John Parker was the Presidential bodyguard who arrived late to work on the night of April 14, 1865 and left to go to Ford’s Theater after the President. He was a carpenter and machinist before serving briefly in the Army at the beginning of the Civil War. As a Washington policeman, he had compiled a record of misconduct and 14 disciplinary infractions that made him a curious choice for the White House detail. He once explained a week he spent in a house of prostitution by saying he had been protecting the establishment. Lincoln biographer Carl Sandburg described Parker as “the drab, well-meaning, lackadaisical, muddle-headed wanderer” who played “the part of a stranger cipher – a weird and elusive Mr. Nobody-at-All – a player of a negation.”1
An order was sent to the Metropolitan Police Force on April 3 at the request of Mrs. Lincoln: “This is to certify John F. Parker, a member of the Metropolitan Police Force, has been detailed for duty at the Executive Mansion.”2 His desertion of his post outside the Presidential box and neglect of duty at Ford’s Theater led to charges against him, which were subsequently dropped. Fellow bodyguard William Crook reported: “Had he [Booth] found a man at the door of the of the President’s box armed with a Colt’s revolver, his alcohol courage might have evaporated. It makes me feel rather bitter when I remember that the President had said, just a few hours before, that he knew he could trust all his guards. And then to think that in that moment of test one of us should have failed him! Parker knew that he had failed in his duty. He looked like a convicted criminal the next day. He was never the same afterward.”3
Had Parker “done his duty, I believe President Lincoln would not have been murdered by Booth,” wrote Crook. “It was the custom for the guard who accompanied the President to the theatre to remain in the little passageway outside the box—that passageway through which Booth entered. Mr. Buckingham, who was the doorkeeper at Ford’s Theatre, remembers that a chair was placed there for the guard on the evening of the 14th. Whether Parker occupied it at all I do not know—Mr. Buckingham is of the impression that he did. If he did, he left it almost immediately; for he confessed to me the next day that he went to a seat at the front of the first gallery, so that he could see the play. The door of the President’s box was shut; probably Mr. Lincoln never knew that the guard had left his post.”4
- Carl Sandburg, Abraham Lincoln: The War Years, Volume IV, p. 273.
- James McPherson, Battle Chronicles of the Civil War, 1865, p. 75.
- W. Emerson Reck, Abraham Lincoln: His Last 24 Hours, pp. 164-165.
- Margarita Spalding Gerry, editor, Through Five Administrations: Reminiscences of Colonel William H. Crook, pp. 73-74.