The National Theater has been a premiere performing house in Washington, D.C. since it opened in the 1830s. Its guest list is a Who’s Who of American entertainment. The theater also plays a role in the story of Abraham Lincoln’s assassination. Would history have been different if Lincoln had attended a play at the National Theater instead of Ford’s Theatre? “Grover’s National Theater” has its history of ghosts—those that might be and those that might have been.
The National Theater, also known as Grover’s Theater and Grover’s National
Theatre, opened in 1835 a few blocks away from the White House in Washington, D.C. Known for its elegance and political decor,
the theater featured scenes of early American history such as the Declaration
of Independence and George Washington at Mount
times being known as “Grover’s Theater” and “Grover’s National Theater,” the
National has been in almost continuous operation since it opened—despite fires
and rebuildings. It claims to have
entertained every U.S.
president since Andrew Jackson.
The National also played a role in the Civil Rights movement. Up until the 1940s, black actors were allowed
on stage but the best audience seats remained restricted to whites. In 1936,
actor Todd Duncan protested the segregation and refused to perform. Initially, management closed the theater in
1948 rather than integrate, but reopened with full integration in 1952.
Today, the stone foundations and brick stage house built in 1835 still
exist, but the rest has been fully renovated, most recently in the 1980s as
part of a major city redevelopment plan.
The theater continues its role as a major cultural center in our
nation’s capital—in more ways that one.
The National Theater is also a legendary “haunted location” for mystery seekers. More on that later.
There is much speculation about what might have happened if
Abraham Lincoln had instead attended Grover’s Theater on April 14, 1865. His son, Tad, attended the Grover’s
presentation of “Aladdin or the Wonderful Lamp” the same night Abraham and Mary
attended “Our American Cousin” at Ford’s Theatre. The alternate choice was a strong
possibility. Lincoln had attended 17 performances, and
learned of his nomination to a second term, at Grover’s in the previous two
years. One such event, eerily enough,
included John Wilkes Booth’s Washington
debut in the performance of Shakespeare’s Richard III. Abraham knew Leonard Grover and was invited
by the theater’s manager to attend the April 14 show of “Aladdin.” So the question has been raised: did the president’s choice seal his fate? Would his death been avoided?
Not necessarily. On
April 13, Booth went to Grover’s Theater and asked if Lincoln was invited to see “Aladdin.” The answer was yes, so Booth purchased
tickets for the box that adjoined the presidential box. Everything was in place for the assassination
to take place at Grover’s. However,
Booth learned the next morning that Lincoln
had reserved a box at Ford’s for that night.
And so Booth carried out the assassination there. In the minds of many, Lincoln’s choice likely made no difference in
his fate. He was probably going to be
murdered one way or the other.
So if Lincoln
might have been a ghost at Grover’s Theater, he also might not have been
alone. Haunted location buffs persist in
tracking down the ghost of Irish-born actor John Edward McCullough who was
allegedly shot backstage by a fellow actor and then buried quickly under the
theater. The legend of McCullough’s
ghost was first seen by a friend, Frederic Bond, while working late in
1896. McCullough’s spirit was dressed in
Shakespeare’s Hamlet and disappeared when Bond spoke his name.
The McCullough ghost tale is almost certainly a persistent
myth. His last stage appearance was in
1884 when he could not remember his lines.
He suffered from a long illness involving mental instability and was
committed to a mental institution.
According to witnesses, McCullough died at home in bed in the company of
friends and family at home in Philadelphia. Also, the 1880s National building was razed
in 1932 and rebuilt, and no impromptu grave was found.
Theater legend involves the ghost of an unnamed young boy who also haunted its
halls in the 1800s. Little is known
about this ghost story and no sightings have been reported in many decades.