Wednesday, April 16, 2014

John Frederick Parker who?

Do you know the name? Does anyone remember him? I certainly didn’t, even as I set out to research Lincoln’s Bodyguard. I had heard rumors of him before, but I never knew the name. It was a small historical fact, something dwarfed by the events surrounding it. But John Frederick Parker was Abraham Lincoln’s bodyguard. President Lincoln had a bodyguard, even at Ford’s Theater on April 14th 1865! Incredible!

In our world it seems crazy that we wouldn’t have bodyguards surrounding the President. We’ve grown used to the machinery that is the Secret Service. The limo nicknamed “Beast”, the well fortified helicopter “Marine-1”, and even the ubiquitous “Air Force-1” that only Harrison Ford has managed to destroy (obscure movie reference: But back in the land of Lincoln, even as the nation’s one and only Civil War was wrapping up, we had no organization like the Secret Service. The White House lawn was open, individuals (not just the wealthy political donators), walked right into the President’s office to petition the man himself. It’s amazing Lincoln made it to a second term.

Late in 1864, the Metropolitan Police Force of Washington DC created a special unit of four officers to guard the president. John Frederick Parker was among them. He was well distinguished for the blemishes on his record, for sleeping on duty, for visiting brothels, and for conduct unbecoming an officer. But he remained not only on the police force, but even on Lincoln’s detail! He must have been related to someone important.

On that fateful night in Ford’s theater, he was there, stationed right outside the door to the Presidential box. During the first act he left his post in order to take a seat in the gallery where he could see the play. And then at intermission he joined Lincoln’s footman in the Star Saloon for drinks! No one knows for sure where Parker was when Booth crept into the Presidential box that night. We only know where he wasn’t! To be fair though, we don’t even know if he would have stopped Booth. In those days actors like Booth, the Hamlet of his day, were like our A-list movie stars. Parker may just have let Brad Pitt in to see the President. But we all remember John Wilkes Booth’s name. Can you imagine if Parker had been where he was supposed to be sitting, and if he had been good at his job? You and I and everyone else would know the name John Frederick Parker.

In a fitting bit of historical irony, there isn’t even a single photograph of the man. He’s even buried in an unmarked grave. He’s lost to history, as if history herself wants to forget him. The only thing he’ll ever be remembered for is his greatest failing, leaving us to always wonder…what would have happened if President Lincoln had a real bodyguard?

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