay about a married woman sleeping with Abner. But, I digress.
Abner sparked a curiosity in me. How could four walls turn man into such controversy? I was destined to find out.
| 1861 |
First Baptist went untenanted for nearly three years. Due to mortal finance, my beloved crowds were moved into another building. I was left with nothing but dust. My body was growing stale in the silence. Day after day, nine-hundred in a row.
Every now and then I'd catch earshot of a pedestrian conversation exchange crossing 10th Street.
"A president that isn't afraid to cross the Potomac. That's leadership."
And a few months later:
"A thousand of our men shot dead in Manassas. With a over a thousand missing. Thirty miles from here. D.C is going under by our damned President's hand."
I'd gathered enough information from passengers of the road to know a few things. The first being that Abraham Lincoln was the new leader of the mortals. His dwelling place only a half mile from my walls. The second was that the humans were at war with one another. A battle of mass destruction. Not exclusively in D.C., but also in the very woods where my first life began.
The humans were set out to destroy.
Later that year, I met John and Henry. Men who'd soon gift me their family name. A grace that extended me a second chance at life.
"She'd make a beautiful theatre," John said to Henry as he walked my forsaken foyer. "We need more show business here. Something to distract these young people from the horrors of war."
With a new purpose, I was named Ford.
| 1862 |
There are flashes in one's life that never recover themselves. The serendipity only lasts a moment. But while inside such a magic, that moment deceives you and promises a lifetime.
The French Spy was my debut back into the mortal realm. Wooden seats packed my troubled body with aspiration. Unflinching human laughter roared through my veins. After years of silence, I was alive. And it was ecstacy.
That was at night. During the day, the transient performers would pass through my walls to practice. Theatre was a fly-by-night career. Showmen would travel to different stage every other day performing the same show to a different neighborhood for seasons at a time. So much movement and action for simple build like myself.
There was still talk of the war, but it choked inside of my walls. I was a house of fun, a place the humans came to distract themselves. A whole world existed inside of me. One where strife didn't exist. While I heard the hearsay of battle, I never swallowed the warnings. Theatre was supposed to be featherweight.
While John and Henry didn't always agree with Lincoln, Abe was welcomed here. The American leader came around every so often too. A wonderful guest whom I'd grown to admire with each visit. Even a Commander in Chief in the middle of a war craved the temporary deliverance from human barbarity.
For those nine months, I was their salvation. Everyday since has been a counterfeit.
| 1863 |
When a city is built around politics and God, betrayal becomes a titan's business. I'd ignored it for too long. There was much bickering about my reputation.
"How dare John Ford turn the house of God into that den of iniquity? One must have no fear of the Lord."
Such remarks were barely audible between the sounds of laughter and pleasure that filled my bones nightly. But last winter, a young and radical Christian woman had enough.
She'd seduced John at a pass, unbuttoning the top of her blouse.
"Mr. Ford. Won't you acquaint me with this beautiful theatre?"
He complied with the Sunday night tour, taking the flat key from my back window sill, showing the woman the tunnels they'd sewn into me months before - an avenue for the actors during a performance. John disclosed to her every bone I had, but she never returned the favor to him. When he touched her neck ever so lightly she recoiled with:
"Intimacy for any other reason than pregnancy is a sin Mr. Ford. I'll see my way out."
But, she came back later. She used the same hidden key that John had revealed to let herself in. The mission was to light a single candle inside the tunnels, underneath my legs. She must've known the curtain that hung across the wall would catch fire.
The blaze stung at me. I fought against the fall, but failed. Cherished parts of my body dissolved to ash. In the name of Christianity, I burned like a revival.
The humans had betrayed me again.
That was months ago. John didn't avenge an investigation. I'm not sure he even considered arson. He greeted my ruins with silence, then perseverance.
Amongst the rubble, John and Henry eventually extracted out the parts of me that weren't ruins. Wooden doors, walls, beams, ceilings, roofing, and framed windows that had gone relatively unharmed, still held upright by some existing structure. For six months, John rebuilt me into a new Ford.
To my dismay, that rebuild called for a marriage. I had to share the name Ford with a new cut of wood and brick that was not my own. Union isn't a beautiful ritual outside the mortal realm. To us, it means that you're dying.
I wasn't the same after my first union. I had pieces of my name to hold onto. Walls, ceiling, windows, roofing, and entry. But, I wasn't that stage. I couldn't feel the footsteps of show business anymore. My paneling couldn't view the theatre from every corner. For the first time, I had limitations. And it wouldn't be the last.
| 1865 |
I resurrected what joy I had, come near April. Money was flowing. Theatre was booming. Humans were agreeable. Most of them, that is.
"Rejoice! The war is surely over!"
I'd enjoyed the sounds that would reverberate during our April show. While I was partially blind to the act, the famous actress, Laura Keene, carried her voice throughout my handicapped build with an unmistakable authority. It was performances like those that reignited my purpose.
The last day of the two week run of Our American Cousin was April 14th. Laura Keene's final night with the theatre and coincidentally the Sabbath. The pious and godless would remain at home by fear of judgement.
Ticket sales were down and Henry and John didn't open an empty theatre.
"Now that the war is over, do you think The President and First Lady might enjoy a show? I could write up an invite and have it carried over. If word of Abe attending passed through town, the show would soon sell out. Laura deserves to finish her last act alongside a crowd."
So the invitation was written. And my beloved owner, John, made the biggest mistake of his life.
Like I said, theatre company was transient. It wasn't uncommon for actors and actresses of all kind to circulate through my bones. Show day or not. April 14th was no different.
A celebrity of the theatre, Wilkes Booth, had played The Marble Heart November of last year on my stage. It was a hard show to forget. One of the last in my prime, before I was married into a new structure. Lincoln had attended that show. Booth roared backstage that night for only John Ford and I to hear.
"A tyrant that man is! A disgrace for you to welcome him in our theatre."
"My theatre, you mean. No matter the politics, he is the President. And the President, I will respect."
"It's men like me that keep your theatre running! And it's men like Abraham Lincoln that are destroying this country. Watch yourself!"
Booth was an angry man. But, he was right about one thing. Celebrity actors like him did keep John's theatre running. Which meant they kept me alive. So, there wasn't much talk of it after that. John dismissed Wilkes Booth and let him carry on. Even let him get his mail delivered to my address.
When Lincoln's wife, Mary, accepted the theatre invitation, John set out to spread the word. He needed the ticket sales. And Lincoln, having just closed out a war and a Union victory, was as good of marketing as any.
But, Wilkes Booth had just come by to pick up his mail. The recent Union victory had spoiled the Southern sympathizer. He sounded rotten when he spoke. Deadly, even.
John made the mistake of telling Wilkes Booth about the President's planned attendance. Greed wanted another seventy-five-cent seat filled. And evil was on the other side.
Still, the curtain rose.
The first act was ordinary. It wasn't until the second that suspicion came over me. From my view, Lincoln was in fine form. People were looking up through spyglass to see inside the President's box. But, that wasn't unusual. More strange was that Wilkes Booth did show up for the show. Late. And he never was unpunctual to criticize thespian performances that didn't cast him.
When Wilkes Booth arrived, he asked the doorman to hold his horse for the duration of the show. An obscene and pompous request. But, the man was a jackass afterall.
During that second act, Wilkes Booth utilized the tunnels that I'd been burned in months before. He followed the underground into the bar. After shots of whiskey that carried into act three, Booth descended once more into the underpass, coming above ground in my theatre's wing.
I can still hear the wicked gunshot that killed Lincoln. The sound of Booth's body hitting the ground from my second story. Then Mary's cries that shriek through Ford's walls to this very day. I heard everything.
Pandemonium would soon break loose as another mortal bit the hand that fed him.
| 1866 |
They gutted my identity until it became a scrapyard. My theatre, my owner, and even my name was revoked.
John Ford turned me over to the mortal government.
"Disgraceful, Mr. Ford! Do not dare a further attempt to coin the blood of a great man..."
The lights had been turned on in the theatre, reminding everyone at the end of the show that I was nothing to them but an escape. And now, the blood of their leader on my body, I morphed into a painful reminder of their own sadistic nature. And there was no escaping that.
A blemish of history, I'd become everything I was never supposed to be.
All that was left of Ford was four walls and the ceiling. The walls had already been married off with supporting structures, diluting my persona. Only ceiling wall remains fully me: the original First Baptist, the primary Ford, and the foundational fallen wood that had intention to serve humanity. But, who knew then that humanity was so monstrous?
Administration had plans to alter me into a medical museum. A surgeon general's library. They were almost done. Much of the inventory had already arrived: war-torn skulls, human bones, and ligaments placed in glass. As they hauled Union and Confederate corpses into the new main hall, I knew that I would never again live a life that isn't full of death.
| 1893 |
You must understand why I did it. Why I killed them in cold blood.
Every morning when they opened my doors, humankind set out to break my heart.
"Godforsaken, infamous place."
"April 14th was the night Ford's Theatre got handed over to the devil - ought to burn it down."
Thousands of people visited the medical museum only to talk about the death that I bear witness to. Each time they cursed over me instead of Wilkes Booth.
Their obsession with death corroded my once good soul. With corpses in glass, they tarnished my only name. I knew I'd never get away from manslaughter. So, on June 9th, I made it my own.
There was a split in my basement wood that had been married off with a support. But that day, my resentment was strong enough to bypass it's aid. I was ready to die.
As one column went down, others began to follow. Lost without the main supports, the structure inside me collapsed. Hundreds of humans were visiting. In a domino line, the floors fell into one another from the bottom up. A forty-foot hole dug itself through the weight of the collapse.
Dead and dying, people were crushed underneath fallen furniture, flooring, and mountains of brick that they'd previously lodged inside of me.
22 died. Regrettably, I prevailed.
| 2023 |
I speak to you today from the panel of ceiling frame that's kept my truest body and soul. This piece of me and three window mounts are all that's left of a true Ford name.
I've become a museum once more. Humans restored internal structures to show replication of what I used to be, bringing me a fragment of delectation. I suppose that this is the tomb I will die in, an encapsulation of what I was those nine months that truly mattered.
My view is obstructed from where I remain. Yet, I can see to the edges of 10th Street through my window framing. The Peterson House, where Lincoln had his last breath, has also been memorialized. A deathless fate chosen by man.
The mortals have trivialized the spaces between Peterson and I in the name of their pennies - that ironically coin a cherished Lincoln's face into currency. Tourist shops pollute the areas middle of us, selling trinkets that scoff on the tragedy claimed to be so poignant.
Tee shirts of Lincoln equipped with modern day accessories populate the street. The captions read beneath his screen-printed face:
"Drinkin' Like Lincoln" and "Not a fan of theatre myself"
Peterson is as miserable as I amongst another human calamity. This time, one they are blind to. I yield more visitors than Peterson every year. Because that's another thing about the mortals: death is alluring, but the act of butchery is far more seductive.
A consolation has been extended to me, however. Four times a year, the museum opens doors for live theatre. Perhaps it is the only thing keeping me alive.
When the curtain rises and the sounds of laughter flow up to the ceiling, I'm able to forget the tragedies that this life has brought. Charisma, music, and story arrive to distract from the horror that knocks outside. My purpose reborn.
Four times a year, another world exists inside me. One that is not ignorant to war and death, but continues to sing anyway. That was my promise to you all along.
For as long as I remain, dear human, please let me keep it.
*Lincoln was born 214 years ago on February 12th, 1809. May his history and impact remain untarnished.*
Thanks for being here and taking care of my work with your loving readership! If you enjoyed, please do share it with a friend, a coworker, or a family member. History is best when remembered. As always, I appreciate you.
*Sources at bottom of page*
“Ford's Theatre History.” National Parks Service, U.S. Department of the Interior, 26 Aug. 2021, https://www.nps.gov/foth/learn/ford-s-theatre-history.htm.
“Ford's Theatre.” Ford's Theatre,
"Killing Lincoln". Film by National Geographic, 2013.
*All images are in-text credited to the Library of Congress*