There are a lot of people who are bad at their jobs, but few are so bad they change the course of history. John Frederick Parker, the man assigned to protect President Abraham Lincoln the night he was killed at Ford’s Theatre, is one of those few.
On the night John Wilkes Booth shot Lincoln, the ink was still drying on the legislation that created the US Secret Service. If professional protection had come sooner, Lincoln might have been saved.
But John Frederick Parker needed a drink.
It would take two more presidential assassinations before the Secret Service was given the responsibility of protecting the president. Up to that point, the president pretty much depended on anyone who could be hired to do the work, even in the middle of the Civil War. That meant guys like Parker could get the gig.
These days, being on the Secret Service’s presidential detail means passing a rigorous background check, testing and — at the very least — showing up to work on time. Parker couldn’t do any of that, especially the whole “timeliness” part of the gig. But that’s not necessarily what got Lincoln killed.
Parker was both Lincoln’s bodyguard and the guy drinking with John Wilkes Booth next door at the Star Saloon minutes before Booth left to kill Lincoln. Parker didn’t know Booth was out to kill the president that night, but a bodyguard’s job is pretty much assuming everyone is out to kill his client. Unfortunately, Parker wasn’t the Kevin Costner bodyguard type.
As one of the first police officers in Washington, DC, Parker wasn’t exactly a stellar performer. He was known for conduct unbecoming an officer, being drunk on duty, sleeping on the job, and routinely visiting brothels. We know that because those were the charges he repeatedly faced before police boards of inquiry.
Still, when the Metropolitan Police Force was tasked with protecting the president, Parker was named to the detail. Maybe the police department figured it was the place he could do the least harm. Whoops.
According to Smithsonian Magazine, Parker’s shift guarding Lincoln at Ford’s Theatre began at 4 p.m. sharp, so naturally, Parker showed up at 7 p.m. That wasn’t a big deal (unless you were the guy on duty before Parker), because Lincoln didn’t arrive until 9 p.m. One could reasonably assume a building that size could be checked out before the president arrived. Parker probably didn’t do that anyway.
Once the show started, Parker was seated behind the door to the president’s box. He had no view of the stage there, so he left his post guarding the door to the president’s box to watch the play from another gallery. But that’s not the worst thing he did that night.
During the show’s intermission, and with Lincoln still in the theater, Parker dipped next door to the Star Saloon with the presidential coach driver to have a few drinks. Sitting just down the bar from the men was famed actor John Wilkes Booth. Booth was trying to hype himself up with a few glasses of brandy before going to the theater himself.
By the time Booth walked into Ford’s Theatre at 10 p.m., there was no one guarding the box where the president was seated. Parker might have gone back to the theater after drinking at the saloon, but no one knows for sure. If he was there, then he was doing as good a job as he ever did. The rest of the story is well known to history.
The other bodyguards on the president’s security detail that night (rightly) blamed Parker for Lincoln’s death. Pretty much everyone involved did, including first lady Mary Todd Lincoln. Parker swore he returned to the theater that night, taking a seat in the audience. It’s unlikely anyone bought his story.
But when Parker was charged with failure and neglect of his duty, those charges were somehow dropped after a few weeks. His name doesn’t appear in official records of the night’s events. Parker wasn’t even fired from the presidential detail, and he later guarded the president’s widow, who accused him of murdering Lincoln himself.
Parker would continue serving in the DC police force until he was once more found sleeping on the job. Only then was he finally canned.