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Police History: Was Officer John Parker at fault for Abraham Lincoln’s death?

On April 14, 1865, President Abraham Lincoln was happier and more relaxed than he had been since his besieged presidency began — by April 15, 1865, he would be dead

Have you ever worked with an officer you could never count on? You know the type — someone who ducks calls, avoids self-initiated activity, and even sleeps or drinks on duty? 

These officers are sometimes referred to as ‘POROD’ (Police Officers Retired On Duty), or ‘ROD’ for short. Sadly, one such officer’s career is a long series of missed opportunities to make a real difference. 

The most important missed opportunity in law enforcement history may be exclusively owned by a POROD named John Parker.

Officer John Parker
John Frederick Parker was born in 1830. As a young man he moved to Washington D.C. and worked as a carpenter. In 1861, he joined the newly formed Washington D.C. Metropolitan Police Department. His records revealed that he was a police officer who not only had a knack of getting himself into trouble, but he was also gifted at talking his way out of it.

Charges were filed against him for being off his beat and sleeping on a trolley car. He defended himself by arguing that he had heard the loud quacking of ducks on the trolley as it passed so he hopped aboard to investigate. 

Charges were dismissed.

In another case he was charged with cavorting with prostitutes while on duty. He explained that when he was sent to enter the “house of ill repute” he had been summoned by a prostitute for police business and because she was giving information it was necessary that this be done in a private room.

Again, charges were dismissed.

On another occasion — when he was accused of being abusive to citizens — charges were sustained.

Presidential Security Detail
President Abraham Lincoln is beloved today, but in life he was hated by millions in the states in rebellion — as well as “Copperhead Democrats” in the North. 

Even though he had received many death threats, in August 1864 president was riding alone toward his summer retreat at “The Soldier’s Home.” 

He later related that while deep in thought, “I was aroused — I may say the arousement lifted me out of my saddle as well as out of my wits — by the report of a rifle, and seemingly the gunner was not fifty yards from where my contemplations ended and my accelerated transit began.”

President Lincoln lost his hat in the encounter and when it was returned by a soldier it had a bullet hole in its crown.

A 24-hour security detail of four Metropolitan Police Officers was formed in response to this assassination attempt. 

Fatefully, that detail included Officer John Fredrick Parker.

April 14, 1865
On April 14, 1865, President Lincoln was happier and more relaxed than he had been since his besieged presidency began — General Robert E. Lee had just surrendered, and the war was all but won. 

President Lincoln planned a night at the theatre with his wife.

Officer John Parker was assigned to guard the president, but showed up three hours late to relieve the day shift officer. Parker escorted the president and Mrs. Lincoln to Ford’s Theatre where a light-hearted comedy “Our American Cousin” was to be presented.  

After the presidential entourage arrived, Parker initially placed himself at the rear entrance to the presidential box. 

Anyone who has been to Ford’s Theater during a tourist’s trip to Washington would rightly conclude that if Parker would have held this position — armed with his police pocket revolver — he likely would have thwarted John Wilkes Booth’s assassination plans.

Instead of maintaining his post, Parker drifted out front to watch the play. At one point he even left the theatre altogether to have drinks at the Star Saloon with Lincoln’s footman and coachman. 

From there, Parker disappeared into the night.

Shortly after ten o’clock, John Wilkes Booth — one of the most-famous actors of this era — quietly entered the presidential booth unchallenged, and crept up behind the unguarded president with a Derringer in one hand and a Bowie knife in the other. 

He waited for a line in the play which he knew always elicited a loud laugh from the audience. The line delivered uproarious laughter, and in the midst of this joy Booth fired a ball into the head of the president at point blank range.

Major Henry Rathbone — unarmed — grappled with Booth, but was seriously wounded by the Bowie knife.

Booth broke free and leapt from the presidential box onto the stage shouting, “Sic Semper Tyrannis,” as he fled. 

Parker was absent without leave.

POROD Parker
Parker was later charged with dereliction of duty, but acquitted. No transcript of his internal hearing exists. Parker’s disappearance on that fateful night was not reported to the newspapers of the day, which shielded him from the public wrath.

Remarkably, Parker was kept on the White House security team, protecting the president’s widow. When an inconsolable Mary Lincoln saw that Parker was to be her guard, she became outraged. 

According to her dress maker, Mary Lincoln accused Parker of having a role in the murder of her husband.

Parker responded: “… I did wrong. I admit it and have bitterly repented. I did not believe anyone would try to kill so good a man in such a public place and the belief made me careless.”

Parker’s police career ended ignominiously three years after the assassination when he was finally fired for sleeping on duty. 

Parker returned to carpentry. 

Parker lived all his life internalizing the undeniable truth expressed by William H. Cook, Lincoln’s most trusted guard. Officer Cook observed, “Had [Parker] done his duty, I believe President Lincoln would not have been murdered by Booth.”

Officer John Parker died in 1890 — probably hoping that the failure he could never forget would be forgotten by history. He left behind neither photographs of himself nor a personal account of his actions on that tragic night. Even more telling is the fact that he arranged to be buried in an unmarked grave.

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