John Parker

John Parker was born in Frederick County, Virginia, on 19th May, 1830. He moved to Washington where he found work as a carpenter. He married and became the father of three children.

In 1861 Washington established the Metropolitan Police Force and Parker became one of its 150 officers. Parker was not a success and over the next few years appeared before the Police Board to defend himself against charges of conduct unbecoming an officer, visiting a house of prostitution, firing a pistol through a window, being drunk on duty, being asleep on duty and using abusive and insulting language. Despite several reprimands, Parker kept his job.

On 4th November, 1864, Parker was one of four officers who were assigned to the White House to act as the president's bodyguard. On 14th April, 1865, Parker was due on duty at 4.00 p.m. He arrived three hours late and after receiving another reprimand was sent to the Ford Theatre where he was to guard President Abraham Lincoln during the performance of Our American Cousin .

Parker was detailed to sit on the chair outside the presidential box. From this position he could not see the play and during the first act moved to another part of the theatre. During the intermission Parker left the theatre and went for a drink in a nearby saloon. While he was away John Wilkes Booth, entered Lincoln's box and shot the president in the back of the head.

The evidence suggests that Parker remained in the saloon for the rest of the night and was not seen again until reporting to his police station at 6.00 the next morning with Lizzie Williams, a known prostitute. Parker was charged with neglect of duty. However, surprisingly, the case against Parker was dismissed and he remained in the police force. Parker was eventually fired on 13th August, 1865, when he was found sleeping on duty.

John Parker, who in his later years worked as a carpenter and machinist, died in Washington of pneumonia on 28th June, 1890.

Primary Sources

(1) In her autobiography, Thirty Years a Slave, Elizabeth Keckley described an encounter between Mary Lincoln and John Parker.

There were many surmises as to who was implicated with J. Wilkes Booth in the assassination of the President. A new messenger had accompanied Mr. and Mrs. Lincoln to the theatre on that terrible Friday night. It was the duty of this messenger to stand at the door of the box during the performance, and thus guard the inmates from all intrusion. It appears that the messenger was carried away by the play, and so neglected his duty that Booth gained easy admission to the box. Mrs. Lincoln firmly believed that this messenger was implicated in the assassination plot.

Soon after the assassination Mrs. Lincoln said to him fiercely: "So you are on guard tonight - on guard in the White House after helping to murder the President!"

"Pardon me, but I did not help to murder the President. I could never stoop to murder--much less to the murder of so good and great a man as the President."

"But it appears that you did stoop to murder."

"No, no! don't say that," he broke in. "God knows that I am innocent."

"I don't believe you. Why were you not at the door to keep the assassin out when be rushed into the box?"

"I did wrong, I admit, and I have bitterly repented it, but I did not help to kill the President. I did not believe that any one would try to kill so good a man in such a public place, and the belief made me careless. I was attracted by the play, and did not see the assassin enter the box."

"But you should have seen him. You had no business to be careless. I shall always believe that you are guilty. Hush! I shan't hear another word," she exclaimed, as the messenger essayed to reply. "Go now and keep your watch," she added, with an imperious wave of her hand. With mechanical step and white face the messenger left the room, and Mrs. Lincoln fell back on her pillow, covered her face with her hands, and commenced sobbing.

(2) In his book, Through Five Administrations, William H. Crook, one of Abraham Lincoln's bodyguards, wrote about John Parker's actions on 14th April, 1865.

I have often wondered why the negligence of the guard who accompanied the President to the theatre on the night of the 14th has never been divulged. So far as I know, it was not even investigated by the police department. Had he done his duty, I believe President Lincoln would not have been murdered by Booth. Parker knew he had failed in his duty. He looked like a convicted criminal the next day. He was never the same man afterward.