On April 14, 1865, just five days after the end of the Civil War, President Abraham Lincoln was shot in the back of the head by John Wilkes Booth.
This is a well-documented moment, something of which pretty much everyone who ever took a history or Social Studies class in the U.S. is aware.
What is probably a lot less well known is the fact that a young woman from the Capital Region, Clara Harris, a senator’s daughter, was attending the play that night with fiancé, Maj. Henry Rathbone, as the guests of Mr. and Mrs. Lincoln.
Harris preserved this horrific moment in our nation’s history when her white satin dress became drenched in blood – some of which belonged to her husband, who was injured when he tried to stop Booth from leaving the theater, and some perhaps to the president himself.
Following that fateful night, the blood-stained gown made its way to the Harris’s summer home in Loudonville. Over the years, it was blamed for hauntings and driving its owners to madness.
Now, Albany native and Brooklyn playwright John McEneny, son of local historian and former state Assemblyman Jack McEneneny, has immortalized the infamous gown in a new play and ghost story called “The Lincoln Dress.”
McEneny’s play, a minimalist stage production confined into a 10 x 10-foot white cube that represents a downtown rooming house in Albany, involves four desperate characters who plot to steal the dress and then are haunted by its history once they succeed.
The play, set in 1931, was fast paced and tightly delivered in one act. It features a World War I veteran too scared to leave the house, a man recently released from a mental institution, a prostitute from Albany’s Green Street and an African-American maid who works in the Harris’s family summer home and has the inside information on the dress’s location.
Unfortunately, the play was only performed for one weekend last month at Siena’s Beaudoin Theatre, a black box performance space, before it makes a short run in New York City and then moves on to the Bucharest Theatre Festival in Romania. (Siena also happens to be John McEneny’s alma matter, where he majored in theater).
The play, while macabre, was a delight for local history buffs who could hear the street names and neighborhoods of Albany peppered throughout – from mentioning bakeries on Pearl Street, the policing of the ports, loose women of Greene Street and a sense that the thieves’ residence likely wasn’t far from Sheridan Avenue in Ten Broeck and Arbor Hill.
While the play is only one act it has two distinct sections – the before and after if you will. The first part focuses on the criminals, as they plot to steal and sell the dress, and the second the long night once they have stolen it.
The second half of the production is really when the ghost story kicks in. The actors use physical theatre to portray different vignettes of hauntings by the dress, as well as the less wider impacts of the of war, race and gender issues, post traumatic syndrome, and mental health.
The main ghost story harkens back to the true tale of the original dress owner, Clara Harris, and her husband, Rathbone, who shot and killed his wife in 1883 and then stabbed himself in dramatic fashion that was reminiscent of the Lincoln assassination itself. Following the murder, he was committed to a German mental institution.
According to legend, Harris’s relatives subsequently had the dress hidden from view in a closet sealed with bricks until the 1930’s, when it was removed and purportedly burned.
The dress in the play twists the main characters, not unlike many modern horror movies. They contort themselves in unnatural ways as they become possessed by the ghosts of the past.
At one moment, the actors become Clara and Rathbone, while in the next they represent a lynch mob in Albany in which three black children were hung in the late 1790’s. Then they transform yet again into young Clara cradling a dying President Lincoln on her chest.
The actors do a tremendous job of portraying the hauntings and spectral visions as they descend into madness. The playwright opens up our imaginations, using not just the ghost story at hand, but also modern-day themes with roots that go back centuries. He even plays on divergent opinions on the legacy of Abraham Lincoln.
This modernist ghost story steeped in local history and sourced from one of our nation’s biggest events is in the end a tale of how struggles of desperate people are affected by the “curses” that reverberate through time.
It was well acted, entertaining and thought-provoking, and if you can’t make it to Brooklyn or Romania to see it, keep an eye out if it ever makes an encore performance locally.
The ultimate goal of Park Slope, Brooklyn-based Piper Theatre Productions, which was founded by John McEneny and his sister Rachel, is to showcase the production at Edinbrugh’s Fringe Festival, where past creations by Piper have been honored with awards.